Thursday, March 26, 2009

Here, There, Everywhere...

Programming Note (this post will be kept at the top of the page going forward):

For those looking to keep track of my blog-related output, I also write at Obsidian Wings, American Footprints and am Senior Editor at The Progressive Realist - not to mention more sporadic posting at Newshoggers. Some, but not all, of the pieces posted at Obsidian Wings and American Footprints are cross-posted here so to my legion of fans handful of relations, you may need to travel on occasion to catch up with my wandering self.

Donny, You're Out of Your Element

Shocked, shocked I tell you:

The Taliban’s widening campaign in southern Afghanistan is made possible in part by direct support from operatives in Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, despite Pakistani government promises to sever ties to militant groups fighting in Afghanistan, according to American government officials.

The support consists of money, military supplies and strategic planning guidance to Taliban commanders who are gearing up to confront the international force in Afghanistan that will soon include some 17,000 American reinforcements.

Support for the Taliban, as well as other militant groups, is coordinated by operatives inside the shadowy S Wing of Pakistan’s spy service, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, the officials said. There is even evidence that ISI operatives meet regularly with Taliban commanders to discuss whether to intensify or scale back violence before the Afghan elections.

Details of the ISI’s continuing ties to militant groups were described by a half-dozen American, Pakistani and other security officials during recent interviews in Washington and the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. All requested anonymity because they were discussing classified and sensitive intelligence information.

The American officials said proof of the ties between the Taliban and Pakistani spies came from electronic surveillance and trusted informants. The Pakistani officials interviewed said that they had firsthand knowledge of the connections, though they denied that the ties were strengthening the insurgency.

American officials have complained for more than a year about the ISI’s support to groups like the Taliban. But the new details reveal that the spy agency is aiding a broader array of militant networks with more diverse types of support than was previously known — even months after Pakistani officials said that the days of the ISI’s playing a “double game” had ended.

Afghanistan is directly adjacent to Pakistan. On the other hand, Afghanistan is half a world away from the United States. Powerful elements in the Pakistani government have long cultivated allies, proxies and influence in Afghanistan - which is viewed as a necessary ally, and strategic redoubt, given its proximity and Pakistan's ongoing conflicts with India.

After the toppling of the Taliban-led government (which had friendly relations with Pakistan), India has greatly enhanced its presence Afghanistan, developing strong ties to the Karzai government, complete with several million dollars worth of aid. Those same powerful Pakistani elements are not about to abandon their strategic objective of establishing influence in Afghanistan just because the United States is backing other factions, especially given India's evolving position and relations with those US-backed groups.

Long after we're gone from Afghanistan, Pakistan will still be its neighbor, India will still be Pakistan's regional rival and Pakistan will still be seeking influence in Afghanistan to balance its position with India. In the meantime, the Pakistani government will make official statements to the effect that no portion of its fragmented structure supports Afghan militants comprising the insurgency, despite the reality of the situation.

Some factions within Pakistan's government might sincerely want to sever those relations, but they lack the ability to exert control over the totality of Pakistan's government, and pushing too hard in such a direction will leave them vulnerable - both politically and, literally, to assassination. Expecting them to make such a push mostly at our behest is, in a word, unrealistic. And so the show will go on.

The only questions, really, are how much time and money we want to waste deluding ourselves about Pakistan's interests, and whether or not we can figure out a way to placate Pakistan while also convincing its potential proxies to sever ties to al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Eliminating, or containing, al-Qaeda's presence should be the overriding goal, not undertaking a massively expensive and time consuming nation building exercise when at the end of the day, the sand castles we erect in a foreign culture on the other side of the globe will likely be washed away by prevailing regional ebbs and flows.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

My Occupation's Known, but Not Why I Occupy

In a recent post, I took issue with Andrew Exum's claim that counterinsurgency (COIN) practitioners are reluctant to endorse undertaking COIN-based missions - a skepticism that stems from their first hand knowledge of the enormous costs and decades-long timetables involved, and of the uncertainty of achieving successful outcomes despite the considerable investments. As Fester recently wrote at Newshoggers:

COIN today promises the same type of inputs [as efforts in Vietnam and Algeria] --- ten to twenty year wars, operational costs of one to two points of annual GDP at a time of structural deficits and domestic fiscal crisis --- with the same type of outcomes --- weak, client states in need of continual support in secondary or tertiary areas of interest.

What's not to love? While Exum is perhaps accurate in describing the position held by most COIN gurus with respect to new missions calling for the use of the military, many of the most prominent COIN practitioners tend to show a willingness - enthusiasm even - for applying COIN to ongoing military engagements such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here, Exum might chide me for confusing "operational doctrine with strategy": COIN doctrine merely informs as to the best methods to conduct a military engagement, not whether or not the engagement makes sense/is worth it from a strategic point of view. Thus, COIN practitioners are telling us how to best conduct our current operations, not whether or not it's strategically wise to continue those operations. However, in practice, the majority of COIN experts are rarely, if ever, sticking to the strictly "operational" side of that equation.

For example, in that earlier post, I linked to a CNAS report written by four of the leading COIN scholars arguing why a 5-10 year military/diplomatic commitment in Afghanistan was necessary. It wasn't about operational doctrine - it was a strategic argument for maintaining a military presence in Afghanistan and warning of the outcomes if their plan is not followed.

