What We Need To Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction

10 04 2022

17 August 2021

An exceptional team I had the honor of leading has written a 20-year retrospective about the U.S. effort to rebuild Afghanistan and the lessons the U.S. refused to learn along the way. Afghanistan’s trajectory is deeply unsettling and much of it is our fault. Understanding how we got here is important.

Our report details how the U.S. government struggled to develop a coherent strategy, understand how long the reconstruction mission would take, staff the mission with trained professionals, account for the challenges posed by insecurity, tailor efforts to the Afghan context, and understand the impact of programs. 

We conclude that the U.S. government’s reluctance to prepare for these missions ensures that it will continue to improvise its way through them with dire consequences. 

After Vietnam, we said we’re never doing this again, so the U.S. government chose not to prepare for future large-scale efforts to stabilize fragile countries. We closed training houses, changed curricula, and decimated our government institutions that had practice in these kinds of wars. As we say in the report, declining to prepare for the next Vietnam “did not prevent the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; instead, it ensured they would become quagmires.” 

With the Afghanistan mission winding down, the U.S. government is again concluding that we’re never doing this again. But history suggests otherwise. In fact, the U.S. is always undertaking smaller state-building missions all over the world—these days often in Africa. It’s only a matter of time before such a mission escalates, and the U.S. government won’t be ready. We hope our report illustrates the perils of not preparing and justifies more investment in our own institutions between these large missions.

An interactive summary of the report is available here: https://www.sigar.mil/interactive-reports/what-we-need-to-learn/

The full PDF is available here: https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/lessonslearned/SIGAR-21-46-LL.pdf

Elections: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan

24 02 2021

2 February 2021

I’m proud to announce the publication of our SIGAR lessons learned report detailing the challenges donors faced as they tried to build a credible electoral process in Afghanistan over the last two decades, at a cost of $1.2 billion. The report is based on hundreds of U.S. government documents and interviews with more than 100 people, including US and European officials and implementing partners who provided and oversaw the assistance—as well as more than 50 Afghan officials, parliamentarians, and candidates.

We found that the return on the U.S. investment was poor. Electoral security is steadily deteriorating; election commissions are chronically weak; the voter registry is vulnerable to manipulation; fraud permeates the entire electoral cycle and especially the dispute resolution process; election observers lack the training and experience to hold election officials accountable; election technology is merely creating another means of contesting the elections; and donor support is lopsided. Donors spend most of their money right before an election, and it drops off soon afterward as they move on to other priorities. So they miss critical opportunities to build credible electoral institutions and staff between elections. This donor rollercoaster model is common in electoral assistance globally, and it’s often sufficient to ensure elections take place, but frequently not sufficient to help make them more credible.

I’m honored to have led such an extraordinary team of analysts who brought this report together. Now we begin the hard part of convincing donors that their assistance will be more effective if they focus on building electoral institutions, not just preparing for Election Day.

Here is an interactive summary of the report: https://www.sigar.mil/interactive-reports/elections/index.html

And here is the full PDF version: https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/lessonslearned/SIGAR-21-16-LL.pdf

Stabilization: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan

15 06 2018

24 May 2018

A team I had the privilege of leading at SIGAR has finished a comprehensive lessons learned report on the U.S. effort to stabilize contested Afghan districts from 2002-2017.

Our analysis reveals the U.S. government greatly overestimated its ability to build and reform government institutions in Afghanistan as part of its stabilization strategy. We found the stabilization strategy and the programs used to achieve it were not properly tailored to the Afghan context, and successes in stabilizing Afghan districts rarely lasted longer than the physical presence of coalition troops and civilians. As a result, by the time all prioritized districts had transitioned from coalition to Afghan control in 2014, the services and protection provided by Afghan forces and civil servants often could not compete with a resurgent Taliban as it filled the void in newly vacated territory.

The full report is available here: https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/lessonslearned/SIGAR-18-48-LL.pdf

An interactive summary of the report is available here: https://www.sigar.mil/interactive-reports/stabilization/index.html 

The Possible Contours of a Settlement in Afghanistan

23 07 2013

23 July 2013

Below is a more detailed version of my latest piece for the New York Times, available here

While most of the focus in the last three years of intermittent talks among Taliban, US and Afghan officials has revolved around simply getting the parties to the table—who will fulfill which preconditions, what confidence-building measures will demonstrate the parties’ sincerity and capability of delivering, etc.—the long-term prospects for peace are rarely discussed in detail.  Given their immediacy, it is tempting to get caught up in issues such as whether and when the Taliban will renounce violence or accept the Afghan constitution (as frequently demanded by Kabul) and whether Kabul will refuse to permit foreign forces and advisors to remain in Afghanistan (as demanded by the Taliban).  Yet even if Kabul and the Taliban find themselves sitting at the same table down the road (as America’s involvement is merely the opening act), how would they navigate the thorniest issues, what role would US support for Kabul play in the negotiations, and what might a final settlement look like?

With the Taliban gradually softening its vision of itself in a future Afghanistan, it is difficult to know just how far the group would come to secure a prominent seat at the table.  In contrast, women and minority groups (particularly ethnic Tajiks and Hazaras) have not moved an inch in their public proclamations as to what they would settle for; with memories of persecution in the 1990s, they seem to have a much greater stomach for continued war than the Pashtuns who have borne the brunt of the war’s last decade.  Instead, these groups with a history of marginalization have spent their resources insisting that the Taliban must not be trusted, no matter the cost.

To be sure, at least until the drawdown is complete, the Taliban has little incentive to negotiate in any meaningful way, despite what they may say in Doha.  Already divided internally over negotiating at all, the group will wait to see what exactly Afghan forces will be capable of with only a small residual force of western advisors beginning in 2015 before moving beyond confidence-building measures.  If the cities are deemed strategically vulnerable, serious negotiations will be highly unlikely, but if Afghan forces are getting enough Western financial support to hold down the population centers as well as regularly mount assaults on insurgent strongholds, the Taliban may feel increasingly compelled to settle.  Still, neither those Talibs favoring meaningful negotiation nor those who oppose it will be able to persuade the other until there is evidence of Afghan forces’ apparent success or failure during the 2015 fighting season, if not later.

