Tag Archives: Afghanistan

Boss Hogg Says Something Interesting

Ben Smith at Politico:

Here’s a major moment in the nascent Republican presidential primary: Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour tonight became the first among the leading Republican candidates to suggest that the United States reduce its presence in Afghanistan and its spending on defense.

Barbour echoed the concerns of critics of the Afghan war effort when asked by reporters in Iowa about American involvement in the conflict:

He also said that the U.S. should consider reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan. “I think we need to look at that,” he said when asked if the U.S. should scale back its presence.

But he said his reasoning isn’t financial.

“What is our mission?” Barbour said. “How many Al Qaeda are in Afghanistan. … Is that a 100,000-man Army mission?”

“I don’t think our mission should be to think we’re going to make Afghanistan an Ireland or an Italy” or a Western-style democracy, he said.

Barbour’s leading Republican rivals have positioned themselves to President Obama’s hawkish right on a range of foreign policy issues. They’ve also resisted calls from some associated with the Tea Party movement for deep cuts to federal spending that would include defense cuts. In fact, two of the candidates — Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich — have in the past backed the Heritage Foundation’s “4 percent for Freedom” initiative, which would actually raise baseline defense spending.

Joe Klein at Swampland at Time:

Ben Smith correctly identifies the first sort of interesting event in the Republican presidential primary race: Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has had enough of Afghanistan and wants to start drawing down troops. No details about how many and when, of course–and, in the end, Barbour’s timetable may not be all that different from Obama’s, which, I expect will have lots of troops coming home next year. But this is Haley Barbour, folks–and we know two things about him: he’s not the world’s boldest policy thinker and he’s probably the smartest political strategist in the field. When Barbour decides that Afghanistan is a loser, you can bet that more than a few Republicans are heading that way–and that means interesting times for the trigger-happy neoconservatives who have dominated Republican foreign policy thinking in recent years. It also means that the foreign policy debate in the Republican primaries may be a real eye-opener.

J.F. at DiA at the Economist:

The interesting thing about Mr Barbour’s comments is not that he said them, but that he’s right: of course reining in defence spending has to at least be part of the conversation if people are going to take Republican promises of fiscal responsibility seriously. The depressing thing about his being right is that it doesn’t matter. There are plenty of other ways for Republicans to show their fiscal bonafides. Means-testing Social Security, for instance. Trimming Medicare. Backing the cost-saving measures in Obamacare. Letting the Bush tax cuts expire (sigh). Any takers, Republicans? No?

My two cents: Mr Barbour will get a pass on those comments for now—and may even get some lip service from the Romney-Gingrich camp—because his candidacy is such a long shot. If things start to improve for him, though, look for him to be pilloried as soft on national security.

Dan Amira at New York Magazine:

Of course, if Ron Paul runs, he would easily outdo Barbour on this front. But for now, Barbour is the only one, and Time‘s Joe Klein uses the opportunity to tout him as “probably the smartest political strategist in the field.”

Whether or not that’s true, you really don’t need to be a genius to know that Americans across the political spectrum are tiring of the war in Afghanistan. You just need the ability to read. According to a January Gallup poll, 72 percent of independents and 61 percent of Republicans want to “speed up withdrawal from Afghanistan.” And the sentiment is even stronger among tea partiers. According to a poll commissioned by the Afghan Study Group — in the words of founder Steve Clemons, “a bipartisan group of leading academics, business executives, former government officials, policy practitioners and journalists” — 64 percent of self-identified tea partiers want to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan or leave the country entirely. Considering the poll numbers, more surprising than Barbour taking a dovish position on Afghanistan is that the rest of his fellow candidates-to-be haven’t already done the same.

Alex Massie:

Barbour, the Boss Hogg governor of Mississippi, remains a long-shot for the GOP Presidential nomination but he’s not someone noted for policy boldness or imagination. True, his ideal timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan may not differ from the platonic ideal of withdrawal imagined by the Obama administration; that’s not the important thing here. What matters – though this is but a tea leaf into which too much should not be read – is the hint that Republican enthusiasm for the Afghan mission may be waning. That in turn may make the foreign policy debates during the GOP primary more interesting than seemed likely six months ago.

Barbour, of course, is an impeccably-connected member of the “elite” disguised as a southern good old boy. Doubtless that’s why he’s also able to argue that conservative claims to fiscal responsibility (an interesting concept in itself) are meaningless if the Pentagon’s budget is ring-fenced and protected from future budget cuts. Again, this is the sort of “Beltway” thinking disdained by talk radio and the populist right.

