Tuesday, December 08, 2009

And You Thought Health Care Was Complicated?

This is a graphic representation of the COIN strategy that the US is planning on implementing in Afghanistan. It was, according to The Huffington Post where I found it, obtained by Richard Engel of NBC.

Friday, December 04, 2009

The Definite, Yet Flexible, Deadline

In the days since President Obama's announcement of his decision to send 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan, his intentions in setting a withdrawal date of July 2011 have become a little clearer. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained that while "The July 2011 date is the date on which we begin to transfer authority and responsibility to Afghan security forces," "the pace, the size of the drawdown, is going to be determined in a responsible manner based on the conditions that exist at the time." He further explained that while the withdrawal would begin in July 2011, it would likely take two or three years, and that "there are no deadlines in terms of when our troops will all be out."

Assuming Gates is accurately representing the intentions of President Obama (and there's no reason to think he isn't), it means that the deadline is, as I wrote on Wednesday, much closer to being meaningless than it is counter-productive. Over at Shadow Government, Kori Schake agrees with this assessment, writing that:
There is a precedent we loyal opposition could help steer President Obama toward: the flagrant prevarication committed to by civilian and military leaders in the Clinton administration that American troops deploying to the Balkans in 1995 would be withdrawn in a year. The fiction was necessary to gain Congressional support for an unpopular involvement; 1,500 U.S. troops are still deployed in Kosovo now, 14 years later. There are lots of important differences between the wars in the Balkans and the war in Afghanistan -- not least the magnitude of expense in Afghanistan -- but in the Balkans, Congressional skepticism was overcome as we began to succeed. Let's hope such a calculation underlies the president's artificial timeline in Afghanistan.
But Schake seems to be ignoring a difference that worries me, a difference that could shift a meaningless deadline to a counter-productive deadline. When President Clinton promised that the US troops deployed to the Balkans would begin returning in a year, the deadline fell after the 1996 election; indeed, almost immediately after the election, in which foreign policy and the US troop presence in the Balkans was scarcely discussed, Clinton explicitly broke his promise and decided "in principle" to keep the troops in place until at least mid-1998, 18 months longer than his self-imposed deadline.

But Obama's July 2011 comes before his re-election campaign in 2012. Given that many are predicting relatively high losses for the Democratic Party in 2010 midterm elections, will Obama risk the backlash from breaking his promise? Treating the July 2011 deadline as meaningless risks giving the Republicans an easy issue with which to attack Obama ("he broke his promise") and risks alienating the anti-war wing of his own party, who will likely be dismayed if July 2011 comes and gos with little progress in bringing the boys home. To wit, the New York Times has an article detailing the frustrations of the Democratic Party with Obama so far. The article details "a subtle shift in which Democrats in Congress are becoming less deferential to the White House, making clear that Mr. Obama will not always be able to count on them to fall into line and highlighting how Mr. Obama’s expansive ambitions are running up against political realities."

Will Obama be tempted to enforce his self-imposed deadline to reap political benefit? Hopefully not...but he might. Which is why the deadline was a bad idea in the first place. It's either meaningless or counter-productive; it's just hard to see what Obama gets out of it that he couldn't have accomplished through the creation of benchmarks.

Wars are not fought on time lines; they are fought to achieve strategic goals. And those goals are either worth fighting for or they are not. Obama has stated that the war in Afghanistan is one of "necessity" and is a "vital national interest." The war should then be fought to achieve the strategic goals that the commander-in-chief establishes. It is, of course, reasonable to ask at certain points in time whether the goals are being achieved and whether the cost is justified. But it is dangerous to create an arbitrary deadline as Obama has done here.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Afghan Deadline

President Obama did, in my analysis, the right thing by deciding to send approximately 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan, and to request 5,000 more troops from NATO (although it's entirely unclear if NATO can or will come up with the requested troops), in order to provide General Stanley McChrystal with the soldiers he believes he needs to implement a counter-insurgency strategy across the country. All in all, it was a good speech, in which Obama clearly laid out the strategic rationale for sending the troops. Even more importantly, he clearly explained the strategy which those troops will help implement:

First, we will pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban's momentum and increase Afghanistan's capacity over the next 18 months.

The 30,000 additional troops that I'm announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010 -- the fastest possible pace -- so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centers. They'll increase our ability to train competent Afghan security forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight. And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.

Because this is an international effort, I've asked that our commitment be joined by contributions from our allies. Some have already provided additional troops, and we're confident that there will be further contributions in the days and weeks ahead. Our friends have fought and bled and died alongside us in Afghanistan. And now, we must come together to end this war successfully. For what's at stake is not simply a test of NATO's credibility -- what's at stake is the security of our allies, and the common security of the world.

But taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground. We'll continue to advise and assist Afghanistan's security forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul. But it will be clear to the Afghan government -- and, more importantly, to the Afghan people -- that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country.

Second, we will work with our partners, the United Nations, and the Afghan people to pursue a more effective civilian strategy, so that the government can take advantage of improved security.

This effort must be based on performance. The days of providing a blank check are over. President Karzai's inauguration speech sent the right message about moving in a new direction. And going forward, we will be clear about what we expect from those who receive our assistance. We'll support Afghan ministries, governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people. We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable. And we will also focus our assistance in areas -- such as agriculture -- that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.

The people of Afghanistan have endured violence for decades. They've been confronted with occupation -- by the Soviet Union, and then by foreign al Qaeda fighters who used Afghan land for their own purposes. So tonight, I want the Afghan people to understand -- America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering. We have no interest in occupying your country. We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens. And we will seek a partnership with Afghanistan grounded in mutual respect -- to isolate those who destroy; to strengthen those who build; to hasten the day when our troops will leave; and to forge a lasting friendship in which America is your partner, and never your patron.

Third, we will act with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan.

We're in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country. But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan. That's why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border.

In the past, there have been those in Pakistan who've argued that the struggle against extremism is not their fight, and that Pakistan is better off doing little or seeking accommodation with those who use violence. But in recent years, as innocents have been killed from Karachi to Islamabad, it has become clear that it is the Pakistani people who are the most endangered by extremism. Public opinion has turned. The Pakistani army has waged an offensive in Swat and South Waziristan. And there is no doubt that the United States and Pakistan share a common enemy.

In the past, we too often defined our relationship with Pakistan narrowly. Those days are over. Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interest, mutual respect, and mutual trust. We will strengthen Pakistan's capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries, and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear. America is also providing substantial resources to support Pakistan's democracy and development. We are the largest international supporter for those Pakistanis displaced by the fighting. And going forward, the Pakistan people must know America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan's security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent, so that the great potential of its people can be unleashed.

But one part puzzles me: the declaration that troops will begin withdrawing in July 2011. This is completely at odds with the rationale provided in the speech. If Obama believes, as he said, that "it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan" then how can he set a vague, undefined, and largely arbitrary deadline of 18 months for the mission?

I think there are two possible explanations and they're not mutually exclusive. First, that Obama is sending a message to the left-wing of the Democratic Party that he does not envision a long-term open-ended military presence in Afghanistan. And second, that Obama is sending a message to Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the US presence in his country will not be indefinite, and thus he needs to ensure that the Afghan government and armed forces will be up to the task of providing security, services, and stability when the US forces leave. Obama himself rejected the absence of a deadline, saying "[such an absence] sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests. Furthermore, the absence of a time frame for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government. It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan."

Both of these may be good and necessary messages. But the setting of the deadline is meaningless at best, and counterproductive at worst. The deadline might be meaningless because Obama didn't say anything more than "these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011." As Stephen Biddle commented in a Council on Foreign Relations interview, "[the Obama administration has] deliberately not said when the withdrawal will end, or how deep it will go, or how fast it will proceed. So all they're actually saying in concrete terms is in August 2011 there will be at least one fewer American soldier in Afghanistan than there was in June 2011." If that's the case, the deadline is truly meaningless, and Obama will have to deal with the backlash of his decision in the run-up to the 2012 election.

But the deadline might be counter-productive, especially as it relates to the mission at hand. If Obama means the deadline seriously, what happens if, come July 2011, there is good, solid progress but the mission is far from over? It's one thing to refuse to commit the US to an open-ended, indefinite combat mission with no clear exit strategy; it's another thing entirely to undermine a successful mission in progress by arbitrarily adhering to a withdrawal date picked a year-and-a-half earlier. The New York Times is already reporting that the deadline is causing concerns in Afghanistan:
[the Afghan foreign minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta] admitted that the 18-month timeline for the start of a transition to Afghan authority had served something of a shock therapy to the Afghan government.

“Can we do it?” he said. “That is the main question. This is not done in a moment, it is a process. They have to have strategic patience with us.”

