Monthly Archives: November 2009

The Fiction at the Heart of Obama’s Afghan Surge

As he prepares his Tuesday speech to present Americans with his plan to increase troops in Afghanistan, the US president Barack Obama could be forgiven for feeling like the economist in the old joke that finds him marooned on a desert island along with an engineer, a chemist and hundreds of cans of food but no way of opening them. The engineer gets to work trying to fashion tools for the job; the chemist tries combinations of salt water and sun to get the tins to rust. Having had no luck, they ask the economist to lend the insights of his profession. His answer: “Assume a can opener…”

The “can opener” in Obama’s Afghanistan exit strategy is the Afghan security forces. Continue reading

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When Obama Meets His Banker

An assortment of European leaders gathered last week at a tepid commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Twenty years ago the collapse of communism was hailed as the final triumph of western liberal democracy, which would sweep aside the vestiges of authoritarianism everywhere. So the downbeat tenor of this year’s anniversary was hardly surprising, since it hasn’t quite worked out that way: not only has authoritarianism proven remarkably resilient, but the western economies have suffered a near cataclysmic collapse as a result of allowing their bankers too much freedom and creativity.

Barack Obama didn’t go to Berlin, but this week he visits China – arguably the big winner from the global economic changes that began in earnest in 1989. China certainly passed through its own dramatic convulsion in 1989 in Tiananmen Square, but that anniversary went largely unmarked in June. Nor should anyone expect that Mr Obama will bring it up; or, for that matter, the execution last week of nine Uighurs accused of fomenting deadly protests in Xinjiang this year. Telling your bank manager to stop beating his wife is hardly prudent when you’re running an $800 billion overdraft.

The twist, two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is that most of the countries thus liberated from authoritarian one-party rule are currently struggling to emerge from recession, while China – with a self-appointed ruling party that ruthlessly defends its monopoly on power – has been such a rip-roaring capitalist success that it feels compelled to protect its investment in the US by advising the Obama administration to rein in deficit spending. History, it seems, has a wicked sense of humour.
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Obama Faces the Key Afghan War Myth

President Obama’s plain-speaking Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, on Nov. 12 summed up the Administration’s Afghan dilemma in a single question: “How do we signal resolve and at the same time signal to the Afghans and the American people that this is not open-ended?” The fact that there’s no good answer explains the Administration’s hesitation in committing more troops to the fight. Indeed, the objectives cited by Gates may function at cross-purposes.

Signaling America’s resolve to prevail is essential, as Gates notes, because as long as Afghans and others in the region believe the U.S. military’s presence in Afghanistan is finite, they’ll hedge their bets. And hedged bets right now work in the Taliban’s favor because, as General Stanley McChrystal has warned, it is the insurgents who have the momentum.

The Taliban knows that time is the indispensable ally of the indigenous insurgent facing a foreign army… Given the limits of U.S. control on the ground and the expectation that, sooner or later, like the Russians, the Americans will leave, many ordinary Afghans see little incentive to risk their lives in supporting the U.S. mission.
The calculations of ordinary Afghans could change, of course, if they believed the U.S. was there to stay and had the will and capability to prevail. But, as Gates also notes, the U.S. military is not in Afghanistan to stay, and Obama is under growing domestic political pressure to find an exit strategy from a costly war whose importance to U.S. national security has grown murky.

The simple answer to the Administration’s dilemma, in the minds of many in Washington, is to train and equip Afghans to do the job themselves. Obama reportedly rejected all four options offered by his national-security staff on Nov. 11 … because they failed to make clear how and when responsibility for the war would be transferred to Afghan forces. By doing so, Obama may have pointed to the elephant in the room. On present indications, the Afghan forces are unlikely anytime in the near future to be ready and willing to take over the fight against the Taliban.
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Does Obama Have a Mideast Plan B?

It’s hardly surprising that President Barack Obama chose to schedule a White House visit by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the dead of night on Monday, because right now Obama has little to show for his 10-month effort to revive a Middle East peace process. The Israeli leader’s refusal to abide by Washington’s demand for a complete freeze of settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — and the Palestinians’ refusal to enter talks without one — has left the Obama Administration’s plans in tatters, with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas threatening to resign and pull the plug on the PA and the peace process of which it forms a part.

