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Washington, D.C. – In a major reversal of administration policy, the Pentagon announced today its intention to extend the Afghan mission to 3014, citing the date as a more realistic date for withdrawal. The announcement follows the conclusion of an extensive internal review ordered by President Obama earlier this year. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell explained that the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces in 2014 would “be way too soon” and would jeopardize any hopes of stability in Afghanistan and the region.

The authors of the Pentagon report argued that a thousand year postponement would allow the Afghan National Army to build up sufficient capacity to defend itself and would be–perhaps–enough time for the Afghans to develop a stable political system. Andrew Exum, chairman of the review committee, said the committee considered the situation in Afghanistan analogous to that of 11th century England. The Norman Conquest of England, Exum said, offers an excellent example of how occupation can result in a prosperous democracy. “Look, it took approximately a thousand years–from the Battle of Hastings in 1066, to the Magna Carta in 1215, to the industrial revolution–for the parliamentary system to entrench itself in English political life,” said Exum. “It’s only fair we allow our Afghan allies that much time too,” he elaborated.

Watch/listen to Daniyal Noorani’s Find Heaven.

If Iran is the Soviet Union of Islamism, then the protesters in Iran challenging Ayatollah Khameini are the Lech Walesas of liberal democracy with the “potential to unleash a true Islamic Reformation.” A starry-eyed Robert Kaplan compares, in his latest dispatch, the Green Revolution to Solidarity in Poland, arguing that the Middle East and the Islamic world would be transformed by a successful democratic revolution in Iran. He calls upon President Obama to Reaganly appeal to liberty and democracy to usher in this great Islamic glasnost. This unbridled optimism about the inevitability and the pro-Western consequences of the Green Revolution is, however, misplaced. The revolution, like any historical event, is not inevitable; inevitability is imposed in hindsight and we in the present can never know. But more crucially, his assertion that a “democratic and Shiite would tip the balance against the Sunni Wahabi extremism” ignores a very plausible but opposite result–a democratic Iran would only exacerbate sectarian tensions in the Middle East and would fan the flames of Sunni extremism.

The Cold War incontrovertibly animates our thinking of foreign policy. We reach for Cold War metaphors reflexively, comparing the war in Iraq to Vietnam, Nato in Afghanistan to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the Global War on Terror (or, euphemistically, Overseas Contingency Operations) to the Cold War itself. While historical analogies provide the premises for foreign policy debates, and much needed rhetorical flourish to them, it’s wiser to use them sparingly. Kaplan’s juxtaposition of 21st century Islamic Iran to 20th century Communist Poland commits the folly of relying on analogy rather than a cool, dispassionate assessment of modern Iran.

Stephen Walt cautions against regime change in Iran as a panacea for the precarious relations between Iran (and the Islamic world) and the West, writing that “we should not assume that far-reaching political change in Iran would eliminate all sources of conflict between Iran and the United States (or the West).” He reminds us that a democratically-elected Iran would have more, not less, legitimacy to pursue a nuclear weapons program, a fact that would further destabilize the Middle East. A more confident Iran would only accelerate tensions between the Gulf Arab states, Israel, and Iran. A liberal democratic Iran would become an open target for Sunni extremists, who could legitimize their opposition by painting Iran as a Western tool (even if it wasn’t one). Another reason for caution is that a democratic Iran would not necessarily resemble a secular liberal Valhalla. Remember, the protesters were shouting “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is great). Shiite doctrine and Islam undoubtedly influence Iranian public opinion, and to many in Iran, politics and religion remain inextricable. That’s not entirely a bad thing, but this possibility should force us to reconsider the notion that a great wave of secularization would accompany democracy in the Islamic world should a reformation happen.

I do agree with Kaplan that President Obama should support liberal democracy in his rhetoric and policies–regardless of the Green Revolution. But Obama is no Reagan, and Mousavi is no Gorbachev.

As negotiators from the UN Security Council (+ Germany) prepare to sit down with Iran in the next few days to discuss the country’s nuclear program, Iran has decided to saber-rattle by test-firing new long-range missiles. This comes on the heels of another troubling announcement from the Obama administration: Iran is constructing a new nuclear plant at Fardou.

With the United States and the Europeans pushing for tougher sanctions, and the Russians and Chinese still kicking their feet around in the sand, the UN Security Council may face yet another impasse on the Iranian nuclear issue. Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel is certainly going to voice for serious action, and may even act unilaterally to curb Iran’s program. All this has placed the Obama administration in a tough spot–forcing it to, on the one hand, impose sanctions while, on the other, constrain Israel from acting.