In that same post, I examined certain claims made by one of the CNAS report's authors - David Kilcullen - in response to Andrew Bacevich's critique of Kilcullen's book, The Accidental Guerilla. In defense of that book, Kilcullen pointed out that he warned that pursuing military intervention as counterterrorism policy "plays into the hands of the[e] [al-Qaeda] exhaustion strategy" that is designed to bleed us of resources by getting us to overreact by using military force in response to terrorist attacks/threats. Further, in response to Bacevich's claims to the contrary, Kilcullen wrote in favor of "containment strategy" over attempts by the US to transform other societies.

Yet those concerns are not evident in Kilcullen's counsel as to the ideal way forward in Afghanistan now. The Kilcullen who took umbrage with Bacevich's review seems to be at odds with the Kilcullen who co-wrote the January CNAS report which happens to bear the title: "Tell Me Why We’re There? Enduring Interests in Afghanistan (and Pakistan)." Furthermore, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in early February, Kilcullen staked out an even more ambitious agenda, with a longer timeline, than that set forth in the aforementioned CNAS report:

We need to do four things – what we might call “essential strategic tasks” – to succeed in Afghanistan. We need to preventthe re-emergence of an Al Qaeda sanctuary that could lead to another 9/11. We need to protect Afghanistan from a range of security threats including the Taliban insurgency, terrorism, narcotics, misrule and corruption. We need to build sustainable and accountable state institutions (at the central, provincial and local level) and a resilient civil society. Then we can begin a phased hand-off to Afghan institutions that can survive without permanent international assistance [ed note: Oh is that all!!!]. We might summarize this approach as “Prevent, Protect, Build, Hand-Off”. Let’s call it “Option A”.

Given enough time, resources and political commitment, Option A is definitely workable. But we need to be honest about how long it will take – ten to fifteen years, including at least two years of significant combat up front – and how much it will cost. Thirty thousand extra troops in Afghanistan will cost around 2 billion dollars per month beyond the roughly 20 billion we already spend; additional governance and development efforts will cost even more; in the current economic climate this is a big ask. The campaign will cost the lives of many American, Afghan and coalition soldiers and civilians, and injure many more. There are also opportunity costs: we have finally, through much blood and effort, reached a point where we can start disengaging some combat troops from Iraq. We need to ask ourselves whether the best use for these troops is to send them straight to Afghanistan, or whether we might be better off creating a strategic reserve in Central Command, restoring our military freedom of action and, with it, a measure of diplomatic credibility in the Middle East. [emphasis added]

As evident in Kilcullen's recitation of the four "essential strategic tasks," his testimony was not solely concerned with "operational doctrine." It was an effort to advocate for a particular strategy. However, one of the larger assumptions underlying that strategy - the notion that long term military occupation is an efficient means to deny terrorists room to operate and prevent attacks - is dubious at best, and mostly rejected by Kilcullen himself in his book.

As Kilcullen the author warns, it is an exceedingly expensive undertaking in terms of both blood and money. Steve Hynd grabs for the back of the envelope for some rough calculations in response to Kilcullen:

The DoD actually spends $2.7 billion a month in Afghanistan right now, but what's a few hundred million either way, right? Over fifteen years that bill comes to $846 billion while "additional governance and development efforts will cost even more." Basing some conservative guesstimates on what the ratio of military to reconstruction and other spending has been, those efforts will cost somewhere in the region of $35 billion, with at least another $17.5 billion to pay VA benefits for the inevitable toll in blood. Add in the $173 billion already spent and the $285 billion or so in debt servicing all that deficit spending will cost and the grand total will come to a cool $1.3 trillion. That's $1,300,000,000,000 for those who like to see all the zeroes. [...]

And how about that cost in blood? Well, so far the war in Afghanistan has cost 667 US soldiers their lives. But the pace of casualties has been accelerating. 155 of those deaths were in 2008 alone and 2009 is set to be even deadlier. Afghan civilian casualties have been accelerating too - up over 40% in the last year - and somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 have already died, along with more tens of thousands wounded or simply displaced as refugees.

Extend those casualty rates onward for another 10 to 15 years. That's the butcher's bill.

To state the obvious, terrorist attacks on US civilians are horrible, horrible events that we should seek to prevent. Disrupting terrorist safe havens is a legitimate and worthwhile objective. But like all such objectives, the costs cannot be ignored. Again, that's stating the obvious, but then, the obvious is frequently absent from our foreign policy discourse.

Considering that the economic costs and death toll from even the most horrific of terrorist attacks (9/11) were lower and comparable, respectively, to the projected costs associated with ongoing operations in Afghanistan, the argument to pursue this strategy doesn't make much sense from a strictly cost-benefit computation. Some possible rejoinders are that the next attack could be bigger, attacks could occur more frequently with a safe haven in place and there is a value to the peace of mind of the civilian population that should be factored in (as a resident of lower Manhattan, I'm certainly sympathetic to the last prong).

But those responses all operate under some doubtful assumptions: (1) that there is no way to deny a safe haven absent the Kilcullen approach; (2) that terrorists require a safe haven as a base from which to launch attacks; (3) other than Afghanistan/Pakistan, there are no viable safe havens; and (4) despite our increased focus on the threat of terrorism, a safe haven in Afghanistan would enable future large scale terrorist attacks on US soil.