If the parties do make it to an internationally-mediated negotiating table, however, then based on the Taliban’s history of governance, its public statements since the 2001 US invasion, and the current structure and make-up of the Afghan government, it is likely that the contours of a possible settlement would pivot on several key Taliban grievances, most of which it feels would be remedied by implementing sharia law and giving the Taliban far more influence across Afghan society, starting with rewriting the Afghan constitution.  On principle, the international community and anyone remotely interested in protecting minorities and women will not indulge talk of rewriting the constitution, but the Taliban would probably settle for a number of modifications that make the country more Islamic.

Precisely what that means in a country that is already culturally and legally anchored in Islam is unclear, but it most likely means extending certain cultural norms of rural Pashtun society (regarding education, religion and the role of women) across the country.  For instance, female education beyond middle school in the rural east and south is already extremely rare, even in the absence of the Taliban.  (In contrast, the Taliban’s history of draconian punishment is one tenet that few in Afghanistan value or miss because those measures had nothing to do with Afghan culture to begin with.)  Yet Kabul would never agree to enforce gender or education norms like those across the country, which is exactly why a more likely settlement would revolve around a different kind of modification to the constitution: decentralization of the Afghan government. Read the rest of this entry »

The Coming Rise of Afghan Militias

24 01 2013

24 January 2013

My latest piece for The Atlantic, available here.

In early 1989, Dr. Mohammed Najibullah, the embattled communist president of Afghanistan, faced a choice. As the last of the Soviet forces supporting him had withdrawn, he knew the momentum of the U.S.-funded mujahideen bent on his overthrow would be hard to stave off. Moscow was offering only money, a handful of advisors and limited air support as a consolation to what seemed like impending doom. Even with a strong army, Najibullah knew success would depend on his ability to secure mujahideen territory outside of Afghan cities, and that would require the help of militias.

While centuries of fickle alliances and treacherous terrain have made unaccountable Afghan warlords and the fighters they command a double-edged sword, it was a risk Najibullah felt compelled to take. By the time Soviet financing finally dried up in early 1992, Najibullah had amassed more than 170,000 irregular fighters (not including those whose neutrality he leased), and as he knew they would, his newly poor militias switched sides in droves, signaling the beginning of the end.


President Karzai (and his 2014 successor) will soon face a similar dilemma, though in all likelihood, what surely didn’t feel like much of a choice to Najibullah will feel equally constricting to Kabul in the coming years. The numbers and dynamics on the ground speak for themselves.

Assuming Washington is able to secure a Status of Forces Agreement with Kabul, U.S. forces will draw down to an expected 5,000-10,000 advisors and counterterrorism professionals by the end of 2014. In the following three years, Afghan forces (police, military and border security) will collectively contract from 352,000 to 230,000 due to budget constraints and a lack of international donors.

Currently, Afghan forces have significant difficulty holding territory on their own even when NATO forces secure it for them, to say nothing of their ability to capture new territory independently. Worse still, Afghans are known for abandoning their outposts shortly after U.S. forces leave them in Afghan hands; in one catastrophic 2011 instance, the Afghan army abandoned a fully-stocked, well-fortified, battalion-sized base to the Taliban in Kunar. Read the rest of this entry »

Interviews on Voice of America

21 10 2012

On 15 Oct 2012 I was interviewed by both the Dari and Pashto channels of the Voice of America – Afghanistan.  Below are the videos of each interview, and further below are the approximate English transcripts.





VOA: Given Afghanistan’s achievements and the security challenges facing the country, including green-on-blue attacks, can the transfer of security responsibility to Afghans succeed?

DHY: It can certainly transfer, yes, but its success is a different question.  It’s important to remember that only 15% of these attacks are the result of infiltration–that is, the Taliban sends one of its fighters undercover into the Afghan National Security Forces to attack NATO forces at a later time.  Another 15% are the result of coercion of existing ANSF members–either by blackmailing them and threatening their families if they do not attack NATO forces, or by bribing them with money.  The remaining 70% are due to cultural clashes.  The reason for those cultural clashes are frequently rooted in the way of training.  American forces tend to train Afghans by using a great deal of shouting, profanity and even humiliation because that’s how most armies are trained, including America’s.  In fact, Afghans train the same way, but it completely changes the dynamic when the trainer is an outsider and not from the same culture or religion as the trainee.   Read the rest of this entry »

The Future of Militias in Afghanistan

10 10 2012

Below are my remarks (click to play audio) on the future of local defense forces and militias in Afghanistan at the American Security Project on 9 OCT 2012.  I essentially argue that in two years, with few choices available, Kabul will deliberately instigate civil war in remote areas of the east and south to prevent open conflict in key population centers.

The Anatomy of an Anti-Taliban Uprising

12 09 2012

Foreign Policy
12 September 2012

[My latest piece for Foreign Policy, in Part One and Two]

Part 1

Revolt is a loaded word, conjuring up images of the Free Syrian Army, the Anbar Awakening, and the Libyan civil war.  In small pockets across eastern Afghanistan, however, farmers, shopkeepers and others are taking the fight to the Taliban over the group’s abusive tendencies.  Though entirely isolated from one another, instances of violent resistance to harsh Taliban rules have spiked this past summer—brought on by school closings in Ghazni, music bans in Nuristan, beheadings in Paktia and murders in Laghman, among other causes.  While a small number of Afghans admire the Taliban, most who support it do so because they are coerced, or believe that the group is less predatory than the government, though that’s hardly an endorsement.  So what precisely does it take for Afghans to stand up to the Taliban, and what are their options?

