Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Egypt's Transition to Democracy: The Major Players

This is part I of a three part series I will be writing on Egypt’s transition to democracy. Originally, I planned to write on the role of the military in Egypt’s post-revolutionary politics. But instead, I have decided to present a more complex and informative picture of contemporary Egypt. Toward that end, Part I describes the current domestic political landscape in Egypt by listing the five main actors that will shape and influence politics in the near future. Part II builds upon this by exploring the probable relationships and interactions between these five actors. And lastly, Part III looks at how Egypt’s internal changes will likely impact its foreign policies.

The five actors I list below are mix of old and new players on the political scene. The military and the counter-revolutionaries were integral parts of the old regime under Mubarak. They possessed and wielded political power and accrued many benefits from the status quo. The revolutionaries, Islamists, and The People are mostly new to Egyptian politics. Yes, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has participated in elections and held seats in parliament, but its role in politics was always severely constrained. There was no chance of it garnering meaningful political power. That is no more. The MB can freely and openly participate in politics, and, by many accounts, it has a real shot of being the dominant political party. Previously, The People were expected to be docile and passive citizens who reflexively supported the government. Those who publicly criticized or protested against the ruling elites–the nascent class of political activists–were subject to the whims of a repressive police state (surveillance, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, torture, etc.). Not surprisingly, then, prior to the revolution, there were no significant agents or advocates of change in Egyptian politics.

1. The Counter-Revolutionaries: This group consists of various figures who have entrenched interests in and sympathies for the old regime. It is their clear political preference that either the old domestic political status quo is restored or that the new state does not deviate much from the old status quo. Egyptian citizens widely perceive the counter-revolutionaries as working behind the scene to stymie any change in a liberal, democratic direction. This group includes former National Democratic Party (NDP) officials, undoubtedly some police and military officials, those citizens who still support Mubarak, and any other anti-change groups and individuals. Though the NDP has been formally disbanded, this group has already begun setting up re-branded political parties, such as the New National Party (NNP), which is headed by Talaat Sadat (son of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat). So as we can see, the strategy–at least for some in this group–is to challenge authority by working through the new political system. The NNP has stated its goal to remove corrupt officials and claims that it supports political reform, but many Egyptians are justifiably skeptical of their motives.

2. The Islamists: Now that religious groups and parties can now participate in the politics, they are doing so with much gusto. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis have joined protests and are in the process of fielding political parties for the upcoming elections. For all of the concern about the MB from Egyptian secularists and the West (especially the U.S.), this group has the look of a fairly moderate Islamic political force. Yes, the MB is Egypt’s best organized and one of its most experienced political groups. But the MB has renounced violence decades ago and most of their views are in line with those of Egypt’s citizens (pro-democracy, pro-Palestine, etc.). And despite monolithic characterizations of the MB, there are clearly internal fissures. For instance, the core of the MB–in large part made up of the elders–has set up the Freedom and Justice Party, while the group’s youth are looking to set up their own party. The MB revealed today that it plans to contest about 45-50% of the seats in parliament and will not put forward a candidate for the next presidential election.

Meantime, the Salafis, on the other hand, loom as a more ominous group in Egyptian politics. Not afraid to use violence, they have been accused of recent church bombings. These acts, in combination with Friday sermons by Salafi sheiks, such as Sheikh Mohamed Hassan, have only stoked sectarian tensions with Egypt’s Coptic population. And compared to the MB, the Salafis’ views are definitively hardline. They desire an Islamic state. In fact, they (in addition to the MB) campaigned vigorously in support of a "no" vote in the constitutional referendum, claiming that a "yes" would violate the tenets of Islam. Furthermore, "Abd El-Monem El-Shahat, spokesperson of the Salafist Group, said to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (The Middle East) newspaper that the position of the president is limited to a male Muslim. He also has some doubts about democracy since the source of legislation is people and not God." And while the MB has been viewed as content with playing a background or supporting role for now, knowing that they will soon have their day in the sun, the Salafis have taken a more aggressive political stance. Just last Friday, they organized three protests in Cairo to highlight various demands of theirs.

3. The Military: It runs the country (including the reform processes) under the banner of Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). It has made good on quite a few of its reform promises so far, keeping Egypt’s transition to democracy mostly right on track. Additionally, it is a very popular institution in Egypt. After all, as a way of saying thanks for minimizing the violence during the revolution, Egyptian citizens held a pro-military rally a few weeks ago.

Tahrir Square on April 8-9. An Egyptian blogger named Maikel Nabil Sanad, who detailed various human rights abuses committed by the military, was recently sentenced by a tribunal to three years in prison for "insults." Moreover, the military is clearly supposed to serve an interim ruler, but there are no guarantees that it will freely relinquish its grip on power. It has been a major part of Egyptian politics–either directly or indirectly–since 1952. Its members are accustomed to holding power and acting within a system that offered them enormous business interests. In a new democratic system, at a minimum, the military will seek to protect its business interests, which, in turn, requires some level of informal political power. How will it obtain this power? Finally, the military is expected to hand the keys to power to civilian rule, but this is at time when its political power is arguably at its apex. It now plays the role of king and kingmaker. Which means that the temptation to act purely on its own self-interests, no matter how this might impact the stability of the country, has never been greater.

4. The revolutionaries: I have already written an article on the role of the revolutionaries in Egyptian politics, so look here for a longer elaboration of my views of this group. In short, the revolutionaries are the ones who demonstrated in the streets and squares and eventually toppled the Mubarak regime. Their efforts made it possible for completely new political system to emerge in Egypt. Continual pressure on the SCAF has led to even further progressive changes (The NDP and State Security Investigations has been dissolved, Mubarak and his sons detained and questioned, Ahmed Shafiq dismissed as prime minister, and political prisoners released from prison.) This is an activated and energized group that still holds protests and strikes for what they see as just and fair political and economic conditions. The revolutionaries possess moderate to liberal views, making them well positioned to counter-balance the forces of extremism and as well as any group or individual resistant to political change. The revolutionaries’ main challenge is to build cohesive and well-organized political parties that can represent and defend their pro-democratic views.