In a clear sign of his government’s uneasiness at the flagging American enthusiasm for the Afghan war, Mr. Spanta said he had just presented a proposal to Mr. Karzai to work out a new strategic partnership with the United States to secure the kind of predictable, long-term assistance that close American allies Israel and Egypt enjoy.

All parties involved agreed that a great deal of the job ahead was about managing perceptions.

“We have to manage the public,” said a senior Afghan government aide, speaking anonymously so he could talk more freely.

President Obama was very much speaking to the American public in his speech, he said. American military officials had assured them that the 18-month timeline was more for the American public opinion than any unmovable deadline for the Afghans.

It would seem to have been much wiser for Obama to discuss clear and unambiguous metrics for judging the progress of the COIN surge -- to lay out exactly what the US expects to see happen, particularly on the two most important issues: the corruption and efficacy of the Afghan government and the training of effective Afghani military and police forces. If, after a reasonable time period following the surge (say, 18 months?), progress on the metrics was not acceptable, withdrawal of US troops would commence. If, however, progress was acceptable, and the job was not yet finished, it would then make sense to leave the troops in place to see the job through to the end. This strategy is essentially the one eventually employed in Iraq and it worked well there, encouraging action from the Iraqi government while making it clear that progress was essential to the continued US presence.

Rather than setting an either meaningless or counter-productive withdrawal date, President Obama should have made it clear that the US troop presence was entirely dependent on the Afghan government meeting clear benchmarks on ending corruption, providing basic services, and the creation of effective national armed forces. Given the vague and undefined deadline Obama set out, it's not impossible that he will ultimately employ such a tactic, which would not only be more reassuring to the US's Afghan and NATO partners, but also make clear what is expected of those partners. Let's hope the speech is followed by benchmarks.


From an Associated Press article reporting on the congressional reaction to President Obama's announcement:

[US Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates suggested the July 2011 withdrawal date was both firm and flexible, frustrating lawmakers who said that wasn't possible.

When pressed, Gates said the beginning of drawing down troops would not necessarily be based on conditions in Afghanistan and that the president was committed to begin pulling at least some troops out by the target date.

At the same time, the president will have the authority to change gears after the Defense Department conducts a formal assessment in December 2010.

Ah...that clears everything up.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Or Else What?

In the wake of a demand from the International Atomic Energy Agency to stop work on its recently-revealed uranium enrichment plant, Iran has threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to begin construction on ten more nuclear enrichment facilities. And while Iran may not have the capability or will to carry out either threat, the threats in and of themselves highlight the problem the international community faces in dealing with a regime like Iran: How does the international community deal with such intransigence? Iran is clearly in violation of international law as well as of international opinion and sentiment. However, all of the promised inducements, compromises, and incentives, including the recent offer to enrich Iran's uranium outside of Iran to ensure it could not be used for a weapon, have been rejected. Which leaves the international community, the UN, and the US back where it has been for the past several years: Relying on the old mantra of Comply with international law or else.

Or else what?

It's the "what" that is so important here, and that is do difficult for the international community to define. The UN has demonstrated time and time again that it can, occasionally, muster the will to impose sanctions on the most flagrant violators of international law. But, rarely does it know what to do when sanctions fail to yield results.

This is the problem today, just as it was the problem in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq. What is the "what"? What will happen to a state that refuses to comply? Even when the Security Council members can overcome their own narrowly-defined national interests to reach a consensus, that's usually as far as they will go. So while Russia and China have been willing to rebuke Iran for its violations of Iran's obligations under the NPT, neither has been willing to discuss, let alone implement, any punishments intended to force compliance. President Obama has not shown a willingness to meld negotiations with punishment, leaving them as separate outcomes, making it possible for the avoidance of even the consideration serious punishment so long as negotiations are proceeding. So when Iran is challenged with a "comply or else" threat, the "or else" is left undefined. Iran doesn't know what will happen, nor does the US, the UN or anyone else.

If the US and the international community are serious in warning that they are "not going to just wait indefinitely and allow for the development of a nuclear weapon [and] the breach of international treaties" (please note that I do not necessarily agree with this position) then the negotiations and the threats need to be combined. The US needs to work to build a consensus with its international partners on what actions are to be demanded of Iran and what consequences will follow if Iran does not comply.

The stakes get higher in Iran day by day as Iran refuses to cooperate with the IAEA. The US needs to act quickly; once Iran develops a nuclear weapon, the whole equation changes.

Friday, November 20, 2009

More Thoughts on the Trial of KSM

Yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder defended the Obama administration's decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in federal court in New York City. While Holder did admit that "we are at war" with al Qaeda, the civilian court system was the best venue to try KSM: “We need not cower in the face of this enemy. Our institutions are strong, our infrastructure is ready, our resolve is firm, and our people are ready.”

But there are still several problems with this decision that bother me, and make me wonder why the Obama administration made this decision.

First, in response to stated worries by the senators (Holder was testifying about the decision before the Senate Judiciary Committee) about the chance that KSM would not be found guilty, Holder responded “Failure is not an option.” Now, it's likely that Holder was speaking rhetorically here and that he didn't actually mean that it is impossible for KSM to get off on the charges. But the remark certainly implies that the civilian trial has been predetermined, or at least will be little more than a show trial. If the decision to shift trial venues was primarily intended to erase the bad taste remaining from the Bush administration's efforts to evade the law and the taint of Guantanamo, anything that calls into question the fairness of the civil trial KSM is about to undergo undermines that intent. When the Attorney General says failure is not an option, it certainly raises questions as to whether KSM can, in fact, receive a fair trial. Is it possible to find American citizens, and more specifically New Yorkers, who won't have prejudged the case and KSM's guilt? Furthermore, the New York Times reports that "other Justice Department officials have said that even if Mr. Mohammed is acquitted, the Obama administration will keep him locked up forever as a 'combatant' under the laws of war." How will that look? How will the international community respond if KSM is acquitted under our domestic laws and then kept indefinitely in military custody? Won't that simply reinforce the perception of injustice?

Second, in an excellent piece over at Slate, David Feige warns that, far from upholding the American principal of law and order, this trial may very well undermine our legal system by "generate a tragic flood of bad law, rendering the defense team's valiant service not merely unsuccessful but actually hostile to the interests of all their other clients." According to Feige, because "No jury on this continent is going to acquit their client, the government is certain to insist on the death penalty, and KSM will almost certainly try to put the government on trial," KSM's defense lawyers will be forced to rely on two strategies: 1) An argument that persuasive evidence of torture should result in the suppression of a great deal of evidence; and 2) to use the discovery process to uncover facts that embarrass or discomfit the government. Feige points out how this strategy forced the US government to back away from its desired three life sentences for "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh and settle for 20 years in prison in exchange for Lindh agreeing to a gag order and dropping his claims of torture and mistreatment. This time, according to Feige:

They'll allege a violation of KSM's right to a speedy trial, claiming that the years he spent in CIA detention and Gitmo violated this constitutional right. They'll seek suppression of KSM's statements, arguing (persuasively) that the torture he endured—sleep deprivation, noise, cold, physical abuse, and, of course, 183 water-boarding sessions—make his statements involuntary. They will insist that everything stemming from those statements must be suppressed, under the Fourth Amendment, as the fruit of the wildly poisonous tree. They will demand the names of operatives and interrogators, using KSM's right to confront the witnesses against him to box the government into revealing things it would prefer to keep secret—the identities of confidential informants, the locations of secret safe houses, the names of other inmates and detainees who provided information about him, and a thousand other clever things that should make the government squirm. The defense will attack the CIA, FBI, and NSA, demanding information about wiretapping and signal intelligence and sources and methods. They'll move to dismiss the case because there is simply no venue in the United States in which KSM can get a fair trial.


