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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Monday, January 07, 2008


two fronts

posted by Aziz P. at Monday, January 07, 2008 permalink View blog reactions
A pair of similar news reports give me pause. First,

Pakistan tribal elders shot dead

Gunmen in Pakistan have shot dead eight pro-government tribal leaders in the troubled South Waziristan region on Afghanistan's border, officials say.

The tribesmen were killed in two separate attacks on Sunday night and early Monday, a security official said.

and second,

Suicide Bomber Kills Key Sunni Leader in Baghdad

BAGHDAD — A suicide bomber assassinated a key leader of American-backed militia forces in a Sunni stronghold of Baghdad on Monday morning, the latest attack on nationalist Sunnis who have recently allied themselves with American troops. That attack, and a second bomb that exploded minutes later, killed at least six and wounded another 26 in total, hospital officials said.

The killing of the militia leader, Col. Riyadh al-Samarrai, on the fringes of north Baghdad’s Adhamiyah district, was one of the most significant attacks so far on leaders of former Sunni insurgents who have banded into militias, known as Awakening groups, to fight extremist militants.

It should be noted that the target in Pakistan was actually a Taliban leader, Maulavi Nazir, albeit one who recently was aiding the Pakistani military against foreign militants. The killers are suspected to be Uzbek militants, jihadis imported by Al Qaeda to buttress their stronghold of Waziristan. The targets in Baghdad meanwhile were Sunni tribals who have allied with US forces. In both cases, however, the principle is the same: retaliation against domestic leaders who are opposed to the foreign jihadis.

Lets keep in mind that the primary source of conflict in the Afghan campaign is the Taliban-Al Qaeda alliance, though the example of Nazir suggests that the Taliban are not a monolithic bloc. In Iraq, the primary source of conflict remains the domestic insurgents, with Al Qaeda playing a smaller role (but they do inflict a disproportionate amount of mayhem since they tend to target civilians more).

Overall, what these attacks mean is difficult to gauge, though of course pro-withdrawal people will throw up their hands and say it's all chaos and anti-withdrawal voices (which still includes me, though the label chafes) will say it is a desperation ploy. I think actually it is neither - rather it's evidence of a drawn-out protracted struggle which is the status quo between what can be boiled down into a "revolutionary" vs "establishment" frame. However, it's clear that the situation in Afghanistan is the more critical one since Waziristan is arguably already a mini jihad state, whereas the claims of Al Qaeda in Iraq to have established any sort of control are laughable. It is frustrating therefore to see the continued emphasis on Iraq and the relative neglect of Afghanistan.

Something worth noting however is that while the Republican presidential candidates continue to stress Iraq status quo as crucial, none seem to really have much to say about Afghanistan (particularly ironic given the frequent invocation of 9-11, which required a ase of operations in Afghanistan to come to fruition). Here's what the three leading Democratic candidates have to say about Afghanistan, however.

John Edwards


Increase Special Forces in the country. Perseverance and success in Afghanistan are essential for the continuing viability of the NATO alliance. As president, Edwards will work with our principal allies and the other members of NATO to ensure the commitment of adequate forces and rules of engagement robust enough to ensure their ability to defeat the Taliban and ensure continuing progress of the democratic government in Afghanistan. As part of this effort, President Edwards will commit additional American Special Forces to work against the emergence of Taliban cells in Afghanistan, which are increasingly challenging the legitimate government, as the recent kidnapping of South Korean missionaries demonstrated.


Work with the government to extend the state to the northwest provinces. The recent National Intelligence Estimate found that Al Qaeda has established a safe haven in the northwest provinces of Pakistan. We have given the Musharraf government billions of dollars of aid and it has done far too little to get control over these provinces. As president, Edwards will condition future American aid on progress by Pakistan. With the cooperation of the Pakistani government, he will also deploy America's extraordinary intelligence and logistical assets to support Pakistan's efforts to establish control in the northwest. This will include strengthening the reach of police forces and working more effectively with tribal leaders and their members to ensure their acceptance of the government. He will also use our aid agencies to help Pakistan develop strong educational alternatives to the madrassas that are radicalizing Pakistani youth.


Get over-the-horizon Quick Reaction Forces up to speed. Under the Edwards plan, combat troops should be withdrawn from Iraq within the next year. Even though the presence of U.S. troops has served as an attractive target for terrorists, our withdrawal will not remove the threat. As president, Edwards will deploy troops in Quick Reaction Forces in friendly countries including Kuwait, to perform targeted missions against Al Qaeda cells in Iraq.