5. The People: This group refers to the millions of non-elite Egyptians who do not fall into any one of the first four categories. At bottom, this is the base of support of that the reformers, Islamists, the military, and former regime members need to acquire and maintain a hold on political power. Hence, it is important to watch the opinion trends in this group. Initially, The People gave tacit support for the revolution. But more recently, there has been anecdotal data suggesting that Egyptian citizens are starting to get frustrated with the constant strikes and protests, believing that they disrupt daily life. Relatedly, there is some evidence that The People are worried and disturbed by the crime and violence that has swept parts of post-revolutionary Egypt. In fact, some citizens are so concerned that they reportedly would like to see an extension of the much-despised emergency law. It will be interesting to observe how political groups and parties attempt to play off these attitudes for political gain.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Conversation: Afghanistan, The Final Word

Yohanes asked me to offer some concluding remarks, so it looks like I have the final word in this conversation on Afghanistan. Below I list five take-home points.

1. There are many actors to blame for the protracted, bloody nature of the war. The militants (those scattered AQ elements and extremist Taliban who cause violence), Pakistan (which shields the Taliban), the Afghan government (which is weak and corrupt), American leadership and decision making (both Team Bush and Obama), and moderate Taliban members (who lack the courage to break ranks and deal with Kabul), among others, have contributed to the politico-military outcome we observe today.

The fact that there are so many players, with different and often opposing interests, adds to the complexity of war, making it difficult to resolve. To break the deadlock and get a sustainable agreement, all five actors must operate and work in one direction (either by choice, or because options have been imposed on them)–that is, toward putting down arms, renouncing violence, moving to the negotiating table, installing explicit or implicit trust-building measures, and so on. Those actors that are unable to get on the same page will undermine any effort at an effective deal.

2. The last nine years has called into question many of the assumptions and labels of the war that have been put forward by American leaders over the years. Remember, during the early years of the George W. Bush administration, this was supposedly the "easy war." The U.S. quickly toppled the Taliban and life in Afghanistan, especially in the bigger cities, seemed to rebound rather quickly. But by the end of his second term, this was clearly not an accurate description of the war. Barack Obama rode into office on platform that argued Afghanistan, not Iraq, was the "good war," the "necessary war" to fight. Yes, the war is essential to keep Afghan civilians, especially women and girls, safe and secure from violence and extremism. But that is not what Obama meant. He claimed the war was vital in a global strategic context. And as we now know, that is not entirely true.

Sure, it would be great if the U.S. can prevent AQ and extremist Taliban members from using Afghanistan once again as base from which they project their hate and violence locally and around the world (see my prior post for more on this). But AQ already functions this way. It does not need Afghanistan to cause death and destruction, wreak havoc with the global economy, and harm American security interests. After all, AQ has a base next door in Pakistan, and some sort of presence in at least 60 other countries. And with the rise of "virtual jihad," AQ does not need to capture territory. Through online communities (You Tube, message boards, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other web sites), AQ headquarters and its affiliates can recruit and train followers, spread its message, coordinate and plan upcoming attacks, issue orders for jihad, and more.

3. Events in Afghanistan have validated the longstanding argument that, once started, wars are often unpredictable and uncontrollable. And this frequently applies to great powers involved in asymmetrical conflicts–the kind of situations in which countries should be able to impose their will on much weaker adversaries. Think about the Vietnam War or the Indochina War or the Soviet adventure in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

In short, a major problem is that there is so much that countries, no matter how powerful or weak, do not and cannot know about their opponent before and during war. For example, who is the opponent? Does it get support from other groups or countries? What kind of support? What are the opponent’s goals? How strong or weak is the opponent in reality? How will it respond to military force? Will it adapt on the ground to strategies and tactics employed against it? But beyond the nature of the opponent, there are things that countries do not or cannot know about themselves or their side in war. How will their public react if the war does not end quickly? Will the war become politicized? Will their allies free ride or defect from the coalition? Will internal civil-military relations impact the war? Have they overestimated their own military strength? Will wartime pressures induce any leadership mistakes?

On a host of levels, the U.S. nowadays finds itself in an unpredictable and uncontrollable war in Afghanistan. It cannot influence Kabul or Pakistan to be more productive partners in the war. The U.S. has been unable to push the Karzai to clean up his government. And despite recent military successes, overall, it has failed to coerce the Taliban into submission. Violence still permeates the country, at random times and places. While wildly supported among citizens and politicians in 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, the war is no longer popular, with many doubting the value of stakes and worrying about the costs of continued war. Furthermore, extreme polarization in American politics has turned the war into a political football, with neither the Bush or Obama administrations willing to take strong, bold action to effect different results.

4. Let us not forget what the war is all about. Over the last five years or so, there has been quite a bit of talk in the U.S. (in foreign policy journals, such as International Security and Small Wars, and newspapers; in speeches and television appearances by elected officials, bureaucrats, and military personnel; and by bloggers, scholars, and pundits) on the specifics of American military tactics and strategy in the war. There has been a ton of paper been used to explain, clarify, and critique U.S. COIN (counter-insurgency). While interesting and informative, these discussions often miss the major point of the war. As Carl von

What does this mean? For the sake of brevity, let us just focus on the role of the U.S. in the war. The U.S. employs military force in Afghanistan, not merely to shoot people or blow things up, but for select political purposes. Put simply, ultimately, the U.S. uses force to enhance its bargaining power vis-a-vis particular groups and countries (the Taliban, AQ, the Afghan government, and Pakistan) so it can get what it wants on certain issues (a reduction in extremism, violence, and terrorism, stability in Afghanistan, etc.). Military force is simply one tool among many (think about threats to use force, diplomacy, economic aid and sanctions, humanitarian aid and missions) that the U.S. wields to reach its desired outcomes–both in general and in Afghanistan specifically. That American military force has not sufficiently and decisively pounded the Taliban into submission means Team Obama must place more of an emphasis on non-military tools in its struggle in Afghanistan.