When I served in eastern Afghanistan as a civilian advisor to the U.S. military, I closely monitored the Taliban’s relationship with the local population and discerned a number of red lines the Taliban could not cross, depending on the retaliatory options available to their victims.  While working closely with a dozen or so of these nascent rebel groups in Laghman and Nuristan Provinces, I noted that the amount of Taliban abuse most Afghans will endure before considering rebellion in one way or another depends on a number of inter-related factors (incidentally, the calculus for whether Afghans will join the Taliban due to government abuse is similar): the severity of the grievance, the locals’ ability to retaliate, and the community’s resilience to withstand inevitable counter-attacks if they do rise up.  More specifically, they ask:

  1. Does this abuse or restriction prevent my family from earning a living or even surviving?  ‘Prevent’ is the key word here.  Afghans will walk an extra five miles every day to avoid a Taliban checkpoint on the way to a bazaar, and as long as they are able to get to the bazaar, the obstacle can be classified as a mere nuisance.  If, however, the Taliban is restricting movement to such a degree that there is a threat of being shaken down or attacked every time Afghans leave their home, the Taliban is playing with fire.
  2. Does it prevent the men in my family from receiving an education?  Again, as long as they get the education, even if the Taliban dictates that Islam should be taught in a certain way, such slights are likely to be overlooked in the face of overwhelming force.  Tactful members of the Taliban will usually encourage changes in a ‘dangerously westernizing’ curriculum through intimidation but stop short of actually closing them by force, given the value Afghans place on education and their willingness to fight for it.
  3. Do I have the support I need (fellow fighters, weapons, fortifications) to retaliate?  Afghans make decisions collectively, so if the village elders do not support a counter-attack, it will rarely happen.  If an individual retaliates without consulting his elders, he risks becoming a social pariah or being thrown to the wolves when the Taliban comes hunting for payback. When the community does approve, it is usually in the form of revenge for a very specific grievance (such as a murder), targeted accordingly and proportionately to convey to the Taliban that the community does not intend to start a war but rather to secure limited retribution and make it known that a line was crossed.  For instance, a specific Talib may be singled out and attacked for a crime he committed.  Sometimes the Taliban will allow the retaliation to go unanswered and sometimes they won’t.  If the retaliation simply entails chasing the Taliban out of an area with sticks, the insurgents are likely to let it slide and come back in a few days as though nothing had happened.  Yet frequently the leader of an uprising will be beaten or executed if he is viewed as a threat, rather than simply helping his community blow off a little steam.
  4. Do I have the support I need to retaliate continuously and maintain a heightened defense posture indefinitely?  If the goal is permanent expulsion of the Taliban or if the community knows any retaliation will be met with a harsh response, they must feel confident that their supply of ammunition and fighters runs deep.  Men have to quit work or school and devote all their time to defense; all movement and communication becomes riskier and more costly; intelligence networks of spotters and infiltrators have to be established and maintained; and savings are spent in days on matching the Taliban’s capabilities, including makeshift bunkers, RPGs, PKM machine guns and even DSHKA heavy machine guns.  If the community lacks the resources or connections to live under siege or project power at least a mile in every direction, they will not survive permanent enmity with the Taliban.

Careful not to push the community too far, the Taliban dances a fine line as well.  Abuse the population too little and they won’t fear you, but abuse them too much and you give them nothing left to lose.  Inevitably, the Taliban either misread the population’s redlines or arrogantly exceed them, confident that no one would dare challenge their writ no matter how cruel they are.  When faced with a possible rebellion, the Taliban will frequently roll back their demands (re-opening schools, for instance) and the population will resume its previous indulgence of modest though frustrating restrictions, such as the requirement to stay at home at night.  And the dance continues.

Read the rest of this entry »

Divide and Conquer Negotiations with the Taliban

14 02 2012

Foreign Policy
14 February 2012

[My latest commentary for Foreign Policy, available here]


With the Taliban close to opening a political office in Qatar for the purpose of negotiating an end to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, it is unsurprising that the Taliban’s primary rival insurgent network, Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), is now clamoring for a seat at the table as well.  Yet the Taliban and HIG are quite different from each other, both in how they think and how they operate, and HIG would play a complicated but very useful role at the negotiating table with NATO and Kabul if the process gathers momentum.While HIG’s forces are fewer than they were in the 1980s when its leader and founder, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was America’s favorite anti-Soviet mujahed, HIG has attacked NATO forces for years with a robust insurgent and criminal syndicate throughout northern and eastern Afghanistan, where I served as a civilian advisor to NATO forces in Laghman and Nuristan in 2011. Among other attacks, HIG organized an enormous 2009 siege on an American base in Kamdesh, Nuristan in which 8 U.S. soldiers were killed, and they participated in a massacre of 10 international aid workers in Badakhshan Province in 2010.

In the last few months, Dr. Ghairat Baheer, son-in-law and long-time representative of Hekmatyar, has met with ISAF Commander General John Allen, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai to discuss prospects for HIG’s reconciliation and a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Yet with NATO’s eyes focused mainly on the southern heartland, it may be tempting for the alliance to focus on negotiating solely with the Taliban, disregarding HIG. Ultimately, however, tandem negotiations with both insurgent groups are vital for several reasons.
Read the rest of this entry »

The Art of Appeasement

30 07 2009

Asia Times
30 July 2009

[My two-part commentary published in today’s Asia Times.]

In the early stages of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Adlai Stevenson, JFK’s notoriously dovish UN Ambassador, suggested that the US offer Moscow a non-confrontational trade to stave off a nuclear exchange: we withdraw our missiles from Turkey, and the Soviets withdraw their missile components from Cuba.  Upon hearing his advice, President Kennedy and every member of his secretive ExComm group (assembled to troubleshoot the crisis) scolded Stevenson for recklessly forgetting the obvious lessons of Munich, when Britain and France appeased Hitler prior to the Second World War.  Only a fool, they said, would reward the aggression of tyrants like Hitler and Khrushchev with diplomacy.  But then, lo and behold, under cover of absolute secrecy, President Kennedy went ahead and made nearly the exact same ‘appeasing’ trade that Stevenson recommended.[1]

It would seem, then, that if Kennedy handled the situation well—and there is a virtual consensus that he did—then appeasement is appropriate so long as no one knows about it.  Ironically, the only party with whom we ever felt a need to be secretive was the USSR, and they were the only ones privy to the deal.  The subterfuge, then, was apparently for the sole benefit of the American people, who would have likely seen this trade as a sign of capitulation and weakness, even if it came (as it eventually did) on the heels of a forceful blockade of Cuba.  Kennedy knew that Americans were just as likely as anyone to mistake the feeling of humiliation for the presence of weakness, and proceed to throw him under the bus.  But why?