(1) There are other options worthy of discussion - but they would require more space than this already lengthy post allows and I will instead attempt to address some in follow up pieces (though part of my response to #4 will address a couple of the applicable issues).

(2) Would-be terrorists do not require a particular "safe haven" to carry out attacks. As Marc Sageman points out in Leaderless Jihad, the most recent wave of terrorists are mostly from a diffuse group of "wannabes" spread out over the globe and linked together, at least initially, through the Internet. That's the insidious beauty of terrorism: it's the low-tech, low cost alternative to large scale military operations, and thus its devotees can make-do with only limited room to operate (like those groups that conceived, planned and carried out operations while "based" in England, the United States, Spain and Germany, i.e.).

So, even if we succeed in eradicating all terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan (against long odds after 10-15 years), we could still suffer terrorist attacks from the decentralized "leaderless jihad." Granted, a sanctuary complete with extensive training facilities and unfettered range of motion would help the efficacy of terrorist operations, there is reason to believe that we can disrupt such an ideal version of a safe haven from afar via air strikes even if we can't make the region 100% terrorist free.

(3) Not only can terrorists operate without a safe haven, but even if we seal off Afghanistan/Pakistan from would-be terrorists, the world offers other prime real estate: say, Somalia or Yemen. Are we really going to commit to a series of decades-long societal transformation efforts at a trillion a pop in every locale that al-Qaeda attempts to set up shop? Again, I ask, is that the most efficient use of resources?

(4) We should not underestimate the fact that our increased focus on the threat of terrorism post-9/11 has made America a much harder target to hit. Our intelligence operations, law enforcement capacity, increased international cooperation and general awareness are the most effective means to prevent attack. Unlike during the 1990s, when Clinton was dealing with Congressional push back and concerns over creating international incidents by targeting al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, the US can and will be much more willing to use military strikes to destroy those camps should they spring up in the future.

While we might not be able to eradicate safe havens altogether in so much as al-Qaeda operatives will be able to hide out in the rugged frontier lands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, it should be noted that al-Qaeda operatives are currently hiding out in those same regions, and that level of "sanctuary" hasn't led to a series of attacks on US soil.

Finally, we should not ignore the fact that our presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan will aid the recruitment efforts of al-Qaeda, even if we adopt ideal COIN practices. Our presence in Afghanistan/Pakistan radicalizes elements of the local population (creating "accidental guerillas" as Kilcullen calls those motivated by our military presence to pick up arms against us), attracts recruits from afar inspired by the call to defensive jihad, and motivates those third wave self-starters that Sageman described. With respect to Pakistan, our heavy-handed, US-centric interference is not stabilizing the situation by any stretch, but rather tainting leaders amenable to US interests and boosting the popularity of those that oppose us. So while we might be making life harder for extremists groups in some respects, we are also providing boons in other areas.

Given the costs, the requisite dedication of time and resources, the grandiosity of the goals and, relatedly, the uncertainty of the outcomes, as well as the inefficiency of the long-term occupation model as a means of preventing subsequent terrorist attacks, I'm tempted to simply quote Andrew Exum: "No one who really understands COIN wants to do it." Seriously.

Monday, March 16, 2009

This Is My Mistake, Let Me Make it Good

Stephen Walt looks at recent developments with respect to our Pakistan/Afghanistan policies and has some prescient warnings. For one, as discussed on this site recently, what we are attempting to accomplish in terms of eradicating al-Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan might be a task beyond our ability to complete - and one that we cannot realistically compel the Pakistani government to do for us (assuming the ability of that fractured and corrupt entity).

We learned yesterday that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent part of her weekend making phone calls to Pakistani President Asif Zardari and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, in an effort to head off a looming showdown. The immediate crisis seems to have been defused when Zardari backed down and reappointed the former chief justice to the country's Supreme Court, but there is no reason to be optimistic over the longer term. In other words, the top American diplomat has been busy trying to manage the internal politics of a country of some 178 million people that is riddled with corruption and conflict, even though Americans have scant understanding of Pakistan's internal dynamics, little credibility with its key groups, an abysmal public image there, and few, if any, levers to pull. It is hard to think of another job for which the U.S. foreign policy establishment is less well-suited, yet we now find ourselves trying to do social engineering in Pakistan.

And yet, one of the primary objectives outlined by the highly influential CNAS think tank (whose members are being sucked up into the Obama administration with some rapidity) - one of the pillars of the proposed troop buildup in Afghanistan which that group advises should last 5-10 years - is the elimination of safe havens in Pakistan. In other words, large scale, time-intensive interference in Pakistan's fraught and unstable internal politics in pursuit of an exceedingly difficult aim. On the plus side, it promises to be an enormously expensive enterprise at a time when our fiscal outlook is dismal at best.