5. Most obviously, it will take a very long time to fix Afghanistan. To reduce terrorism in Afghanistan to a more manageable and livable level, it might take less than a generation. But to complete the project of nation building? As we know, nation building–in this case, building a functioning state out of whole cloth and reconstructing state-society relations–is an enormous, daunting task. And this is especially so in a country that has little experience with effective national governing institutions and has traditionally vested power at the tribal level. This project could take two or more generations, depending on a number of factors, including the nature and duration of America’s commitment to Afghanistan.

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Conversation: Afghanistan, Part VIII

Brad raised lots of interesting points and in my post I mainly want to do two things. First, I want to make some "devil's advocate" arguments: What if the U.S. just left Afghanistan alone. And in the second part of this short essay, I will conduct a brief comparison between America's successful surge in Iraq and the current surge in Afghanistan.

Let us deal with the first topic, whether it is feasible for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan. The quick answer is that there is no really easy way to leave. There would be lots of angry Republicans yelling that the U.S. spent blood, treasure, etc., only to retreat with its tail behind its legs! Plus, there would be many of human rights things to think about, especially whether things will turn to worse once America leaves, with the Taliban committing war against women's education and liberties.

In short, it is a quick way to commit political suicide, unless Obama can make sure that he left things in a pretty good shape, that America's withdrawal will not cause much dislocation in Afghanistan and beyond. Let us say that the U.S. did forge an agreement with the Taliban: perhaps promising non-interference in Afghanistan as long as they leave the U.S. alone, and likely bringing the group into the national government. Should this happen, I think the Taliban will stay out of Washington's crosshairs. They are not on good terms with AQ anyway, particularly for bringing American power to their doorstep, and the main reason why they tolerate AQ for now is because they really need them to fight the U.S.

Under that scenario, it is possible that the Republicans can be persuaded that the U.S. won the war with honor: the Taliban is finally willing to stop its war and join the new government. Afghanistan is at peace and it is time to pack up and leave. Moreover, we can also make an argument that Afghanistan is not as important as it was at the war's inception. Back in 2002, the U.S. needed to attack Afghanistan to break al-Qaeda and the Taliban's back. Now, however, the Taliban will be more interested in consolidating their grip on power. But they have gotten bloodied badly from war with the U.S., and with how things had evolved from 1990s to today, the Taliban will not be as welcomed as they used to back then, making their life far more difficult.

The good thing about this hypothetical deal is that the Karzai government then will realize that unless they shape up, they might lose badly in the next national elections and the Taliban could rule the country legally. This is not unlike the fight between Palestinian Authority and Hamas, where Hamas' victory in Gaza spurred a reform within the PA.

The biggest problem is whether such action by the U.S. would be tantamount to signaling another Vietnam. Additionally, there is simply no guarantee that the Taliban will honor the bargain, especially with the central government remaining so weak and inefficient. The possibility of the Taliban erasing any progress in women's rights or doing other undesirable things, such as destroying invaluable relics of Afghan's past, is very high. Moreover, we cannot rule out the idea that the Taliban and AQ still might make another agreement out of sheer convenience.

Internationally, this action can also be potentially destabilizing the South Asia region, especially in regards to India and Pakistan. The reason India does not really bother with Pakistan is because it is sure that the US can keep Pakistan quiet. With the U.S. gone, India might be worried of more Pakistan-funded incursions in Kashmir, and the Pakistanis themselves will be able to start focusing their gaze on India. In a sense, then, the argument is whether it fits with America's national interests to keep things to a simmer there by staying in Afghanistan or whether the U.S. should ignore these factors and let both India and Pakistan sort their relationship on their own.

Brad mentioned that the surge worked in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I agree to that proposition with a caveat: the surge only works when the US manages to empower local populations, making them part of the solution. In Iraq, the surge helped strengthen the "Awakening Councils," basically a heavily armed neighborhood watch program comprised of Sunnis who were angry at al-Qaeda. In adding more troops, the U.S. strengthened the position of the existing councils, empowering civilians, and created a security fallback for other communities interested in creating this kind of council. People were willing to stand up against al-Qaeda because they believed that the U.S. was going to help them when they were down.

In Afghanistan, unfortunately, it seems that the U.S. is the only one doing the lifting. The general population, in essence, are apathetic, angry at both the government and the Taliban, and thus unwilling to provide any military support at all. Moreover, while al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia is comprised of many foreign fighters who espouse a different brand of Islam from local Iraqis, the Taliban is a comprised of Pashtuns, natives of Afghanistan. As a result, the surge in Afghanistan does not work as well as it did in Iraq.

So back to our main question: what should the U.S. do in Afghanistan? As I noted above, military withdrawal carries risks. But staying there is not that appealing either. We probably should go back to the drawing board of "nation-building," which is strengthening the Afghanistan government. Ahmed Rashid's article in the Foreign Policy is relevant to this discussion. I do think he misses the mark in some respects: he is too lenient on Karzai, especially on his performance as the President of Afghanistan. Yet Mr. Rashid is right when he noted that Obama's approach to Karzai left much to be desired. Bush might be too soft on Karzai, but Obama's disengagement and his thin-skin knee-jerk reaction to General McChrystal's Rolling Stone interview hurt the America's interests in Afghanistan.

Without a strong Afghanistan government, even if the U.S. manages to make an agreement with Taliban, such agreement will unravel sooner or later, especially when the U.S. leaves. We cannot have a lasting agreement between a weak party (Afghan government) and a strong party (the Taliban), as the strong party will overwhelm the weak party as soon as opportunities arise.

I know Brad wants me to have the last word, but I think I will throw the ball back to Brad so he can write a paragraph or two wrapping up our very interesting conversation.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Conversation: Afghanistan, Part VII

After this post, Yohanes will follow with a response, which will close the conversation on Afghanistan. Our next conversation, beginning sometime within the next two weeks, will address the issue of American grand strategy during the Obama administration. This is something that has gotten quite a bit of press over the last several weeks, with many pundits and bloggers suggesting that Obama’s responses to the Middle East uprisings are evidence of a nascent grand strategy about world politics.

