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Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues in FP’s Nov/Dev 2009 issue that the American empire should adopt the milder grand strategy of the Byzantines. (I have immediate doubts about the historical validity of such a thing as Byzantine grand strategy. For one, how does an empire that spans eight centuries maintain a somewhat cohesive strategy? No mad Caligulas in Constantinople? Just who gets to decide such a thing anyway? And the bigger question: to what extent is the behaviour of empires conditioned by their particularities in time and space? In other words, couldn’t the Byzantines’ grand strategy be understood more in terms of where they were, when they were?)

On the whole, the advice given is typical realist (Stephen Walt) talk–don’t fight wars you don’t need to; the fewer military engagements, the greater your power; and intelligence and diplomacy do have a considerable effect on power relations.

If you’re going to heed his advice, I’d caution you: do we really want to be associated with an empire that is today synonymous with the word devious and lived a largely inglorious existence?

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Il semble que le général Stephen McChrystal a réussi à convaincre l’administration Obama d’envoyer des renforts américains en Afghanistan. L’OTAN a accepté sa stratégie de contre-insurrection, ce qui exigera sans doute un nouveau déploiement au pays.

Dans son document de 66 pages, le général McChrystal soutient que pour mettre efficacement en application sa nouvelle stratégie, l’envoi de troupes supplémentaires est nécessaire en attendant le développement des forces afghanes.

Je prévois que dans certains jours le président–contrairement à ce que j’aurais fait–annonçera une augmentation du nombre de forces américains en Afghanistan de trente à quarante milles soldats.

A friend forwarded on the International Crisis Group’s latest report, “Pakistan: Countering Militancy in FATA.” I haven’t yet had a chance to read the report carefully–it is midterm season, after all–but a quick glance at the summary was enough to compel a response.

I know that the Crisis Group isn’t in the business of tough-minded policy work; I know that it specializes in conflict resolution and thus has an aversion to conflict. Its recommendations concerning Pakistan’s tribal areas are, however, especially misguided and unrealistic.

Pakistan’s government must repeal the Frontier Crimes Regulations, incorporate the region into the provincial and national justice system, and replace tribal militias with the national police.

In an ideal world, I’d like to seriously breakdown the tribal order in the Federally (un)Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where tribal law takes precedence over Pakistani law. The tribal laws make Pakistan’s penal code look like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In an ideal world, FATA would be developed, democratized and made a viable part of Pakistan.

But in case the Crisis Group doesn’t understand the conflict, the Taliban insurgency arises from Waziristan and Bajaur Agency, which are part of the FATA. Moreover, the Pakistani Frontier Corps and the Pakistani military need the cooperation of the elders of the Mehsud clan and the other large tribal families to effectively combat the militancy. If they figure out that the tribal system, and with it their power, will be diminished if the Pakistani military succeeds in defeating the insurgency and begins modernizing the area, then they won’t face the same incentives to fight the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.

I do agree that in the long run, political reforms and economic development are the key to mitigating another insurgency but now is not the time to begin seriously undermining the few allies the Pakistani government has in its fight against the Taliban.

In the days and weeks ahead, President Obama will have to articulate a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan. I hope he decides on a limited strategy–the kind being advocated by a growing chorus of skeptics, like Steve Coll, Stephen Walt, Robert Pape and Fareed Zakaria. Such a policy will unfurl the demons of the Cold War, with all the sloganeering and faulty thinking that has plagued the American national security apparatus ever since. The hawks in Congress can be counted on to hurl insults at the administration for “failing our troops” and for “making America loose.” This is what I call the Vietnam syndrome: the (unfounded) belief in limitless American power and an unquestioning acquiescence to the judgment of military leaders.

The election of Barack Obama gave hope to those who wanted to see a fundamental change in the way the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fought and in the way American power was used. John McCain, for all his dedication to the nation and his experience, suffered from the Vietnam mentality. He insisted that the war in Vietnam could have been won; that Afghanistan and Iraq could be pacified. His worldview rested on the folly that American military power would prove sufficient at all times, in all places. McCain, the Bush administration and hawks in Congress-Democrats and Republicans–saw the military leadership in mystical light, imagining them capable of crafting and implementing a military solution whenever.

The worldly new President, unencumbered by the generational scars of the Vietnam War and driven by a belief in diplomacy, it seemed would turn the tide on decades of illusions of power. His Democratic predecessor suffered too from the Vietnam syndrome, though he largely evaded his dues. Clinton sent American troops to “solve” Somalia’s failed state. During his campaign and even prior to his Presidential ambitions, Obama exhibited that much needed change in national security thinking. He protested the war in Iraq; “I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.” Since in office, he’s insisted on a timed withdrawal in Iraq.

His thinking on Afghanistan, however, I fear is increasingly seen through Vietnam-shadowed lens. There are hints that he will announce a surge to quell the insurgency. But it won’t suffice. Despite General McChrystal’s belief in American military supremacy–that victory requires merely a calculation of the number of boots on the ground, “if we have just a thousand more, we’ll tip the balance in our favour”–the terrains of Southwest Asia remain intractable. The President is lucky in having in Joe Biden an outspoken opponent to the war. Bob Woodward, summarizing some of George McBundy and Robert McNamara’s final interviews on the Vietnam War, tells us the value of challenging the Vietnam syndrome. McNamara, who as Secretary of Defence presided over the Vietnam War under President Johnson, reflected on how his lingering doubts persisted and never gained currency in the White House, obsessed as it was with public opinion and its foolish faith in numbers. Fortunately, the some of the mistakes of that administration are not being repeated. The vigorous debate will perhaps undermine another quagmire.