The judicial refusal to consider KSM's years of quasi-legal military detention as a violation of his right to a speedy trial will erode that already crippled constitutional concept. The denial of the venue motion will raise the bar even higher for defendants looking to escape from damning pretrial publicity. Ever deferential to the trial court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit will affirm dozens of decisions that redact and restrict the disclosure of secret documents, prompting the government to be ever more expansive in invoking claims of national security and emboldening other judges to withhold critical evidence from future defendants. Finally, the twisted logic required to disentangle KSM's initial torture from his subsequent "clean team" statements will provide a blueprint for the government, giving them the prize they've been after all this time—a legal way both to torture and to prosecute.
By prosecuting KSM in civilian courts, the rule of law itself may very well be damaged. Take the question of torture. Even if a court is willing to determine that waterboarding is not torture but a legitimate coercive interrogation technique, the government's own memoranda make it clear that KSM was waterboarded in violation of the rules established to ensure that the use of waterboarding would not constitute torture. According to the legal opinion written by Steven Bradbury of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice (p.15):

The waterboard may be authorized for, at most, one 30 day period, during which the technique can actually applied on no more than five days...Further, there can be no more than two sessions in any 24-hour period. Each session--the time during which the detainee is strapped to the waterboard--lasts no more than two hours. There may be at most six applications of water lasting 10 seconds or longer during any session, and water may be applied for a total of no more than 12 minutes during any 24-hour period.
But, on p. 37, we are informed that the waterboard was used "183 times during March 2003 in the interrogation of KSM (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed)." As I wrote on April 20, if you "do the math on the instructions from p. 15, the rules limit the use of the waterboard to no more than 60 times per month (five days per month, two sessions per day, six applications of water during each session; 5x2x6=60). And yet, KSM was waterboarded 183 times." There is seemingly no question that the government broke its own rules on the waterboard with KSM and that breaking those rules almost certainly means that KSM was tortured, even if the use of the waterboard, in and of itself, does not equate to torture. What will a trial judge and a jury do with this information? What happens when KSM's defense attorneys claim that everything KSM admitted was tainted by the abusive and wildly excessive torture he suffered? As Feige points out, the evidence could be dismissed, raising the likelihood that KSM could be acquitted. Or, the claim will be ignored or, if the government has enough evidence to convict KSM even if all torture-tainted evidence is throw out, rendered irrelevant. Either way, this has the potential to create extremely dangerous precedents and procedures within the US legal system.

To me, this whole thing seems like a no-win situation. If KSM is convicted, it won't put to rest any doubts about the fairness of the American legal system and its application in the war on terror. And if by some unforeseeable development he's acquitted, it's hard to imagine a bigger transgression against justice.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed

Last week, the Obama administration annouced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, along with four other suspected members of al Qaeda will be transferred from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base to New York City to face trial in civilian court. Interestingly, however, Obama has not decided to use the civilian courts for all of the Guantanamo detainees; five more face trial by military commission, largely because their crimes were more directly pursuant to military operations:

Holder also announced that five other detainees held at the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will be sent to military commissions for trial. They were identified as Omar Khadr, Mohammed Kamin, Ibrahim al Qosi, Noor Uthman Muhammed and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

Al-Nashiri is an accused mastermind of the deadly 2000 bombing of the USS Cole; Khadr is a Canadian charged with the 2002 murder of a U.S. military officer in Afghanistan. Khadr was 15 years old when he was captured in July 2002.

Additionally, several more will not be tried at all; rather, they will continue to be held indefinitely without charge or trial.

This decision has, of course, outraged many who believe that the decision to try KSM in civilian court is dangerous. John Yoo, the architect of many of the most controversial Bush-era legal decisions, argues in the Wall Street Journal:

Trying KSM in civilian court will be an intelligence bonanza for al Qaeda and the hostile nations that will view the U.S. intelligence methods and sources that such a trial will reveal. The proceedings will tie up judges for years on issues best left to the president and Congress.

Now, however, KSM and his co-defendants will enjoy the benefits and rights that the Constitution accords to citizens and resident aliens—including the right to demand that the government produce in open court all of the information that it has on them, and how it got it.

Prosecutors will be forced to reveal U.S. intelligence on KSM, the methods and sources for acquiring its information, and his relationships to fellow al Qaeda operatives. The information will enable al Qaeda to drop plans and personnel whose cover is blown. It will enable it to detect our means of intelligence-gathering, and to push forward into areas we know nothing about.

This is not hypothetical, as former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy has explained. During the 1993 World Trade Center bombing trial of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (aka the "blind Sheikh"), standard criminal trial rules required the government to turn over to the defendants a list of 200 possible co-conspirators.

In essence, this list was a sketch of American intelligence on al Qaeda. According to Mr. McCarthy, who tried the case, it was delivered to bin Laden in Sudan on a silver platter within days of its production as a court exhibit.

Bin Laden, who was on the list, could immediately see who was compromised. He also could start figuring out how American intelligence had learned its information and anticipate what our future moves were likely to be.

Even more harmful to our national security will be the effect a civilian trial of KSM will have on the future conduct of intelligence officers and military personnel. Will they have to read al Qaeda terrorists their Miranda rights? Will they have to secure the "crime scene" under battlefield conditions? Will they have to take statements from nearby "witnesses"? Will they have to gather evidence and secure its chain of custody for transport all the way back to New York? All of this while intelligence officers and soldiers operate in a war zone, trying to stay alive, and working to complete their mission and get out without casualties.


For a preview of the KSM trial, look at what happened in the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker who was arrested in the U.S. just before 9/11. His trial never made it to a jury. Moussaoui's lawyers tied the court up in knots.

All they had to do was demand that the government hand over all its intelligence on him. The case became a four-year circus, giving Moussaoui a platform to air his anti-American tirades. The only reason the trial ended was because, at the last minute, Moussaoui decided to plead guilty. That plea relieved the government of the choice between allowing a fishing expedition into its intelligence files or dismissing the charges.

In response to Yoo and others who have decried Obama's decision, Tommy Crocker of the University of South Carolina's Law School, guest-blogging over Opinio Juris, writes:

Mr. Yoo [does not make] this clear, but [he] seems to rely on a judgment about the nature of the acts perpetrated by terrorists. Are some acts so heinous that by their very nature, they morally “deserve” to be punished by less robust rights-protecting procedures? I can see that for pragmatic purposes, different criminal acts may lead to differing needs to seek punishment in ad hoc tribunals or military commissions which may afford alternative procedures. But to my knowledge special tribunals do not establish differing degrees of rights-protections based on moral judgments about the nature of the underlying criminal acts over which they sit in judgment. Ordinarily, questions of moral desert occur both before and after a trial—in judgments about which acts to criminalize and how severe to punish them—not in decisions about trial procedure itself, nor in decisions about who receives basic human rights protections. Thus, the underlying view is not only that we are engaged in a “new kind of war” facing a new kind of enemy whose very warlike actions are illegal, but those actions are of a kind morally deserving of a lesser legal process.

I think this view mistaken. I also see no reason to think that precluding this type of moral judgment harms national security—quite the opposite. Procedural protections are not, nor should they be, grounded in prior judgments of moral desert. To go down this path is to go down the path of varying human rights protections based on moral judgments about who deserves them. On this score, we make no further distinctions than to say that if anyone deserves them, we all do.

Not surprisingly, I think both of these guys are wrong. Crocker's argument seems a bit bizarre to me. I don't see why or how a moral judgment needs to be part of the equation here. Yoo isn't arguing that members of al Qaeda are inhuman and therefore undeserving of rights and due process; rather, he's arguing that the US is involved in a war with al Qaeda and that different legal codes apply in time of war. People who commit war crimes are not tried in civilian courts; they are tried by military commissions with different legal rights than civilians and under the laws of war which are different than civilian laws. One can argue about whether terrorism of the kind practiced by al Qaeda should be dealt with in a military framework, but Crocker seems to dismiss this argument entirely.

The nature of al Qaeda and its missions do, in my opinion, lend themselves to the military model rather than a civilian legalistic frame. The inter- and trans-national nature of the organization, its efforts to kill large numbers of non-combatants, its frequent targeting of military assets and the difficulties posed by the standard law enforcement models (e.g. its emphasis on procedural justice and ex post, rather than ex ante, actions) are not well suited for a civilian/traditional law enforcement response. That's not to say that law enforcement plays no role, or that the military option is always the proper one. But the US is clearly involved in military operations against al Qaeda and mass terrorism of the kind perpetrated by al Qaeda is much closer to a war crime than it is to murder.

That said, I think Yoo's argument is wrong as well. Well, not so much wrong as problematic. The problem is the poor decisions the Bush administration made in the early days of the war on terror regarding the detainees; decisions in which Yoo was involved as he makes abundantly clear in his memoir War By Other Means: An Insider's Accout of the War on Terror.

As suspected members of al Qaeda began to trickle into Guantanamo Bay (along with hundreds of innocent people handed over to US forces by opportunistic Afghani militants seeking reward money) the Bush administration needed to decide what laws would apply to these people. The choices were civilian law or military law. The Bush administration chose neither.

The selection of Guantanamo Bay as the detention facility was explicitly intended to place the detainees beyond the reach of US civilian courts and laws. Fine. But no one is outside of all law. If individuals seized by US military forces are not to be granted the rights and protections of US civilian law then they must be granted the rights and protections of the laws of war, as embodied in the Geneva Conventions. But the Bush administration sought to deny KSM and his colleagues even these rights.