When tracing the five steps that led us to our current predicament, Walt also mentions an aspect of prior policy in the region that gets little coverage despite its importance:

Step 1 was the U.S. decision to back the Afghan mujahidin following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. This step made sense at the time, given the U.S. goal of containing and eventually toppling the Soviet regime. However, the policy also involved pouring lots of money into Pakistan, which fueled corruption. Washington also turned a mostly blind eye towards Pakistan's nuclear program, because its cooperation was essential to the war against the Soviet occupation. Saudi Arabia backed the American effort with money and people (with our encouragement), and used this opportunity to fund religious schools and spread Wahhabi doctrines.As a result, the Afghan war became the crucible in which al Qaeda and other forms of jihadi terrorism were forged. [emphasis added]

Osama himself set up shop in Peshawar Pakistan, the city through which much of the Saudi money - and foreign fighters - flowed. The congregation of so many extremist figures, and their radicalizing ideology, had an effect on Pakistani society as a whole. Extremism spread, radicalizing key elements of Pakistani society in the Peshawar region and beyond - elements that are still highly problematic to this day for obvious reasons. So it wasn't onlythat our prior involvement in Afghanistan had some negative effects in terms of nurturing elements of al-Qaeda, but also that it contributed to the proliferation of extremist ideology in Pakistan as well.

At present, it should be easy to recognize ways in which heavy-handed, US-centric policies vis-a-vis Pakistan could have numerous unintended and undesirable consequences - such as weakening potential allies in Pakistan while strengthening the most hardline elements. The question is, does the Obama administration appreciate these risks?

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Bush Doctrine: DOA at DOD? Part II

As discussed in Part I of this two part series, Defense Secretary Gates enunciated a new, more circumspect and evidence-based standard for judging the advisability of deploying military force in the future. The approach outlined by Gates represents a welcomed shift away from the Bush Doctrine's grounding in preventive war theory. However, that approach to new military deployments does not address how and in what ways the Obama administration plans to deal with ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thus far, there have been encouraging statements from Obama about his intention to withdraw US forces from Iraq within the SOFA timeframe (by 2011). While I would prefer a slightly more accelerated pace - and think a downpayment on withdrawal would be prudent - the basic contours of the plan outlined by Obama are commendable. Regarding Afghanistan, however, our path going forward is less clear. What we know is that Obama has ordered an additional 17,000 troops to join the 35,000, and that he is conducting a strategic review of the mission.

My hope is that those troops are meant to tilt the battlefield in our favor temporarily, and add extra protection to the Afghan population, as part of a last ditch effort to create an advantageous position from which to negotiate with those Taliban factions that can be brought into the fold - and convince those factions that gravitate to the strongest power. Further, and accompanying this, it would be advised that Obama attempt to establish a comprehensive and realistic regional framework, enlisting the support of Afghanistan's neighbors by showing a willingness to consider competing interests. Along these lines, Les Gelb is right on the money with his list of recommendations, as well as his strategic assessment:

I don’t know whether the power extrication strategy sketched out here would be less or more risky than our present course. But trying to eliminate the Taliban and Qaeda threat in Afghanistan is unattainable, while finding a way to live with, contain and deter the Taliban is an achievable goal. After all, we don’t insist on eliminating terrorist threats from Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. Furthermore, this strategy of containing and deterring is far better suited to American power than the current approach of counterinsurgency and nation-building.

However, I'm worried that Obama will be too heavily influenced by the counterinsurgency enthusiasts that are being brought into the administration under the leadership of under secretary of defense for policy Michele Flournoy - co-founder the CNAS think tank that whose roster reads like a who's who of counterinsurgency practitioners. This isn't necessarily problematic, as there are many well-informed individuals with sage advice on transforming our military to a more sensible posture.

Further, as informed by COIN doctrine, attempting to train soldiers to be more knowledgeable and respectful of local populations, customs and peoples is a positive, as is the emphasis on securing the population over more kinetic operations. Paying attention to winning hearts and minds is desirable and if military intervention is necessary at any time, we would be better served with COIN doctrine as the norm. However, the risk is that Obama might overestimate the efficacy of COIN doctrine - based in part on the supposed success of the Surge - and be overly influenced by the many practitioners filling out the ranks in the Pentagon.

One of CNAS's experts, David Kilcullen (whose work I admire), recently wrote a book entitled The Accidental Guerilla, which wasn't treated very kindly in a review by Andrew Bacevich. Reacting to Bacevich's review, Andrew Exum (another CNAS expert and proprietor of the Abu Muquwama blog - whose work I also admire) had this to say:

One of the things I have always maintained is that realists of the Andrew Bacevich school and counter-insurgents of the David Kilcullen school have more in common than they realize at first glance. No one who really understands COIN wants to do it. Liberal interventionalists and neo-conservatives are likely to be much more enthusiastic than the practitioners themselves. [emphasis added]

Like Matt Yglesias, I'd like to believe this but can't quite commit. While Exum is right that liberal interventionalists and neo-conservatives are more enthusiastic about the use of the military option, I'm not as certain that COIN practitioners are really all that reluctant in some settings. For example, it seems that many of those same practitioners that claim not to want to practice COIN are in favor of applying COIN in the Afghan theater over the next 5-10 years in order to accomplish the following modest goals: create a stable Afghanistan, eradicate Pakistani safe-havens, wipe out the poppy crop and stabilize the region. That's a funny way to show your aversion.

In fairness to Exum and the COINdanistas, most would argue - plausibly - that COIN practitioners show greater reluctance to initiate a conflict, but the Afghanistan situation is different because we are already committed - that COIN is the way to dig us out. Nevertheless, there tends to be a lack of appreciation of the enormous costs involved in making such a COIN-infused push in Afghanistan (and Iraq), as well as a certain level of overconfidence that such audacious goals can be met through the application of the favored doctrine.