Yesterday James observed that it is “worrying” that ” the United State appears to have lost interest in its role as global policeman” but it’s also worth pointing out that this is a role it has performed fitfully and inconsistently in the past. Again, parts of the Obama administration’s foreign and security apparatus – notably but not only Bob Gates – owe something to the George HW Bush/Colin Powell approach to international affairs. Leadership is certainly important but the problems of foreign policy are something to be managed, not solved. Because often there are no solutions and even rarer still is the solution that doesn’t involve hefty, perhaps expensive, trade-offs.

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We Got Them Pech Valley Blues

C. J. Chivers, Alissa J. Rubin and Wesley Morgan in NYT:

After years of fighting for control of a prominent valley in the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan, the United States military has begun to pull back most of its forces from ground it once insisted was central to the campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

The withdrawal from the Pech Valley, a remote region in Kunar Province, formally began on Feb. 15. The military projects that it will last about two months, part of a shift of Western forces to the province’s more populated areas. Afghan units will remain in the valley, a test of their military readiness.

While American officials say the withdrawal matches the latest counterinsurgency doctrine’s emphasis on protecting Afghan civilians, Afghan officials worry that the shift of troops amounts to an abandonment of territory where multiple insurgent groups are well established, an area that Afghans fear they may not be ready to defend on their own.

And it is an emotional issue for American troops, who fear that their service and sacrifices could be squandered. At least 103 American soldiers have died in or near the valley’s maze of steep gullies and soaring peaks, according to a count by The New York Times, and many times more have been wounded, often severely.

Matt Cantor at Newser:

Military leaders say the valley ate up more resources than was appropriate considering its importance, that troops can be better used elsewhere, and that there aren’t enough troops for a clear victory in the region even if they did stay. “What we figured out is that people in the Pech really aren’t anti-US or anti-anything; they just want to be left alone,” notes an official. “Our presence is what’s destabilizing this area.” But insurgents will likely see this as a victory for their side, the Times notes. As for the Afghan troops that will remain behind, “It will be a suicidal mission,” says a former Afghan battalion leader.

Joshua Foust at Registan:

In a way, this will be more than a test. Our ultimate goal for every part of the country, whether Panjshir or Marjah, is to leave competent Afghan forces in our wake so we can withdraw responsibly. It is, in many ways, the only real strategy we have left, since the state-building that should be accompanying it remains embarrassingly negligent. Pech also isn’t the only place we’re pondering this. The French are trying this in Sarobi district of Kabul provinceᾹan area of acute emotional reaction in France because of all the casualties they’ve taken in the area. Sarobi, however, has been relatively calm as of late, so there is something of a push to declare it a success and hand over responsibility to the Afghans.

Sarobi hasn’t seen much violence in the last six months. There are appropriate concerns over why that is, including the political savvy of local militants who might just want to wait out the French until the area is open again. It is also a short drive from both Kabul and Bagram, meaning if something does go wrong help is very close by. There is a sense that the area has been “won” by the French, so therefore it is an appropriate time to handover the area to the Afghans, who will maintain that win.

Pech is a harder decision to make. It is remote and difficult to get to, either by land or air. There hasn’t been a reduction of violence in recent months. In fact, the network of river valleys centered on Pech are probably the most violent in the country: the Waigal Valley (where the Want base was attacked), the Korengal, Watapor. The only area nearby that’s been worse is Kamdesh, in Eastern Nuristan.

Tom Maguire:

The WaPo covered the action in the Pech Valley late last year:

U.S. troops battle to hand off a valley resistant to Afghan governance

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 27, 2010; 12:00 AM

IN PECH VALLEY, AFGHANISTAN — Earlier this year, Lt. Col. Joseph Ryan concluded that his 800-soldier battalion was locked in an endless war for an irrelevant valley.

“There is nothing strategically important about this terrain,” said Ryan, 41, a blunt commander who has spent much of the past decade in combat. “We fight here because the enemy is here. The enemy fights here because we are here.”

Ryan’s challenge for the past several months has been to figure out a way to leave the Pech Valley, home to about 100,000 Afghans, without handing the insurgents a victory. This fall he launched a series of offensives into the mountains to smash Taliban sanctuaries. His goal is to turn the valley over to Afghan army and police units who would work out their own accommodation with bloodied insurgents.

“The best thing we can do is to pull back,” he said, “and let the Afghans figure this place out.”