The last part of our present conversation will focus on America’s military and strategic role in Afghanistan. To an extent, we have touched on these topics in previous posts in this conversation, but here I want to explore them more explicitly. In short, this post will be guided by two fundamental questions: Should the U.S. remain militarily engaged in Afghanistan? And how best can America protest its strategic interests there?

Let us first start with the obvious: The U.S. military is doing a great job in Afghanistan. To the point, as more forces have poured into the country over the last year, as a result of the so-called surge, more areas have been secured and rendered mostly free of terrorism and violence. By many current accounts, the Taliban and AQ is on the run and demoralized. These events mirror what happened in Iraq. Strictly in a military sense, the surge worked in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But in Iraq, the U.S. was able couple its military successes with fruitful political dealings with various Sunni groups. This led to the Awakening Councils that were so crucial in getting Sunnis to buy into the idea of putting down their arms and reconciling with the Iraqi state. In Afghanistan, we only have an progressively effective military effort; the political path has been stalled, for reasons already discussed in this conversation (the role of Pakistan, an ineffective Afghan government, poor U.S. leadership, the nature of Afghan society, and so on). Hence, as it currently stands, the only way the U.S. can ensure that Afghanistan is heading in the right direction is if it occupies country indefinitely, which is a preposterous solution. The best the U.S. can hope for now is a prolonged stalemate, which might buy Karzai (or any successor) enough time to cobble together a more effective government that can win the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans gradually over time.

But if this is the greatest and best outcome for the U.S., it is by no means a certain one. Depending on decisions made by Team Obama and the Pentagon, and on various unforeseen responses and adaptations by the Taliban and its allies, all of the military gains can be undone. And unfortunately, American casualties can quickly pile up. And besides, hitching its wagon to Karzai, who has done little to inspire confidence in his governing abilities, probably ensures that U.S. will not come anywhere close to achieving its objectives. Which begs the following questions: Are the stakes in Afghanistan worthy of continued loss of blood and treasure, in addition to any potential hits to America’s reputation and credibility down the line? Should the U.S. continue its military intervention, even though we know there is a good chance it might not succeed?

These questions form the heart of a heated debate taking place in Washington and around American kitchen tables and classrooms and coffee shops. Some believe that the stakes justify a continued effort. Others are doubtful. They believe it is time for the U.S. to bring its troops home. Interestingly, this difference in opinion has little to do with partisan politics, as both the right and left are represented in large numbers on both sides of the debate.

The doubters have put forward a number of arguments in favor of troop withdrawal (virtual jihad, the costs of war, the probability of an American loss, etc.), but I am not convinced that completely leaving Afghanistan is the best course of action. If the U.S. leaves the country en masse anytime soon, Afghanistan–with such weak and corrupt governing and military institutions–will struggle mightily against the twin forces of the Taliban and AQ. These groups might not take over the country, at least in the sense of seizing and establishing political power over all of Afghanistan, but they can cause considerable death and destruction. Furthermore, it is entirely plausible that the Taliban and AQ would carve out safe havens on Afghan soil, where they can reconstitute themselves, creating the semblance of a state within a state. And on these swaths of Afghan turf, both groups can impose their harsh vision of Islam on local Afghans. Under these circumstances, the fate of women and children, subject to horrific treatment by extremist, misogynist males, would be in continuous peril.

Just as troubling, this series of events could very easily trigger momentum for the Taliban and AQ. Both groups can claim victory over the powerful Americans and progress in their struggle against more secular elements in Afghan society, thereby creating the perception of inevitability to their efforts. Which in turn can offer a substantial morale boost to the foot soldiers in both groups and aid recruitment efforts.

With all of this in mind, I advocate the U.S. remaining militarily engaged in Afghanistan. Let me spell out this position in more detail. First, this engagement should be by request from the Afghan government, for the U.S. should avoid playing into the idea of an imperialist, occupying power that is so often propagated around the world.

Large-scale forward operations of clearing and holding areas ought to be abandoned. While these have been successful, there is no evidence that they are making the war more "winnable" for the U.S. or its Afghan allies. And after all, it just might be the case, as scholars like Robert Pape have suggested, that a hundred plus thousand American troops in Afghanistan are unintentionally a magnet for violence.

Third, more limited military and political goals require far fewer boots on the ground. The exact number of troops in Afghanistan should be determined by consultations between military leaders and Team Obama. Ideally, this type of mission would be conducted by special forces and related outfits in the military. This new approach would be much more cost-efficient for the U.S., which is important given such a weak and lackluster American economy. Additionally, a lighter footprint in Afghanistan probably would benefit U.S.-Afghan relations. It might mollify Afghans civilians who are skeptical, if not downright suspicious of American political and military motives. Plus, it would remove a nasty rhetorical tool Karzai frequently uses–that is, his tendency to score political points by painting the U.S. military as a colonizing force.

Fourth, as mentioned in prior posts but bears repeating, the military dimension must be coupled with strong diplomatic efforts from Team Obama. Washington needs to do a much, much better job of getting Pakistan on board with its goals in Afghanistan. And it needs to place pressure on Kabul to clean up its government, upgrade its capacity to deliver political goods to its citizens, and negotiate a deal with militants and other opponents who are willing to put down their arms and integrate into Afghan society.

What are your thoughts, Yohanes?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What is Wrong with Bahrain?

A few weeks after the Jasmine Revolution started in Tunisia, the region is reeling with disorder, especially Bahrain. Let's call a spade a spade: the Bahraini government messed up big time, given how its forces and supporters beat the protesters. At the same time, the Saudis exacerbated the situation by sending in troops. A month after that, the Bahrain government did something very idiotic by deciding to persecute Mansoor al-Jamri, the editor of Al Wasat, the country's most popular newspaper.

In the meantime, the opposition and the protesters themselves somehow managed to be dragged into the discourse of Shias vs. Sunnis, threatening the Sunnis minorities who ganged up with the government as a result. So instead of creating a pluralistic mass movement to demand reforms, the opposition managed to place themselves in a corner, and thus were easily branded as Iranian agents.