Interestingly, people like David Kilcullen seem to grasp the magnitude of the costs, and the detrimental effect these commitments are having on our overall strategic outlook, yet he can't seem to bring himself to follow the path he blazes when it leads out of Afghanistan and Iraq. These excerpts from Kilcullen's response to Bacevich's review are illuminating:

[Bacevich] also writes, in one of the best parts of his review: “If counterinsurgency is useful chiefly for digging ourselves out of holes we shouldn’t be in, then why not simply avoid the holes? Why play al-Qaeda’s game? Why persist in waging the Long War when that war makes no sense?”

Again, I couldn’t agree more. That’s what I said in the book -- on the middle of page 269: “we should avoid any future large-scale, unilateral military intervention in the Islamic world, for all the reasons already discussed." A few pages earlier, in the middle of page 264, I write: “Our too-willing and heavy-handed interventions in the so-called “war on terrorism” to date have largely played into the hands of this AQ exhaustion strategy, while creating tens of thousands of accidental guerrillas and tying us down in a costly (and potentially unsustainable) series of interventions.” I do, however, make the point (at the top of page 284) that “This will be a protracted conflict. Because the drivers of conflict in the current security environment…lie predominantly outside Western governments’ control, our ability to terminate this conflict on our own terms or within our preferred timeline is extremely limited.”

So on the one hand, we have played into the hands of this "AQ exhaustion strategy, while creating tens of thousands of accidental guerrillas and tying us down in a costly (and potentially unsustainable) series of interventions," but on the other hand, we shouldn't stop with those interventions. Just not start any new ones. Why not go all the way though?

Meanwhile Mr Bacevich writes: “When it comes to dealing with Islamism, containment rather than transformation should provide the cornerstone of U.S. (and Western) strategy.” Again, I find myself in violent agreement with Mr Bacevich and…um, myself.

Starting on page 280 there is an entire section entitled "understanding the limits of our influence" (which quotes Mr Bacevich at length, by the way, one of two lengthy and favorable mentions of him) and argues against a series of interventions in the Muslim world. The book considers the option of containment strategy (in Chapter 1, at the bottom of page 19), criticizes the policy of direct intervention, and shows how containment would have been a valid strategic response to 9/11, though it notes that containment would have been extremely difficult to achieve, given the effects of globalization. The book also quotes Senator John F. Kerry, in Chapter 5, page 277-78, and describes his proposal of a containment strategy as showing "evident good sense".

But if containment would have been a valid strategic response to 9/11, why not now after al-Qaeda's network has been severely disrupted, our targets have been hardened, and our intelligence and law enforcement communities considerably more focused? Why not if, as Gelb says, we're willing to go with containment vis-a-vis Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen?

It is an unmitigated positive that Gates has enunciated a new, less interventist standard to apply when assessing the wisdom of committing troops in the future. And Andrew Exum is right that people like David Kilcullen and the other COIN practitioners are much more reluctant to use force than liberal interventionists and neoconservatives. The question is, will these reluctant warriors succeed in convincing Obama to commit to 4-8 years of intensive and extremely costly, if regrettable, military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Bush Doctrine: DOA at DOD? Part I

Defense Secretary Gates continues to act and speak in ways that justify Obama's decision to keep him on. His worth has been proven, thus far, by his willingness to champion some worthy goals for which Obama could use an ally like Gates who can provide bi-partisan cover and insider credentials. Those objectives would include: making needed cuts to the defense budget, withdrawing forces from Iraq, and re-establishing the balance between the Department of Defense and the State Department in terms of those agencies' respective policy portfolios. Recently, Gates discussed the general parameters of the Bush Doctrine (via) in a way that only adds to his value above and beyond the aforementioned areas:

"The lessons learned with the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction and some of the other things that happened will make any future president very, very cautious about launching that kind of conflict or relying on intelligence," Gates told PBS television in an interview.

Any future president is "going to ask a lot of very hard questions and I think that hurdle is much higher today than it was six or seven years ago," he said.

His comments came in response to questions about the lessons of the Iraq conflict and the controversial "Bush doctrine," which asserts the right to take preemptive action to prevent a terrorist strike [ed note: No, the Bush Doctrine asserts the right to take preventive action, big difference]. [...]

"I think that the barrier first of all will be are we going to be attacked here at home. As one of the thresholds," he said. "And then the quality of intelligence would be another."

This evisceration of the Bush Doctrine will come as welcome news to those concerned with the prospect of a potential armed clash with Iran over its nuclear program, as Gates seems to be drawing a couple of lines in the sand (which I will discussed in reverse order): First, the intelligence on a given threat will have to be highly reliable - not speculative. It should be noted that the current consensus in the intelligence community is that Iran does not have an active nuclear weapons program.

Second, and much more important, is the proviso that even if there is evidence that a particular state may possess - or is close to possessing - nuclear weapons (or is supportive of terrorist groups or is problematic in some other way), government leaders must also determine the likelihood that we will be attacked "here at home" by that state or its terrorist allies (if any).

That second level of assessment is crucial. One of the more important lessons from the Iraq war debacle that frequently gets lost in the debate regarding the quality (or manipulation) of pre-war intelligence on Saddam's WMD is that even if Iraq did have some chemical and biological weapons, the invasion would have still been a colossal mistake. Saddam posed no immediate, or even foreseeable future, threat to the United States.