With enemies ranging from empires to nation-states to terrorist organizations, the policy of appeasement has been scorned for the last 70 years to rouse the rabble out of its comfortable apathy and confront unadulterated evil. Unsurprisingly, however, our disdain in the West for any scent of appeasement has led to a widespread and knee-jerk tendency to identify and dismiss any policy of restraint or conservation, frequently at the expense of grounded foreign policy.  Not only, then, is appeasement wildly over-diagnosed, but even when accurately identified, the policy is quickly discarded as a tool of the weak.  And with the Obama Administration making numerous overtures of reengagement with Syria, Iran and other controversial parties, a close examination of both the legitimate and delusional perils of appeasement is long overdue.  Anti-appeasement rhetoric and survival instincts run amok have clouded our judgment, and it is time to right the ship. Read the rest of this entry »

The Price of Flexibility

24 06 2009

DAWN (Pakistan)
24 June 2009

[My commentary published in today’s DAWN.]

We have seen this movie before. Invigoration is pouring out of Islamabad these days as it tries to wrap up its Swat offensive and extend the frontline deeper into Pakistan’s northwest.

Everyone says that this time Pakistan’s crackdown is different. Islamabad, Rawalpindi, the ISI and everyone else finally gets it: jihadis do not make for good neighbours. The Pakistan Army is clearing Taliban territories; militants are fleeing from their ‘entrenched’ positions to avoid the rain of artillery shells; and Rawalpindi is gearing up for the last showdown in Waziristan. Until the next one, that is.

At a time when Islamabad is insisting louder than ever that it has always been honest and sincere in its counterterrorism efforts since 9/11, other wheels are squeaking differently. Former President Musharraf told Fareed Zakaria in May that “of course” Islamabad has contact with the Taliban. “After all,” he continued, “the KGB had contacts in CIA. CIA had contacts in KGB. That is how you have ingress into each other, and that is how you can manipulate things in your favour.” Fair enough. But if today’s state of affairs is how one might describe “in your favour”, then what does a bad day look like?

The truth is that Musharraf and most of the local Islamist groups agreed to ignore each other’s consolidation of power in their respective neighbourhoods, allowing insidious ‘rogue’ elements of the ISI to cultivate and enhance their own ‘ingress’ with the Taliban. To be sure, many believe that whether these ‘rogue’ operators are officially unofficial or unofficially official, they continue informing, arming, training and trouble-shooting for the Taliban and its various jihadi brethren—ranging from self-righteous warlords to the sophisticated Jamaatud Dawa to Al Qaeda wannabes.

Granted, the government is currently putting up quite a fight in Swat, but in the meantime, the people of Sindh are terrified that droves of Taliban IDPs are on the cusp of bringing Mingora’s fate to Karachi, while Punjabis are enduring suicide bombings because the militants there typically fighting in Kashmir decided to host and train aspiring Pakistani Taliban. Once Pakistan publicly ‘turned’ on domestic extremists, the disparate militants in Pakistan found a common enemy in Islamabad and largely abandoned the struggle in Kashmir.  So who can counter this newly congealed beast?

Now that the military has put its full weight behind this offensive, potentially for the long haul, it has a chance to reverse many of the gains the Taliban made when Washington was focused on Iraq and Musharraf was focused on himself. Most importantly, this can be done without the government incurring any more wrath than it already has incurred. Read the rest of this entry »

America’s Strategic Whac-a-Mole

13 04 2009

Le Monde Diplomatique (France)
13 April 2009

[Note: an abbreviated version of this commentary was published by Le Monde Diplomatique]

It’s no surprise that President Obama’s foreign policy challenges are unsavory, diverse and numerous, but what makes them most worrisome is the degree to which they overlap in the worst ways possible.  Our allies’ concerns, our enemies’ threats and our victims’ pleas are inextricably tied to one another—if not by nature, then by the hand of political leaders and institutions across the globe.  Solving one problem seems impossible without solving the rest, or at least pretending to do so.  And ‘pretending’ may be what it comes to, though it’s difficult to imagine just whom we’d fool.  The world seems to be knocking at every American door, imploring, cajoling or threatening us to do (or not do) something.  And whenever no one’s knocking, we can’t help but wonder where everyone went.

Iraq and Afghanistan seldom wonder far from our doorstep for obvious reasons, but with Obama’s focus on renewing old alliances and engendering newer convenient ones, many others are requesting an audience.  Unfortunately, it is mathematically impossible for President Obama to address each or even most of them.  And inevitably, the process of prioritizing is going to get ugly.

Here are just a few of Obama’s more important foreign policy goals:
•    Eradicating (or rendering impotent) al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
•    Securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and some modicum of democracy there.
•    Withdrawing US forces from Iraq and preventing the Iranians from filling the void.
•    Derailing and/or deterring Iran’s development of a nuclear (weapons) technology program.
•    Spreading democracy across the globe, especially in Muslim and formerly Soviet states.
•    Reaching a final settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
•    Mitigating the heavy spillover from the drug wars in Mexico into America’s southwest.
•    Limiting the social and political upheaval of a global recession.

If only these goals could be divided on a chopping block.  But instead, they are all connected in an interminable run-on sentence.  To defeat al Qaeda, we have to remove its support structure along the Afpak border.  To do that, we have to (implicitly) convince Pakistan that it does not need an Islamist buffer in Afghanistan to ensure its own survival.  To do that, we have to ensure the economic development of southern Afghanistan.

To rebuild Afghanistan, we will need supplies, and those supplies will soon be guaranteed only when transited through Russia’s backyard.  To get that access, however, Russia is insisting that we abandon our plans to install anti-ballistic missile shields in Eastern Europe.  Meanwhile, Obama seems happy to do this as long as Russia stops supplying Iran’s nuclear development.  But for that concession, Russia is also demanding that we abandon our efforts to integrate Russia’s former satellite states (Ukraine and Georgia, specifically) into NATO and other western institutions.

We might be in a position to refuse this last Russian demand if only we could know for sure that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program.  But to obtain that reassurance from Iran, Tehran itself is looking for carte-blanche in its consolidation of Shiite influence in Iraq, Iran’s greatest historical enemy.  We might be willing to make a trade—nukes for Iraq—but the US is slated to withdraw most of its forces anyway, so we have little to offer Tehran that it won’t get by merely sitting on its hands.