Summary: special forces in Afghanistan, not combat troops. This is not enough. Special forces are intended for special operations, not peace-keeping, nation-building, and safeguarding embryonic institutions of government. On Pakistan, he wants to make future aid conditional upon progress by Pakistan to eradicate terror? This is meaningless without definitions of "progress". Such a vague formulation suggests Edwards is not really cognizant of the Pakistani political situation. And as for Iraq, I told you so.

Hillary Clinton: I can't even find any mention of Afghanistan on her website. It seems to lack a search box. Turning to google, I found this speech, in which she says,

The catalog of misjudgments offends common sense and shocks the conscience: the unilateral decision to rush to war without allowing inspectors to finish their work or diplomacy to run its course; the failure to send enough troops and the disgraceful lack of equipment for those we sent; the draining of manpower, resources and intelligence capabilities from Afghanistan; the inability to stop rioting or to secure weapons caches; dismantling Iraq's security and governmental capacity; the ignorance of a rising insurgency; and the adherence, which continues to the present day, to a broken policy more than four years after the invasion began.
We also cannot allow the failures taking place in Iraq to cause us to lose focus on the war in Afghanistan. The first time I visited Afghanistan in 2003, a young soldier said to me, "Welcome to the forgotten front line of the war against terror." This administration is not only failing in Iraq, its inattention risks failure in Afghanistan.

During my visit to Afghanistan last January, I heard disturbing reports about continued cross border infiltration from Pakistan into Afghanistan by Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. The tensions between the Afghan and Pakistani governments were palpable.

During my meetings with President Karzai and President Musharraf, I asked if they thought that a special presidential envoy from the United States would help them resolve their disputes and they both expressed the belief that such an envoy could be very useful. When I returned to the United States, I called the White House to suggest a special envoy and to convey the reactions of Presidents Karzai and Musharraf. The White House, however, did not follow up on this idea and the tensions between those two critical countries continue unabated.

So, it "shocks the conscience" that manpower, resources and intelligence capabilities are being "drained" from Afghanistan, but after she got back from the forgotten front line of the war on terror, her call was for... a special presidential envoy? to reduce tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan? As the news links I provided above illustrate, the main problem in both countries is not each other.

However, a but of further googling revealed another speech, where Hillary had a bit more reassuring words:

a quote making the rounds in Kabul sums the situation up nicely: a Taliban commander supposedly boasted to his captors that "you have watches, but we have time."

To prove him wrong, we need to give our Afghan allies time, yet all we seem to do is check our own watches. Convinced first that we had all the answers, and then that we could sub-contract out counterinsurgency to our allies, we seem to have gone on auto-pilot. Inattention and false optimism are not only endangering all that we accomplished there; they are costing lives.

It is a great and brave thing that our allies from Canada, Britain, the Netherlands and other NATO countries have done by sending troops to Afghanistan. But Afghanistan and NATO need us as a leading partner, to help with security, to root out corruption, to find alternatives to opium, to improve the situation with Pakistan. We know the general area where the leaders of the Taliban and probably the leaders of Al Qaeda are. It is a failure of our policies on all fronts that five years later they are sending waves of fighters into Afghanistan from their safe havens. The stakes are unbearably high: for Afghanistan, for Pakistan, for the country's northern neighbors in Central Asia; for the reach of Al Qaeda; and for our own credibility and leadership.

We should begin by responding to our NATO commander's call for more troops in Afghanistan, where on a per capita basis we have spent 25 times less than we spent in Bosnia, and deployed one-fiftieth as many troops.

But having come so close, she still doesn't spell out what she would do, she is only highlighting what we haven't done. Since there is no mention of Afghanistan as a stand alone issue on her official issues pages, it's impossible to know exactly what she has in mind or what specific thought she has given to the issue.

Finally, Barack Obama: No mention of Afghanistan on his foreign policy page. No search box on his site either. Googling, we do get some good hits though. First, we see that Obama has explicitly called for shifting some Iraq troops to the Pak-Afghan border:

The U.S. should shift troops from Iraq to pursue al-Qaida along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said Saturday.

He said President Bush's war-fighting policies have left the United States at greater risk from terrorists. The first-term Illinois senator said decisions by the Republican president had allowed Osama bin Laden and his deputies to elude capture.

"We cannot win a war against the terrorists if we're on the wrong battlefield," Obama said. "America must urgently begin deploying from Iraq and take the fight more effectively to the enemy's home by destroying al-Qaida's leadership along the Afghan-Pakistan border, eliminating their command and control networks and disrupting their funding."