So, what happened here? First, the Bahraini government did everything wrong. They cracked down on the protesters, which only hardened their views. Then after the government stepped back, the encouraged opposition blundered by doubling down, refusing to compromise. Finally, the government hit back, supported by the Saudis.

Had the government just hit hard from the beginning, the situation would be bad, but not as bad as today. On the other hand, had the government compromised, Bahrain might have become the first stable pluralistic constitutional monarchy in the Middle East, as I believed that the Shiites were willing to tolerate a Sunni Sultanate as long as they got some voice in the decision-making process. The erratic responses, however, gave a hope that the government was willing to accommodate and thus when the second repression hit, Shiites' resentment increased dramatically.

The persecution of Mansoor al-Jamri, a symbol of moderation in Bahrain, inflamed the situation further. At this point, I am willing to bet that the Shiites will no longer tolerate a Sultanate that see as oppressive, not willing to compromise, and anti-Shiite. Moderation doesn't work. The situation has deteriorated so much that it will lead to further discord and possibly civil war.

One force behind the blunders is the pressure from the Saudis who are deathly afraid about Iran, as well as the possibility that its own Shiites minorities will rise in revolt. The Saudis, thanks to its Wahhabi-style of Islam, failed to accommodate and to integrate the Shiites to the society, resulting in the estrangement of the Shiites from the Saudis and at the same time, increasing the fears of the Saudis that these Shiites would act as the fifth pillar, taking orders from Tehran. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. With Bahrain in turmoil, the Saudis decided to strike, even though there was no indication of Iran's influence on the protesters at all.

At the same time, Iran is busy with its own dissidents, not to mention popular dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad's regime. Iran's economy has been in turmoil due to embargoes and mismanagement, and Ahmadinejad needs something to distract the population. Bahrain and the Saudis basically have handed Ahmadinejad the rallying flag he desperately needs.

This turns a small protest movement into a regional crisis.

In the meantime, Obama fiddled, preoccupied with his visits to South America, and later, the budget battle against the Republicans, and managed to tarnish the credibility of the U.S. as the defender of democratic values. To add insult to injury, on February 15, Obama warned Iran not to use force against protesters and yet did nothing about the Saudis' invasion and Bahrain's violent crackdowns on its population. If the U.S. was convinced that they needed to influence the hearts and minds of the people of the Middle East, Obama badly squandered the opportunities.

What could Obama have done? Well, of course, he messed up from the beginning, notably on his treatment of Mubarak, which I mentioned a few weeks ago. This time, however, Obama should pressure the Bahrainis, or at least use the US troops there to help stabilize the situation: to protect the protesters while at the same time, to police the city. It may cost some U.S. lives (sadly), however, the stake is very high. It is imperative to act as a honest broker. Both the Bahrain and the Saudi governments might not like this solution, but compared to handing the Shiites on a silver platter to Iran, that is a much better alternative.

In the meantime, the Bahraini government must stop the crackdown. It is useless and backfiring, destroying any shred of credibility and legitimacy the Sultanate has over its population. The government must free al-Jamri and other opposition figures that it arrested. The U.S. should pressure the Bahrainis on this count.

The entire mess is not caused by the ancient hatred between the Sunnis and Shiites. They have been living together for centuries since the split and managed to get along pretty well. The entire mess is caused by  idiotic governments filled with old autocrats who had to rely on fundamentalists for their fig leaves of legitimacy. Had the Bahrain and the Saudi governments been able to treat the Shiites with respect that they deserve, they wouldn't need not to worry about the Iranian influences.

Intermission: Piracy in Somalia

Once in a while, I want to branch out to different areas in the world. I had made a post about Japan a few weeks ago and now want to tackle the problem with piracy in Somalia.

It is very easy to clean up piracy. Just destroy the pirates bases of operation (e.g. ports, ships, etc). It will take a while for them to rebuild, and in the meantime, a constant patrolling of the areas will quickly eliminate any remnants of pirates.

There are several problems with this approach. First, it is costly in in materials, human lives, and most likely politically disastrous.

I think the U.S. can bombard the entire area pretty nicely and I won't doubt that the marines may be able to clean the whole place without major casualties. "Blackhawk down" was an aberration in an otherwise a good track record of the U.S. Marines. But then you have piles of dead bodies - both dead pirates and dead hostages. At the time of this writing, there are around 587 hostages, and while killing hostages is bad for business in general, the pirates will not hesitate to kill them when the U.S. Marines start destroying their bases of operation. It is politically dicey to launch a clean-up operation that will end up with many of the hostages dead. Not to mention the collateral damage. Thomas Jefferson did not need to worry about that when he authorized the clean-up of the Barbary Pirates. However, with the 24/7 news broadcasting all over the world, soon you will have human rights organizations up in arms.

Additionally, with the US already busy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya, any operation in Somalia will be hard to pull off. True, the U.S. might be able to cobble together a coalition of fed-up nations willing to tackle the problem. India, for instance, seems to be very interested in this issue, as the pirates have been busy in India's backyard. China may be on board in this case, as the threat of piracy also has an impact on its global trade, especially on its trade with African states.

The Europeans, the Arabs, and Somalia's African neighbors, on the other hand, might be skittish. They realize that the Somalian elders and the organized pirates have an incentive to limit the excesses. For too much excesses (e.g. agitated youths who love to showoff their prowess by killing people), is bad for the pirates' business.

By cleaning up the hornet's nest, we might end up with many small unorganized criminal groups.Worse, they may immigrate to either surrounding countries or to Europe, adding to the immigration problems that already plague the European continent. In fact, the European powers usually let the pirates go because they are afraid that those pirates might ask for asylum, and under the European liberal immigration law, such requests are difficult to deny.

