At a stopover in Jalandhar Monday on his way to New Delhi for meetings with Indian officials, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was presented with an honorary doctorate from what claims to be India's largest private university. Indian President Pranab Mukherjee conferred the degree on Karzai, making him an honorary alumnus of Lovely Professional University -- a school that bills itself as "a world-renowned center for the creation and dissemination of knowledge."
LPU was founded by the late Shri Baldev Raj Mittal, who earned his fortune as chairman of the Lovely Group, which began as a distributor of traditional Indian sweets before delving into scooters and automobiles.
As for Karzai, who did his undergraduate and graduate studies at Simla University in India in the late 1970s and early 80s, he will add the award to an already long list of honorary degrees. In 2003, his alma mater presented him with an honorary doctorate in literature, to go with the master's degree in international relations and political science he earned two decades earlier. Karzai has also received honorary degrees from Boston University, Georgetown University, the University of Nebraska, and, just last year, Japan's Sports Science University of Nippon.
According to some quick Googling, it is the first time Karzai has been associated with the words "lovely professional," however.
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Donald Rumsfeld has never had a reputation for being particularly tactful or articulate (let's all take a moment to remember how Saturday Night Live portrayed him, even before the invasion of Iraq), but he's demonstrated a habit of owning his mistakes -- in his own way. The former defense secretary took his infamous, convoluted, "There are known knowns" comment, made in a press conference in 2002, and appropriated it as the title of his 2011 memoir, Known and Unknown. And now he's doing it again as he promotes his new book, Rumsfeld's Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life, a collection of aphorisms and rules to live by -- if only Donald Rumsfeld took his own advice.
"You go to war with the Army you have" may have been a gaffe when Rumsfeld said it to a National Guard soldier asking about jerry-rigged armor on Humvees, but in Rumsfeld's Rules, it's a pearl of wisdom. And when he's not rehabilitating his own troublesome turns of phrase, he often cites the advice of others with little self-awareness. All of this has made for an incredibly awkward book tour.
There was the time, for instance, when Rumsfeld cited one of his rules at a book party in Washington on Tuesday: "Every government looking at the actions of another government and trying to explain them always exaggerates rationality and conspiracy and underestimates incompetence and fortuity," he observed. "I learned that from watching you!" Circuit Court Judge Laurence Silberman, who coined the rule, reportedly called out.
And when Rumsfeld spoke to Politico's Patrick Gavin, he wasted no time contradicting himself: "If you have rules, never have more than 10," he joked of his 380-rule book. Then again, he added, "All generalizations are wrong, even this one."
It's complicated, you see.
For example, when Rumsfeld said, "It's easier to get into something than it is to get out," he's not talking about the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In a conversation with Kai Ryssdal, the host of American Public Media's Marketplace, Rumsfeld clarified that he was thinking of a much smaller deployment of U.S. forces 20 years earlier:
I thought of that when I was President Reagan's Middle East envoy and we had 241 Marines killed at Beirut, at the airport. And I concluded then that the United States has to be careful about putting ground forces in because we're such a big target.
"I sorta can't believe these words are coming out of your mouth," an incredulous Ryssdal interjects. When Ryssdal asks if he's ever considered apologizing, Rumsfeld replies, "Well, my goodness, you know, as Napoleon said, 'I've been mistaken so many times I don't even blush for it anymore.' Sure, you see things that don't turn out the way you hope. You look at intelligence -- and of course, if intelligence were a fact, it wouldn't be intelligence."
Incidentally, "If intelligence were a fact, it wouldn't be intelligence" is not one of Rumsfeld's rules.
You can listen to Ryssdal's whole, cringe-inducing interview below. And if you're wondering how Rumsfeld is doing, he'd like you to know, he's "happy as a clam."
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The Soviet Union's 10-year occupation of Afghanistan cost the country more than 15,000 lives, and an additional 50,000 were wounded. Before the USSR withdrew its forces in 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev described the Soviet efforts to fight the insurgency there as "a bleeding wound." And yet -- just over two decades after leaving what came to be considered the Soviet version of the Vietnam War -- Russia is now eager to return to Afghanistan.
Russian defense officials are exploring the possibility of establishing military bases on Afghan soil after the U.S. drawdown in 2014, according to Russian press reports. Sergey Koshelev, of the Russian Defense Ministry's Department of Cooperation, told Russia Today that the military "will look into various options of creating repair bases" to maintain the Afghan National Security Forces's Russian-made equipment. Further cooperation is also being considered, according to Russia's NATO envoy Aleksandr Grushko.
Russia certainly has an economic stake in post-war Afghanistan. In addition to maintaining Russian gear -- from small arms to armored personnel carriers and helicopters -- Russia is also considering expanding its supply routes into Afghanistan through Central Asian countries. These supply routes, often called the Northern Distribution Network, have been a troublesome logistical lifeline for ISAF troops in Afghanistan, and will likely remain important after the drawdown.
An article in the government-sponsored paper Pravda last November touted Russia's cultural projects in Afghanistan as a prelude to new projects like those being discussed now. "It's obvious that Moscow's interest after the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan ...will increase dramatically," Lyuba Lulko wrote then. "The country has always been in the zone of Soviet and Russian interests." The article went on to recast the Soviet occupation: "After what the Americans leave in Afghanistan, the Soviet presence seems to be a blessing. Soviet soldiers are remembered with respect," Lulko added. An Afghan student studying Russian was quoted saying, "Russia is our neighbor, we love its culture. All was well, when the Russians were here."
Nonetheless, as RT's report stressed, "Russian officials have repeatedly denied that Moscow is considering resuming its military presence in Afghanistan."
Many of you may have already read Vali Nasr's scathing inside account of the State Department's struggle to put diplomacy at the center of U.S. efforts to end the war in Afghanistan. If not, go read it right now. Are you back? Good. Now check out this fracas at Monday's State Department press briefing, conducted by spokesman Patrick Ventrell:
QUESTION: On Afghanistan. Vali Nasr, who used to be at the State Department, just came out with a new book detailing a little bit about the work with Richard Holbrooke and how President Obama's White House team kind of shut him out. Specifically, he writes that "the White House encouraged the U.S. Ambassadors in Afghanistan and Pakistan to go around the State Department and work with the White House directly, undermining their own agency."
I'd like your response to that, whether that's an accurate assessment, and whether the State Department felt that the White House was taking too much control over the Afghan - Af-Pak file.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, you know, Elise, it wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment on the specifics in this book or our interagency discussions.
QUESTION: Why not?
MR. VENTRELL: That's not something that we do from this podium.
QUESTION: Well, there's a specific charge laid out in this book from someone who used to be in this building.
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I'm not going to comment on a former official's characterization one way or another, or our interagency processes one way or another. But let me talk a little bit about Afghanistan, where we are, some of the progress we --
QUESTION: No, I don't - I mean, I'm specifically --
MR. VENTRELL: I'm not --
QUESTION: You can talk about Af - I'm happy to hear what you have to say --
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: -- about Afghanistan, but specifically, do you feel that the State Department has equal equity in the policy deliberations on Afghanistan and Pakistan?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I'm just not going to --
QUESTION: You don't know whether you do?
MR. VENTRELL: I'm not going to comment on a former official's characterization.
QUESTION: Well, I'm not asking you to - so don't comment on his book, but specifically, do you feel as if the State Department has equal equity on policy deliberations on Afghanistan and Pakistan?