Perhaps, then, the gridlock will dissipate if we manage to break off Syria from its alliance with Iran, but that requires Israel’s willingness to negotiate with Syria and other enemies—a practice which Israel’s new prime minister is apparently refusing to do until after President Obama defuses Iran’s nuclear ambitions, in one way or another.

If you are confused, join the club.  No one knows where this negotiation starts or ends, who the parties really are, and what concessions they are prepared to make.  So far, the only real sacrifice President Obama has asked of the American people is economic.  He has not asked us to tolerate an Iranian Bomb; he has not suggested we send our sons and daughters into northwest Pakistan; and he has not indicated just how far he would go in a confrontation with Russia.  After all, reset buttons might inspire a respite of amnesia, but just how far back does he expect that button will take us?  To the Yeltsin days when Russia slept in every morning?  Or to the Cuban missile crisis, when no one slept at all?

The one thing that is clear is that Russia, Iran and Pakistan are at the center of nearly every obstacle we face abroad, and we lack the military, financial and political resources to address more than one of them at a time, if that.

An Honest Conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

11 03 2009

Posted at the Huffington Post & Middle East Online

Virtually nothing about this conflict was changed with Israel’s military operation in Gaza.  Nothing on the surface, nothing lurking in the shadows, nothing for the history books.  Yet the fundamentals of this conflict that have existed since 1967 are somehow becoming more obvious and less accessible every day.  As rhetoric bleeds into strategy, sobering arguments are polluted by perverse distortions and the only thing that makes sense is confusion.  As a humble remedy, perhaps, the following conversation is a synthesis of hundreds of hours of candid discussions (and screaming matches) between Israeli and Palestinian colleagues and friends.  It offers no solutions or common ground, but only pain. Until we get through the meat of this war, the bones will never heal.  Here is how these enemies think and argue.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Ahmed: Why do you humiliate us every day, with your checkpoints, your raids, and your occupation?  Why won’t you leave us alone?

Avi: Because we believe that you would continue terrorizing us even if we give up the West Bank.  If you were eager to kill Israelis long before any of us ever lived in the West Bank or East Jerusalem, how could we possibly believe that you would be satisfied by anything short of our expulsion from the region?  You can talk about peace accords, but at the end of the day, which occupation do you want to end?  The one in that started in 1967, or the one you say began in 1948 when the State of Israel was established?

Ahmed: Well, I’ll answer that question with another one: You always talk about how important it is for Palestinians to recognize Israel, but which Israel do you want us to recognize?  The Israel with pre-1967 borders?  Or an Israel that occupies the West Bank and controls our movement with nearly 500 checkpoints on any given day?  Or maybe an Israel that has been “converged” behind the “security barrier” wall/fence, which would almost guarantee a permanent separation between a Palestinian homeland and our most sacred religious sites?  But to answer your question honestly, yes, your suspicions are correct: it is the 1948 occupation that we want to end, just like the Jews would love to have the West Bank as well.  But we know Israel is here to stay, and we can tolerate you as much as you can tolerate us.  But what we cannot tolerate is your occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Avi: Look, we don’t enjoy occupying the West Bank any more than you enjoy being occupied; it puts our soldiers at risk, it’s a drain on our military and it hurts our image abroad.  We continue the occupation because we want to be safe from terrorism.

Ahmed: But you are creating more resentment and terrorism with the occupation.

Avi: That’s definitely true, but we know that if we withdraw from the West Bank, the terrorism will not stop and is likely to get worse.  After disengaging from Gaza nearly 4 years ago, the only thing we got in return was strengthened resistance in Gaza.  And now, because of the continuous barrage of Qassam rockets, we are evacuating our homes inside of Israel itself, not just in the territories.  Gaza was your test.  You proved that when given the chance to function peacefully on your own, you failed miserably.

Ahmed: Of course we failed in Gaza. You still control our airspace, our coastline, our borders and our economy.  You pretended to take the moral high road with your “test,” but you did it for strategic reasons and with no follow-through.  And it has nothing to do with Hamas.  Our economy was already dead before you made Gaza a giant outdoor prison. For years you have made Palestinians dependent on the Israeli economy so you could control us as much as possible.  Even before Hamas took over Gaza, farmers were stuck at border crossings for days, watching their vegetables rot while your soldiers closed border crossings at random just to frustrate us.Israeli Security Barrier and Settlements in the West Bank

Avi: So you take no responsibility for your inability to promote peace in Gaza?  And what difference does it make if we evacuated Gaza for strategic reasons?  You should want to prove to the world that you can function peacefully.  Granted, we set the terms for the pullout, and you can only do so much with severe sanctions and closed borders, but we gave you Gaza—we gave you something—and you failed to take advantage of it.

Ahmed: You did not “give” us anything.  You returned it.

Avi: Fine, we returned it.  It was a public relations coup for us.  We should have negotiated Gaza back to you, but we didn’t; we evacuated it, and we ruined the credibility of the moderate Palestinians.  But it was still something.  Why aren’t you openly furious with the Gazans who confirmed everyone’s suspicions when their first response to our evacuation was a whole-sale pillaging of every building in sight and an increase in rocket/mortar attacks against southern Israel?  Don’t you want to persuade us (and the rest of the world) that you are not just another group of thugs and terrorists?

Ahmed: Why should we?  Palestinians have gotten almost nothing from negotiating with Israelis, and we cannot imagine why it is we who have to prove anything to anyone.  The real question is: How can you persuade us that you are serious about peace when you took those uprooted settlers from Gaza and gave them new homes in the West Bank?  Is that what you call a “confidence-building measure”?  No, of course not—your unilateral evacuation was a public relations stunt.  Gaza is not strategically important to Israel, and Sharon knew that abandoning it could ensure an even tighter grasp of the West Bank, which is really what you wanted all along.

