Friday, July 31, 2009

Another Afghanistan Review? Let's Make a Decision, People

We are in the midst of, by my count, the fifth review of our Afghanistan (or Afghanistan and Pakistan) strategy this year alone, this one directed by General McChrystal, and featuring some of the top counterinsurgency experts from inside the Beltway. Have any of them resulted in an actual new strategy? Not killing civilians is a good idea, but it's not a strategy. Counterinsurgency isn't even a strategy, it's an approach to accomplishing a strategy.
The problem with all these reviews is that they don't start in the right place: the top. The president, with the help of his top advisers needs to articulate a vision for Afghanistan, and then his advisers can decide how best to accomplish that goal. Is the goal killing or capturing al-Qaeda's top leaders? Preventing the Taliban from regaining control of the country? Establishing Afghanistan as a market-driven democracy?
Many of the advisers who participated in the most recent review are fairly pessimistic. Andrew Exum states that "winning in Afghanistan will be really, really difficult." No doubt that's true, but it become a lot easier if we define winning first. Stephen Biddle asks if the whole endeavor is worth it. Judah Grunstein (who was not involved in the review) does him one better, asking if we would enter Afghanistan now to accomplish those goals if we were not already there. Anthony Cordesman was one of the first to report that McChrystal needs more troops in Afghanistan. That may be the case, but what will he do with them, and what will they be trying to accomplish?
The President has a lot on his plate right now, but Afghanistan is a situation where leadership is desperately needed from the top. As the many reviews and many reviewers have shown and argued, we can go in several different directions. The President needs to pick one before any of the reviews will mean anything, otherwise we're all just treading water.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Clarification on India's Nuclear Submarine

I've received comments from both friends and strangers about my post on India's new nuclear submarine, so allow me to clarify a few points.
First, I am totally in favor of India's right to defend itself. Whether this third leg of its nuclear triad is aimed at deterring Pakistan or China, it is clearly intended as a second-strike capability, especially given India's proclaimed no-first-use nuclear doctrine.
My argument is that launching its nuclear submarine now, with great fanfare, has the potential to make India less secure, since Pakistan will clearly become even more nervous and paranoid (Pakistan said the Indian sub is "detrimental to regional peace and security" you say?) and be less likely to focus on the biggest threat to both Pakistan and India at the moment, the militants. If any bystander were asked to come up with India's enemy she would name Pakistan, so how is calling a submarine the "destroyer of enemies" supposed to sound to Pakistan? Why not the INS Peacemaker? The INS Gandhi? Although it is intended as a second strike, it can hit from 700 km away with either conventional or nuclear K-15 missiles. It's not a zero-sum game; Indians need to think how they would react if they were Pakistan, and make decisions accordingly.
Second, I too applaud India's restraint in (not) responding to the Mumbai attacks. Previous Indian administrations would have had, at a minimum, massive military build-ups, and some of my friends and colleagues could have written a trilogy of books on India-Pakistan crises (together with the 1999 Kargil crisis and the 2001-2 standoff). Again, my point was to call for more restraint, and the wisdom that should help facilitate a peaceful rise to India's place as a great regional and someday world power. Acting like an 800-pound gorilla, as some previous U.S. administrations have demonstrated, only makes everyone go bananas. Far better to remain wise, prudent, and restrained, and increase your power and capabilities softly, humbly, and with carefully calculated timing.

