Posts Tagged ‘foreign policy’

According to the weekly news index from Pew Research, Afghanistan has become the focus of both old and new media – at least until some cute video of a pet or a baby starts circulating or some reality show contestant starts complaining, at which point new media will take a sharp detour. I’ve been hesitant to blog about international affairs recently. So many people do it so much better (see Steve Clemons’ Washington Note) and what can I add? Or perhaps I should say: where’s the challenge? How hard is it to criticize a policy in flux? Like shooting fish in a barrel – one of my least favorite images, by the way, as it manages to encompass both cruelty and an excessive use of firepower to prove a point.

Still, I’m going to toss in my two cents, though I risk pointing out the obvious, over-simplifying the situation, and boring my readers to tears. We all need to be at least superficially up to speed before we can determine, not only what we want our country to do in Afghanistan, but also why we always seem to end up in these positions.


Afghanistan is a country with a complex history. Landlocked, the area has been at the crossroads of competing eastern and western, religious and secular empires for centuries. For the last thirty years, it has been in a continuous state of civil war. In the late seventies, the secular government in Afghanistan was also viewed as pro-Soviet. The U.S. Cold War strategy at the time was to covertly support the “other” side in order to counter Soviet influence in the Persian gulf. In the case of Afghanistan, our 80ssupport went to a loose but ideologically conservative coalition of religious leaders and tribal leaders – the mujahideen. The Soviets then countered with an invasion to shore up their friends in the government, the United States began to arm the anti-communist factions (which also received aid from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) and a horrible civil was broke out in which between half a million and two million Afghan citizens were killed. You can check at any one of dozens of sites on Afghan recent history (even Wikipedia is more or less up to date) or you can watch the infinitely enjoyable CW's war copy“Charlie Wilson’s War” starring Tom Hanks, Philip Hoffman Seymour and Julia Roberts. I leave it to you.

Although the United States may have assumed an ideological victory (as Charlie Wilson never did), it became clear, with the fall of the Soviet Union, that we might have backed the wrong horse. The Taliban wreaked havoc on the citizenry in its zeal to bring everyone in line with the supposed dictates of a particular brand of fundamentalism, resulting in not only a mass exodus of intellectuals but also a repressive regime that removed freedoms, violates human rights and reduced women to second-class citizens.


The United States’ activities in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks were called “Operation Enduring Freedom” a military campaign to destroy presumed Al Qaeda terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. 301px-US_Army_Afghanistan_2006The U.S. also sought to overthrow the Taliban government because they were presumably harboring Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda members, although documents show that Washington was giving the Northern Alliance information and logistics support as part of concerted action with India, Iran, and Russia – that would be our current adversary and our former one. The Taliban was ousted, the secular leader Hamid Karzai was made the 225px-Hamid_Karzai_in_February_2009transitional chairman of the newly installed government, then became president in 2004.


In a few words: Taliban resurgence, particularly in the countryside, an spike in illegal drug activity, corruption charges against the present government currently enjoying U.S. largesse, voting fraud and human rights violations still occurring and the Afghan people – and our foreign policy – once again caught between a rock and a hard place. The Afghan government is neither reliable nor trusted by the people. The extent of our ability to force change appears limited. Even Joe Biden is dismayed. What we have is money to withhold and manpower to withdraw. We can just say no, or as Tom Friedman suggested in his NY Times op-ed piece, tell the government to shape up or we ship out. And do it.

We might also consider asking (or demanding or forcing) our own strategic thinkers to get to work redefining their own terminology with respect to our policy in Afghanistan and indeed around the world. What does it mean to choose sides? What does a victory look like? How do we propose to battle an ideology? What do we think will make the United States safe, what with poorly protected facilities, ill-defined immigration policies, poor follow-up for visas and other home protection issues that need attention? Can we say we’ve seriously considered a wholesale revamping of our foreign policy and military approaches to make those approaches at once more robust and more practical?

Or shall we continue as always, with an either/or, add more, subtract more, we won/we lost mentality? Shall we continue to send our troops into harm’s way while our leaders dither about what a sustainable foreign policy in the twenty-first century looks like and the rest of us dither about whatever it’s easiest to absorb?

That seems almost too easy – like shooting fish in a barrel.fish


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A friend of mine was reviewing his work week, which he felt had gone very well. A high school history teacher and varsity coach, he was pleased because his cross country team had swept its division and his Comparative Government students, involved in a model UN exercise, had been named best large delegation. “And to top it all off,” he announced, “it looks as if we won’t be dealing with World War III.”