Saddam had no meaningful ties to al-Qaeda. In fact, al-Qaeda was extremely hostile to the Baath Party's secular ideology making their cooperation unlikely (though not impossible). But any slight fear of a potential collaboration involving WMD should have been dismissed given that any such cooperation would have sealed Saddam's fate, and self-preservation was Saddam's foremost concern. Along these lines, his moribund WMD programs were coveted as a means to secure his regime and deter would-be aggressors in the region (and beyond), not as some means to lash out at the world.

Even if Saddam were left in power, and even if he subsequently reactivated his nuclear program, it would be highly implausible to conclude that Saddam would then spend untold billions, endure international ostracization, sanctions and other hardships to, somehow despite all those obstacles, acquire a nuclear weapon. And if he did, it would be even more implausible to think that he would give it away to a group like al-Qaeda (under the nose of US surveillance) in the hope that al-Qaeda could somehow smuggle the weapon into the United States and detonate it.

Similarly, even if Iran were to go nuclear (a less than desired outcome to be sure), such a state of affairs would not pose an immediate risk to the United States, and would not justify military engagement. The Iranian regime's primary motivation is, like that of other nuclear nations around the world, self-preservation. We have dealt with hostile or semi-hostile nuclear states such as the USSR, Mao's China, North Korea, Pakistan and others. There is absolutely no reason to think that a potentially nuclear Iran poses a more immediate risk justifying preemptive military action, especially given the difficultly in creating a weapons delivery system capable of deployment against the United States.

But while Gates might be making all the right noises concerning the framework to apply when judging the advisability of future military action, such a shift in paradigms does little to address the extent to which the U.S. should perpetuate military engagements that are already underway in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. In Part II, I'll try to address my concerns with respect to the Obama administration's policies in regard to those conflicts.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Gay Communist 90's

When then-President Bush was pushing through his multi-trillion dollar tax cut proposals early in his first term, concerns about the impact such cuts would have on the fiscal bottom line were waved away using primarily the following three arguments: First, there were sunset provisions built-in to the tax cut measures, so their effects on future budget deficits would be limited in duration.

Second, there was the bizarre assertion by discredited (even by his own admission) financial "sage" Alan Greenspan that absent such tax cuts, we could end up paying down the national debt too quickly (pause for bitter laughter/tears). Finally, there was the usual Laffer Curve hocus-pocus that suggested the tax cuts would pay for themselves (a theory that may have been plausible when top marginal rates were dropped substantially from their 70-90% highs, but less so when the top rate of 39.6% was lowered to 35%).

With the second two prongs of that tripartite already eviscerated by recent history, there has been an effort, of late, to ensure that the first prong is also rendered ineffectual. While Obama's recent budget plan does allow for some of those Bush tax cuts to expire as planned, he is facing opposition from this position from some expected, and somewhat unexpected, sources. Regardless, those fighting against the expiration of certain of Bush's tax cut provisions according to their statutory mechanisms are using a noxious blend of demagoguery and hypocrisy.

For example, David Brooks' latest column opens up with his unsupported assurance to the reader of his "moderate" bona fides. It was, ostensibly, Brooks' moderate sensibilities that led him to support Bush's series of massive tax cuts, despite the fact that no nation in recorded history had ever cut taxes in a time of war, and Bush kept his in place (and added new ones) while the nation was embroiled in two wars. That was the cautious approach.

Further, the fact that Bush's tax cuts tilted majorly to the wealthiest Americans was no indication that supporters of the tax schemes were favoring those...that the law favored. It was purely incidental happenstance. On the other hand, Obama's proposal to allow certain portions of Bush's tax cuts to expire (those accruing to the benefit of the most fortunate among us) is, according to Brooks, born out of a "revolutionary fervor... predicated on class divide" - moves likely to stoke widespread "class resentment." A "social-engineering experiment that is entirely new."

For those keeping score at home, the Brooksian model:

Supporting enormous tax cuts primarily benefitting the well-off while fighting two wars: moderate, time-tested, class-blind, entirely reasonable.

Allowing portions of those tax cuts to expire and return to Clinton-era rates: revolutionary, radical, class warfare.

Got it?

On the Democratic side of the aisle, Evan Bayh is leading the charge of the soi disant Democratic moderate caucus in opposing Obama's plans to raise taxes "on the wealthy" by allowing prior cuts to expire on schedule. But what Bayh doesn't mention is that he voted against Bush's tax cuts when they were introduced to the legislature way back when. At the time, voting against those tax cuts was moderate. Now, allowing them to expire is...extremist?

Other moderates of note - Mavericky John McCain being one - have come right out and called the return to Clinton era tax rates socialism! And that's just the moderates. Other leading conservative voices, from John Boehner to Rush Limbaugh to Jim DeMint have also hyped the New Red Scare! (which would be the tax rates during the Communist 90's as they're now known).

John Cole puts the charge of socialism in context with charts and graphs!


Said Cole:

The 2010 proposed rate of 39.60% = socialism.
The 2002-2008 rates of 35.00% = capitalist nirvana.
The 39.6% rate of the 1990’s = socialism.
Everything else = down the memory hole.

That Obama fellow sure is soaking the rich, isn’t he?

Revolutionary Fervor! Can you feel it!