So it is all going according to the latest revised plan and there may be a bit of hype in the current Times headline

Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy:

So how can you or I tell if the war is going well or not? For that matter, how can Barack Obama be sure that he’s getting the straight scoop from his commanders in the field? Even if the military was initially skeptical about a decision to go to war, once committed to the field its job is to deliver a victory. No dedicated military organization wants to admit it can’t win, especially when it is facing a much smaller, less well-armed, and objectively “inferior” foe like the Taliban. Troops in the field also need to believe in the mission, and to be convinced that success is possible.

To the extent that they need to keep civilian authorities and the public on board, therefore, we can expect military commanders to tell an upbeat story, even when things aren’t going especially well. I am not saying that they lie; I’m saying that they have an incentive to “accentuate the positive” in order to convince politicians, the press, and the public that success will be ours if we just persevere. Indeed, this was one of the key “lessons” that the U.S. military took from Vietnam: Success in modern war — and especially counterinsurgency — depends on more effective “information management” on the home front. And this tendency is not unique to the United States or even to democracies; one sees the same phenomenon in most wars, no matter who is fighting.

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“You’ve Got To Stop This War In Afghanistan.” Richard Holbrooke: 1941-2010

Rajiv Chandrasekaran at WaPo:

Longtime U.S. diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke, whose relentless prodding and deft maneuvering yielded the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia – a success he hoped to repeat as President Obama’s chief envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan – died Monday in Washington of complications from surgery to repair a torn aorta. He was 69.

A foreign policy adviser to four Democratic presidents, Mr. Holbrooke was a towering, one-of-a-kind presence who helped define American national security strategy over 40 years and three wars by connecting Washington politicians with New York elites and influential figures in capitals worldwide. He seemed to live on airplanes and move with equal confidence through Upper East Side cocktail parties, the halls of the White House and the slums of Pakistan.

Obama praised him as “a true giant of American foreign policy who has made America stronger, safer, and more respected. He was a truly unique figure who will be remembered for his tireless diplomacy, love of country, and pursuit of peace.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement that the United States “has lost one of its fiercest champions and most dedicated public servants.”

Michael Crowley at Swampland at Time:

Holbrooke’s Last Words

“You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.”

Spoken to a Pakistani surgeon who was sedating him before surgery.

Joshua Keating at Foreign Policy:

Holbrooke’s untimely death comes as a particular shock to those of us at FP, who saw him only two weeks ago when he was honored at our Global Thinkers Gala and was at his pugnacious best. (Here’s a video of his speech at the event, in which he called his years at FP “among the most important in my life and my career.”

Holbrooke was a giant of American policy over the last half century, trouble-shooting in conflicts from Vietnam, to the Balkans, (about which he wrote his classic first-person account, To End a War) to Afghanistan. (He’s probably one of the few State Department figures to play a starring role in both the Pentagon Papers and the WikiLeaks documents.)

But while often seen as the consummate Foggy Bottom insider, Holbrooke was never sentimental about the business of American foreign policy. His first piece from the very first issue of Foreign Policy in 1970 takes on the bloated U.S. foreign-policy bureaucracy, or has he called it, “the machine that fails.” In Holbrooke’s view, the proliferation of massively-staffed agencies accountable for different aspects of U.S. foreign policy had made the entirely apparatus dangerously unwieldy.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo:

Diplomacy is a paradoxically insular world. And most of the nation’s foreign affairs get little treatment in the headlines. So I imagine that more than a few readers are wondering why we’re giving such major treatment to the death of Obama administration who many of you probably have never heard of or perhaps only in passing.

As the obituaries note, Holbrooke was key figure in US diplomacy for almost half a century. One fun fact: he authored a substantial portion of the Pentagon Papers. What may or may not come through as clearly was the size of the personality and the doggedness — a fact that likely kept him from the top job of Secretary of State in this and last Democratic administration.

Vice President Biden’s statement contains these two sentence: “Richard Holbrooke was a larger than life figure, who through his brilliance, determination and sheer force of will helped bend the curve of history in the direction of progress … He was a tireless negotiator, a relentless advocate for American interests, and the most talented diplomat we’ve had in a generation.”

His reputation rests on his role in ending the war in Yugoslavia, where he demonstrated a cold-eyed, unabashedly pragmatic mix of cajoling, bullying, threatening and negotiating mixed with bombing to achieve an eminently just and moral end, which makes him on several levels a hero to many of us.