Monday, July 27, 2009

India Launches a "Non-Aggressive" Nuclear Submarine

Over the weekend India launched its first domestically-built nuclear-powered submarine, one capable of carrying K-15 ballistic missiles with a range of at least 700km.
Certainly the INS Arihant (or "Destroyer of Enemies") represents a technological breakthrough for India, but why launch it now, just as peace talks with Pakistan are resuming over Kashmir? Pakistanis are paranoid enough about India; one Pakistani journalist, Ahmed Quraishi, commented on one of my posts that India was paying Baitullah Mehsud to attack Pakistani nuclear facilities so that they would look vulnerable and the United States would pressure Pakistan to get rid of them. Following the old rule that if you go out of your way to say what something is not, it usually is that ("it's not your father's Oldsmobile"), Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated that "We don't have any aggressive designs nor do we seek to threaten anyone."
India needs to be smart as it seeks to become a great power. The capability to build nuclear-powered submarines puts it in a league with the United States, Russia, France, Great Britain, and China. It is a rising power both in the region and the world, but its inferiority complex regarding Pakistan is holding it back and making it look petty. Just as Pakistan needs to acknowledge that its biggest threat is the militants, India needs to recognize that the only thing it has to fear from Pakistan are Mumbai-style attacks from militants, and the more it threatens Pakistan the less resources Pakistan will be willing to spend on fighting those same militants, be they LeT or Taliban.
Part of being a great power is showing restraint, wisdom, and timing. Those are lessons India has yet to learn.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Seth Jones' Book: It's All Been Said Before

Editor's Note: the following is a guest post from my colleague, Haley Gallagher on an event for Seth Jones' new book In the Graveyard of Empires. The views expressed are her own.

After attending Seth Jones’ presentation of his new book, In the Graveyard of Empires, I wouldn’t quite give him the glowing praise supported by the Times.

For one thing, Jones didn’t illuminate anything that we South Asianists haven’t pondered before. You mean the U.S. should address the massive corruption, decentralization of Afghani politics, and engagement of the Pakistani military and civilian leaders? You don’t say.

To his first point, corruption at the national and local levels exists throughout all of South Asia. We have to ask ourselves why it’s so entrenched in these societies and how we work to minimize it? It seems to me that it’s due to the lack of revenue, resources and the law. If the United States can work at the grassroots level to promote real economic development and access to social services that is better than what the insurgents or foreign Islamic Aid agencies are providing, we’ll hopefully rebuild our trust and reputation among the Afghani people.

To his second point, most development and South Asia policy experts are aware of the level of decentralization that exists throughout Afghanistan. We all realize the importance, historical relevance and complexity of the clan and tribal structure within Afghanistan’s political system. We know that to win a war, we must foster strong tribal relationships and win their support. This cannot be done from the compound in Kabul, however. Nor should the United States rely solely on police, military or intelligence forces to win hearts and minds. The United States needs to promote good governance at the grassroots level within an Afghan context and their existing political structures. In addition to grassroots diplomacy, the United States should actively engage and support civil society and NGOs working throughout Afghanistan.

To Jones’ third point, no one has thought about Afghanistan in isolation from the rest of the region. We all know that Pakistan and India are other big players who can serve a vital role in finding and snuffing out militant groups. The geopolitics at play, however, are of great consequence. Many of Washington’s challenges in Pakistan and Afghanistan are linked, and so it is correct and overdue that the United States should formulate a strategy to address the region as a whole.

Back in April, the Council on Foreign Relations released a policy paper response to the new U.S. Strategy for South Asia, “From AfPak to PakAf.” In it, Daniel Markey suggests that “a policy of inducement—through financial, technical and diplomatic assistance—is the best means to shift the strategic calculations of influential Pakistanis and bolster moderates who share basic U.S. interests.” He also suggests that the United States should support long-term development assistance in Afghanistan, with the capacity and mandate to support and expand local, community-based development projects. I couldn’t agree more. As we’ve recently witnessed with the Iranian election, change oftentimes begins from the bottom up.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Too Dumb to Quit Reading Tom Friedman