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Margin Walker

The attorney featured in this article - who claims that she will refuse to see some of her clients in order to keep her earnings down to avoid being hit by Obama's increase of the marginal tax rate on earnings above the $250,000 threshold - is most likely doing those clients a favor. At least if her ability to grasp the concept of marginal tax rates is any indication of her reasoning skills generally speaking. Also, the journalist who wrote the piece should be ashamed:

President Barack Obama's tax proposal -- which promises to increase taxes for those families with incomes of $250,000 or more -- has some Americans brainstorming ways to decrease their pay, even if it's just by a dollar.

A 63-year-old attorney based in Lafayette, La., who asked not to be named, told that she plans to cut back on her business to get her annual income under the quarter million mark should the Obama tax plan be passed by Congress and become law. [...]

"We are going to try to figure out how to make our income $249,999.00," she said.

"We have to find a way out where we can make just what we need to just under the line so we can benefit from Obama's tax plan," she added. "Why kill yourself working if you're going to give it all away to people who aren't working as hard?"

The attorney says that in order to decrease her income she'll have to let go of clients, some of whom she's been counseling for more than a decade.

"This means I'll have to tell some of my clients we can't help them and being more selective in general about who we help," she said. "I hate to do it."

Wow. That is...just mind boggling. Allow me to explain the concept of marginal tax rates to our would-be Jane Galt (and her admirers, like Tennessee law professor (I'm as incredulous as you) Glenn Reynolds). The marginal tax rate structure means that you pay a certain rate for money earned within certain dollar amount brackets. So, to simplify with hypothetical rates: you pay zero income taxes on dollars 0-20,000, then you pay 15% on dollars 20,001-50,000, you pay 25% on dollars 50,000-100,000 and so on. You don't pay a higher rate on all of your dollars just because some of your dollars make it into a higher tax bracket. Only those dollars above the given threshold are subject to that rate.

The tax rate on earnings above $250,000 is presently 35% (lowered from 39.6% by Bush). Obama is proposing to restore that rate to the Clinton-era level of 39.6%. What this means is that for a married couple earning $300,000 (after above the line deductions), the dollars that they make above the $250,000 threshold would be taxed at 39.6% rather than 35%. But all earnings below the $250,000 would still be taxed at the same tiered rates as before! You don't pay 39.6% on all of your earnings simply because you surpassed that level!

So the the Obama plan would mean that our hypothetical couple pays $19,800 rather than $17,500 on that $50,000 that falls into the $250,000 and above tax bracket. A difference of...$2,300. But the person still takes home $30,200 of that $50,000, as opposed to $32,500 out of $50.000. Slightly less, but generally speaking, making more money is viewed as a good thing by most individuals, even if there is a slightly higher rate applied to those extra earnings.

Now let's go back to the reasoning of our Louisiana attorney - reasoning applauded by Glenn Reynolds and the other commentators he links to. This woman is going to turn away clients, and turn away income, so that she ensures that her income does not surpass $249,999, rather than subject any additional dollars to a slightly higher rate of taxes.

Presumably, she would rather have $0 tax free than $50,000 taxed at 39.6%. But, mind you, she was quite willing to work for the extra $50,000 when it was taxed at 35%. The net effect: she will have $30,200 less dollars in her pocket just so she can avoid giving the federal government an additional $2,300, and she will have alienated clients and caused them to look elsewhere for legal services - damaging her business long term.

As I said: those clients she turns away as part of her grand tax-gaming scheme should feel lucky.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Giving the Inertia of Peace a Chance

Fareed Zakaria uses the recent accommodation between the Pakistani government and militants in the Swat Valley in Pakistan as a launching point to discuss the proper posture for the United States to adopt vis-a-vis Islamist movements of various stripes. The short version: it is vital that we differentiate between al-Qaeda type groups and other Islamist groups that do not subscribe to theories of global jihad (and that we learn to live with the latter).

Such realignment doesn't mean that we have to turn a blind eye to crimes against women and other brutal and oppressive policies that certain of the Islamist groups might espouse. But those issues are better addressed through non-violent means. After all, even targeted airstrikes end up killing the women and children that they are, ostensibly, meant to safeguard under such humanitarian justifications.

(Side note: These issues were discussed during this past Sunday's installment of Zakaria's CNN show - GPS - which I have enjoyed immensely. Watching Hitchens get put in his place in the most recent episode is, alone, worth the price of admission):

Pakistan's Swat Valley...became a war zone over the past two years as Taliban fighters waged fierce battles against the Pakistani army. The fighting ceased because the Pakistani government has agreed to some of the militants' key demands, chiefly that Islamic courts be established in the region. Fears abound that this means girls schools will be destroyed, movies will be banned and public beheadings will become a regular occurrence.

The militants are bad people, and this is bad news. But the more difficult question is, what should we -- the outside world -- do? How exactly should we oppose these forces? In Pakistan and Afghanistan, we have done so in large measure by attacking them -- directly with Western troops and Predator strikes, and indirectly in alliance with Pakistani and Afghan forces. Is the answer to pour in more of our troops, train more Afghan soldiers, ask the Pakistani military to deploy more battalions, and expand the Predator program to hit more of the bad guys? Perhaps -- in some cases, emphatically yes -- but I think it's also worth stepping back and trying to understand the phenomenon of Islamic radicalism. [...]

The militants who were battling the [Pakistani] army...have had to go along with the deal. The Pakistani government is hoping that this agreement will isolate the jihadists and win the public back to its side. This may not work, but at least it represents an effort to divide the camps of the Islamists between those who are violent and those who are merely extreme.