Avi: Look, I think it was a terrible decision to transfer any of the Gaza settlers to the West Bank, and I think the settlers should not be in the West Bank or Gaza at all.  But occupying the West Bank militarily is strategically important because it protects Israel’s dense population centers.  Heavily occupying East Jerusalem (and a few other parts of the West Bank) provides a crucial buffer zone protecting our vulnerable spots from terrorists.  So even if we stopped being hypocritical in every way you claim we are, then, as the more powerful party, we still have to be convinced that a free and shared Jerusalem will actually be a city of peace, and that the fighting will stop.  If we had any sense that you would actually stop resisting once we ended the occupation of the West Bank or even East Jerusalem, most Israelis would gladly hand it over everything except the Old City. Read the rest of this entry »

Splits in Hamas and a ‘Bi-Unilateral’ Ceasefire

18 01 2009

During an email exchange with my colleague Mark Perry at Conflicts Forum, I asked him about the incessant rumors and claims by the Israeli government that the leadership of Hamas has suddenly split along the conveniently familiar lines of “moderates” and “radicals.” According to numerous reports in the Israeli press (dutifully dispersed across the globe), the Hamas leaders in Gaza have become uncharacteristically humbled by the newly-scorched earth around them. And as a result, Hamas’ leadership in Gaza have blamed their equivalents in Damascus for refusing to renew the ceasefire in December and again for refusing Israel’s ceasefire offers this past week.

As usual, Mark Perry puts rumors like these to bed with a healthy dose of logic and insider information, as he is known for his expertise on and relationships with Hamas’ leaders in Gaza and Damascus. So why, I asked, is he the only voice insisting that Hamas is battered but hardly divided? Essentially, because the Israeli government is playing us for fools, he says. (Hyperlinks added by me).

The reason people don’t believe me is because they believe what is printed in the Israeli press. That is to say, no one seems to ask Hamas, the primary source of my material, for their position. What is interesting about this is that reporters and analysts on the telephone with me talking about the differences in “the Gaza leadership” and the “Damascus leadership” of Hamas. They tell me that the Hamas leadership in Gaza represents the moderate wing of the party and that Khalid Meshaal represents the “radical” wing of the party.

If that is true, I ask, why did Israel invade Gaza — why didn’t they try to kill Meshaal and negotiate with the “moderate” wing of the party? And if that is true, why do Israelis (like Mark Regev) describe the Hamas leadership in Gaza as nihilists? The head of the political/military bureau of Hamas is Khalid Meshaal, who has been on the telephone constantly with the senior leadership in Gaza telling them to take more practical steps with Israel.

Are there divisions in the leadership of Hamas? Certainly there are. They have disagreements, it’s not the politburo of the communist party. There are differences and debates in the Democratic Party also. Does that mean there is a split?

Israeli officials would like us to believe that they really know what they’re talking about when it comes to Hamas. In fact, they don’t have a clue. And so they repeat what they did in the 1980s: they told the world that the Tunis leadership of the PLO represented the terrorist wing of the organization, while the insiders were more moderate. It was bullshit: the inside people were much more radical — as you might expect if you live under an occupation. The Tunis leadership as it turned out was moderate: and Israel made a deal with them.

Let us suppose for just one moment that Israel is right — the moderates rule in Gaza. Let’s take it as a given — even though it is not true. What do you suppose the leadership in Gaza thinks now? Does Israel think they are even more moderate? Was the late great Said Sayyam a moderate — in comparison to say, Khalid Meshaal, Mohamed Nasser, Usamah Hamdan, or Mohammad Nizzal? Do we now, as a result of Israel’s line about a split in Hamas, suppose that their own reports that the Gaza leadership had been taken over by radicals is false, and that their new report is true?
There is one truth about a lot of media reports on Hamas in Israel. The truth is that the media gets their information from Ehud Barak and Yuval Diskin. They are fools. Their intelligence services, highly respected by the US public, are dismissed by intelligence service people here [in the US]. And for good reason.
* * * * *
On a different note, it is still unclear if the ‘bi-unilateral’ ceasefire will hold, but if Jerusalem is actually right where it wants to be (having secured vapid promises from Washington to help allies in the region crack down on smuggling), then it doesn’t seem like much has changed, nor that much was even supposed to change. All the rhetoric, tactics and strategy emanating from of Jerusalem over the last three weeks seemed to point to something much more resolute than a unilateral ceasefire. It seemed obvious that Israel had had enough with all things ‘unilateral’, like the Gaza withdrawal in 2005, which Jerusalem now condemns as a terribly weak decision.

Equally bizarre, Jerusalem’s effort–detailed by Mark–to play Hamas’ leaders and their mediators off of each other seemed to demonstrate that Israel hoped to force its enemy into making painful concessions at the negotiating table, as is frequently the custom in violent conflicts. And even if Jerusalem didn’t want to “legitimize” Hamas with negotiations, Israel seemed likely to use the conflict to bind Egypt to…well, anything. Even officials in Cairo were caught off guard by Israel’s sudden indifference to securing (even the facade of) a short-term “lull” in violence. After all, if “enough” really “is enough,” why are we seeing a resignation in Jerusalem to Hamas’ “nihilism” and the status quo? To drive the point home, the head of Shin Bet has conceded that Hamas will be rearmed in just a few months.

The answer, remarkably, is that the Israeli government is playing its own population as much as the rest of us. Losing 10 Israeli soldiers just so Jerusalem could ‘make a statement’ seems a bit pointless–though, admittedly, the statement contains more than 1300 Palestinian footnotes. But why, if Israel has now re-established its deterrence, would Jerusalem feel so hopelessly impotent as to resign to the previous state of affairs, minus a few Hamas lieutenants? With this outcome, Israel is left only with the knowledge that when Hamas wants to fire rockets/mortars in the future, the militant group will expect Israel to unleash hell in response. And if Hamas attacks anyways in three months, because the blockade is still in place? What then? How will Jerusalem re-explain this latest operation, or the next one?

How Indo-Pak Tensions Might Help the War on Terror

13 01 2009

DAWN (Pakistan)
13 January 2009

[Note: an abbreviated version of this commentary was published by DAWN]

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in late November, Pakistan’s government in Islamabad is scrambling to show grief-stricken Indians and the world that Pakistan is actually able and eager to mount successful counterterrorist operations.  In the meantime, India is still considering its military options, and the US is finding itself in the awkward position of biased mediator, but a mediator with options, nonetheless.