MR. VENTRELL: We have an excellent working relationship with our White House and interagency colleagues. And let me just tell you a little bit about where we are in Afghanistan, because that's - some of the thrust of the book is talking about policy development on Afghanistan. We've increased the capacity of Afghan security forces to fight insurgents, transitioning Afghan security lead - transitioning to an Afghan security lead, building an enduring partnership with Afghanistan. We now have Afghan forces leading nearly 90 percent of operations across the country. We've signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement. We're working on a new - negotiating a new bilateral security agreement. We're working on preparations for a free, inclusive, and transparent election in 2014. So we really stand behind the record of the progress we've made in Afghanistan, but beyond that I'm not going to get into interagency discussions.
QUESTION: But it's not a new charge. I mean, it's a charge that analysts are making around Washington, that the foreign policy is being decided in the White House with not enough input, or very little input, from the State Department.
MR. VENTRELL: We make our input, but I'm just not going to characterize it beyond that.
QUESTION: Are you listened to? Do you feel that you're listened to properly in the White House?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, the State Department has - we have an excellent working relationship, as I said, with the White House, with the interagency, and --
QUESTION: You can't say whether you feel as if you're getting equal input?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I'm not going to characterize some sort of historical discussion about what happened in years past. All I'm going to say is --
QUESTION: I don't think it's historical, because it also goes to what's happening today in the White House.
MR. VENTRELL: Look, guys, I've said what I can on this. I think we've done what we can here. Thanks.
There's a ridiculous debate going on in the wonkosphere about an outlandish idea: minting a trillion-dollar coin so that President Obama can avoid the upcoming debt ceiling, which Republicans are threatening to use as leverage to extract major entitlement cuts. To make a long story short, there's supposedly a loophole in the law that allows the Treasury Department to mint platinum coins of any denomination, so the president could order up a trillion-dollar coin to pay the federal government's bills. Et voilà -- no worries on the debt ceiling.
Like it or not, the debt ceiling is legal. Congress has the power of the purse. On the other hand, using a ridiculous loophole in a statute about commemorative and bullion coins in order to evade the debt limit isn't legal. Seriously, folks: just forget it. I know I'll never have to pay up on a bet over this since it will never be tested, but this would go against Obama 9-0 if it ever made it to the Supreme Court.
But there's a much more serious debate going on in Washington right now, one that could ultimately prove a lot more important: the debate over another trillion-dollar COIN operation, the war in Afghanistan. In a nutshell: How many troops will the United States leave behind after 2014, and what will they do? The White House is said to be deciding between 3,000 and 9,000 troops, according to the New York Times. David Barno, the retired lieutenant general who headed the U.S. war effort from 2003 to 2004, writes this week that President Obama might decide to go down all the way to zero -- and White House Ben Rhodes acknowledged Tuesday that the "zero option" is on the table.
Supporters of the war in Afghanistan are apopleptic about this possibility. One of them told me today that even 6,000 U.S. troops would essentially be zero, since they would be generally confined to Bagram Air Base and Kabul. In his estimation, the CIA's base at Khost would become untenable, and then the United States would have to conduct drone strikes inside Pakistan from much further away, with a concomitant decline in effectiveness. In other words, the notion that we'd be able to simply continue doing counterterrorism work at the same level is a chimera.
I have some sympathy for this view. There are a lot of bad dudes across the Durand Line in places like Waziristan, and they want to kill Americans. It would be naive to think that they would simply give up the fight because we left. Jihadi groups, including al Qaeda, will undoubtedly proclaim a huge victory, boosting their recruiting. They'll be right.
And here's where historical analogies break down. When the United States withdrew from Vietnam, we weren't worried about North Vietnamese communists and Viet Cong cadres blowing up car bombs in American cities. They took over the South, and that was a shame, but the so-called domino effect proved vastly overblown. You know the story: Henry Kissinger cleverly exploited the "Sino-Soviet split." And today, Vietnam is a budding American ally against a rising China.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, the bad guys really will come after us. That may sound alarmist. But left unmolested, they will increasingly have the means to do so. Drones are hugely unpopular in Pakistan; they don't seem like a sustainable long-term option, particularly after the United States leaves. And what, then, will prevent al Qaeda and friends from coming back? The Afghan military? Eventually, the region's poison will drain. But there will be many dangerous years ahead of us before then.
I'm not saying we should stay in Afghanistan. After all, it's been more than a decade, and the U.S. military and intelligence community have achieved precious little for all the blood and treasure that has been expended there. It hardly makes sense to spend tens of billions of dollars propping up an ungrateful, kleptocratic narcostate. This ain't postwar Germany or Japan, or even South Korea, however hard war supporters try to sell that analogy. "The juice ain't worth the squeeze," as one officer put it. But recognizing that doesn't solve our problem across the border in Waziristan.
Staying in Afghanistan doesn't make much sense. Leaving doesn't make sense either. What should we do?
In 2001, the Taliban shocked and angered the world by destroying the Buddhas of Bamiyan, 800 year-old statues that the hardline group declared declare "un-Islamic" due to their depiction of the human form.
A decade later, here's a woman identified on the group's Facebook page as Erika killing it in front of the craters that were left behind. Erika is a volunteer for the group Skateistan, an international non-profit attempting to "use skateboarding as a tool for empowerment" and developers of Afghanistan's first skateboarding school. The school welcomes both girls and boys to participate, even going so far as to open a private girls' skating rink so that older students could continue to practice without men present.
A spate of increased violence, and in particular the increase of Afghans dressed as security attacking U.S. forces, have frayed nerves throughout the country and brought renewed attention to the role of the U.S. mission. However, while it may be just one girl on a skateboard, the photo, besides being awesome, is a reminder that not all the news coming out of Afghanistan today is bad.
U.S. and Pakistani officials signed a memorandum of understanding today, finally reopening supply routes to Afghanistan after a seven month blockade. In a statement to the press, Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman Mozzam Ahmed Khan assured that public that the decision to restore supply lines was made "without any financial benefit."
That may be true for Pakistan, but not everyone is coming out of this empty-handed. The Associated Press reports:
"Stopping these supplies caused us real trouble," a Taliban commander who leads about 60 insurgents in eastern Ghazni province told The Associated Press in an interview. "Earnings dropped down pretty badly. Therefore the rebellion was not as strong as we had planned."
A second Taliban commander who controls several dozen fighters in southern Kandahar province said the money from security companies was a key source of financing for the insurgency, which uses it to pay fighters and buy weapons, ammunition and other supplies.
"We are able to make money in bundles," the commander told the AP by telephone. "Therefore, the NATO supply is very important for us."
The U.S. military estimates that theft, bribery and mismanagement put $360 million in the hands of the Taliban, regional war lords and criminals in 2010 alone -- with more than half that amount pinched from convoys along the supply routes.
Citing evidence "rang[ing] from sobering to shocking," a 2010 House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform report titled Warlord, Inc illustrated the extent of extortion and corruption along the Afghanistan supply routes and called for increased efforts to cut losses. Efforts to protect supply routes and diminish the influence of local power brokers have gained little traction and convoys remain a target for attack and theft.
Though today's MOU banned the transport of arms and ammunition, the Taliban's glee remains unabated. "We have had to wait these past seven months for the supply lines to reopen and our income to start again," cheered one commander, "Now work is back to normal."
NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images
You can't even blame this one on Murdoch (we think). The Taliban denied today reports that its leader, Mullah Omar, had died. Spokesmen for the group said their mobile phones, email accounts, and a website they operated had been hacked into, and false messages were sent to media outlets.
Text messages sent from phone numbers belonging to Taliban spokespeople said, "Spiritual Leader Mullah Mohammad Omar Mujahid has died" and "May Allah bless his soul."
The Taliban in recent years has expanded its media presence with websites, mobile phone ring tones and social media accounts. The group updates its websites frequently and sends messages to media outlets in several languages publicizing their attacks, according to Reuters.
"This is the work of American intelligence, and we will take revenge on the telephone network providers," a Taliban spokesman told Reuters.
A statement said that the "technical workers of the Islamic Emirate's Information and Cultural Commission" were looking into the matter. Yes, apparently the Taliban has an IT department.
The group also said there would be an investigation into the hacking. Hopefully, they will do a better job than Scotland Yard.
The case of Bibi Aisha, the young girl who graced the cover of TIME Magazine after her nose and ears were cut off, has been dropped. The only arrested suspect, Aisha's father-in-law, was released in Afghanistan, according to government officials. Aisha has been living in the United States for the past two years following her dramatic recovery, so there is no one available to press charges against Haji Suleiman. The provincial attorney, Ghulam Farouq, maintained that the suspect was innocent since he did not actually cut the young girl. But Suleiman is far from innocent -- he was accused of holding a gun to 18-year-old Aisha while several other men mutilated and left her for dead. He then marched around the village with the young girl's nose in hand. Aisha's father, Mohammedzai, relayed his anger, saying:
"We don't know who released him. We don't know at all. It's either government weakness or our weakness. We don't have money to pay the government and we don't have someone in the government to support us."
Aisha won the hearts of readers around the world with her horrifying tale of survival. She was a servant, a child bride fleeing the brutal abuse of her in-laws who would make her sleep with the animals as if she was an animal herself.
Aisha's father feared what the Taliban would do if Aisha spoke out. But she ignored his advice to keep quiet:
"My father told me not to tell anyone the full truth, that I was given away, that I went to jail for two or three months, not to tell anyone anything. But I will tell them all these things because I am not such a person to lie. I will tell them because I think my story must be told."
Aisha quickly became the face of the Afghan woman's plight -- the United Nations estimates nearly 90 percent of women in Afghanistan suffer from domestic abuse. The haunting photograph of beautiful, but disfigured Aisha draped in a purple scarf, won the 2010 World Press Photo of the Year.
Her attackers may never be brought to justice, but Aisha continues to recover. She is currently studying English in New York City.
Nisa Yeh via Flickr Creative Commons
Hamid Karzai's younger half brother, Ahmad Wali, was a master of balancing various powerful forces in southern Afghanistan -- tribal leaders, U.S. and NATO military and intelligence interests, allegedly even powerful drug lords. It's what made him such a valuable asset to his older brother.
He was also a link for President Karzai to the murkier side of Afghan politics -- tribal power. Karzai may have won the presidency through elections, but he maintained power the way politics in Afghanistan has always been played -- through patronage and tribal links.
Moreover, Ahmad Wali managed the troubled southern city of Kandahar, keeping it in his brother's political sphere. As Vali Nasr, a former senior advisor to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, put it, "Afghan politics is all about power brokers and their webs of relationships. The bigger your web, the more powerful you are."
His assassination -- which the Taliban has taken credit for -- leaves a number of tricky questions for Karzai and the United States.
Did the Taliban just send a message about negotiations?
Just last month, Hamid Karzai said peace talks with the Taliban are "going well." As relations between Karzai and the United States have become more contentious -- and the U.S. drawdown begins -- the Afghan president has grown more open in public to reestablishing relations to the Taliban.
As far as negotiating tactics go, killing the leader's brother isn't exactly a way to send a positive signal. Even if they didn't kill him, as Matthieu Akins suggests, they are still taking credit.
"It would suggest they are not in a reconciliation mood," Nasr told Foreign Policy.
President Obama has seen political negotiations as necessary to ending the war. Karzai's death may have just delivered a severe blow to those hopes.
"It puts the burden on the United States and the Karzai government," said Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. "Will we suspend talks with the Taliban because they claimed credit for something like this? The burden is on Karzai. He's been calling them his ‘brothers,' talking to them, and encouraging them to make peace."
Who fills the sizable power vacuum in Kandahar?
Ahmad Wali was an easy figure to criticize -- a man with murky ties and no clear political ideology -- but his absence will be felt in Kandahar, a city key to U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.
"Good or bad, he was nevertheless Karzai's most important instrument and pillar of authority in Kandahar," Nasr said. "Without him, we'll have a much more dangerous time dealing with that city."
Now, who will manage the complex web of tribal power brokers there? Potentially the Taliban, said Nasr. But expect some battles between aspiring warlords over his turf.
Karzai will surely try to fill the breach with someone else. But there's no guarantee his new man -- whomever that may be -- will be able to keep the lid on the city with quite as much success.
What does his death mean for the United States?
The United States could never seem to make up its mind about the younger Karzai. They acknowledged his vast corruption and dirty dealings, but also seemed to realize his brand of Afghan power politics was necessary, to a degree. He was regarded by U.S. intelligence officials as "indispensable," according to the Washington Post, even if he "has long been viewed with mistrust by American military officers, who describe him as an obstacle in their efforts to fight corruption and bolster the rule of law."
Last March, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told his subordinates to "stop saying bad stuff about" the younger Karzai and to work with him.
Karzai had ties to the CIA (some reports say he was on their payroll in exchange for security forces and providing safe houses around Kandahar). But many in Washington also believed he was tied to the opium trade and other illicit activities.
Still, Khalilzad said that when he was ambassador, the United States dealt with him effectively on a number of security issues, as well as facilitating engagement with local leaders. "He was seen as being helpful," he said.
However, another former U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry called Ahmad Wali Karzai an obstacle to U.S. efforts, according to a leaked diplomatic cable obtained by Wikileaks.
"One of our major challenges in Afghanistan [is] how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government, when the key government officials are themselves corrupt," he wrote. The memo singled out Ahmad Wali as "widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker."
Good or bad, his death surely complicates efforts to bring peace to the southern region of Afghanistan -- and clearly highlights the lack of security for the highest echelons of the government there.
The price tag for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq since the 9/11 attacks is somewhere between $3.7 and $4.4 trillion, according to a new report released today. The staggering figure is nearly four times higher than the U.S. government estimate. Just last week, President Barack Obama pegged the cost over the last decade at $1 trillion.
The new estimated cost provided by a research project at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies, is also much higher than most previous attempts to quantify the operations.
A March 2011 Congressional Research Service report estimated the war funding at $1.4 trillion through 2012 and the Congressional Budget Office pegged the cost from 2001 through 2021 at an estimated $1.8 trillion, according to Reuters.
A 2008 report by economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, however, put the estimated combined cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars between $5 and $7 trillion. They included interest on debt, future borrowing to pay off debt, the cost of a continued military presence, and health care and counseling for veterans.
Catherine Lutz, a professor of anthropology at Brown and one of the project's directors, told Foreign Policy her group also took into account future costs, such as obligated expenses for injured soldiers in the decades to come.