Ah yes, WWIII. That was what we were promised last fall as a consequence of Iran’s push to develop nuclear weapons, a push that is apparently not taking place, according the latest National Intelligence Estimate. The report indicates that Iran had actually halted a covert nuclear weapons program back in 2002, contradicting a 2005 intel report that Iran was developing said weapons. Got that, or do you need a scorecard?

The problem, as I see it, is not whether Iran would or would not like to have nuclear weapons.  It’s safe to assume they would. Anyone who aspires to be a player on the world stage wants the same “toys” the big boys (and girls) have. It’s also logical that more “mature” superpowers want to make certain less stable regimes don’t have access to items that, in the hands of a fanatic few, would reduce the globe to rubble. It’s fair to say Iran is almost as volitile and unpredictable as, say, Pakistan, a country that already has nuclear capabilities.  Oops, back to the scorecard.

The real problem, as I see it, is the stream of exaggerated, inflammatory and downright careless pronouncements that eminate from this country’s leadership. From WMDs to WWIII, such proclamations don’t inspire confidence in our ability to arrive at practical approaches or solutions to problems in the world. And if they’re designed to inspired fear, they’re less effective than they used to be.  Mostly they just make us look thuggish or foolish – not at all like a mature superpower.

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The ancient proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” has long been considered of Arab provinance, although there is some evidence that it is also a Chinese maxim. Regardless, it has been a foreign policy staple for as long as there has been foreign policy or war or, for that matter, entities arguing over who gets to own a particular piece of land. Maybe it made sense once in the days when you found yourself swinging sabers alongside your enemy, both of you battling for survival against a larger invading army. If your comrade in arms then turned around and swung the sword in your direction, you could respond in kind or hightail it out of there. On the other hand, if you found that working together produced satisfactory results, you might decide to forgo your petty quarrels, forge an alliance, prepare a feast and call it a day.

Nowadays, it feels like a perilous and naive way to conduct foreign affairs. Yet the United States appears to have been picking its allies based on a sort of “lesser of two evils” rationale since the days of Teddy Roosevelt, as is pointed out in “Thank God, They’re On Our Side” by David Schmitz. Actually, his book tracks the relationships between the U.S. and dictatorships between 1921 and 1965. After that you’re on your own but here’s a partial list: Pinochet, Suharto, Noriega and yes, Saddam Hussein.

We need to improve our taste in BFFs. Are these really the guys we want to have our backs when the chips are down? These enemies of democracy and liberty – these are our friends?

As we are all hyper-aware, our current “frienemy” is supposed to be Pervez Musharraf, whose latest forays into democracy involve declaring a state of emergency in Pakistan, a nation that actually has weapons of mass destruction. The hard-line Islamists hate him, and U.S. support just adds to that tinderbox. The lawyers, teachers and other advocates of democracy also oppose him. It is the second group he has moved to jail, which should terrify us, but since his promise to fight terrorism is what binds him to us, all we seem to be able to do is warn, scold, and continue to send money.

History is full of shifting alliances and sometimes you just have to throw your lot in with the least bad and hope that was your best choice. However, as the world gets more complicated, we might want to rethink the impetus behind a century of foreign policy decisions. For starters, we need new friends.

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No Exit

This has been another depressing news week. I’m starting to understand why people put aside the front pages of their papers, turn off their radios, tune out cable news and spend copious amounts of time blogging over whether Britney is fat or malfunctioned in her choice of costume (well no, I don’t understand that last bit). The long-awaited report from General David Petraeus, our military man in Iraq, held no surprises. Maybe it all depends on how you define “progress” but all I could think about was that “Grey’s Anatomy” episode where Meredith has her hand inside a patient with a live munition inside him. She can’t pull out because it might explode; then again, it might explode anyway. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Some members of Congress at the hearing – those few who weren’t enamored with the sound of their own voices – expressed a high degree of frustration with the General and his report. What did they expect? He’s a military guy offering a military perspective. And didn’t a majority of Americans say in a recent poll that they trusted the military over the President to know best how to end the war in Iraq? Of course, that’s assuming there are no other solutions but military ones. As it stands, the report feeds right into our partisan mood. You’re either a “cut and run” coward or you’re a “stay and pray” idiot. Damned either way.

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