Indian ire in the immediate aftermath of the attacks was so unmistakable that it prompted Islamabad to sound the loudest alarm bell in its arsenal: insisting that it could only fight one war at a time, Pakistan warned Washington that a vengeful India would compel Islamabad to redeploy the 100,000 troops currently assisting the US War on Terror in northwest Pakistan to its eastern border with India, Pakistan’s greatest strategic threat.  Hearing the message loud and clear, President Bush dispatched Secretary of State Rice to Delhi to calm the Indians—much as Washington had in the past—to ensure that Pakistan has the resources and flexibility to fight al Qaeda and its various supporters on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Yet from Washington’s perspective, both the political and military implications of heightened tensions between India and Pakistan—especially the kind that involves Pakistani troop movements—open many new doors to a war on terror that appears increasingly bleak.

The View from Washington

First, India is not alone in its profuse criticism of Pakistan’s failure to fight the very terrorists it bred during the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad in the 1980s.  Seven long years into the war on terror, Washington remains convinced that Pakistan is still unwilling and/or unable to make good on its counterterrorism commitments on the other side of the Durand Line.  It was difficult enough to compel Islamabad to deploy twenty percent of its roughly half-million-man army to the northwestern border during President Bush’s first term, and that contribution only led to a steadfast resurgence of the Afghan Taliban and the near-steroidal growth of the Pakistani Taliban.

Facing dim prospects, over the last 18 months the Americans have begun taking matters into their own hands, dispatching the much-resented predator drones to kill senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders with greater frequency, and deeper into Pakistan’s heartland, no less.  With President-elect Barack Obama insisting that he will allocate more American soldiers and resources to the ‘real’ war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Washington’s relationship with Islamabad has nowhere to go but down, especially as the Pakistani Taliban rip the country apart. It is in this context that a redeployment of Pakistani troops frightens Washington—regardless of who occupies the White House.

But according to a flood of recent press reports, if India seems likely to attack Pakistan, then both the Pakistan Army and the militants they are supposed to destroy could find themselves facing the same grave threat in India.  Various militant factions and supporters of the Taliban—all the way from South Waziristan up to the Swat Valley—would put their wars with NATO and Islamabad on hold and find their way to Kashmir or the Indian border. Read the rest of this entry »

Tunnel Vision beneath Gaza

12 01 2009

Asia Times
12 January 2009

No matter who is to blame for the recent escalation of violence in Gaza—no matter which side is morally righteous—it should be obvious to everyone that Hamas is now even less likely to abandon violent resistance any time soon.  Even if Operation Cast Lead will make Hamas think twice about attacking Israel in the future (doubtful), Hamas will still do whatever it takes to prepare for the day when it is ready.  And the 18-month blockade of Gaza—put in place by Egypt and Israel after Hamas’ localized coup—has only made Hamas more protective of its arsenal.

As a result, Jerusalem believes that the only way to protect Israelis is to secure the Philadelphi Corridor, the nine-mile border between Gaza and Egypt, beneath which lie an estimated 300 makeshift tunnels used by Hamas and entrepreneurial Palestinians to smuggle (among other things) foodstuffs, cigarettes, livestock, gasoline and (in the case of Hamas) enormous amounts of explosives, firearms, ammunition and well-trained teachers/students of militant resistance.  Without these tunnels, Israel insists, Hamas would not be able to stockpile and fire rockets and mortars against Israel with impunity.  And with talk of a ceasefire in the air, Jerusalem has made the permanent monitoring and destruction of these tunnels a key sticking point to ending its assault.

But what would that effort require, and would it actually make Israelis safer?

The ideas are neither new nor particularly promising, as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) explored and discarded most of them throughout the years it occupied Gaza.  One suggestion was to build a moat filled with seawater that would drown any smuggler who breached it, but the proposal was abandoned due to the threat of contaminating the aquifer beneath Gaza.  An underground wall was also considered, but unless it is made of titanium, Hamas would need only a chisel and a little patience.  Another idea was to destroy all the buildings within a kilometer of the border (houses frequently conceal entrances and exits to the tunnels), but this could smell an awful lot like ethnic cleansing, and without a heavy occupation, the houses could always be rebuilt.

Read the rest of this entry »

A Remarkable Goodbye in Washington

12 01 2009

Enduring any event in the White House Press Briefing Room is usually an excruciating experience. Today was different. Today we saw George, the real George, in his last news conference as President. The good stuff starts at about 22:30 with a question about the mistakes he has made as President.

No pundit recap of the Bush Presidency will provide the substance (the good and the bad) of this briefing, the facial expressions, tone, gestures and honesty. You just have to watch this.

Here is the transcript and some highlights compiled by the AP, neither of which do the performance justice.

But C-SPAN has the full video posted here.

How Propaganda Hijacked Israeli Strategy in Gaza

5 01 2009

Huffington Post
5 January 2009

Something had to be done in Gaza.  Something.  Anything, really.  So why not a Hail Mary?

Since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, more than 8000 rockets and mortars have been fired into southern Israel from Gaza.  And who could blame Jerusalem for trying to put an end to it?  After all, as every single Israeli security expert reminds anyone proffering an alternative to F-16s, would any other country tolerate attacks on its civilian population with the patience and dexterity Israel has shown?  What if Houston or Atlanta were being attacked like this?

Even Israel’s President and ‘elder statesman’ Shimon Peres found himself wondering, what does Hamas hope to accomplish by constantly firing rockets? “What do they expect, that we won’t respond?”  And it’s a great question, but it’s also painfully simplistic.  This is not merely a matter of broad principle about patience in the face of incessant attack.  There’s a reason Israeli talking points this past week have focused almost exclusively on the big picture of the last seven years—because the last seven months have demonstrated a painfully inconvenient fact: whatever its demerits (and there are many), Hamas has discipline.  Period.

Far more so than the PLO ever did, when Hamas pledges to reduce tensions, it does just that.  One need not believe that the group’s leadership is virtuous or courageous simply to admit that their ranks follow orders.  In the months that followed the June 19 “lull” (tahadiya) in fighting between Israel and Hamas, the number of rocket and mortar attacks plummeted and stayed down for nearly five months—creating the very climate that the IDF now claims to seek with Operation Cast Lead.

If Hamas had no discipline, this argument wouldn’t fly and a Hail Mary like Cast Lead might be strategically worthwhile, but the best case scenario by any metric is a long-term version of the lull that put Israelis at great danger only after Israel launched an attack on Gaza on November 4th, effectively ending Hamas’ restraint.