Spencer Ackerman (entire post):

Out for a long-overdue drinks and dinner with foreign-policy-oriented friends tonight, all of a sudden our phones buzz. Richard Holbrooke, the most distinguished diplomat of his generation, has died. None of us know quite what to say. Our respect for Holbrooke has long been tempered with a certain exasperation with how his personality has overshadowed his talents and gotten in the way of his ambition.

And all of a sudden it dawned on me how trivial and thin that critique is. What other American diplomat can credibly say s/he ended a savage war? I read To End A War the year I came to Washington and decided I wanted to cover foreign policy — immediately, if I recall correctly, after I finished A Problem From Hell, partly because I didn’t want to stop exploring what that book mined — and still remember how superhuman a task Dayton seemed, even after factoring out Holbrooke’s interest in making it seem so arduous.

For 40 years, no other diplomat has played as impactful a role in as many of the nation’s crucibles. It’s him and Kissinger (and Kissinger’s been out of the arena for a long time). And whatever Holbrooke’s flaws were, his influence during these tests was ultimately wise and beneficial, quite unlike Kissinger’s. Think for a moment about how thin the line is in foreign affairs between principle and hubris; between the lessons of experience and the blinders they impose; between subtlety and miscalculation. Someone who manages to manage, as Holbrooke always did, is a precious resource.

We read our messages, and clinked our glasses in honor of a great man, thought briefly of his family, and drank. RIP.

Steve Clemons:

Richard Holbrooke is gone. This is not the time for cliches.

But I can’t imagine results-achieving American diplomacy without him. I will personally miss him so much — and am deeply saddened by his passing.

Condolences to Kati Marton, his amazing wife; and to all of his current team — and his many former staff who will carry on his ideas and work for years.

Steve Coll at New Yorker:

It was not easy to construct a quiet hour or two with Richard Holbrooke. I saw him regularly, as did other journalists and researchers who worked on Afghanistan and Pakistan, but a long sit-down took some effort. Holbrooke was an accessible, open, and attentive person, but he was also in perpetual motion. He moved from meeting to meeting, conversation to conversation, and if you managed to sequester him somewhere for fifteen minutes or more, his cell phone was sure to ring—Islamabad, Kabul, the Secretary of State, somebody.

Earlier this year, however, we managed to arrange a private lunch in Washington on a Saturday. He invited me to meet him at the Four Seasons Hotel, near his home in Georgetown. The dining room at the hotel is not quite the watering hole for the wealthy and famous that it is in Manhattan, but it is a Washington-limited facsimile. When the Ambassador arrived the maître d’ attended him lavishly, scolding the waiter who had initially greeted him for failing to assign him an appropriately expansive and exclusive table.

He was carrying that morning’s Financial Times. He marvelled over an article he was reading about I. M. Pei and he wanted to talk about architecture for a while. As I had gotten to know him a little, I had discovered that he would speak about subjects such as acting or trends in academic history with genuine passion. He sometimes preferred those topics to the repetitive nuances of South Asia’s dysfunctional politics. He had a reputation for creating drama around himself; he was genuinely a theatrical man, in the sense of being physical and full of emotion and gesture. I came to think that he lived the way he did in part to avoid boredom.

While we ate lunch, Jerry Seinfeld and some of his entourage entered the dining room; Seinfeld was a guest at the hotel. “Jerry!” Holbrooke shouted, warmly. They were neighbors, it turned out, in New York and Telluride. We stood for introductions and chit-chat. Holbrooke asked what Seinfeld was working on and the comedian talked about his new reality-television show. In mid-explanation, however, Holbrooke’s cell phone rang. It was Robert Mueller, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and so the Ambassador had to interrupt Seinfeld to take the call. Eventually we returned to our table and resumed our discussion about the Waziristans and the rest.

Jeffrey Goldberg:

I’m finding it mind-boggling (as is Jim Fallows) that Richard Holbrooke has died, because he was not the sort of person who dies, or at least dies before he’s finished with what he needed to finish. There was too much will inside him to achieve, and he had not yet achieved what he needed to achieve. The last time I spoke to him, a couple of months ago, I asked him if he would replace George Mitchell as the Middle East envoy when Mitchell inevitably stepped down. It always struck me that Holbrooke, with his titanic ego, his magnetism and his brute intelligence — and also his conniving, man-of-the-bazaar qualities so unusual in an American — would be the only American who could birth a Palestinian state and bring peace to the Middle East (Could you just imagine Bill Clinton as good cop and Holbrooke as bad? I could).  Holbrooke laughed off the question, but not really. There were challenges he needed to master before he mastered that one. He was not having great luck in Afghanistan, and he might very well have ultimately failed, but you have to ask yourself — who else? Who else could do what he did? Who else is there? Richard Holbrooke will be missed, even — especially — by the people he drove mad.