Long-time readers will know I don't habitually read Thomas Friedman's columns, but enough Twitter comments ("@joshuafoust Is Tom Friedman contractually obligated to write like a 6 year old?") convinced me it was not one of his five normal recycled subjects and made me go read it. He does use the usual Friedman literary device of taking one snapshot event and extrapolating broadly about the world based on that. In this case, he sucks up to the troops in Afghanistan (commandment 7 of Walt's ten commandments for policy wonks) and talks about how much combat experience they have and expertise in the Middle East (I guess Afghanistan is the Middle East now in Friedman's eyes) they have. Despite all this he says we are overextended in Afghanistan and the mission may ultimately be unachievable.
This comes on the same day the Times has a front page article "Pakistan Objects to U.S. Plan for Afghan War." This is not the usual objections Pakistan raises in public after drone attacks to placate their people while secretly asking the United States for more drone strikes, but rather concerns that an increased level of U.S. and NATO troops and actions in Afghanistan will drive more Taliban and other militants into Pakistan, especially Baluchistan, and that Pakistan won't have enough troops to fight the militants in multiple locations and deal with their "main" threat, India.
Which brings us to the Times' recent glowing review of Seth Jones' new book In the Graveyard of Empires. (note, I haven't read the book yet, but will be attending a book release event tomorrow. I'll provide an update if my opinion changes). Jones is a good scholar who has always made good points and interesting presentations at conferences I've attended, but I wouldn't classify the recommendations in the book the way the Times does as "useful." Our window for success was 2006? So what do we do now? We have to persuade Pakistan that the militants are a bigger threat to them than India? Wow, thanks. We should fight corruption in Afghanistan and learn to understand the decentralized nature of Afghani government, politics, and culture? You don't say.
Which brings us full circle to Friedman. He says our military is experienced, but overstretched; the column was published the same week as Secretary Gates announced he was further increasing the size of the Army. Some of our officers may have done six deployments, and therefore presumably know both Jones' lessons and Friedman's extrapolated tactical maxims, but I quickly learned at the Naval Postgraduate School that when a student started off a question with "When I was leading a company of Marines in Fallujah..." it meant he hadn't done the reading for the class. The real questions are strategic, and our civilian leaders have decided on a full counterinsurgency campaign. Time and effort continue to be needed for success, but our top decision makers do need to make the strategic decisions on how long to stay.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Drinking From the Fire Hose: U.S.-India 3.0

Secretary of State Clinton is in India this week and announced, as expected, that relations with India are a priority and are going to be ramped up and become less formal; "U.S-India 3.0" is how Clinton described it.
MORE attention? That's great, but U.S. policymakers need to move more slowly. Perhaps the less formal relations will improve the process, but India, despite a huge population, has a limited number of bureaucrats and can make progress on only so many issues at a time. The agenda for Clinton's trip included everything from climate change (where India pushed back), education, food security, nuclear energy, and space cooperation. Wow. No wonder a deal on end-use monitoring is still being negotiated at the last minute--South Block (the equivalent of India's State Department/Foggy Bottom) must have been working day and night just to read the briefings and proposals on all the other issues. The trip and the deals have barely made news here in the States, whereas in India they are front page news. The United States needs a little patience. It's not easy to drink from the Foggy Bottom fire hose.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

123 AND 126? Mrs. Clinton Goes to Delhi

As I've acknowledged before, one of the few major foreign policy successes the Bush Administration can be given credit for is having taken the ball they were given by President Clinton's visit to India in 2000 and running with it, fast. The Bush Administration pushed the U.S.-India relationship far and fast, and now Secretary of State Clinton is headed to India to put the cherry on top of potentially two big agreements.
One of the key quotes from a participant at my 2007 U.S.-India track-two dialogue was "after 123 comes 126," meaning after the 123 nuclear waiver would come the potential sale of 126 F-16's to India. Now the Obama Administration is in a place to push both pieces over the goal line. The 123 waiver actually passed last year, but rumor has it that during this visit India will announce at least two nuclear power plant sites reserved for U.S. energy companies. That is big news, since both French and Russian companies already have deals in place.
The second big piece is the possible announcement of an end-use monitoring agreement, allowing the United States to start selling higher technology military equipment, like F-16's, to India. If they have come up with an agreement that would be quite a coup.
Work remains to be done. The United States and India need to get closer together on climate change, the Proliferation Security Initiative, potentially Kashmir, and nonproliferation discussions for next year. The Obama Administration should be thankful it was set up for success, proud of itself for completing the agreements, and not rest on its laurels.