According to a White House spokesperson, the number disparity between the trillion-dollar figure the president used this month and the Brown report comes down to methodology -- and what you choose to include. The administration is counting only the "direct costs of war," the spokesperson said, which includes just the money appropriated for the budgets of the Pentagon, State Department, and intelligence community. Officially, the White House says the "total amount appropriated for war-related activities" is $1.3 trillion, which could rise to $1.4 trillion in 2012.
Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said it's fair to include more than just the cost of current operations when coming up with the "total cost" of the war -- including things such as veteran care.
"There are people who are being injured today who will need health care for a long time after the conflict ends," she said. "That's not part of the current cost, but it's certainly directly related."
Bensahel, who has not read the entire report, said other expenses mentioned in the press were less fair -- including factoring in lost opportunity costs.
"I don't think that's an appropriate cost to include because every expenditure of money includes some trade-offs," she said.
According to the report, the United States has already spent between $2.3 and $2.6 trillion on Iraq and Afghanistan. The project also looked at the cost of war in terms of human casualties. The number of total deaths it calculates (225,000) is "a very conservative estimate," said Lutz.
"Seeing the death toll, how many of the allied uniform folks have died and seeing the civilian numbers was the biggest shock for me," she said.
31,741 uniformed allied soldiers and contractors -- from U.S., Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani security forces, as well as contractors -- have been killed. And the report claims that at least 137,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Journalists and humanitarian workers accounted for between 434 and 521 deaths.
The goal of the project was to give the public "a fuller sense of what's at stake," Lutz said. "I think it's the case that we've had an atrophying of public information sources [looking into these questions]. Journalism is in a challenged state and there's a real heavy spin machine out there. Whatever one's political project, it's accompanied by a heavy dose of misinformation. We really feel it's important for foreign policy and domestic policy decision-making to know this information."
For the past several days, Afghan officials and the country's former central bank governor have been trading allegations over who is responsible for the worst financial crisis in Afghan history. Abdul Qadeer Fitrat, who ran the Afghan Central Bank, fled to the United States this week, saying his life was in danger after accusing politically powerful people of bearing responsibility for financial malfeasance at Afghanistan's largest commercial bank, where last year about $900 million went missing. In turn, Afghan officials issued an arrest warrant for Fitrat, charging him with fraud and saying that -- as the country's chief banker -- he failed to oversee and correct the illicit dealings at Kabul Bank.
The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that nearly $900 million dollars disappeared, the majority of which is not likely to be returned. Kabul Bank is the largest private bank in the country, responsible for upwards of 80 percent of the government's payroll, including the salaries of soldiers and police officers. In September, after the extent of the fraud was uncovered, a rush on the bank resulted in a panic that nearly crippled the economy (a long Ramadan holiday weekend may have actually been what saved it). Fitrat and others outside Afghanistan allege that the bank operated as a defacto pyramid scheme, in which politically connected people -- such as President Hamid Karzai's businessman brother -- were given large, interest-free loans at the expense of the lowly depositor. Most of that money was then invested overseas in places like Dubai, where they bought things like expensive villas.
"There was no political will on the part of the Afghan government to get to the bottom of it," said Andrew Wilder, director of the Afghanistan and Pakistan program at the United States Institute of Peace.
When the Dubai housing market imploded in 2008, the extent of the problems at Kabul Bank became clear -- and the United States and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) pushed the Afghan government to take action. As a result, the central bank, headed by Fitrat, took over Kabul Bank and fired its top management.
WHO IS ABDUL QADEER FITRAT?
Depending whom you ask, he's either a hero who stood up to some of the most powerful people in the country or an incompetent bureaucrat who idly watched while Afghan's banking system fell into almost into total financial collapse. The former IMF and World Bank consultant was appointed governor of Afghan's central bank by Karzai in 2006 with a mission of fighting corruption and fraud. The central bank is supposed to oversee and supervise all the private banks in the country -- much like the Federal Reserve in the United States. Fitrat had the strong backing of the international community, given his experience in international financial institutions. In the wake of the scandal at the Kabul Bank, he was pushed to get to the bottom of it, and ultimately he publicly accused several important Afghan officials -- including the vice president, Qasim Fahim, and Karzai's brother -- of being involved.
This past Monday, he told reporters he heard from credible sources his life was in danger and had to flee the country. He landed in the United States, where he resigned as head of the central bank.
The Afghan government says that it was Fitrat's responsibility, as governor of the central bank, to oversee financial institutions and that he failed to respond to the problems at Kabul Bank. Rumors about the improprieties had been circulating since 2006; but until the crisis bubbled to the surface, Fitrat did nothing, the government says.
"It would be as if you were the chief of a fire station and reports came that there was a fire, but you said you couldn't go because I'm not supposed to be in that neighborhood," Torek Farhadi, a former economic advisor to Karzai and advisor to the central bank, told Foreign Policy. "It was his job to know something was irregular."
But Fitrat says he didn't know about the irregularities -- and even if he did, he wouldn't have been able to do anything, since it involved the most powerful people in the country.
"On the one hand, he's being pressured to investigate thoroughly and get to the bottom of it," said Wilder. "On the other hand, the people he's being asked to pursue are among the most politically powerful in the country. He was stuck between a rock and a hard place and ultimately he decided northern Virginia was a better place than Kabul."
HOW COULD SO MUCH MONEY BE LOANED OUT WITHOUT INTEREST AND NO ONE ASKED ANY QUESTIONS?
The New York Times is reporting today that a cell phone recovered from Osama bin Laden's safe house "contained contacts" to the militant group Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen (HUM), which has longstanding ties to Pakistan's intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The implication is the spy agency, or elements of it, may have had a hand in sheltering bin Laden.
While the revelation about the cell-phone contacts are interesting, there's nothing new about the group's longtime connection to bin Laden's terror network.
The links go all the way back to the founding of al Qaeda. Fazlur Khalil, one of HUM's leaders, even signed bin Laden's fatwa in 1998 calling for attacks on the United States and U.S. citizens around the world as part as the "World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders." And when the United States launched retaliatory airstrikes against al Qaeda after the embassy bombings in East Africa that same year, some of those missiles struck a HUM training camp in Afghanistan, killing 11 of its militants. At the time, the Clinton administration said the camps were "part of a terrorist network run by Osama bin Laden," according to a Times story from 1998.
According to Robert Grenier, the former CIA station chief in Islamabad, it's not clear if HUM and al Qaeda "shared camps on an organizational level," but there were definitely personal links forged at HUM camps between fighters of both groups.
The State Department put the group on its list of foreign terrorists after the 9/11 attacks (its precursor group, which went by a different name, had been placed on the list in 1997).
WikiLeaks offers more evidence of a connection. In one leaked threat assessment document about a detainee at Guantánamo with ties to HUM, an "analyst note" says: "Kamran Atif, a terrorist who was recently arrested by the Pakistani Crime Investigation Department (CID) Police revealed that [HUM] has links with Al-Qaida and that [HUM] and AQ are ‘in complete contact with each other.'"
In a threat assessment for another detainee with ties to both groups, HUM is described as "a Pakistani extremist group known to help al Qaeda members escape from Afghanistan."
HUM is also tied to the 2002 kidnapping of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was killed in Pakistan, reportedly by al Qaeda's 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. According to a report released this year on the kidnapping from the Center for Public Integrity and Georgetown University, the mastermind of the operation, Omar Sheikh, had ties to HUM, among other militant groups in Pakistan.