Worse, the now former pirates could turn to extremism and radicalization, in response to what they see as injustices committed against them. They first saw other nations overfish and then dump all kinds of trash into their waters; now other countries are destroying their only means of income. As a result, they might join with the al-Shabaab, a local extremist group with a link to al-Qaeda, causing further problems. At least the pirates at this point dislike al-Shabaab, as the al-Shabaab are bad for business. Extremism and criminal activities do not mix well, as criminals prefer to keep fleecing people while minimizing attention from the authorities, while the extremists rob AND fight the authorities.

There are many solutions to this piracy problem. One of the best solution is to prop up the Somalian government, making them more effective and capable of dealing with problems on its turf. The problem is that nation-building is very costly. The U.S. does not want the responsibility, having been burned in both Afghanistan and Iraq. With the Tea Party demanding more cuts in the budget and at the same time, the leftists refuse any foreign adventures, the chances of the U.S. taking care of the Somalia problem is highly unlikely. The Europeans are busy with their deadbeats already (e.g. Greece and Portugal) and they are not interested anyway, and the Arab autocrats just don't give a damn.

Thus the world just chooses to "do nothing" in dealing with piracy in Somalia. It is a very simple problem, but the aftertaste is just so bad that few rational governments are willing to solve it.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Conversation: Afghanistan, Part VI

I am going to use this post to address Brad's arguments.

On Afghanistan's geographical problems: I think you are right that I somewhat disregarded the geographical problems in Afghanistan. Then again, states can adapt. The British got burned badly in South Africa as the Boers moved to guerrilla warfare and managed to use the environment to beat the British. By the end, the British adapted pretty nicely. Boers were quelled with high civilian losses. We might not like the methods, but it worked.

Same thing with many other civil wars that I have studied. The only thing that kept them going were arms supplies and outside interference. Counterfactually, had the Taliban and AQ not be able to retire to their safe havens in Pakistan, they would have been crushed in the first or second years of America's occupation of Afghanistan.

There is an interesting essay by McChrystal in Foreign Policy, describing the evolution of tactics that the U.S. solders have used to fight against al-Qaeda. It is actually not a new tactic: guerrillas all over the world operate like that, though what really novel is the integrated army-wide counter-guerrilla operation. I may be wrong, but I think McChrystal's strategy might work pretty well regardless of the geographical condition, as long as the Pakistanis plug their side of the border, which is politically and militarily difficult to do.

On Afghanistan's fragmented society: I agree that it is very difficult to build a nation from a patchwork of tribes in Afghanistan. I may oversimplify the problem, but I think the biggest problem in Afghanistan is the rotten central government, which hurts the nation-building capability. A leader cannot exhort others to join the government if they don't see any benefits in joining, and with the central government corrupt, this already difficult task becomes harder to achieve. Get a strong, clean and efficient central government that can do the things that it promised will do, then this problem will be solved.

On the Taliban: My problem with Karzai's trying to reach agreement with Taliban is in his position: whether he is negotiating from position of strength or weaknesses. The Taliban are not idiots. They watch news and probably assume that America's will to stay there is steadily declining. It is true that see a stalemate there, but it is a stalemate thanks to U.S. difficulties in rooting out the Taliban and the Talibans' impossibility to dislodge the U.S. Once the U.S. is gone, the Taliban could simply roll to Kabul. That's a bad politics.

I may sound like a broken radio here, but again, Karzai needs to get this government going. The fact that he is propped up by the U.S. signals weakness. The Taliban may just wait, until the U.S. leaves, the to heck with that scrap of paper called treaty.

On Pakistan: I think the biggest problem with U.S. policy to Pakistan is a lack of alternatives and imagination. The U.S. simply didn't pay much attention to problems within Pakistan - Bush just listened to Musharraf without paying much attention to troubles within Pakistan. Same thing with Obama: Pakistan is a neglected 100-ton gorilla in South Asia, who is deadly afraid at India's 800-ton gorilla next door. On the one hand, the U.S. needs Pakistan because it lacks alternative players that can provides a supply route into Afghanistan, and at the same time, it needs an Islamic state to provide some sort of legitimacy to American actions. On the other hand, the U.S. relies on Pakistan so much that Pakistan knows that the U.S. cannot accomplish much without them.

I think India is the key here. The problem is that Pakistan will not do much unless they can get Kashmir, and India will not talk if the issue of Kashmir is on the plate. India's unwillingness to talk about Kashmir was one of the reasons why Pakistan armed radicals and the Taliban: so they can be used to sow trouble in Kashmir, forcing India to talk.

It is a tough nut to crack, and I think the US really needs to start looking at the region as a whole if we want to solve the Afghanistan problem.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Conversation: Afghanistan, Part V

Because I agree with quite a bit of what you last wrote, it was trickier than usual to come up with this post. In the end, I have come up three different points to talk about. One point of disagreement, one point of contention, and, lastly, a general comment on the role of the U.S. in Afghanistan.

Here we go...

1. I do not entirely agree with your argument that Afghanistan is not a graveyard for empires/great powers. One of your punchlines from this argument–at least in my opinion–is that past wars there did not have to turn out the way they did. Events could have unfolded differently had different decisions been made by the British, Russians, and Americans. On this, I agree. The wars fought by those three countries were not predestined to end in such colossal failures. Indeed, England, Russia, and the U.S. could have withdrew from their conflicts far earlier than they did/will, thereby saving an enormous amount of blood and treasure.

That said, choosing to fight in Afghanistan did not make life easier for the U.S. (Or the British or Russians) The geography of Afghanistan, as well as how Afghan society is ordered and structured, stacked the deck against American forces. The rocky, mountainous geography are barriers to fighting and capturing militants/terrorists in the country. And Afghanistan’s location–next door to Pakistan–ensures that the country’s borders remain permeable, which allows Afghans to flee the scene, when necessary, and evade the Americans. Furthermore, Afghanistan’s patchwork of various tribes and ethnic groups dooms the kind of project that the U.S. has been undertaking: nation building. It is awfully difficult to create a state from scratch, and even more so in a country in which there is little social cohesion and the people almost inherently resist and despise any notion of central authority.