Why has Iran chosen now as the moment to test these missiles? To escalate tensions between the US and Israel and to signal its unwillingness to compromise on its nuclear program. Even if sanctions succeed they will not preclude Iran from finishing its nuclear weapons program, argues Blake Hounshell. It’s a diplomatic quandary with no easy answers: either you let Iran obtain the bomb (and become a threat to Israel’s existence and make a mockery of the non-proliferation treaty) or you force Iran “militarily”–bomb it–to abandon its program (and destabilize the entire Middle East).

One option, that I find oddly appealing at this late hour, is offered by Anne Applebaum at The United States should destabilize the Iranian regime through a global human rights campaign; the President should hold up pictures of dead and beaten Iranian protesters; and the United States should support Iranian dissidents to the fullest extent.


As we approach the eight-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, one question lingers in my mind: how could we have not known to the extent to which Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda and Afghanistan were soon to become some of the most daunting foreign policy challenges?

The threat posed by Islamist radicals was not considered to be negligible even at the time preceding the attacks. Many foresaw the genesis of a struggle against and within the Islamic world. Samuel Huntington famously envisaged conflict on the “bloody borders of Islam” in his essay A Clash of Civilizations. Benjamin Barber wrote about the explosive encounter between modernity and tradition, about the reigniting of ethnic and religious passions in an increasingly globalized world, especially in the Muslim world. On a more practical level, it was an open secret that the Taliban in Afghanistan were supporting a network of international terrorists. Jeffery Goldberg, Peter Bergen and many other journalists had travelled to the region and they returned with strong messages and warnings from Al Qaeda. Goldberg saw the maddresah infrastructure that was training thousands of holy warriors. Thus, we had both an understanding of the historical dynamics at play and relevant and immediate information about Al Qaeda’s threats.

I believe that American anti-terrorism and National Security experts knew that Al Qaeda had the motivations and the manpower to become a serious threat. But they did not believe that it had the capability to attack the United States itself–they were brushed aside as too incompetent or too under-resourced to do so. That Ahmed Ressam, the terrorist caught at the Port Angeles border crossing on his way to Los Angeles, was so easily apprehended mislead officials to believe that they had control over these groups.

We have to acknowledge that the 9/11 attacks and the events that have unfolded since were never improbable nor unpredictable. Keen observers saw the big picture of a coming clash with the Muslim world (no, I do not mean a war with the Muslim world in the sense that Islamists would have you believe, but a long conflict with Muslim societies that pose a threat to American security). That leads me to ask: what will be the next foreign policy challenge?

Apparently, former Pakistani President General Pervez Mushrraf is “upbeat” after meeting with the Saudi King and being treated to an official welcome.

Musharraf’s resignation last year was aided by the fact that London, Washington and Riyadh guaranteed him that he would not face prosecution in Pakistan if he relinquished his presidency. Obviously, he was afraid of retribution from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, who’s leader, Nawaz Sharif, he had initially ousted in the 1999 coup. Coincidentally, it was the Saudis who brokered a (now defunct) deal between Sharif and Musharraf that would have required that Sharif stay away from Pakistan and Pakistani politics for ten years–a deal guaranteed by the Saudis. (Cautionary note for Musharraf: if the Saudis couldn’t keep Sharif at bay the first time around, what makes you believe that they’ll be successful this time around?) Certain PML-N members have already asked the Supreme Court to look into treason charges against Musharraf.

Riyadh has, since it began supporting the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 70s/80s, been courting Pakistan. Industrial investment, loans for infrastructure and funds for madressahs have flowed into Pakistan over the past few decades.

And it’s not that the Saudis are advancing a particular political agenda in Pakistan. While it may be true that the money for maddresahs has shaped the political plane–creating more Islamists and a more devout Pakistani society–these funds are largely private/unofficial. The Saudis have worked with various Pakistani governments, in spite of ideological differences. For example, they worked with General Zia’s Islamic dictatorship and Benazir Bhutto’s more liberal People’s Party.

For the Saudis, Pakistan is a strategic asset–a Muslim state with a nuclear bomb it can rely on to defend against Iran or Israel. In the past, and perhaps presently, the Saudis have sought a nuclear arsenal of their own. With the danger of whole scale international scrutiny and a substantial American presence nearby (Qatar, Iraq), it would be irrational for Riyadh to consider a proper nuclear program at this stage. Instead, it courts Pakistan’s various governments–not to mention its close ties with Pakistan’s all-powerful military–to keep the nuclear option open, both for Pakistan’s retaliatory capability and the technology it can transfer in the future.