A must-read piece adapted from Steve Coll’s testimony to Congress on the war in Afghanistan.

I recently heard about the US Space Command’s doctrine. It’s a fascinating look into what the US Air Force believes the future will look like–here’s a link to the pdf report titled Vision 2020. I have to say, however, that I expected better graphics and more imagination.

Star Wars?

Star Wars?


Ruth Rosen, professor emerita at Berkeley, argues that this report is part of “neoconservative” doctrine to undermine China.

I consider this to be good Grand Strategy thinking. Space will be an inevitable battleground–like the sea became at the turn of the 16th century–and the wise hegemon should prepare for it.

From the New York Times:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In one of the most brazen attacks here in recent years, gunmen dressed in military fatigues on Saturday stormed the Pakistani Army headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi and took more than a dozen security officers hostage, producing a standoff that continued into the evening.

President Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize and there’s much speculation going around as to what all this means.

I am not alone, looking at the majority of the facebook statuses on my feed, in thinking that there were others who deserved the prize far more than a President who has been in office for less than a year and has accomplished few of the goals he envisioned. And I’m sure the White House was surprised. President Obama has stated clearly that he doesn’t personally believe that he deserves it. It’s ironic how the President has refused to meet the greatest peace activist of our times–the Dalai Lama–just earlier this week.

But the Nobel committee has awarded President Obama and the United States a great opportunity, and burden, to refashion American diplomacy. The President should accept the prize not in his name but for the many human rights and democracy activists out there–and with it, he should renew America’s mandate to work for these ideals. His speech should state in classic Wilsonian idealism: “I am humbled by this honour. I do not accept it for myself or my administration but for all those brave souls who have risked their lives to make our world a better place. Blessed are those peacemakers…I make it my administration’s mission to make the world safe for democracy and justice.”

After the Iraq War drained American credibility, the Nobel committee has conferred upon this President a new legitimacy. This is a legitimacy his administration desperately needs as it tries to halt Iranian and North Korean nuclear proliferation and to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now all this may sound starry-eyed and idealistic. And it is, purposefully. President Obama is a realist who couches his language in idealism; his foreign policy–on Iran, Tibet (and China) and Sudan–has been nothing but pragmatic. But his administration is the only to seriously confront the Middle East peace process from day one. Clinton, Carter and Bush Sr. only acted when the situation pressed them to, but Obama has risked his early political capital in addressing the conflict. He is also the only President to publicly, while in office, call for a serious initiative to abolish nuclear arms. I hope that this award will force his administration to reverse its current position on promoting democracy, a tool of American foreign policy sullied by the Bush administration. Since he has been in office, Obama has spoken in only pragmatic terms, calling for “good governance” and “civil society” but these aren’t enough. The world needs America to reclaim her promise as the voice of freedom and liberty for all peoples.

Robert Kaplan of The Atlantic Monthly has an op-ed in the New York Times today presenting a novel and far-sighted reason for leaving Afghanistan–China, India and Russia need it stabilized far more than the United States. They don’t want to stabilize it, and won’t bother contributing troops and support to the Afghan mission until the Unites States withdraws, in which case they’ll be forced to respond.

In language characteristic of Kaplan, we are told that Beijing, New Delhi and Moscow foresee geopolitical and economic value in a stable Afghanistan. All three have made considerable business investments, with China poised to control the country’s vast mineral and uranium resources.

By staying in Afghanistan, NATO and the United States are doing these potential rivals a favour by a) providing security for their investments and b) draining the West’s own military, political and economic clout in a prolonged and futile conflict.

Afghanistan is not Vietnam–there is no zero-sum Great Power game of chess being played here–and this is not the Cold War. Let the regional powers sort out their spheres while the United States, the global hegemon, uses its might only when necessary.

For your viewing pleasure, here’s a link to Professor Stephen Walt’s talk on rethinking American grand strategy. He makes a similar argument.

Thanks for bringing this to our attention Priyanka.

Pakistanis are quick to ascribe the religio-nationalist discourse to which they are so accustomed to other countries, especially to Big Bad India. Indian secularism, for all its flaws, is in many ways a reality. Firstly, it has legal and constitutional application. Second, it is a political ideal that is embraced by several Indian political parties, the largest among the ruling Congress Party, and is viewed by many laymen as one of the defining characteristics of their nation. And lastly, although discrimination against Muslims and Christians in certain parts of India is rampant (Gujarat and Orissa being prime examples), India’s minorities play an influential role in the nation’s politics, culture and business. My favourite examples: Shahrukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Saif Ali Khan.

None of the above can be said about Pakistan: It is an Islamic Republic (which by definition implies the oppression of and discrimination against minorities); the President must be a Muslim; and there is one minority in the federal cabinet (and he’s the minister for minority affairs).

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