2. Why do you consider Karzai’s moves toward negotiating with the Taliban and Pakistan a bad thing? After more than nine years of war, it is clear that military force alone will not thwart the activities of the Taliban. There is no way Kabul and the U.S. will be able to impose a settlement on the Taliban and its allies. All sides are stuck in a stalemate. As a result, there needs to be a political process to break the deadlock.

One part of this process should include discussions with Pakistan. After all, if the situation is to be effectively resolved, at a minimum, Kabul will need Pakistan to clamp down on the Taliban and AQ elements inside of its borders. A second part should focus on talks with the Taliban. The Taliban must be pulled in from the outside and integrated into society.

Now, I say this last point with two caveats. One, Kabul has to figure out which Taliban members are careerists–those possibly likely to reconcile with the government–and which ones are belong to the hardcore, the extreme–those far less likely to give up the fight. Two, we do not know the bargaining space between those Taliban members willing to negotiate and Kabul. The larger that space or gap, the longer the hostilities will continue. This is why the military component cannot be ignored right now. If Kabul and the U.S. can continue to put pressure on the Taliban, causing its members believe that their options are limited and time is not on their side, then the bargaining space will naturally narrow and make a political solution more doable.

3. Obama needs to do whatever he can to get Pakistan to cooperate more forcefully and effectively in the war in Afghanistan. Simply put, the status quo is unsustainable. As of this moment, Kabul is too feckless and corrupt to be a difference-maker. And the U.S., engaged in two other military conflicts and faced with a damaged economy, is looking to shift much more of the burden to Afghanistan. Pakistan is the key. Pakistan can contribute far, far more than it has, and it must do so. Think of it this way: In a best case scenario, even if Kabul is able to get some kind of a deal done with the Taliban, the country will not be internally safe or stable as long as the group has an open sanctuary in Pakistan where the hardcore members can roam free and cause havoc inside of Afghanistan. This must change.

At this point, I do not think dangling any further carrots is a worthwhile endeavor for Team Obama. The U.S. has given Pakistan a sufficient amount of political, economic, and especially military assistance to comply with its requests. Enough. It is high time to begin using some political and military sticks. Perhaps Obama should hint at withholding aid to Pakistan. Maybe he should suggest at stronger unilateral military action (e.g., more than just drones) in Pakistan. Regardless, Obama and his team must do much more effective diplomatic work, if any semblance of good is to result of America’s intervention. Quite frankly, viewed in this way, and with little hindsight, we can say that the loss of Richard Holbrooke (the former chief U.S. liaison to Afghanistan and Pakistan) is doubly tragic.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Conversation: Afghanistan, Part IV

How come you always ask me the hard question? Just kidding. Anyhow, I think you will be surprised when I say that I believe Bush messed up when the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan.

Honestly, I do not buy the old argument that Afghanistan is the graveyard of foreign armies, that the British and the Soviets met their matches there and that the U.S. was to be the next in line. For the British, it was clear that the only reason they were interested in Afghanistan was to prevent the unpredictable Tsars of Mother Russia from going south and threatening the British crown jewel, which was India. Once the Tsars got preoccupied elsewhere, notably from the double-threats from both the United Germany and the Japan Empire, the British in essence left the Afghanistan alone.

In case of Russia, the Carter administration seemed to provoke Russian intervention, otherwise the Russians were willing to leave Afghanistan alone. The main reason why the Soviets were bogged down there were the heavy involvement of both the U.S. and Pakistani governments in funding the mujaheddin. Plus, the Soviets  under Andropov were not really keen on intervening there. Chernenko intensified the war, though later Gorbachev, seeing how bankrupt the Soviet economy was, decided to pullback.

In Bush's case, he made great decisions in the first months of invasion. He allied the right people and picked the right strategy, leading to the collapse of the Taliban's forces. Then, the White House got preoccupied with the Iraq war.

The Iraq war completely distracted the U.S. administration from Afghanistan. While Karzai seemed to be an adequate choice at the time, the U.S. and the coalition, the ones holding the purse, should have done lots of auditing, making sure that the Afghan central government remained credible and trusted by the population. The inability of the Karzai's administration to stay clean made it harder to gain support from population, especially when things got hairy after the reemergence of the Taliban.

By the time the situation in Iraq stabilized, the Bush administration then faced a very disturbing situation in Afghanistan: the America's lack of attention enabled the Taliban to regroup, threatening the gains that were made in the first several years of the war. Unfortunately, by this point, the U.S. no longer started from a clean sheet, since Washington had a corrupt government in Kabul on its hands The more Karzai and his associates skimmed wealth from Afghanistan, the more credibility the U.S. lost in Afghanistan.

While it is true that the U.S. remained far more respected than the Kabul government (or the al-Maliki government in Baghdad), it created an unhealthy dependency. Basically, the government could make mistakes, pursue stupid policies, since it believed the U.S. would later save the day. At the same time, there is a sense of long-term fatalism among Karzai and his associates: that when eventually the U.S. leaves, the Taliban will likely return and things will look bad, so why not steal enough American aid so they can retire and live in luxury in the Middle East? Such attitudes explain the fact that Karzai and his associates are very keen on make an agreement with the Taliban, as they are not sure how committed the U.S. is to Afghanistan.

Of course, the Obama administration further exacerbated this situation. Indeed, Karzai and his associates believe the U.S. under Obama is far more dangerous than Bush: at least they could rely on Bush, but they are wary of Obama, who came to the White House with the idea of peace, disengagement from both Iraq and Afghanistan, and a retrenchment of the U.S. overseas involvements.

With Obama backtracking on Guantanamo and seeming to pay less attention to Afghanistan, at least early in his presidency, his credibility evaporated in front of Karzai. Karzai then calculated that it would be much better for him to make a deal with the Taliban and Pakistan, making himself the defender of Afghanistan. Thus, he became belligerent, criticizing NATO's bombings, any aerial attacks, etc. He calculated that since the U.S. was leaving anyhow, he had nothing to lose. At the same time, Karzai also relished the fact that the U.S. was not pulling out immediately and would not try to replace him. Therefore, he allowed massive corruption among his supporters and denounced the coalition's accidental attacks on civilians.