Also, Pearl's remains were found in a shed owned by Saud Memon, reportedly HUM's chief financial backer who was later killed, according to the Associated Press.
The Times article says that Khalil, HUM's leader is living "unbothered by Pakistani authorities on the outskirts of Islamabad."
When the Associated Press called Khalil on his cell phone last month, he said that reports that he was in touch with bin Laden in Abottabad were "100 percent wrong, it's rubbish."
As President Barack Obama prepares to announce the scale of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, one headache for Washington policy makers has been the increasingly incendiary and downright hostile statements coming from Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
His latest attack came Saturday:
You remember a few years ago I was saying thank you to the foreigners for their help; every minute we were thanking them. Now I have stopped saying that... They're here for their own purposes, for their own goals, and they're using our soil for that.
Even as Karzai's rhetoric has turned sharply anti-Western and anti-American, it's not clear he actually wants foreign troops to withdraw, a step that could endanger his government's stability.
Still, his language has frustrated U.S. officials, who feel that he is undermining the war effort. "At the point your leaders believe that we are doing more harm than good, when we reach a point that we feel our soldiers and civilians are being asked to sacrifice without a just cause, and our generous aid programs dismissed as totally ineffective and the source of all corruption," outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Kabul Karl Eichenberry said, in response to Karzai's latest verbal barrage. "The American people will ask for our forces to come home."
So what's behind Karzai's anger? A chorus of officials and analysts think he has simply become unhinged -- U.S. intelligence reports have reportedly voiced the theory that he is "manic-depressive."
But others believe that Karzai is calculating that anti-American statements will burnish his nationalist credentials and curry favor with the Afghan population.
"He doesn't want to be seen as a lackey of the United States, he cultivates a sense of separateness," said Vali Nasr, who served in the Obama administration on Afghanistan-Pakistan policy until this spring. "My read of him is he doesn't trust our strategy and doesn't believe we have a commitment to him."
The contested 2009 presidential election, during which he was accused of vote fraud by many observers, represented a turning point in his relationship with the United States, Nasr said.
"In the past two years, he's come to doubt our commitment and strategy," he said. "And he sees what we demand of him as counter-productive to his political ambitions. So he lashes out."
Still, Karzai is running the risk of undercutting support for the military intervention that is crucial for him to fend off the insurgency. Polls indicate that Americans are losing patience with the Afghan war. And when Afghanistan's leader vociferously condemns American soldiers as occupiers, their impatience only grows.
"He's systematically been creating the impression that we are wasting our time over there," Nasr said.
Below, Foreign Policy compiled some of Karzai's most notorious recent statements.
It's time for one of Washington favorite parlor games -- predicting what the president will say before he says it. What we know is that tomorrow President Obama will announce his plans for a troop reduction in Afghanistan. Thirty-three thousand surge troops were added in 2009, with the promise that by this summer they would begin to come home. But how many and how fast is still an open question.
Officially, the White House says the president is still "finalizing" his decision. And indeed, some of his key advisors reportedly disagree on what to do. Gen. David Petraeus-- the current Afghanistan commander who will soon take over the CIA -- and many of the generals are pushing for a pretty small initial withdrawal of no more than 3-4,000 troops. On the opposite extreme, some in the administration and outside want a far broader withdrawal. Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the president's senior advisor on Afghanistan, advocates pulling 15,000 troops out by the end of the year and another 15,000 by the end of 2012, according to the New York Times. Carl Levin, the influential senator and chair of the armed services committee, backs that approach as well. Vice President Joe Biden -- who was a critic of the surge before it was cool -- reportedly wants all 30,000 surge troops gone within 12 months. Defense Secretary Bob Gates is pushing for something in the range of 5,000 troops -- a brigade -- this year and another 5,000 over the next winter, according to the Times.
Where will Obama come down?
The L.A. Times cites Pentagon and administration officials saying the reduction will be about 10,000 by the end of the year. If true, it would be a significant move by Obama. Petraeus has warned Obama that taking out that many troops that quickly "could create problems for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan" especially if other countries follow America's lead and begin withdrawing, the paper said. But a faster withdrawal decision would seem to bolster the president politically at home. A recent NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll found that 54 percent of the country approves of Obama's handling of the war but are growing impatient with the decade-old conflict.
The Washington Post cites administration officials saying Obama will likely remove far fewer than 10,000 -- probably in the Pentagon-approved range of 3-5,000, though the officials warned that no final decision has been made. Interestingly, according to the Post, the president had hoped to announce progress on another front at the same time as the troop withdrawal -- reconciliation talks with the Taliban. But those talks have stalled and there is political confusion over the U.S.'s partner in Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, whose rhetoric has been growing more and more incendiary -- some would say unhinged -- of late.
The New York Times presents a third theory, attributed to an "official," that the president tomorrow might not give any specific withdrawal number. He might only announce a date for the final drawdown of all the surge troops sometime in 2012 -- but leave the timetable vague and rely on commanders in the field to make suggestions. This was the approach he used in Iraq. According to the Times, administration sources said the president would most likely pull out "the entire 30,000 troops by the end of 2012."
Afghans who live under Taliban-controlled areas these days have suffered abuse for not growing a beard, not praying, and, more generally speaking, for being a woman. But ridicule for your license plate? As of this spring, that's a Kabul specialty:
Afghanistan's booming car sales industry has been thrown into chaos by a growing aversion to the number "39", which almost overnight has become an unlikely synonym for pimp and a mark of shame in this deeply conservative country.
Drivers of cars with number plates containing 39, bought before the once-harmless double digits took on their new meaning, are mocked and taunted across Kabul.
"Now even little kids say 'look, there goes the 39'. This car is a bad luck, I can't take my family out in it," said Mohammad Ashraf who works for a United Nations project.
No one's quite sure about the origins of the obsession; the most frequently reported story pins it on an Iranian pimp from the western city of Herat who lived in an apartment numbered 39 and had a 39 on his license plate. Whatever the cause, though, it's becoming a problem for more than just car drivers:
Afghans with 39 as part of their cellphone numbers have to endure so much derision that some have blocked people from seeing their number when they call. Others have switched their phone numbers altogether.
To avoid being needlessly ridiculed, Afghans who are 39 years old will sometimes tell people they are "one less than 40."
Kabulites aren't alone in their distaste for a specific number. In 2007, Brussels Airlines had to add a dot to their 13-dot logo to assuage customer fears. The Chinese have a long-standing animosity towards the number 4, which, in Chinese, sounds like the word for "death". The superstition prompted government last year to stop issuing license plates with 4's. You never know when your license plate will come back to haunt you.
PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/Getty Images
What a difference four years makes! The new order of the day when it came to foreign policy and national security at last night's New Hampshire GOP debate was caution. On both Afghanistan and Libya, candidate after candidate urged an end to military adventurism -- sounding more like Ron Paul than George W. Bush or John McCain.
"We've learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation," front-runner Mitt Romney said. "Only Afghanis can win Afghanistan independence from the Taliban."
"Our policy in Libya is substantially flawed," said Michele Bachmann, who just announced last night she was running. "We were not attacked, we were not threatened with attack, there was no vital national interest."
"We need to think fundamentally about reassessing our entire strategy in the region," Newt Gingrich said. "I think we should say to the generals we'd like to get out as rapidly as possible...we have got to have a totally new strategy for the region."