Following the Geneva Conventions would not have guaranteed KSM protections as a prisoner of war. The Geneva Conventions make it clear that al Qaeda was fighting in violations of the laws of war, and thus not due the protection of POW status and eligible for trial for their actions. All that was needed was an Article 5 hearing to determine status; not guilt, just status. Each detainee needed to be given the opportunity to claim before a competent panel that he was not a member of al Qaeda or that he was fighting in accordance with the laws of war. Once the determination was made that the detainee was a member of al Qaeda and was violating the laws of war, the detainee could be denied POW status and subject to trial by a military commission (Common Article 3 of the Conventions protects the rights of non-POWs by guaranteeing them fair trials).

However, Yoo and the Bush administration sought to have it both ways. They did not want US law to apply, nor did they want the Geneva Conventions to apply. And this kicked off a series of court cases between detainees challenging their status and the administration. If the administration had simply granted KSM and his fellow al Qaeda suspects an Article 5 hearing to determine their status as illegal combatants under the laws of war, we most likely wouldn't be in the mess we're in today. The US would have then been perfectly within its rights under the laws of war to either hold the detainees indefinitely until the end of hostilities or to try them under military commissions. Of course, the argument could still be made that the laws of war were not the appropriate laws to be used. But as it seems that part of Obama's decision to move KSM into the civilian judicial system is to erase the doubts and questions raised by the Bush administration's attempts to escape the law perhaps Obama would have been happy to try KSM under military law as he is doing with Omar Khadr, Mohammed Kamin, Ibrahim al Qosi, Noor Uthman Muhammed and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. In fact, the whole thing might be over by now, as KSM was prepared to plead guilty to a military tribunal late last year.

I certainly understand Obama's desire to make amends for the legal mistakes of the Bush administration, but moving KSM to New York is a risky move. Despite Obama's predictions that KSM will be found guilty and put to death, there most certainly is a risk that KSM will not be given the death penalty (as occurred in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, when one juror balked at handing down a death sentence) or that he won't be found guilty at all for a number of procedural reasons. And Yoo's warnings about the threats to intelligence and counter-terror operations should not be taken lightly either. Military commissions can be both fair and efficient; in fact, in this case I'd assume that KSM would get a more fair trial in a military tribunal than before a panel of American citizens. But the die has been cast; let's hope KSM gets what is coming to him.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Abbas and Israel

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced last week that he does not plan to run for re-election in the upcoming Palestinian elections in January. According to the Associated Press, "Abbas says the stalemate in peace negotiations with Israel prompted his decision not to run again. He charged the U.S. with backtracking on its Mideast policy and refusing to press Israel to freeze construction in its West Bank settlements." Today, at a ceremony honoring former PLO Chairman and the first head of the Palestinian Authority Yasir Arafat, Abbas called on Hamas to honor the Egyptian-broked reconciliation deal designed to ease tensions between the Islamic organization based in Gaza and the West Bank-center, and more moderate, PA.

Abbas's resignation has raised serious concerns over the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (if one can be said to still exist) as well as the future of any moderate Palestinian political faction willing to talk and negotiate with Israel. If the PA does, indeed, collapse, Hamas will certainly benefit the most from being able to point the fruitlessness and foolishness of trusting in talks with Israel and the US to bring about an independent Palestinian homeland.

The problem, as Abbas apparently sees it, is Israel's unwillingness to negotiate in good faith towards a Palestinian state along the lines set out by the US and its international partners (the EU, the UN, and Russia), coupled with the American refusal to pressure Israel to make any real progress (exemplified by President Obama's caving in on the settlement freeze issue). Between the ridiculous Israeli electoral system that inevitably produces weak governments beholden to small extreme parties and the return to power of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has certainly seemed to lose interest in the peace process, and has repeatedly rebuffed requests to make any kind of commitment to an eventual independent Palestinian state (Netanyahu claims he favors "negotiations without preconditions" which forbids him from discussing any eventual end-game) or offer any kind of serious freeze on the building and expansion of West Bank settlements. The latter is perhaps the most important issue to the PA and Abbas, as the Palestinians rightly fear that continued and unchecked settlement expansion threatens to create a fait accompli on the ground that will determine the boundaries of any Palestinian-governed lands, sovereign or not, outside of the negotiated process. Palestinians are also worried that Netanhayu is, in essence, trying to bribe the West Bankers, hoping that allowing economic development in the occupied territory will quiet cries for independence.

Certainly, economic conditions have improved recently in the West Bank, and concurrently (although not necessarily causally) the West Bank has for the last years been relatively quiet. It's certainly possible that this is indeed Netanyahu's strategy; it's also possible that this is simply the result of Israel's domestic political system that is more likely to produce paralysis than results. It's also entirely possible that Abbas's threat of retirement is a political ploy, intended to coax more concessions from an Israel scared of an Abbas-less Palestinian political apparatus.

Either way, however, it's a bad strategy for Israel to play such a dangerous game of chicken. Israel has no choice, ultimately, but to move towards an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank (most likely in Gaza too, but that's a different story). Simple demographics about the growth rate of the Palestinians in the West Bank make it inevitable that Israel will become, very soon, an apartheid-type regime, with a minority population of Israelis governing and oppressing a majority population of Palestinians (I know the analogy isn't perfect as the West Bank is an occupied territory and not part of Israel proper, but the problem is basically the same). Furthermore, the longer the Palestinians feel the peace process isn't moving forward, the weaker the moderate PA-based wing will become, and the stronger and better Hamas looks as a representative of the Palestinians. Armed struggle will begin to look a more attractive option; it's certainly not out of the question that the West Bank could initiate a third intifada, although the security wall along the Green Wall and the removal of many of the deepest settlements will certainly blunt the impact of any such uprising.

Israel also suffers on the international stage for its refusal to make any meaningful progress. While Israel often claims, with much merit, that the international community is massively biased against it, the unjust occupation and continued settlement of the West Bank does nothing to help Israel in the international court of opinion. And Israel does, despite its claims to the contrary, need the international community. Just last week, Israel captured a ship it claimed was carrying from Iran to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon a supply of weapons large enough for a month's worth of military operations. In a speech discussing the seizure, Netanyahu argued that "[the smuggling] is a war crime that the U.N. Security Council should have a special meeting over. A major component of this shipment were rockets whose only goal was to hit civilians and kill as many civilians as possible — women, children, old people." That may be true -- in fact, it most likely is true -- but given Israel's repeated refusal to comply with international demands to freeze settlement expansion and enter into serious negotiations about the future of a Palestinian state, not to mention Israel's refusal to investigate allegations of war crimes in January's invasion of Gaza (all states, especially democratic ones, have an obligation to fight their battles in a moral and legal manner; Israel should, as it has in the past, willingly investigate the behavior of its troops and commanders, not because the UN demands it, but because liberal democracies hold themselves to higher standards), the international community isn't likely to spend much time looking into Israel's claims.

Israel's national interest demands that it divest itself from the occupation of the Palestinians. It no longer needs the West Bank as a defensive buffer against Jordan; nor, given the security fence being built and its overwhelming military dominance, does it have much to fear about a terrorist or military threat from the West Bank itself. But by seriously committing itself to negotiations, including an meaningful ex ante freeze on settlement building and expansion, Israel can gain several things: It can begin to avert the impending racist crisis; it can begin to capitalize on the fears of its Arab neighbors over Iran; it can begin to transform international public opinion; and it can protect its relationship with the United States.

Even if Abbas's threat is just a negotiating ploy, Israel cannot allow the PA to collapse. And preventing that collapse may require that Israel stop dithering, and start taking seriously the inevitable.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Decision on Afghanistan?

CBS News is reporting that President Obama has decided to provide General Stanley McChrystal with most, if not all, of the 40,000 troops the general requested to wage a counter-insurgency (COIN) campaign in Afghanistan against the forces of the Taliban and al Qaeda.

According to the report:

The buildup would be expected to last about four years, until McChrystal completes his plan for doubling the size of the Afghan army and police force.

With 68,000 Americans already there, the Afghan surge would mean there would be 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by the end of the president's first term.
However, a header on the article reads as follows:

Editor's note, 9:57 p.m. EDT: The White House has issued the following response to this story, attributed to White House National Security Advisor James Jones:

"Reports that President Obama has made a decision about Afghanistan are absolutely false. He has not received final options for his consideration, he has not reviewed those options with his national security team, and he has not made any decisions about resources. Any reports to the contrary are completely untrue and come from uninformed sources."
As I've argued several times, I believe this is the right move. Afghanistan is too important for US strategy and especially for Pakistan to ignore the resurgence of the Taliban. More on this as it develops.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Space Elevator Success?

One more on this...

Success in 'space elevator' competition

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – A robot powered by a ground-based laser beam climbed a long cable dangling from a helicopter on Wednesday to qualify for prize money in a $2 million competition to test the potential reality of the science fiction concept of space elevators.