A PDF document on Obama's site gives a bit more detail about this redeployment:

Redeploy American Troops to Afghanistan. Barack Obama will deploy at least an
additional two brigades (7,000 personnel) of rested, trained American troops to
Afghanistan to reinforce our counter-terrorism operations and support NATO’s
efforts to fight the Taliban.
• Strengthen NATO’s Hand in Afghanistan. NATO currently has 39,000 troops in
Afghanistan. However, the force is short-staffed according to requirements laid down
by NATO commanders. At the same time, some countries contributing forces are
imposing restrictions on where their troops can operate, tying the hands of
commanders on the ground. In particular, France and Germany have been unwilling
to commit troops to areas where the fighting is heaviest. As president, Obama will
work with European allies to end these burdensome restrictions and strengthen
NATO as a fighting force. An increased U.S. commitment to the NATO mission will
substantially strengthen our hand in asking for more from our European friends.
• Train and Equip the Afghan Army and Police. American Major General Robert
Durbin, who oversees the training of Afghan security forces, recently said only 40
percent of the 70,000-strong police force is properly equipped with weapons,
communication equipment and vehicles. The outgoing head of Canada’s force in
Afghanistan estimated it will take at least three years before Afghanistan's corruption-
plagued police can stand on its own. Barack Obama will strengthen the training and
equipping of the Afghan army and police and increase Afghan participation in U.S.
and NATO missions, so that there is more of an Afghan face on security.

This isn't bad, but 7000 of our troops is a drop in the bucket, our NATO allies raent going to match that let alone exceed it, and training Afghan troops is a long term solution. The short term, we need more boots on the ground.

In sum, all three candidates have given some thought to the Afghan issue, but all are overly cautious. These are all miles better than the Republican field, at least. Still, only Obama bothers to give any actual hard estimates of troops.

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As long as the Afghan-Pakistan border is open there is no such thing as enduring success in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has neither the will nor the means to close the border. We can't put a force of the required size into Afghanistan for logistical reasons (as well as Iraq and other commitments of troops).

The limit to what can be achieved in Afghanistan is denial of territory to the Taliban and Al Qaeda through a continuing troop presence. That's always been the limit and it would have been the limit had the decision to invade Iraq never been made.


Have you actually bothered to look at Republican positions toward Afghanistan? Giuliani and McCain, my first and second choice respectively, both propose a signifigant increase in troops there. I'm not sure about the other Republican candidates, but it seems pretty clear to me you haven't done your homework on that area.


Dave (S), a drawdown in Iraq is inevitable. Lets acknowledge this (and I think you and I are both on the same opinion regarding said drawdown).

A force of the size in Iraq would I think be very much appropriate for Afghanistan. I am not a military expert but even a force half, or a fourth, the size of the Iraq force would be far better, about double the present force. see my quote of Hillarys speech where she draws a per capita comparison to Bosnia and you see how undermanned we are.

No we cant put those troops there today, but given that we are withdrawing from Iraq, we can maybe put them there later. Thats what we need to start talking about.

Dave J, I didnt pretend to be thorough in my research because its massively time consuming. I noted however that the GOP candidates don't *talk* about Afghanistan much. The Dems DO talk about it, as a critique context for Iraq, so I went to see whether their proposals matched their rhetoric. Since the GOP field doesnt really have rhetoric on Afghanistan beyond "stay the course" and "victory", I didnt bother to see what their issues are. I am not really interested either because I already have cast my lot with the Dems this cycle for many reasons. No, I am not a Democrat, but I am pulling straight D come November.

Feel free to emailo me equivalkent research into Afghan policy from the GOP field and I will make a new post accordingly.


A force the size of the one in Iraq is logistically impossible. What would the mission of the force be? Secure the border?

The force that's there is probably as much as can reasonably be supplied and used there and, as I noted in my opening comment, the missions will be denial of territory and force protection.

Yes, a drawdown in Iraq this year is inevitable but the forces won't be available for redeployment. They'll be needed so that the force that remains in Iraq can be rotated out.


The Taliban are currently without a power base in Afghanistan. Their support in their traditional afghan pushtun power base is crashing based on their current bad behavior and the consequences of their actual rule in the past. As a step to regaining power in Afghanistan, they must have some sort of power base. Some sort of act that proves to a significant segment of the afghans that they should back the Taliban. There is a juicy target sitting right in front of all of us and I see little in the way of analysis examining it.

The Durand line angers afghans regardless of their political persuasion. It is one of the few constants of politics in that country that, for over a century, all afghan governments have argued for the illegitimacy and erasure of the Durand line. What if the Taliban delivered that? How would their domestic political position be after they accomplished the reunion of the pushtun people?

Could any Kabul government refuse a request of the pushtuns in a disintegrated, dangerous Pakistan to join Afghanistan? They could not, not if they wanted to retain power for long.

I think that this is the Taliban's true game, to get back on the playing field by delivering the NW provinces to Afghanistan and riding that popularity to power, whatever the method. Tell me how increasing troops in Afghanistan affects this strategy one little bit, please, if you can.


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About Nation-Building

Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.