"Is it in the vital interest of the United States of America? If the answer is no, then we don't go any further," said Herman Cain, the businessman turned candidate, summing up his thinking on national security questions overseas. He quoted his mother on Libya: "It's a mess. There's more that we don't know than we do know. So it would be very difficult to know exactly what to do until we learn from the commanders in the field."
Ron Paul went further than the other candidates, not surprisingly: "I'd bring them home as quickly as possible. And I'd get them out of Iraq as well. And I wouldn't start a war in Libya. I'd quit bombing Yemen and I'd quit bombing Pakistan...our national security is not enhanced by our presence over there."
Despite the candidates' general agreement, foreign policy played a very small role in the debate -- taking up all of eight minutes at the end of the CNN-hosted event.
It's been a tough couple of weeks for al Qaeda. Since the successful Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the terror network has suffered additional losses that analysts say are taking a heavy toll on the group.
Ilyas Kashmiri, al Qaeda's operational leader in Pakistan, was reportedly killed by a U.S. drone strike earlier this month (though al Qaeda hasn't confirmed his death, reports of which have been incorrect before). And last week, an al Qaeda leader in East Africa -- Fazul Abdullah Mohammed -- was killed by Somali forces in Mogadishu. Mohammed was the most wanted man in Africa.
Analysts and U.S. officials say the deaths have created a power vacuum.
"The organization is in a great deal of turmoil," a U.S. counterterrorism official told Foreign Policy. "It's trying to sort itself out with what's going on."
Bruce Hoffman, director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, said Kashmiri and Mohammed were key operational figures, not easily replaced due to their long pedigrees of planning and executing attacks.
"They are especially important because they would have been looked on to plan and implement any acts of retribution [for bin Laden's death] from al Qaeda," he said. "Their killings knock them seriously off balance."
Of course, al Qaeda is well-known for its ability to replenish its ranks. Analysts like Hoffman and Evan Kohlmann, who has consulted with the U.S. government, see a few key names potentially emerging to fill the void.
1. Saif al-Adel
Born in Egypt in 1960 or 1963, according to the FBI. Currently believed to be hiding in Pakistan's tribal region.
Al-Adel was reportedly named the interim chief of Al Qaeda after bin Laden's death. After the 9/11 attacks, he fled to Iran, where he was eventually put under house arrest. In 2008, Iran swapped him for a diplomat taken captive by al Qaeda in Pakistan.
Signature attacks: Has played a hand in many al Qaeda attacks, allegedly dispatching Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, to meet Khalid Sheikh Mohammed; and aiding the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Africa.
Getty Images, AFP/Getty Images
The last words of Richard C. Holbrooke, a lion of U.S. diplomacy, were "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan" -- a sentence worth pondering as the United States heads into a fresh round of debate over a conflict that has ground on for more than 9 years, steadily escalating from a sideshow to a nightmare that threatens to consume Barack Obama's presidency.
What did Holbrooke mean? Did he oppose the war? [UPDATE: The Washington Post has a fuller account of Holbrooke's last comment, and one person I've spoken with who was at the hospital last night says it was taken out of context.]
Holbrooke, who until last week was running the civilian side of the Afghan war, had expressed few public doubts about the wisdom of U.S. efforts there. Despite constant sniping at him in the press (and some unkind words in Bob Woodward's latest), he remained officially upbeat about what he was doing, touting U.S. aid efforts in Pakistan, highlighting agricultural programs in Afghanistan, and trying valiantly to broker some sort of modus vivendi between the two South Asian neighbors.
But he clearly had grave doubts about the war. He is quoted in Woodward's book saying that "If there are 10 possible outcomes in Afghanistan, nine of them are bad." Through Woodward, he also criticizes the approach urged by Bruce Riedel, who led the president's first major strategy review in the spring of 2009. It's worth quoting Woodward at length:
The war -- or the American role in the war -- would not end in a military victory, but nearly all the focus had been on the military. There had been little discussion of reconciliation -- how the warring parties could be brought together diplomatically. That might be far off, but it had to be planned. How could the Taliban insurgents be lured off the field? Maybe it was a fantasy. But they had to sincerely try.
The Saudis were already acting as secret intermediaries with elements of the Taliban, but the White House was not seriously engaging the issue. This was the only end for the war in Holbrooke's estimation. How could they not at least consider it?
Holbrooke largely agreed with Biden. He saw the vice president emerging as the adminisration's George Ball, the deputy secretary of state who had opposed the Vietnam escalation. But the length of Bidens's presentation undermined his message, Holbrooke told others.
Like Biden, Holbooke believed that even if the Taliban retook large parts of Afghanistan, al Qaeda would not come with them. That might be "the single most important intellectual insight of the year," Holbrooke remarked hours after the first meeting. Al Qaeda was much safer in Pakistan. Why go back to Afghanistan, where there were nearly 68,000 U.S. troops and 30,000 from other NATO countries? And in Afghanistan, the U.S. had all the intelligence and surveillance capability, plus the capability to dispatch massive ground forces, not just Special Operations Forces but batallions of regular troops and the CIA's 3,000-man pursuit teams.
Astonishingly to Holbrooke, that key insight had neither been in Riedel's report, nor had it been discussed that Sunday morning. Where was the no-holds-barred debate? The president had told them not to bite their tongues. Holbrooke had to bite his because he worked for the secretary of state, who was unsure of what course to recommend. But where were the others?
In another part of the book, Holbrooke is quoted saying that the strategy "can't work." Elsewhere, he expresses doubt that the United States can "defeat" the Taliban, complains about the Afghan police ("the weak link") and says provocatively that the U.S. presence itself "is the corrupting force" in Afghanistan. During the fall 2009 strategy review, he told Clinton privately that he supported sending 20,000 troops, but not the full 40,000 the military had requested. But he also opposed the July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing U.S. troops and said flatly at one point, "We're not leaving," urging that the U.S. presence be put on a more sustainable long-term footing.
Holbrooke's relations with the military weren't always smooth. When an aide to Gen. Stanley McChrystal dissed Holbrooke to Rolling Stone as "a wounded animal," he laughed it off, telling reporters, "Worse things have been said about me."
He also had fraught interactions with former national security advisor Jim Jones, whom he clearly viewed as a lightweight (and who in return tended to see Holbrooke's ideas as impractical), and with Jones's deputy, Tom Donilon.
But Holbrooke's biggest problem was with Obama, who in Woodward's estimation "didn't care for" him. The two men just didn't connect. In one painful anecdote, Holbrooke approaches him and asks to be called "Richard," rather than "Dick," because his wife preferred the former.
"Later, the president told others that he found the request highly unusual and even strange," Woodward writes. "Holbrooke was horrified when he learned that his request -- which he had repeated to no one -- had been circulated by the president."
Though we'll get the administration's formal assessment later this week, it's still too early to tell how the new "surge" in Afghanistan is going. But one has to wonder: If Holbrooke and Obama had gotten along better, or if Clinton had been less guarded in her own views, would history be playing out differently?
GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images
You've probably heard by now that NATO got totally punk'd by an unknown man posing as a high-ranking Taliban leader. How embarrassing. If only they'd looked out for these 10 ways of telling the true Talib from the con man, we wouldn't be in this mess:
10. Keeps asking if the peace talks can be held in the Maldives
9. Eyepatch switches sides from meeting to meeting
8. Introduces himself as "Colonel Iqbal from the ISI"
7. Runs up a large minibar tab at the Four Seasons Kabul
6. Wife angling for a spot on "The Real Housewives of Kandahar"
5. Claims to be texting Mullah Omar but is actually just playing Angry Birds the whole time
4. Offers to settle Afghan War with a game of Jenga
3. Turban made of an actual towel
2. Wears trench coat, offers to sell the letters O and U
1. Agrees to trade Osama bin Laden for Justin Bieber
In a move aimed at punishing potentially naughty
citizens, the government of Tajikistan is trying to get its students studying
abroad at religious schools to return
home. Fearing a politically and religiously coupled radicalization against
its authority, the Tajik state stepped up the conflict by blocking websites
supposedly critical of the government and armed forces. AFP reports that the blockage:
comes after Tajik Defence Minister General Sherali Khairullayev accused local media at the start of the month of supporting the Islamist militants.
He said that journalists' coverage had been one-sided and focused solely on alleged shortcomings of the armed forces. 'They do not ask who has carried out a[n] act of terror, on whose orders,' he complained.
The broad backlash follows a series of attacks carried out inside this Central Asian state by what the government suspects are radicalized Muslim elements. In recent weeks, scores of government soldiers have died, some in unclear circumstances, but clearly linked to fighting operations in the particularly volatile Rasht region of Tajikistan.
Apparently, the state does not want to slide back into a repeat of civil war which ravished the country during the 90's and pitted the current government, backed by Russia, against a more diverse opposition of Muslim fighters and non-religiously affiliated resistance, at least partly based in Afghanistan at the time.
While there have been reforms in the country allowing political opposition, there are still problems with the political will and administration in carrying them out; thus the recent chaos reflects what seems like a still non-placated opposition which stems, in part, from the authoritarian and non-inclusive tendencies of the current government.
For the poorest of the post-Soviet Central Asian republics, the prospect of armed conflict is a tremendous expense -- both economically and politically -- that Tajikistan truly cannot afford and would be a setback to any nascent post-war progress that may have been acheived.
Nearly across the board, the president's initiatives are going down in flames. Nowhere is this more true than in Pakistan where, Jane Perlez reported Wednesday, the civilian government in which the U.S. has invested billions is perilously close to collapse -- if not facing a military coup.
Now comes word that Pakistan is cutting off NATO's supply lines into Afghanistan in retaliation for U.S. helicopter strikes in Pakistani territory -- strikes made necessary because the Pakistani military can't, or won't, crack down on militants unless they threaten the Pakistani state directly.
As for the war in Afghanistan, it's going very badly.
Further east, the United States seems headed for a disastrous currency war with China, although Beijing's recent diplomatic blunders have sent Asian countries running into Uncle Sam's loving arms.
To the west, Iraq still has yet to form a government after seven months of post-election deadlock, and attacks on the Green Zone are metastasizing in a frightening way.
One rare bright spot is Russia where, despite the complaints of Cold Warriors and human rights campaigners, relations are at their highest point since the Yeltsin era. But much of the good work Obama's team has done could easily unravel, especially if the Senate deep-sixes the new nuke treaty.
As for Iran, it's a mixed bag. Obama has kept Europe on board with tough sanctions, and brought along a few other players. But China is likely to undercut those efforts and relieve the economic pressure, leaving the United States and Israel with few options for stopping Iran's nuclear drive. Meanwhile, the drums of war are beginning to beat in Congress.
Of course, if Obama really wants to make a hash of the world, I can think of no better way than to start launch airstrikes on Iran. But I doubt he's going to do that.
Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images
I'm no expert on Afgahanistan -- but I know enough about the country to understand that crying in public probably won't win you too many supporters:
Afghan President Hamid Karzai wept on Tuesday as he called on Afghans to “come to their senses” and move faster towards peace, or risk seeing the next generation flee abroa and lose their Afghan identity.
Afghans must live and work in their country and serve it, he said, as he identified for the first time some of the members of a peace council that will help seek a political rather than military end to fighting with Taliban-led insurgents.
“I do not want Mirwais, my son, to be a foreigner, I do not want this. I want Mirwais to be Afghan,” said Karzai, who himself spent many years in exile in Pakistan, while fighting the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and later during Taliban rule.
“Therefore come to your senses ... you are witnessing what is happening on our soil and only through our efforts can our homeland be ours,” he added, drawing huge applause from an audience at a international literacy day event in a Kabul school.
I wonder how the Taliban will make use of this? Aside from the crying, the sentiment here is not exactly inspiring: Apparently Karzai is considering getting out of Dodge, or at least sending his son abroad for safekeeping. What does that say about his confidence in his own leadership?
I hope Doug Lute and David Petraeus are drawing up contingency plans right now.
One other note: I've been reading the Woodward book, and apparently not only do some U.S. intelligence reports say that Karzai is manic-depressive, others say he smokes weed. Again: not confidence-inspiring.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
Barack Obama's White House aides have been furiously spinning Bob Woodward's new book as one that paints a positive image of the president, a wartime leader making touch decisions in the interest of the American people.
Some may see that image in Woodward's first of three adaptations of the book, published in today's Washington Post. But once could also see a president who doesn't trust his military advisors and treats them a little bit like the help. Consider this anecdote about the Afghan strategy review:
He was looking for choices that would limit U.S. involvement and provide a way out. His top three military advisers were unrelenting advocates for 40,000 more troops and an expanded mission that seemed to have no clear end. When his national security team gathered in the White House Situation Room on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2009, for its eighth strategy review session, the president erupted.
"So what's my option? You have given me one option," Obama said, directly challenging the military leadership at the table, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command.
"We were going to meet here today to talk about three options," Obama said sternly. "You agreed to go back and work those up."
Mullen protested. "I think what we've tried to do here is present a range of options."
Obama begged to differ. Two weren't even close to feasible, they all had acknowledged; the other two were variations on the 40,000.
Silence descended on the room. Finally, Mullen said, "Well, yes, sir."
Later on, we find Obama telling Gates that 30,000 more troops was his final answer:
"I've got a request for 4,500 enablers sitting on my desk," Gates said. "And I'd like to have another 10 percent that I can send in, enablers or forces, if I need them."
"Bob," Obama said, "30,000 plus 4,500 plus 10 percent of 30,000 is" - he had already done the math - "37,500." Sounding like an auctioneer, he added, "I'm at 30,000."
Obama had never been quite so definitive or abrupt with Gates.
"I will give you some latitude within your 10 percentage points," Obama said, but under exceptional circumstances only.
"Can you support this?" Obama asked Gates. "Because if the answer is no, I understand it and I'll be happy to just authorize another 10,000 troops, and we can continue to go as we are and train the Afghan national force and just hope for the best."
"Hope for the best." The condescending words hung in the air.
So which is it? Tough commander in chief or insecure armchair general? I suspect this will be a question for history to answer.
With Iraq and Afghanistan increasingly revealing the new realities of war, ProPublica yesterday reported a hitherto unprecedented fact: between January and June, more private contractors than soldiers were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the first time in history that corporations have lost more personnel on the battlefields than the military.
The nonprofit investigative reporting group analyzed U.S. Department of Labor data and revealed that more than 250 contracted civilians died during the first six months of 2010, compared to 235 soldiers during the same period.