While the explicit goal of this latest operation is to cease all rocket and mortar attacks on southern Israel, senior IDF and intelligence officials have privately signaled in a disparate chorus that this goal is unrealistic anyway, even with a ground invasion.  Israelis couldn’t even prevent rocket/mortar fire when they occupied Gaza before 2005, and back then Hamas was plagued by Fatah’s rivalry and amateur rocket technology.

‘But nevermind that,’ Jerusalem insists.  ‘Details will only confuse you. Would you or would you not just sit by and do nothing in response to rocket fire on your homes?’  Apparently, it’s that simple.  It’s irrelevant that Israel was benefitting tremendously from the lull and the near-deafening silence (.pdf) it produced in the southern Negev desert.

Source: Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (Israel)

Rocket fire alone was reduced from a monthly average of 179 to less than 3—with the remainder attacks being attributed (according to Israeli intelligence) to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, no less.

Yet like any country, when Israel launches a military operation, especially a controversial one, the public relations and propaganda offensives rely on any and every rhetorical ploy to garner support, even when Israeli security officials are privately saying—usually “on background”—that the southern Negev will not be completely calm until Hamas wants it to be completely calm, and the closest Israel has ever come to that was during the above lull.

Read the rest of this entry »

Obama, Bush find common ground on foreign policy

18 12 2008

Common Ground News Service
16 December 2008

[Syndicated by the Middle East Times, Beirut’s Daily Star, Egypt’s Daily News and Al Arabiya]
[Read this column in Arabic
, Urdu, French and Indonesian]

Negotiating with our adversaries is a tricky business, and with President-elect Barack Obama on the way in, most observers of US foreign policy are confident that negotiating is about to become the predominant foreign policy approach — for better or worse. They are mistaken, however, if they think this approach will be a drastic change.

In fact, in the last two years, though it is sometimes difficult to discern from White House press releases, President George W. Bush has actually been relying more and more on the very tactics that most observers have come to associate with Obama. In fact, in terms of broad foreign policy strategy, when it comes to opening the channels of negotiation and dialogue, four more years of Bush could have been alarmingly similar to those of Obama’s upcoming ones.

Consider, for instance, that after six years of refusing to negotiate with “rogue” governments or liberally labelled “terrorist groups”, the Bush administration has, since 2006, negotiated a long-lasting alliance with the Sunni insurgents in Iraq, many of whom are held responsible for killing thousands of American soldiers between the summer of 2003 and the fall of 2006. In addition, Washington led successful multilateral negotiations with North Korea to ensure a verifiable dismantling of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme, which produced and successfully tested a nuclear device in 2006.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the Bush administration has negotiated with Iran in order to reduce Tehran’s military and financial support of the Shi’a militias in central Iraq, and Washington has expressed increasing openness to negotiating with the non-Al Qaeda elements of the Taliban.

To claim, however, that Bush has been rectifying his disastrous policies is hardly absolution. Without a doubt, Bush has spent the last half of his second term unravelling the fabric of much of his foreign policy because his previous methods were failing at every turn.

Yet, change he has.

After all, the Bush administration is well into negotiations — on one level or another — with numerous declared “enemies” of the United States, with particular emphasis on the “axis of evil”.

Obama’s policy of pro-engagement might feel visionary and new, but only because Bush has been so quiet in his engagement with these parties, unlikely to celebrate a policy that was dead last on his initial list of priorities.

In order to provide a clean roadmap for his own foreign policy, Obama essentially ignored the seemingly pro-engagement tactics in the final two years of the Bush presidency on the campaign trail. However, it is no coincidence that Obama decided to keep Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Pentagon. For much of the last two years, Gates and Obama seemed to be virtually quoting each other’s policy speeches, especially regarding the importance of renewing US focus on Afghanistan/Pakistan in the so-called “war on terror”.

While most of us were distracted with how the presidential candidates framed their campaign objectives, Bush was busy creating the momentum for a series of negotiations that he never had the talent or political capital to finish.

If Obama, in contrast, possesses the talent and the capital to engage our adversaries effectively and with follow-through, then his best chance resides in his ability to complement, not replace, his predecessor’s recent diplomatic efforts abroad.

Reaching an appropriate balance of introducing new policy approaches and building on those of the past administration is what Obama’s transition team is supposed to ensure, but Obama’s supporters are expecting the appearance of clean breaks and fresh policies come 20 January, if only because Bush’s belated progress was inspired and stained by a failed presidency.

Obama has the benefit (and foresight) of knowing on Day 1 what his predecessor learned in Year 6, which might mean fewer political and military mistakes, especially the hubristic kind. If they do not succeed, however, he too will have to know when to change course.

There is frequently a healthy dose of wisdom that accumulates after years of defeat, and learning lessons the hard way doesn’t mean the lessons are any less valuable; it simply means they came at an exorbitant cost. Obama stands to reap the benefits of Bush’s about-face. To fully benefit from this lesson, however, Obama must acknowledge that while he was campaigning for change, change was already under way.

[View this commentary at the Common Ground News Service]

SOFA and the Likely Bombing of Iran

5 12 2008

Al Jazeera Magazine
5 December 2008

There are certain fundamentals to an international negotiation that simply cannot be massaged or altered, even with the political momentum fostered by America’s incoming president, Barack Obama.

In the last five years, Tehran and Washington have jockeyed for influence in Iraq and occasionally negotiated with each other to shape the country’s democratic Shia majority to their own advantage.

And while Tehran’s nuclear weapons program has inspired greater international concern, Washington has kept any talk of nukes on the sidelines for years, hoping that the US could tackle that problem once Iraq stabilized—much as it has in recent months.

But two immediate obstacles threaten American stakes in Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  The first is President-elect Obama’s repeated pledge to withdraw all combat forces from Iraq by the summer of 2010, and the second is the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which was approved by Iraq’s cabinet and parliament last week after months of acrimony in Baghdad.  The SOFA timetable requires all US combat forces to be out by the end of 2011, and for Iraqi authorities to control all military bases, cities and decision-making apparatuses by this time next year.

Yet however it happens, a unilateral US withdrawal from Iraq will leave Washington with virtually nothing of substance to offer Iran in return for the verifiable termination of Tehran’s nuclear weapons program. Read the rest of this entry »

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