The highly technical contest brought teams from Missouri, Alaska and Seattle to Rogers Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert, most familiar to the public as a space shuttle landing site.

The contest requires their machines to climb 2,953 feet (nearly 1 kilometer) up a cable slung beneath a helicopter hovering nearly a mile high.

LaserMotive's vehicle zipped up to the top in just over four minutes and immediately repeated the feat, qualifying for at least a $900,000 second-place prize.

The device, a square of photo voltaic panels about 2 feet by 2 feet and topped by a motor structure and thin triangle frame, had failed to respond to the laser three times before it was lowered, inspected and then hoisted back up by the helicopter for the successful tries.

Earlier out on the lakebed, team member Nick Burrows had pointed out how it grips the cable with modified skateboard wheels and the laser is aimed with an X Box game controller.

It had never climbed higher than 80 feet previously, he said.

Update on the Space Elevator

Laser-powered elevator to space hits some snags

  • By JOHN ANTCZAK, Associated Press Writer - Wed Nov 4, 2009 4:23PM EST

A laser-powered robot failed to complete its climb up a long cable dangling from a helicopter Wednesday in a $2 million competition to test the potential reality of the science fiction concept of space elevators.

The highly technical contest brought teams from Missouri, Alaska and Seattle to Rogers Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert, most familiar to the public as a space shuttle landing site.

The contest requires their machines to climb 2,953 feet (nearly 1 kilometer) up a cable slung beneath a helicopter hovering nearly a mile high.

The Kansas City, Mo., Space Pirates team was first off the ground after hours of testing the cable system, refueling the helicopter and waiting to fire up the laser so it doesn't interfere with satellites.

Its climber, a flat machine several feet square, initially failed to respond to laser power and was lowered, examined and sent back up. On the second try it began moving and then stopped.

On the third try it began moving steadily, but then trouble developed as the laser could not stay locked on the machine. It failed to climb all the way up before the laser had to be shut off to protect satellites, said Ted Semons of the sponsoring Spaceward Foundation. The team was expected to try again Friday.

Funded by a NASA program to explore bold technology, the contest is intended to encourage development of a theory that originated in the 1960s and was popularized by Arthur C. Clarke's 1979 novel "The Fountains of Paradise."

Space elevators are envisioned as a way to reach space without the risk and expense of rockets.

Instead, electrically powered vehicles would run up and down a cable anchored to a ground structure and extending thousands of miles up to a mass in geosynchronous orbit — the kind of orbit communications satellites are placed in to stay over a fixed spot on the Earth.

Electricity would be supplied through a concept known as "power beaming," ground-based lasers pointing up to photo voltaic cells on the bottom of the climbing vehicle — something like an upside-down solar power system.

The space elevator competition has not produced a winner in its previous three years, but has become increasingly difficult.

Semons said the competing machines all use wheels to grip the cable. Two use modified inline-skate wheels and one uses steel wheels.

The vehicles must climb at an average speed of 16.4 feet (5 meters) per second, or about 11 miles (18 kilometers) per hour, to qualify for the top prize. A lesser prize is available for vehicles that climb at 2 meters per second.

The rules allow one team to collect all $2 million or for sums to be shared among all three teams depending on their achievements.

The other teams scheduled to compete later Wednesday were the University of Saskatchewan Space Design Team, known as USST, and LaserMotive of Seattle.

The teams were scheduled to make attempts Wednesday and Thursday. Additional attempts were possible Friday, Semons said.

Space Elevators?

This may not have anything to do with international security or politics, but it's too cool not to post!

Elevator to space? They're really trying


Rocketing into space? Some think an elevator might be the way to go.

That's the future goal of this week's $2 million Space Elevator Games in the Mojave Desert.

In a major test of the concept, robotic machines powered by laser beams will try to climb a cable suspended from a helicopter hovering more than a half-mile (one kilometer) high.

Three teams have qualified to participate in the event on the dry lakebed near NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards. Attempts were expected from early Wednesday through Thursday.

Funded by a space agency program to explore bold technology, the contest is a step toward bringing the idea of a space elevator out of the realm of science fiction and into reality.

Theorized in the 1960s and then popularized by Arthur C. Clarke's 1979 novel "The Fountains of Paradise," space elevators are envisioned as a way to gain access to space without the risk and expense of rockets.

Instead, electrically powered vehicles would run up and down a cable anchored to a ground structure and extending thousands of miles up to a mass in geosynchronous orbit — the kind of orbit communications satellites are placed in to stay over a fixed spot on the Earth.

Electricity would be supplied through a concept known as "power beaming," ground-based lasers pointing up to photo voltaic cells on the bottom of the climbing vehicle — something like an upside-down solar power system.

The space elevator competition has not produced a winner in its previous three years, but has become increasingly difficult.

The vehicles must climb a cable six-tenths of a mile into the sky and move at an average speed of 16.4 feet (five meters) per second.

The competition is sponsored by the nonprofit Spaceward Foundation with support from NASA's Centennial Challenges program.

Monday, October 26, 2009

John Kerry on Afghanistan

This morning, I participated in a tele-conference sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations with Senator John Kerry (D-MA). Senator Kerry, who is the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was speaking on prospects for US policy and strategy in Afghanistan, from where Kerry recently returned from a fact-finding trip. Kerry's visit was designed, among other things, to obtain Afghan President Hamid Karzai's acceptance of a run-off vote in the disputed presidential elections in Afghanistan, which Kerry succeeded in getting.

[The transcript of Sen. Kerry's remarks are available here.]

Kerry began by stating that the debate over the proposal by General Stanley McChrystal that a minimum of 40,000 more US troops are necessary to stave off defeat is not the proper topic for policy discussion. Rather, the focus needs to be on developing a comprehensive strategy that melds military strategy with the necessary improvements in the Afghan government and society.

Kerry also stated that the US does have vital national security interests at stake in Afghanistan. Even though most of al Qaeda has been routed from Afghanistan and has moved into Pakistan, the porous border between the two means that if the US withdraws or significantly draws down its operations in Afghanistan, al Qaeda would likely move back into Afghanistan. It is thus imperative, he argued, to prevent the Taliban from re-establishing the kind of sanctuary it was able to provide prior to 9/11. Instability in Afghanistan leads to and contributes to instability in Pakistan.

Furthermore, Kerry warned that a radical departure from the current strategy would threaten US credibility around the world. First, Islamist insurgents would learn that the US can be defeated and lacks the political will to see a conflict through to its end. Second, a US withdrawal would send bad messages to US allies around the world, who look to the US as the leader of, as he called it, the global counter-insurgency movement.

So, the question that needs to be at the forefront of any policy discussion, as Kerry sees it, is what realistic goals can the US establish that can be met and will contribute to success? That in turn raises the question: How should success be defined? For Kerry, success will occur when the US has sufficiently empowered the Afghani government to the point where it can assume responsibility for domestic security and when the Afghan state can be sufficiently stable and secure so as to not be controlled by the Taliban or al Qaeda. This definition is important because it does not require that Afghanistan become a "flawless democracy," nor does it require that the US or the Afghan regime defeat the Taliban. Rather, Kerry was emphatic that the end is "good-enough" governance" which in turn requires capable Afghan security forces and a legitimate, effective civilian government.

After defining "success" Kerry turned to actual policy. He began by rejecting the strategy championed by Vice President Biden of drawing down US troops to shift to a highly limited strategy of targeting al Qaeda as an insufficient footprint to stabilize Afghanistan and protect Pakistan. Furthermore, such a policy could lead to a civil war, which would in turn directly threaten Pakistan. However, he also rejected (noting that this is not the strategy recommended by McChrystal) a broader country-wide counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy. The US does not have the capability for such a strategy (Kerry cited a number of 400,000 troops that would be needed); additionally, a broad strategy isn't needed, as the resurgent Taliban isn't active in the entire country, as it largely confined to the Pashtun-dominant regions. Fortunately, Kerry argued, such a broad COIN strategy is not needed. Rather, the US should focus its military COIN strategy on the population centers.

So. Kerry said more troops are needed. But, before the troops can be delivered, several questions need to be asked. 1) Are there enough reliable Afghani forces to partner with US troops and that can eventually assume the primary responsibility for domestic security ? 2) Are there local leaders with whom the US can partner? 3) Is the civilian government ready to support the military mission and to provide the domestic services needed by the civilian populations?