CIA's Assassination Squads

I think the headline of this LA Times article on the CIA's recently-scrapped attempt to form a team to assassinate terrorist leaders says it all: "CIA was a long way from Jason Bourne." More details are still coming out, but this article has the best summary I've read so far.
According to current and former U.S. intelligence officials, the CIA spent seven years trying to assemble teams capable of killing the world's most wanted terrorists but could never find a formula that worked.
This is yet another example of the intelligence community focusing too much on technology and not enough on people. This applies not just to hit squads but also to intelligence gathering. Technology is great, and making some forms of intelligence gathering obselete (I've heard the story that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff heard that Israel had entered the Gaza Strip via Twitter within five minutes, and it took military intelligence over a day to confirm it), but it can never tell you what somebody is thinking, or be able to stand right next to them in a cave in Waziristan. The intelligence community needs to accelerate the process of hiring more people capable of going around the world and blending in, with good language and cultural skills.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Catch-Up Thoughts

Those of you following me on Twitter will know I was out in California for a few days and not posting, so here are my brief thoughts on some of the recent events. I know you all missed my commentary.
  • The CIA developed an assassination squad to go after al-Qaeda leadership... and it failed to have any successes that we know about and proved far more difficult than in James Bond movies. Neither of those facts is surprising. In fact I would be shocked if the CIA didn't still have a similar squad with similar goals. As other commenters have pointed out, the difference between firing missiles from drones and potentially firing bullets from sniper teams is mostly semantic, except that the drones seem to have a lot more collateral damage--that and the drones have actually been used. Nor is it shocking that Darth Cheney kept the program a secret from Congress. That fact bothers me more. Congress, or the Intelligence committees or the Gang of Eight at a bare minimum, should be kept appraised of all programs, especially the controversial ones. That's why we have checks and balances in our government.
  • Secretary of State Clinton has ordered the first Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review (QDDR). Great! We need to know what we are doing, and giving, have a better idea of what is going where and why, and hopefully some oversight. I'll give you a preview of the report: 1) we need a director for USAID, 2) we don't have enough civilian experts on hand to plan much less execute a "civilian surge" in a place like Afghanistan. In the Pentagon the QDR sets the tone and direction for the Department of Defense; we'll see if the QDDR has the same weight and budget power for State and the other agencies involved with foreign aid and development.
  • President Obama and Russian President Medvedev signed a Joint Understanding to a new START arms control treaty. The Joint Understanding is good progress, but it is really laying a foundation for more hard work to be done between now and December. By then hopefully the Nuclear Posture Review will be complete, satisfying certain Republican Senators, and real arms reductions can be made, hopefully down to the 1000-1200 range, although I would like to see us get even lower.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Predator Drone Groundhog Day

Just once I'd like to wake up, open the Washington Post, and read "Predator drone hits what it was aiming at in Pakistan." Today a drone fired six missiles into a South Waziristan militant training camp in an effort to kill Baitullah Mehsud, but killing six militants. Yesterday a drone fired two missiles and killed 12-16 militants in a training camp in South Waziristan in an effort to kill Mehsud. Sound familiar? For those keeping score at home, that's three drone strikes in four days, and at least the 26th of the year. Who taught us how to shoot, the evil henchmen from a James Bond movie?
Not that I'm at all arguing against striking terrorist camps. But the Pakistani military is doing just fine with both its air and ground campaigns. Training camps are fairly stationary and provide good targets for the Pakistani Air Force. We should be far more selective with our drone strikes in order to actually hit high value targets like Mehsud, not places where he might be or just was.