Netanyahu insists that Israel is ready for unconditional talks; he blames the stalemate on the Palestinians for making the settlement freeze a precondition. But Netanyahu also refuses to accept that such talks be directed toward establishing a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital — and that’s the minimum the Palestinians are prepared to accept. Abbas, meanwhile, feels betrayed that the Obama Administration has backed down from its own insistence that Israel halt construction in occupied territory. That, say the Palestinians, is clear evidence that Washington won’t pressure Israel to do things it’s not willing to do, and that it’s therefore pointless to go through the motions of yet another series of negotiations with an Israeli government more hawkish than its predecessors. (See pictures of Obama’s overseas trips.)

Obama had prioritized resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But his demands — of a complete settlement freeze by Israel and reciprocal gestures toward normalizing ties with Israel by Arab governments — has been rejected on both sides. And while no recent Administration has had much success in this realm, veterans of the peace process concur that the President’s initial approach was flawed. It may have even done more harm than good, they argue, by raising expectations that could not be met, leaving both sides mistrustful of Washington’s intentions and creating a situation where either Netanyahu or Abbas would be painted into a corner. (That turned out to be Abbas, after Netanyahu rejected Obama’s demands.) Continue reading

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Who Lost Fatah?

‘Who lost China?” was the battle cry of a witch-hunt conducted in the US State Department following the 1949 victory of Mao Zedong’s communists. The department’s “China hands”, critics charged, had been woefully ignorant of the dynamics at work on the ground in China after the Second World War, and undermined the US ally Chiang Kai-shek. While the purge that followed is unlikely to be repeated, Washington may soon be asking itself, albeit quietly, “Who lost Fatah?”

Last week’s announcement by the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas that he would not seek re-election next January was a warning to the Obama administration, which had put Mr Abbas in an untenable position. Having retreated from its own demand that Israel halt all construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Washington expected Mr Abbas to open talks with the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu without conditions.

For the Palestinians, however, the settlement-freeze demand was a test of Mr Obama’s willingness to pressure the Israelis into taking steps they won’t take by choice. Mr Abbas knows that Mr Netanyahu, if it were up to him, would not yield to a viable, independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. If the US is not prepared to pressure Israel, negotiations would not only be fruitless, they would actually help sustain a reality that is relatively comfortable for the Israelis but intolerable for the Palestinians…

…The sad truth dawning on Ramallah, now, is that there will be no salvation from Washington. Not now, possibly not ever. A sad truth, perhaps, but the kind that can set free those who recognise it. In the shocked aftermath of the 1967 war, Fatah took the lead in breaking the Palestine Liberation Organisation free of the tutelage of the Arab League, in a declaration of independence that put their fate in their own hands rather than relying on Arab armies to defeat Israel. Today, they face a similar challenge – declaring independence from Washington and once again taking their fate into their own hands.
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Hell No, We Wouldn’t Go

Gavin Evans: The natural order of politics is that defunct organisations are bit like failed marriages: they just don’t get celebrated. Not so South Africa’s End Conscription Campaign Continue reading

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Mideast Failure Looms for Obama

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The Obama Administration’s bid to relaunch an Israeli-Palestinian peace process is falling apart faster than you can say settlement freeze — in no small part because President Obama began his effort by saying “settlement freeze.” On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton found herself struggling to persuade skeptical Arab foreign ministers to see the silver lining in Israel’s “no, but” answer to the U.S. demand that Israel halt all construction in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. At least Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was offering to restrain settlement activity, Clinton argued, but Arab leaders, whom Obama had hoped would make reciprocal gestures towards normalization of ties with Israel, were not buying. For Arab League secretary Amr Moussa, Clinton’s message offered a grim outlook for the Administration’s peace efforts: “I still wait until we have our meetings and decide what we are going to do,” Moussa reportedly said Monday in Morocco, where Clinton was meeting with Arab leaders. “But failure is in the atmosphere all over.”