Kerry argued that while the answer to #2 is yes, the answer to #s 1 and 3 is "not yet". Kerry put out a number of 92,000 being the number of Afghan police and security forces currently capable of engaging in operations, although he noted that the real number is probably closer to 50,000, and that 3-4 times that many are required. But the real problem that worries Kerry is #3. The real problem in Afghanistan, as Kerry sees it, is inattention to the basic needs of the Afghani citizens who need basic services -- access to water, jobs, law, etc. -- to live their lives. If the government can't or won't provide these services, the average Afghani will turn to support anyone who can, and that's where the Taliban steps in. Kerry cited the recent revelation that the Taliban have created ombudsmen to hear complaints about their rule, while the government is widely mistrusted.

The key to Afghanistan is, Kerry argued, whether the Afghan government can succeed in providing these basic services and be seen as legitimate and effective. When and where the government succeeds, the Taliban weakens. Kerry claimed that there are only approximately 3,000 "hard-core" (i.e. ideologically committed) Taliban members, while the rest are either common criminals looking to profit, those opposed to the US presence, or those who simply believe that the Taliban offer a better future than does the current government. The right combination of effective governance, money, diplomacy, and promise of reintegration into society can, Kerry believes, siphon off many of these pragmatic Taliban members leaving the core isolated and weakened.

The key to Afghanistan, Kerry concluded, is whether the US and any future troop increase helps the Afghan government provide basic services and security.

Senator Kerry then took several questions from the press (the tele-conference was a press conference) one of which which I'll re-create here to the best of my ability.

A reporter from the Washington Times asked whether Kerry's preferred strategy -- implementing COIN in the population centers -- is any different from the policy implemented in the Bush administration. Kerry answered that the emphasis on effective and legitimate governance would, if done properly, make all the difference. Focusing on good-enough governance at the national and regional levels is the key to success, not increasing troops or even clearing the country-side of Taliban. The emphasis under Bush, Kerry claimed, was clear and hold, but without enough of a troop presence to hold. The proper strategy, Kerry said, is clear, hold, build (as in build civil society and services) and transfer (as in transfer responsibility for security to the Afghan government).

I am right on board with Senator Kerry's assessment. Increasing troop levels to be able to implement a proper COIN strategy is key, but it is matched in importance by the need to develop a credible and effective partner with the civilian Afghani government. These two elements must come hand in hand in order for anything even close to success to be a possibility. For Kerry, the solution is to steadily increase troop levels (Kerry stated that the US can effectively deploy 1 brigade to Afghanistan every 3 months) while concurrently judging the improvements in civilian benchmarks (provisions of services, stamping out corruption, training effective Afghan soldiers and police). The Biden-supported alternative is far too risky, not only to Afghanistan but to Pakistan. Given that a complete withdrawal is clearly out of the question, the only other alternative is to increase troops to implement a COIN strategy. McChrystal has laid out the military requirements of such a mission; but the military can only be successful when there is a sound political strategy in place. Kerry has laid out the broad contours of such a political strategy. Let us hope that President Obama listens.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Going Where Bush Has Gone Before?

Is President Obama about to make the same mistake that President Bush did?

Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times ran an article claiming that the Obama administration was, in its meetings to determine future strategy and troop levels in Afghanistan, considering a "middle path" that would require sending fewer than the 40,000 troops General McChrystal has stated to be the minimum necessary to follow a counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy that might possibly work. According to the article:

As the Obama administration debates whether to shift its aims in Afghanistan, officials at the Pentagon and National Security Council have begun developing "middle path" strategies that would require fewer troops than their ground commander is seeking.

Measures under consideration include closer cooperation with local tribal chiefs and regional warlords, using CIA agents as intermediaries and cash payments as incentives, said current and former officials who described the strategies on condition of anonymity.

Other steps would concentrate U.S. and allied troops in cities, pulling out of Afghanistan's widely dispersed rural areas. At the same time, the allied forces would push ahead with plans to intensify training of Afghan troops, officials said.

None of the strategies envision troop reductions, but officials said they would not require the 40,000-troop increase preferred by Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and allied commander. A number of White House officials favor sending fewer than 20,000 additional troops.


With the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan already 8 years old, advocates of a middle approach question whether the American public will support a long-term effort.

"There is a growing view, a minority opinion, within the military that worries about the sustainability on the domestic front of what McChrystal is proposing," said an administration official. "A year and a half from now we could find there is not the will to sustain this McChrystal approach."

One approach would be to take McChrystal's plan and "pare it down," moving troops away from less important objectives, said a former official who served in both the Bush and Obama administrations.

The middle path strategies would not try to establish strict limits on U.S. efforts, such as focusing on attacking Al Qaeda, a posture once favored by Vice President Joe Biden.
It's one thing for President Obama to decide to not pursue a COIN strategy in favor of focusing on al Qaeda, as recommended by Biden. That is a strategic decision that, by virtue of its inherent logic, requires fewer troops to be deployed in Afghanistan. Letting the strategy determine the force posture is exactly how military planning is supposed to happen. But the Obama administration seems to be allowing its desired force posture guide its strategy, which is a disaster waiting to happen. This is exactly the mistake that the Bush administration made in the reconstruction of both Afghanistan and Iraq. In both situations, the strategy was determined by the number of troops the US was willing to commit in the field, rather than the desired strategy determining the appropriate troop levels.

The problem seems to be that Obama administration is worried that public opinion will not support a larger and longer commitment that will inevitably result in higher casualties (particularly in the short run). This problem is certainly exacerbated by the administration's domestic priorities and especially its effort to pass health care reform.

And here is where political science can be of use. The Obama administration is making the same mistake that Bill Clinton made in Somalia: misunderstanding the source of public discontent with military missions. As Peter Feaver (my graduate school professor and dissertation adviser) argues:

Research has shown that public support of a military campaign is chiefly a function of the mission's perceived stakes, the prospects for victory and the anticipated costs. Since the Persian Gulf War (though the seeds can be traced as far back as Vietnam), a myth has taken root among policymakers that only the costs matter -- that the public will only support policies that are "cheap" in the sense of not costing American lives. According to this view, the public rejected U.S. intervention in Somalia because American soldiers died, while it accepted our actions in Kosovo because no Americans died. This is the myth of the casualty-phobic public -- a canard that genuinely casualty-phobic policymakers have found expedient, but which has left America vulnerable to exactly the kind of terrorist attack we just witnessed. What is Osama bin Laden's fundamental premise if not the belief that killing some Americans will drive our country to its knees?

Actually, the public will support even a costly war provided the stakes warrant it and the president can persuasively promise victory. In this instance, the stakes could not be higher. What is lacking is a compelling account of victory, a frame for war aims that shapes how the public will interpret unfolding events.

Focusing on troop levels as the driver of strategic calculations undermines the ability to convey the "compelling account of victory" which is what in turn undermines public support for the military operations. President Bush, in spite of all the mistakes he and his administration made, did this during the surge (until the surge the Bush administration failed at this as well). It was clear to the American people what the surge was trying to accomplish and what would count as success.

If all the Obama administration is trying to is lower American casualties and avoid negative public opinion then it should simply find a way to get out, as that clearly signals that the US no longer has a strategic interest in Afghanistan. If it determines that the Taliban no longer poses a strategic threat to the US but that al Qaeda does, then Biden's plan makes sense. If it believes, as I do, that the two problems are linked and success will require dealing with both the Taliban and al Qaeda, that McChrystal's COIN strategy is the way to go.

The Obama administration must decide what its desired strategic outcome in Afghanistan is, and then listen to the military about what force package will be necessary to achieve the desired outcome. Letting politicians determine the force levels and then requiring the military to design strategy around those levels is doomed to fail.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How's that Nobel Working Out?

[Sorry...one more post on this]

Yesterday was a bad day on the Iran front for President Obama. In spite of his magnanimous gesture of dismantling the ABM system scheduled to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic, Russia doesn't seem to be willing to cooperate with the US on the imposition of serious sanctions on Iran if Iran refuses or cannot demonstrate that its nuclear program is peaceful. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Larov stated that Russia believes the threat of sanctions is "counterproductive" and that, for now, continued negotiations are the only appropriate strategy. Even more problematic than the statement itself is the fact that it came in the midst of a visit to Russia by Secretary of State Clinton who, despite the prospect of better relations and Russian cooperation following the ABM decision, failed in her efforts to win promises of support for sanctions.

As I wrote a month ago, it was foolish of the US to scrap the ABM system without extracting any serious pledges from Russia about Iran. Iran's nuclear ambitions is one of the two or three most serious security issues faced not only by the US but by the international community and trading the ABM system for Russian cooperation should have been a no-brainer.