According to ProPublica, this startling statistic reflects the drawdown of U.S. military forces in Iraq and "the central role of contractors in providing logistics support to local armies and police forces"-roles that used to be performed by soldiers. The privatization of warfare means that its contractors-often local civilians or workers hired from developing countries-deliver fuel, provide food, clean kitchens, and give protection to U.S. outposts. ProPublica's report noted that there are currently 150,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, while, as of March 2010, there were over 200,000 private contractors (although that number is believed to be smaller today).
Steven Schooner, a professor of government contracting at George Washington University Law School, told ProPublica that a reduction in military deaths doesn't necessarily mean that battlefield losses are in decline:
"It's extremely likely that a generation ago, each one of these contractors deaths would have been a military death," Schooner said. "As troop deaths have fallen, contractor deaths have risen. It's not a pretty picture."
See ProPublica's Disposable Army series for more coverage on civilian contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
Bob Woodward's new book about Barack Obama's presidency promises to create enormous headaches for a White House that's already reeling from a weak economic recovery and a surging Republican opposition, judging by accounts in the New York Times and the Washington Post. The accounts paint a portrait of a president sharply at odds with the military and deeply ambivalent about the war in Afghanistan. And they rip the veneer off an administration that had hitherto been known for its tight message discipline and a relative lack of infighting.
If you thought the Rolling Stone article that got Gen. Stanley McChrystal fired was damning, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Get a load of some of these nuggets:
The most explosive revelations, however, center around the Obama's decision last year to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan but set a controversial July 2011 timeline for beginning to withdraw -- an awkward compromise that Woodward's sources seem eager to portray as very much the president's own. And Bob's got the goods: Obama, who comes across as deeply skeptical about the war and overwhelmingly concerned with finding an "exit strategy" rather than winning, personally dictated a six-page "terms sheet" outlining the conditions under which he was sending the troops. Woodward describes a tense Nov. 29, 2009, meeting where the president demanded that each participant read it and raise any objections "now." According to the Post, "The document -- a copy of which is reprinted in the book -- took the unusual step of stating, along with the strategy's objectives, what the military was not supposed to do."
As Woodward describes it, the memo represented Obama's attempt to keep the military from boxing him in and pushing to escalate the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan (a storyline we've heard before, though with fewer details). At one point, Woodward says, Obama told military leaders, "In 2010, we will not be having a conversation about how to do more. I will not want to hear, 'We're doing fine, Mr. President, but we'd be better if we just do more.' We're not going to be having a conversation about how to change [the mission] ... unless we're talking about how to draw down faster than anticipated in 2011." It's not clear just who's boxing in whom at the moment, though. The Post remarks on the irony that Petraeus has been tasked with implementing a strategy with which he clearly does not fully agree, but the general has been pretty savvy about thus far about establishing that the withdrawals will be "conditions-based."
Obama told Gates and Clinton at another meeting that he didn't want to stay in Afghanistan for a decade: "I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars." He also made a similar remark to Lindsey Graham, telling the South Carolina senator, "I can’t let this be a war without end, and I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party."
Republicans are going to have a field day with this one.
In an interview with ABC's Martha Raddatz, Gen. David Petraeus admits that progress in southern Afghanistan has been a little slow:
I think there's no question that in Helmand Province, the six central districts of Helmand Province-- are a good bit more secure than they were even six months ago," he said.
"Marja -- as hard fought and as embattled as it has been, three days ago opened up its high school for the first time in six years. Three other schools will open for students ... . It has an interim police station. The market is no longer a market in which the narcotics industry puts its wares on sale."
"Very hard fought gains," he continued. "Very difficult and sometimes seeming to be as slow as watching grass grow or paint dry."
A Japanese journalist held hostage in Afghanistan fooled his abductors with an unlikely source: Twitter.
Kosuke Tsuneoka's captors asked him last Friday to show them how to use their new Nokia mobile phones, and after activating the devices Tsuneoka demonstrated how to access the Internet. After showing them Al Jazeera's website, Tsuneoka made his move:
Then I told them there is a thing called 'Twitter'. They asked me to show them what it was, so I sent Twitter messages with the phone in front of them. Because nobody understood English, it was no problem.
Tsuneoka tweeted two messages: "i am still alive, but in jail." He then followed up with his location: "here is archi in kunduz. in the jail of commander lativ." He was released the following day, though he suspects it was as a result of his captors' failure to secure a ransom payment.
Tsuneoka further noted that he was well treated in captivity, even given three meals a day, but that his captors were "dreadfully uneducated" and "even their knowledge of Islamic teaching was very poor."
Tsuneoka claims he was held by fighters loyal to Hizb-i-Islami commander Guldbuddin Hekmatyar -- and not Taliban fighters, which the Afghan government and some media organizations reported.
Hekmatyar, a veteran mujahedeen commander, earned his name during the campaign against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Hizb-i-Islami is believed to be the second largest insurgent group in Afghanistan.
YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
As a general rule, when serving military officers decide to place their opinions on the public record, they write in hyper-cautious military-speak that appears designed to conceal any sort of original insight. So thank you, Col. Lawrence Sellin, for being an exception to the rule. Sellin, a staff officer in ISAF Joint Command in Kabul, sounds like he had a Very Bad Day at the office, and then returned home to pen a screed against the work being done at headquarters.
For headquarters staff, war consists largely of the endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information. Even one tiny flaw in a slide can halt a general's thought processes as abruptly as a computer system's blue screen of death.
The ability to brief well is, therefore, a critical skill. It is important to note that skill in briefing resides in how you say it. It doesn't matter so much what you say or even if you are speaking Klingon.
Random motion, ad hoc processes and an in-depth knowledge of Army minutia and acronyms are also key characteristics of a successful staff officer. Harried movement together with furrowed brows and appropriate expressions of concern a la Clint Eastwood will please the generals. Progress in the war is optional.
Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing. Col. Sellin sounds like he has a future career as a pundit -- which, come to think of it, may soon come in handy. (H/T Ghosts of Alexander)
Update: Not surprisingly, Sellin has been sacked from his job at ISAF headquarters, officially for violating a directive that requires officers to clear "written or oral presentations to the media" with a public-affairs officer. He says that he bears no ill will to anyone in his former organization, and will be returning to Finland to work for an IT company where he had been employed before going to Afghanistan.
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I've already said I was underwhelmed by the Wikileaks docu-dump on the Afghan war, and Peter Feaver and Dan Drezner have also weighed in with similar takes. As Drezner puts it, "So it turns out that the war in Afghanistan is not going well and Pakistan is playing a double game? Well, knock me down with a feather!!"
Nonetheless, a lot of people seem to be shocked by the revelations in the documents. One of them is New Yorker editor Amy Davidson, who discusses one incident where a convoy was shaken down by Afghan gunmen "in the pay of a local warlord, Matiullah Khan, who was himself in the pay, ultimately, of the American public." (Khan was the subject of a lengthy New York Times profile in June.)
Davidson seems outraged by this, but I find her reaction naive. She writes: "We may be the ones being shaken down on the highway, but from an Afghan perspective we are, by aligning ourselves with and propping up Hamid Karzai, also deploying the bandits. We are robbing ourselves, both of our purse and of our good name."
Fair enough. So who should the U.S. align with? And how does she think all those supplies get to U.S. bases?
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