Monday, July 6, 2009


If John Nagl had a nickel for every time a news story mentioned the counterinsurgency concept of clear and hold, I suspect the news on Thursday of U.S. Marines making a "major push" into the Southern Afghanistan province of Helmand would have financed CNAS for quite some time. Now how about the third part of the counterinsurgency triad, build? Various experts have acknowledged that the much-hyped "civilian surge" won't be coming to Afghanistan, since the experts needed to staff it do not exist. Will that piece simply be forgotten? Improvised by the military? I'd like to hear more about that part of the strategy.
The same thing can be asked on the other side of the border. Pakistani troops have done a fairly good job on the clear stage in Swat, and are hoping the hold stage takes care of itself as it moves on to South Waziristan. Clear is the "fun" part for militaries (or as much fun as counterinsurgency can be); fighting an enemy, however elusive, is what the military signed up to do. Hold is less fun, since it is difficult and defensive, sitting there as targets for guerrilla attacks. Pakistan seems to be assuming that the United States, and $1.5 billion a year or more, will take care of the build phase in Swat and, presumably, South Waziristan. Given the plans for Helmand province, I'll believe it when I see it.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Jones Visits AfPak (+ India)

Normally I praise former President George W. Bush only slightly more often than Kieth Olbermann (deservedly so; the very thin document produced in late 2008 on "The Accomplishments of the Bush Administration" makes hilarious dramatic reading while enjoying adult beverages with a few friends), but his administration did a good job of improving relations with India. Sort of.
I often get asked my opinion of the U.S.-India nuclear deal. I tell people it depends on which half of my brain you're asking. The nonproliferation side says it's horrible; we didn't get anything, even a testing moratorium, and set a terrible precedent. The South Asia-loving side of my brain says the Bush Administration did a good job of winning Indian support by trading something now for a "player-to-be-named-later." Not a specific card to trade in, because I don't believe India is an automatic ally we have bought, but the effort we put into getting the Deal through has paid big dividends in terms of U.S. soft power in India.
Apparently the Obama Administration agrees. National Security Advisor General James Jones visited India (after a stop in Pakistan) and met with Indian National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan, saying he hoped to build on the successes of the Bush Administration. It doesn't seem that Jones was forceful during his meetings in either Pakistan or India. He did not pressure India to re-start negotiations on Kashmir. Oddly, many Pakistani bloggers and Twitterers seem to believe that Jones' visit was designed to negotiate a massive deployment of Indian troops into Afghanistan.
Many of the best South Asia hands from the Bush Administration are still around, including Donald Camp advising on India. I'm glad the Obama Administration continues to recognize good people and build on progress made by the other party.

Sherman's March to the Durand Line

As the Pakistani military blasts away the last few objects in Swat and heavily bombs South Waziristan in order to soften it up for an invasion designed to capture or kill Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, some experts are questioning Pakistan's blunt object approach to countering the Taliban. The debate also goes on as to how aggressive the United States should be with its drones, particularly following the strike--intended for Mehsud--that killed scores of people at a funeral last week.
Friend of the Blog Chris Fair writes in the Wall Street Journal Asia that more counter-Taliban aid should be spent on Pakistan's police force and less on its military. While I agree that the police would be very appropriate as a bigger player and a worthy recipient of more aid, I think this one is on the shoulders of the military. But they, like the United States, need to keep in mind that the goal is to protect the population and prevent them from opposing our actions rather than simply leaving a trail of scorched earth hopefully leading to Mehsud.
Despite reports that the Taliban in Swat are shaving their beards and playing possum, I continue to thing that the recent attacks on both military/government targets and on civilians are signs of an increasingly desperate Taliban. Mehsud's followers are killing anyone suspected of cooperating with the government in South Waziristan. That's not likely to make people more willing to come forward, but it's not likely to win him any friends among the local population either. Mao said a revolutionary should move among the people like a fish in water. Increased violence against the population does not do that. A recent poll supports my idea, showing that most Pakistanis oppose the Taliban and al-Qaeda and support the governments efforts to fight the "miscreants."
As for drone attacks, I think they should continue, but only for high value targets likely to be driven out by the Pakistani offensive. Killing Mehsud would be a remarkable success, bu the consequences of missing--especially when 65 other people are collateral damage--need to be taken into account as well.