But this also demonstrates why it was so foolish of the Nobel committee to award the 2009 peace prize to President Obama. In an unprecedented defense of its decision, the committee said yesterday that it awarded the prize to Obama in part due to his decision to "scale down a Bush-era proposal for an anti-missile shield in Europe." But its far too early to say what the consequences of that decision will be. Perhaps the weakened commitment to the eastern European NATO countries will strengthen Russia and lead to more scenarios like the Russian invasion of Georgia? Perhaps Russia will continue to impede international and American efforts to sanction Iran and prevent it from proliferating? The move to replace an ABM system with an theater-based missile defense system in and of itself was not one that inherently increased or decreased the likelihood of peace. So far, the Obama administration seems to have missed a golden opportunity to use that decision to make progress in keeping Iran non-nuclear. What other results are yet to come?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Decision Time in Afghanistan

[I apologize for all the recent posts on Obama and US foreign policy. I plan to get back to broader discussions of international security, but there've just been too many issues of interest in USFP to pass up.)

President Obama is rapidly approaching what may prove to be the most important and defining decision of his presidency: What to do in Afghanistan. The military has presented Obama with a number of possible plans, but most sources agree that General Stanley McChrystal has told Obama that an increase of 40,000 US troops in Afghanistan is the minimum number necessary to prevent the collapse of the US-led effort there. If this option is selected, the thinking seems to be that US troops would begin implementing COIN (counter-insurgency strategy) along the lines of what was done in Iraq after the surge: Extend protection for Afghan citizens in an effort to separate them away from the Taliban and allow for the creation of government institutions and the provision of services (this report from Reuters does a nice job of illustrating what will be required for the COIN strategy to work). If the US's goal is to stabilize Afghanistan and continue moving Afghanistan down the road to democracy, most analysts see adopting a COIN strategy as the only way.

McChrystal also offered the president two other options: A troop increase of more than 40,000 (the more the better to implement COIN) and an option of no troop increase. Implicit in the third options (it very well have been made explicit, but we don't have the details of the meeting yet) is that sending anything less than 40,000 more soliders isn't worth the effort or the lives as it won't create a large enough force to protect and stabilize the country. These proposals come at a time when the US is hotly debating which strategy should be adopted in Afghanistan. One side, led by Vice President Biden is urging the president not to push for a large increase in troop presence and to focus on hunting down al Qaeda in Pakistan instead of continuing to attempt to stabilize Afghanistan. The other side, mainly the military (Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Clinton have yet to reveal their preferences) continues to argue for a classic COIN strategy and the tens of thousands of troops that will require.

Increasingly, however, the Obama administration seems to be moving towards focusing on al Qaeda instead of Afghanistan. And while there has been no formal (or at least public) decision on McChrystal's proposal, Obama has begun backing away from his previous position of Afghanistan as a "necessary war." Last week, a senior administration official told the Associated Press that "Obama is prepared to accept some Taliban involvement in Afghanistan's political future and appears inclined to send only as many more U.S. troops as needed to keep al-Qaida at bay."

The problems in Afghanistan certainly make it easier to move away from the COIN option to a focus on al Qaeda. Between the magnitude of the electoral fraud rampant in the August elections becoming increasingly apparent on one hand and reports of the failure of US efforts to create a functioning, legitimate government on on the other, it becomes harder and harder for Obama to justify sending thousands of American men and women to fight and die for the corrupt and inefficient Karzai regime.

The dilemma facing Obama demonstrates the difficulties the US has pursing its foreign policy, particularly in the long term. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America, "a democracy finds it difficult to coordinate the details of a great undertaking and to fix on some plan and carry it through with determination in spite of obstacles. ...[T]he tendency of [the United States is] to obey its feelings rather than its calculations and to abandon a long-matured plan to satisfy a momentary passion...." Just last month, Obama was referring to Afghanistan as a "war of necessity" and warning that "those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again" referring to the nexus between al Qaeda and the Taliban.

By itself al Qaeda does not pose a truly serious threat to the US and its interests. Since the loss of its base in Afghanistan, al Qaeda has had difficulty carrying out any significant operations of any real complexity (the Spanish train bombing and the London bus bombings, while horrifying, do not represent the kind of sophisticated operation that al Qaeda would like to be implementing; the London attack in particular had very little strategic payoff). But the Taliban, in fact, both by itself and in conjunction with al Qaeda do, in fact, represent a significant threat.

First, the Taliban in Afghanistan is rapidly increasing in numbers, growing from 7,000 to an estimated 25,000 in just three years, and is becoming more and more independent from its Pakistan branch. If the US fails to deal with this insurgency and backs away from the Karzai government (or whichever government is running Afghanistan), it is more than possible that the Taliban would reclaim control of the country. Setting aside the human rights disaster that would inevitably ensue, al Qaeda would likely quickly return from the mountainous regions of Pakistan and reestablish its more centralized organizational structure that enabled it to carry out the 9/11 attacks.

Secondly, the Pakistan branch of the Taliban is posing a serious problem to Pakistan. It wasn't all that long ago that the Taliban was threatening the stability of the Pakistani government, prompting fears over the security of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. Increasingly, the Taliban is attacking Pakistani nuclear facilities, and the recent attack against an army headquarters in Rawalpindi makes clear the growing capability and sophistication of the Taliban's military power.

One could make the case about Afghanistan that the US has no real interest in the government there and that containing the Taliban and focusing on al Qaeda would be a better strategy. But when Pakistan is added into the equation, the porous border makes it vital that the US do more to root out the Taliban in Afghanistan itself. If the US backs away, both the Taliban and al Qaeda currently in Pakistan will return to Afghanistan and continue their attacks against both Pakistan and the world from relative safety.

Merely focusing on al Qaeda in Pakistan or on the governance of Afghanistan is too short-sighted. The nexus of the Taliban in both countries, the relationship with al Qaeda and the potential fragility of Pakistan make this a very serious problem and one of considerable importance to US national interest and global security. Obama needs to remember why he argued for some time that Afghanistan, and not Iraq, was the proper focus of the war on terror.

But even if he chooses to focus on al Qaeda, he needs to make a decision soon and in a decisive manner. The current dithering is rapidly undermining domestic public and political opinion which will, in turn, make it more difficult to sustain whichever option Obama picks. When the commander-in-chief determines that American soldiers need to be sent into harm's way, he needs to clearly justify his rationale to the American people and Congress.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Obama Wins the Nobel Prize for (Wishful Thinking and Good Intentions in the Cause of) Peace

Seriously? The decision by the Nobel Prize committee to award Barack Obama with the 2009 Peace Prize is perhaps the most absurd decision by a committee that has long reveled in absurdity. Obama has, since coming to the office in January, accomplished exactly nothing in his foreign policy. His "negotiate first" approach to dealings with Russia, Iran, and North Korea have not borne fruit; he has, to appease his domestic constituencies, initiated a trade war over an idiotic tire issue; he has continued the withdrawal from Iraq started by President Bush; he has done nothing to deal with the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan; he's made absolutely no progress in resolving the Palestinian-Israel problem.

But wait, you say...it's too early to judge these outcomes. His decision to terminate the ballistic missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic may yet work out, especially if it gets Russia to bear down on Iran; he's still deciding what to do in Afghanistan and it will surely be several years before we know the outcome there; the trade war with China won't develop as China realizes that domestic protection is just part of normal politics. But that's exactly the point. It's far too early to determine that Obama deserves a peace prize. And everyone knows it.

It's even possible the Nobel will complicate Obama's efforts. Obama is not the president or leader of the world; he is the president of the United States and acts in the interests of the US, not the world. Sometimes those interests are aligned, but sometimes they aren't. But now his policies have the imprimatur of the international community: What's good for the US is good for the world. How will that affect negotiations with Iran or North Korea or Russia or the Palestinians?

So, if Obama hasn't actually done anything to deserve it, then he must have been given the award on one of two (or possibly both) criteria: What he plans/hopes to accomplish in his presidency or that Nobel committee likes him and is especially glad that he's not George Bush. Officially, the award was given for Obama's work to create a "new climate in international politics" and his work on nuclear disarmament.

But look at the recent list of winners. 2001: The UN and Kofi Annan. 2002: Jimmy Carter. 2005: The International Atomic Energy Agency and Mohamed ElBaradei. 2007: Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A laundry list of hopers, wishers, and dreamers who have actually accomplished little.

The problem with the committee awarding the prize to those striving towards peace, rather than those who's work has actually accomplished anything is the overt politicization that has emerged with the prize. Yes, the committee has given the prize to many truly deserving people: Martti Ahtisaari, Wangari Muta Maathai, and Muhammad Yunus among the recent winners. And these are exactly the kind of people who should be winning the award. Activists, not politicians.

Additionally, who knows what will happen? Maybe Obama will be forced to attack Iran, or allow Israel to do it. Maybe at some point in his administration, as most US presidents do at some point in their administrations, Obama will decide to use force to advance US interests at the expense of international opinion. Awarding the prize on intentions and wishes is exceedingly dangerous given the volatile and complicated nature of running the most powerful country in the world.

