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Abizaid looks at the big picture

In a talk given this afternoon at the Miller Center of Public Affairs, retired Gen.  John Abizaid outlined his view of U.S. involvement in the Middle East. He argued that it is foolish to approach issues on a country-by-country basis, complaining that "we look at Iraq through a soda straw. We look at Afghanistan through a soda straw." Instead, says Abizaid, the United States must develop a regional strategy that accounts for the roles of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

For the same reason, he suggested, the debate over whether or not to send more troops to Afghanistan has been over-simplified; the discussion should be broadened to include the relative demands of Iraq, Afghanistan and the region at large.

Abizaid also emphasized the ideological nature of the conflict, and the need for soft power to address the root causes of radicalism. He noted that Baitullah Mehsud, the top Taliban leader, is referred to as "the commander of the faithful."

"While we may chuckle at that title," Abizaid said, "the people fighting for him do not." When asked whether there should be a shift to a counter-terrorism approach in Afghanistan that relies more upon targeted strikes than nation-building, Abizaid responded that such a plan is impractical. Stabilization in Afghanistan and Iraq is a precondition for effective counter terrorist operations, he argued, because it provides the infrastructure needed to develop the "superb, superb intelligence" needed.

The theme of the talk was that instability anywhere in the region is a serious threat to surrounding countries. With our "ground forces spread thin" and "our 24-7 forces totally engaged," the United States must more fully incorporate diplomatic, political and economic plans to get a handle on the region. A number of questions were directed to the resources required for such a broad regional approach, and towards the end of the talk, the retired general was asked if the situation would be better in Afghanistan had the United States not invaded Iraq.

"All's I know is that we did what we did, and we are where we are," he answered.

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Winner: Mauritius. Loser: Somalia.

This morning in Cape Town, South Africa the Mo Ibrahim Foundation released its annual index of governance in Africa. Using four categories -- safety and rule of law, participation and human rights, sustainable economic opportunity, and human development -- the winners were the usual suspects: Mauritius first, followed by Cape Verde, the Seychelles, and Botswana. As a region, Southern Africa came out tops, beating out the ambitious economic growth of Northern Africa. The equally predictable losers are Somalia, Chad, and Zimbabwe. Central Africa (home to the Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, and  Equatorial Guinea, among others) is the region that looks least desirable.

But what's more interesting than the total results are the contrasts within countries themselves. Just take Tunisia, a strong economic performer ranked 8th overall but 35th in human rights. Or Benin, a West African country that ranks 8th in terms of safety and security but 26th in human development. 

This survey strikes me as most useful for what it tells us about the diversity of a continent that is far too often viewed as uniform. North Africa seems to have figured out an economic model that is plowing ahead towards growth; participatory governance is more of a struggle. Meanwhile, West Africa is chronically underdeveloped in areas such as healthcare, education, and general quality of life; but it's generally free and fairly safe. East Africa is in the middle of most indicators. While certainly there are lessons to draw from the successes and failures of all these countries, applying the same prescriptions won't work as well. 

Check out the full rankings here.