Asking the Arab states to accept Israel’s offer to simply slow down construction in the West Bank and its refusal to stop building and demolishing Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem — after President Obama publicly and repeatedly demanded it — has battered the Administration’s credibility in Arab capitals. And Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated on Monday his refusal to heed Washington’s call to begin negotiating with Netanyahu in the absence of a settlement freeze. Abbas has promised his public and his own Fatah movement, which is deeply skeptical of the prospects for dealing with Israel’s current hawkish government, that he won’t return to the table until Netanyahu has signaled his bona fides by halting all construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu has used the Palestinian refusal to engage in unconditional talks as an opportunity to blame them for the impasse in solving the conflict, noting that Abbas spent last year in talks over a two-state deal with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert without ever mentioning a settlement freeze. Why are the Palestinians suddenly making such a fuss about a settlement freeze now, the Israelis ask, as if this signifies a hidden agenda. The Obama Administration appeared to take Netanyahu’s side last weekend, pressing the Palestinians to drop the precondition for talking. But the Palestinians point out that they weren’t the only ones raising the issue: the Obama Administration, too, had issued an unambiguous demand that Israel halt all construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in line with the 2002 road map. Continue reading

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Why an Election Couldn’t Fix Afghanistan

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Little over a week ago, Senator John Kerry was hailed for his diplomatic success in Kabul, where he cajoled President Hamid Karzai into accepting a runoff in the disputed Afghan election. But Sunday’s withdrawal from the race by Karzai’s challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, rendered Kerry’s achievement moot. Moreover, it was an outcome the U.S. had come around to rooting for.

The fact that U.S. officials in Kabul had pivoted within a matter of days from insisting that a runoff be held to pressing for it to be canceled highlighted the problem with the U.S.’s obsession on staging elections in conflict zones. Such elections, though often held up (with the U.S. domestic political audience in mind) as examples of democracy’s triumph, can actually undermine U.S. goals in those situations. Contrary to the Obama Administration’s spin, resolving the dispute over the fraudulent ballots in Afghanistan’s August election was never the key to determining whether to send more U.S. troops into the country. In fact, the runoff election was never going to strengthen the legitimacy of the resulting government; it was always more likely to further weaken it.
(See pictures of the presidential election in Afghanistan.)

Elections typically only resolve a conflict when the major parties to that conflict have accepted the balloting and its ground rules as the basis for a solution. And that was no more the case in Afghanistan today than it was in the U.S. in 1864, when a presidential election was held during the Civil War. Nobody imagined that the electoral contest between President Abraham Lincoln and General George B. McClellan was the country’s primary political battle; nor was the contest between Karzai and Abdullah the key conflict in Afghanistan. Instead, Afghanistan is in the grip of a civil war that pits a U.S.-backed political establishment, which includes both Karzai and Abdullah, against the Taliban.

In that light, the main legitimacy problem with the August vote was not the 1 million–plus fake votes that were cast mostly for Karzai but the 12 million–plus votes claimed by the Taliban. No one actually voted for the Taliban, of course, and its call for a boycott of the poll was enforced by threat of death. But whether out of fear, political choice or sheer indifference, 12 million voters — representing 70% of the electorate, compared with just 30% in 2004 — stayed away from the ballot stations. A runoff election was expected to see an even smaller turnout. Continue reading

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Why the Iran Nuclear Deal Stalled

The surest sign yet that the Iranian nuclear deal is in deep trouble is its endorsement by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

“A positive first step,” Mr Netanyahu called the deal. This was in marked contrast to his own defence minister, Ehud Barak, who complained earlier that the agreement accorded Iran “legitimisation for enriching uranium for civilian purposes on its soil, contrary to the understanding that those negotiating with it have about its real plans”.

Mr Barak and Mr Netanyahu march in lockstep when it comes to Iran. The reason for their apparent disagreement is simple. Mr Barak dismissed the proposed deal when it looked as if Iran might accept it. Mr Netanyahu’s approval came only after Iran’s response was interpreted by the western powers as a “no”.

The proposed deal used Iran’s request for fuel to power a medical research reactor in Tehran as an opportunity to address western concerns over Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium, which could produce enough material for a single crude bomb at some point in the future. The Vienna agreement required that Iran send around three-quarters of its own stockpile to Russia and France for processing into fuel that cannot easily be weaponised.

The breakdown arose precisely because the two sides remain committed to mutually exclusive objectives. The more hawkish elements in the western camp, along with Israel, insist that Iran cannot be allowed to continue enriching its remaining uranium, even for energy purposes, because this would give it the means to move quickly to build a bomb. Tehran, on the other hand, saw the agreement as tacit acceptance of Iran’s right to enrichment. So when Mr Netanyahu spoke of a “first step”, he meant a first step towards ending all enrichment in Iran – which is what Iran feared. Continue reading

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