Over the past eight years, such distinctions have tended to be regarded as naive. The Bush administration spent its first term engaged in a largely abstract, theoretical conversation about radical Islam as a monolithic global ideology -- and conservative intellectuals still spout this kind of unyielding rhetoric. By the second term, though, Bush officials ended up pursuing a most sophisticated policy toward political Islam in the one country where reality was unavoidable -- Iraq.

Having invaded Iraq, the Americans searched for local allies, in particular political groups that could become the Iraqi face of the occupation. The administration came to recognize that 30 years of the secular tyrant Saddam Hussein had left only hard-core Islamists as the opposition. It partnered with these groups, most of which were Shiite parties founded on the model of Iran's ultra-religious organizations, and acquiesced as they took over most of southern Iraq, the Shiite heartland. The strict version of Islam that they implemented in this area was quite similar to -- in some cases more extreme than -- what one would find in Iran today. Liquor was banned; women had to cover themselves from head to toe; Christians were persecuted; religious affiliations became the only way to get a government job, including college professorships. While some of this puritanism is mellowing, southern Iraq remains a dark place. But it is not a hotbed of jihadist activity. The veil is not the same as the suicide belt.

The Bush administration partnered with fundamentalists once more in the Iraq war. When the fighting was at its worst, administration officials began talking to some in the Sunni community who were involved in the insurgency. Many of them were classic Islamic militants, though others were simply former Baathists or tribal chiefs. Gen. David Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy ramped up this process. "We won the war in Iraq chiefly because we separated the local militants from the global jihadists," says Fawaz Gerges, a scholar at Sarah Lawrence College, who has interviewed hundreds of Muslim militants. "Yet around the world we are still unwilling to make the distinction between these two groups."

Anything that emphasizes the variety of groups, movements and motives within that world strengthens the case that this is not a battle between Islam and the West. In the end, time is on our side. Wherever radical Islam is tried, people weary of its charms quickly. All Islamists, violent or not, lack answers to today's problems. Unlike them, we have a worldview that can satisfy the aspirations of modern men and women. That's the most powerful weapon of all.

This is classic "disaggregation" strategy (a counterinsurgency tool promoted by such well-respected practitioners as David Kilcullen) whereby each group within a given movement is treated as a distinct entity so as to determine how to best respond to each (discussed here and, more recently, here). This analytical device can shed light on which groups can be coaxed to buy-in to a given government structure, and which groups can only be dealt with through the application of force.

Disaggregation offered the only viable means available to us for stabilizing the situation in Iraq (not the surge of troops, as is commonly misinterpreted). We weren't going to be able to keep fighting all militant groups, nor would the Iraqi government be able to persist for long without a broader support in the population at large. By working with various Iraqi Islamist and/or insurgent groups, the US has helped create an imperfect and tenuous momentum in the direction of stability.

Similarly, disaggregation offers a glimmer of hope going forward in Afghanistan. As my friend Steve Hynd points out, the "Taliban" is a multifaceted movement with its constituent parts often working at cross purposes on important issues such as hostility to the Pakistani government and support for global jihadism. We need to do our best to peel away those factions that are not committed to furthering al-Qaeda's cause and provide them with enough incentives to participate in the new Afghan government. Even groups that we might rightly label as "Taliban."

Those incentives can be provided in two ways, broadly speaking: positive inducement and negative inducement. That is where I see the Obama administration heading with its announced troops build-up in Afghanistan (and where the Surge helped in Iraq to some extent): it is part of an effort to change the calculus of certain groups that have gravitated toward the hardcore Taliban largely out of an appreciation for which way the wind is blowing. We want to woo them back and offer greater protection to rural populations, and in order to do so, we may need to flex some military muscle. Any such military efforts would need to be combined with offers of material support and other accommodation in terms of religious sensibilities as a means to cement allegiance.

This process will, necessarily, include courting Islamist groups that have some repugnant beliefs and practices from a human rights perspective. But we cannot defeat the entirety of the Afghan insurgencymilitarily at acceptable costs, nor prop up an Afghan government in the face of such widespread resistance.

Even still, it is unclear if such a strategy will work. With respect to Iraq, the fear is that erstwhile combatants are only maintaining a cease-fire with the US forces in order to capitalize on our largess, and to avoid the considerable losses incurred when confronting the vastly superior US military in combat. There is a concern that these groups are merely refurbishing, refitting and biding their time for the day when they can challenge the current government after US troops withdraw. Further, there are questions as to the extent of the current government's willingness to offer incentives to former insurgent groups post-US withdrawal.

Similarly, any relative stability in Afghanistan, if achieved (which would necessitate cooperation from Afghanistan's neighbors), would be fragile to say the least - and given the Karzai government bad reputation for corruption and fecklessness, perhaps it is a lost cause.

But we simply can't afford to stay in either place much longer, let alone for the decades that the counterinsurgency gurus advise. And our prolonged presence has its own radicalizing and counterproductive effects. Our last best hope in each theater is to accommodate as many groups as possible. In so doing, we can attempt to tamp down the violence and hope that the exhaustion with fighting and the allure of normalcy can create an irresistible inertia of its own - leading to more willingness for compromise and concession on all sides, the steady abandonment of violence and a growing lack of tolerance for those that utilize such means.

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