So the first part of the blame could be handed to Bush, that his team neglected to ensure that the Afghan government was clean and responsible. The second part of the blame belongs to Obama, because he created a condition of uncertainty, making the Kabul government less interested in destroying the Taliban and far more interested in making agreement with the Taliban and the Pakistanis.

Obama could have done something better. Being seen as a peacenik, Obama could have credibly threatened to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, should Karzai refuse to make the proper adjustments: that unless he agreed on some reforms, his days were numbered as the US would no longer be there to support him. While it would have been a politically dangerous move for Obama, especially with the Republicans ready to pounce on him, he could have bluffed and Karzai might have offered some compromises, making his government less belligerent. Obama, however, punted. Psychologically, Obama is someone who does not like taking risks. He prefers to get everything in place, understanding everything, before throwing the dice, thus improving the odds.

(Honestly, I think General Stanley A. McChrystal got it right: Obama was not engaged in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was not in his "grand masterplan." For Obama, Afghanistan was a distraction to his precious health care reform. And without the pesky Republicans ready to pounce on him for surrendering the war, Obama would have pulled out the US troops without batting an eyelid.)

What Obama should do at this point is to shore up the government of Afghanistan by demanding, and actually launching, massive investigations on grafts and abuses of power by Karzai's government. This would not endear the U.S. to Karzai, but on the other hand, the people of Afghanistan would love it. Resentment toward the U.S. is growing not solely due to accidental civilian deaths, but for what the population sees as the American support for the corrupt Karzai government.

So what will happen in the future? Assuming that Obama sticks with his schedule, and as long as the central government in Afghanistan remains weak and not trusted due to mass corruption, I believe we will see another civil war on the horizon. Many people, not only the Taliban, despise Karzai, including many governors-cum-warlords who are angry with Karzai's indifference toward their regions. Even though the U.S. might be able to quash the Taliban, forcing them to retreat further to Pakistan, the Kabul government would still have to deal with various regional discontents.

This is a very grim scenario, mind you. Sadly, however, with Obama's lack of interest in Afghanistan, and with the inability of Karzai's government to police itself, to present itself as a credible government of Afghanistan, I really doubt the future of Afghanistan will be bright.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Conversation: Afghanistan, Part III

I am glad you spent time talking about the Taliban, because that is what I want to explore in this post. In my view, here is the key to ending the war: Karzai and his associates must be able to distinguish the career members from the hardcore members of the Taliban and then co-opt the former into normal Afghan life. The idea of spending so much blood treasure only in the end to reach this point might sound unpalatable to many, and such a reaction is understandable. But keep in mind that there is a stark difference between the careerists and the hardcore-types.

The career members look at membership in the Taliban as employment, an avenue to gain money and material items, and a way to keep busy. They are not committed jihadis. And they do not hold especially strong beliefs about religion and politics. Ultimately, what this means is that Kabul can bargain with these members. If offered the right price, they will flip their allegiance and merge into mainstream Afghan society and politics. Viewed in this way, the careerists are akin to gangsters and street thugs. Believing that they have few paths available to experience self-empowerment and escape poverty, they turn to a life of crime and violence.

By contrast, the hardcore Taliban are true-believers in their mission. They believe their actions are right and just. Their politico-religious worldview is entrenched and inflexible. There is virtually no carrot that can dissuade them from contesting the government and employing violence. Bargaining with the hardcore means giving in to their demands.

Separating the careerists from the hardcore can offer several benefits. A smaller group, speaking for a reduced number of people, can eat at the legitimacy of the Taliban’s words and actions, which, in turn, might staunch the flow of people seeking to join the group. Second, a downsized Taliban might be easier to monitor and control via military action, police efforts, and intelligence work. Third, if enough Taliban members break ranks, putting down their arms and reintegrating into Afghan life, Kabul will have a chance to create the kind of governing institutions and political outputs (e.g., domestic political goods) that everyone wants to see.

The crucial question, though, is this: Will Pakistan allow all of this to happen? As you correctly pointed out, Pakistan views the Taliban as an important political and paramilitary tool, so important that it might be unwilling to let the group shrink in size and capabilities. Relatedly, a recent New York Times article pointed out that several high level Taliban commanders have been assassinated, leaving the group worried and on edge, likely by Pakistan. As mentioned in the article, one guess is that Pakistan frowned upon these Taliban leaders broaching the idea of negotiations with Kabul and made them pay for it.

(But there are other guesses as well, including the notion that Pakistan is now more active in clamping down on militants and terrorists on its soil. This is probably wishful thinking. My view is that Pakistan’s moves are part of a cyclical game that it has played with the U.S. over the last ten years. We cannot say that Pakistan has never taken action against the Taliban; that assertion would be demonstrably false. Here is what happens: The U.S. pleads for Pakistan to take a tougher stance against the Taliban, AQ, and other militants. In response, Pakistan complies, arresting, imprisoning, and killing these undesirables. The U.S. is pleased, and aid continues to flow to Pakistan’s military. But then Pakistan–probably with heavy influence from its military–takes its foot off the pedal and eases up, letting its militant minions run free and wild. So in the end, Pakistan does just enough to get the U.S. off its back. But U.S. officials are left thinking they are not getting enough back for its buck.)

Regardless, Karzai must do all he can to suck the life out of the Taliban. And attempting to siphon off the careerists is one promising way to do precisely that. It will take time. It will also require the Afghan state to work much more cohesively than it has in the past. Karzai has sent out feelers to the Taliban over the last few years, but these efforts have led to little progress. Now is the time to do begin this effort in earnest. And right now is a particularly opportune time, given that U.S. forces have the Taliban on the run and signs of pessimism are setting in. In fact, we might be at a point in which some Taliban members are more susceptible than ever to flipping sides.

OK, Yohanes, next issue. And let us not beat around the bush any longer. What are your thoughts on the role of the U.S. in Afghanistan? And what should Team Obama be doing differently? What will happen to Afghanistan once, as Obama intends, significant numbers of combat forces are pulled out of the country?