Could the committee not have found someone more deserving? Like Morgan Tsvangirai (OK, he's a politician, but he is literally struggling day and night to transform Zimbabwe and end the reign of one of the world's worst dictators), like someone in Iran leading the protests against the regime, like someone in Iraq working to reconcile Sunnis and Shia, like someone in Afghanistan risking reprisals from the Taliban to educate Afghani girls? Like a Chinese human rights activist?

Obama's best move would be to turn down the prize, and ask the committee to reconsider him once he's succeeded in his policy initiatives. But that's not going to happen.

This is an embarrassment that taints the prize beyond repair.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Why Does Iran Want Nuclear Weapons?

Events seem to be coming to a head of some kind in the negotiations between Iran and the international community over Iran's nuclear program. Just today, Iran agreed to send its enriched uranium to Russia for processing, where it will be turned into fuel for a small, non-weaponized, reactor. Of course, as the New York Times points out, "If Iran has secret stockpiles of enriched uranium, the accomplishment would be hollow." Over at Shadow Government, Peter Feaver, my former dissertation advisor, has an excellent post analyzing the possible outcomes of the on-going talks:

How should we measure success in the talks with Iran that begin today? I propose the following sliding scale.

1. Breathtaking, mission accomplished victory: Iran agrees to abandon its nuclear weapons program, submit to a rigorous verification and safeguards regime, and open substantive dialogue on its support for global terrorism. If this is achieved, President Obama would be a shoo-in for the Nobel Peace Prize. Chance of this happening: I would guess near zero.

2. Demonstrable and significant progress: Iran's continued recalcitrance is identified early by all the relevant players, especially Russia and China, and the UN Security Council responds within a few weeks with a substantial ramping up of de facto sanctions on Iran -- sanctions that involve the effective participation of Iran's chief trading partners, the EU, Russia, China, and India. Chance of this happening: I would guess not zero, but maybe just a 1-in-10 chance.

3. No progress beyond what the Bush team already achieved: Iran's continued recalcitrance provokes a range of global rhetorical censure ranging from Chinese tut-tutting to American (or French or British) bluster. The United States unilaterally increases sanctions pressure, but only incrementally because U.S. unilateral leverage over Iran is minimal. Europeans agree to review their options for an incremental increase of sanctions pressure themselves, but do not commit irrevocably to a ramp up in pressure. Russians and Chinese acknowledge that Iran has not been forthcoming, but block further sanctions on the grounds that these would be counterproductive. Chance of this happening: I would guess this is the most likely outcome, so maybe a 4-in-10 chance.

4. Less progress than what the Bush team already achieved: Iran's continued recalcitrance even after the U.S. has played its "hole card" of the evidence of Iranian duplicity concerning the second enrichment site splits the international coalition and key members, likely Russia or China, blame the United States for its mishandling of the negotiations. Chance of this happening: I fear this is the next most-likely-outcome, so maybe a 3-in-10 chance.

5. False progress is achieved: Desperate to show progress, the United States accepts a fig-leaf arrangement, or merely declares the negotiations fruitful when they are not, and so there is neither true progress towards Iranian relinquishment of their nuclear program nor increased leverage imposed on them to make a deal in the next round more likely. Chance of this happening: I don't think this is as likely as some Obama critics think, but there is a non-trivial possibility of this happening, perhaps barely a 2-in-10 chance.

6. U.S. capitulation: Desperate for a deal, the United States follows the advice of some and signs a grand bargain agreement that "resolves" the issue by preemptively conceding to all of Iran's demands, including the demand that the world community stop complaining about the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Chance of this happening: not likely, probably only marginally more likely than outcome #1.
And in an op-ed in yesterday's Boston Globe, Nicholas Burns argues that the revelation of the previously secret uranium enrichment facility near Qom "gives the United States the most important opportunity in years to pressure Tehran to forgo its nuclear weapons ambitions:"

...the United States has significantly greater credibility to take advantage of Iran’s mendacity and to lead an international coalition toward comprehensive sanctions should talks fail. But, Obama must now turn to a more tough-minded policy. He should ratchet up the pressure on the Iranian government by moving from a strategy of engagement to one that combines continued negotiations, tough new inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the threat of much more powerful sanctions.
Prior to any argument about what will or will not result from the current negotiations must be an understanding of why Iran wants nuclear weapons (assuming, contrary to Iran's claims, it is in fact developing its nuclear energy program with the eventual goal of weaponization). Only if we understand Iran's interests and preferences can we even hope to make progress in talks.

So, why would Iran want nuclear weapons? I can think of at least five reasons (none of which are necessarily mutually exclusive): for defense and deterrence, for aggression, to ensure its regional power, as a bargaining chip, and as a key to international status. Any chance of getting Iran to cease developing nuclear weapons depend on which these is the primary motivation. Let's consider each in turn.

Defense/deterrence: It shouldn't come as any surprise that states see nuclear weapons as the only means by which to defend themselves against the United States. Going back to the aftermath of the first Gulf War, an high-ranking Indian military officer who conducted India's after-action report noted that the first lesson of the war should be that if your national interests may run afoul of the US, be sure to get a nuclear weapon. Clearly, Iran looks at what happened to Iraq and Afghanistan and worries about what the US could do to Iran if the US so desired. Iran's national and regional interests obviously are often in conflict (although not necessarily as much as people assume) with those of the US; thus, Iran very well could be seeking nuclear weapons to prevent the US from attempting regime change. It wouldn't even necessarily take a large arsenal to deter the US. War games in which I participated when I worked in the defense industry in the mid-1990s concluded that a credible threat against even a close US ally (like Turkey or Israel) could be enough to deter the US from attacking. If this is the primary reason Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon, there is little the international community will be able to do to prevent it as nuclear capability is essentially an end unto itself. There's no other way Iran could really develop enough military capability to deter the US.

Aggression: As many in Israel seem to fear, its certainly possible that Iran is seeking WMD for aggressive reasons. Perhaps it wants to incinerate Israel, perhaps it merely wants to be able to employ a "keep out" strategy against the US in the event it embarks on a more conventional military adventure. If this is motivating Iran's nuclear ambitions, there is a better chance of getting Iran to cease, unless it simply wants to attack Israel out of some millenarian concern. In that case, Iran would be undeterrable and it's probably impossible to move Iran off of the path towards nukes. But, if Iran sees nuclear weapons as merely another weapon, or as a deterrent cover to launch a conventional war, that suggests some kind of cost-benefit analysis that can be applied to change Iran's assessment. If Iran can be made to see aggression as too costly or as unlikely to succeed, nuclear weapons become less appealing. It doesn't make for a high likelihood of success, but the door isn't shut either.

Regional power: Perhaps Iran was nuclear weapons to cement itself as the dominant power in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Like the aggression option, this implies that while Iran may have a strong interest in acquiring nuclear weapons, it's doing so as a means to a different end. And, like in the aggression option, it's then possible to change Iran's calculations. Not easy, but possible.

Bargaining chip: If Iran's nuclear program is really designed to be used as a bargaining chip, this obviously presents the best scenario for getting Iran to give up the program. The problem in this scenario is, of course, determining what Iran wants.

International status: As India long argued, the key to being accepted as a serious player on the world stage is nuclear weapon status. Perhaps Iran feels slighted and is seeking a nuclear weapon to push its way into the highest levels of international politics. In this scenario, the question becomes whether Iran can get that status and respect without developing nuclear weapons. India certainly never believed it could.

As I see things, I believe Iran's primary motivation is the first one on the list: defense and deterrence. If this is correct, it means both good and bad news. The bad news is that it will probably be impossible to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. If Iran has decided that the best, if not the only, way to ensure its national security is to proliferate, it's hard to imagine that decision being altered by any combination of international sanctions or pressure (especially the kind of sanctions or pressure likely to emerge from a disparate coalition of states with unaligned interests).

The good news, however, is that Iran proliferating may not be such a problem. If Iran's main motivation is defense, proliferating may in fact stabilize the regional situation, as a state not fearful for its continued existence can be a more rational and well-behaved state. Indeed as Thomas P. M. Barnett notes:

if history is any guide, both the United States and Israel are looking at the first real chance for a durable regional security architecture to emerge (now that you should expect a nuclear Saudi Arabia and Turkey to show up at the negotiating table, too). Yes, the hotheads on all sides seem desperate to freak out over this prospect, but, again, read your history: With the exceptions of our allies in Britain and France, the U.S. has looked down upon every rising power to ever get the bomb as constituting a loose canon capable of all manner of nefarious acts and strategic stupidity. And yet we're the only one that's ever pulled the trigger.