James Fallows:

I am thinking of a dozen stories now, starting in the early 1970s when he was editor of Foreign Policy magazine and I was a fledgling freelance writer for him. (Or when, a few years later, I had the odd experience of welcoming him to Plains, Georgia as part of the Carter campaign team.) I will store them up for another time. He was a tremendous force, overall for the betterment of American interests and the world’s. My sympathies to his wife Kati and the rest of his family.  It’s routine to say this, but in this case it’s really so: his absence will be felt.

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Try And Find Your Way Around Our Afghanistan Maze!

Dexter Filkins and Mark Mazzetti at NYT:

The aide to President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan at the center of a politically sensitive corruption investigation is being paid by the Central Intelligence Agency, according to Afghan and American officials.

Mohammed Zia Salehi, the chief of administration for the National Security Council, appears to have been on the payroll for many years, according to officials in Kabul and Washington. It is unclear exactly what Mr. Salehi does in exchange for his money, whether providing information to the spy agency, advancing American views inside the presidential palace, or both.

Mr. Salehi’s relationship with the C.I.A. underscores deep contradictions at the heart of the Obama administration’s policy in Afghanistan, with American officials simultaneously demanding that Mr. Karzai root out the corruption that pervades his government while sometimes subsidizing the very people suspected of perpetrating it.

Josh Duboff at New York Magazine:

Salehi was arrested in July after investigators wiretapped him soliciting a bribe in exchange for “impeding an American-backed investigation into a company suspected of shipping billions of dollars out of the country for Afghan officials, drug smugglers and insurgents.” He was promptly released after Karzai stepped in, however, which officials said may have been due to the fear he knew about “corrupt dealings” within Karzai’s administration. Both the CIA and Karazi declined to comment in response to inquires from the Times.

Tom Diemer at Politics Daily:

A CIA spokesman declined comment on Salehi but told the Times that “reckless allegations from anonymous sources” don’t change the fact that the agency “works hard to advance the full range of U.S. policy objectives in Afghanistan.” Another U.S. official said, “If we decide as a country that we’ll never deal with anyone in Afghanistan who might down the road — and certainly not at our behest — put his hand in the till, we can all come home right now. If you want intelligence in a war zone, you’re not going to get it from Mother Teresa or Mary Poppins.”

But others in the administration think the U.S. must maintain pressure in the battle against corruption in Kabul or risk seeing ordinary Afghans turn to the Taliban when they lose faith in the government.

Max Boot at Commentary:

Everyone knows that corruption is a huge, crippling, corrosive problem in Afghanistan and that reducing it won’t be easy. But aside from the obvious obstacles we face — namely an entrenched political class in Afghanistan that has gotten rich from foreign lucre — there is a not-so-obvious obstacle as well: the interest that many in the U.S. government have in lubricating relationships with lots of greenbacks. In this connection the New York Times’s Dexter Filkins and Mark Mazzetti have a great scoop today about how the CIA has been paying off Mohammed Zia Salehi, the aide to President Karzai who has been charged with corruption. As the Times account notes, “Other prominent Afghans who American officials have said were on the C.I.A.’s payroll include the president’s half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, suspected by investigators of playing a role in Afghanistan’s booming opium trade.”

The list is actually considerably longer, and from the CIA’s narrow standpoint, the investments are well justified. The Times quotes an anonymous “American official” as follows: “If we decide as a country that we’ll never deal with anyone in Afghanistan who might down the road — and certainly not at our behest — put his hand in the till, we can all come home right now. If you want intelligence in a war zone, you’re not going to get it from Mother Teresa or Mary Poppins.” True, and the CIA has been paying off rogues for information ever since its inception. Such activity is to be expected from any competent intelligence service, but in Afghanistan, this has had parlous consequences.

The funding that the CIA has provided — along with largesse from the U.S. military, USAID, the State Department, and other agencies — has turbo-charged the problem of corruption. It has led to the emergence of a class of malign actors, fabulously wealthy Afghans who have connections not only to the U.S. government but also to the Taliban and the drug cartels. They are widely seen as the real center of power in Afghanistan, and it is this perception, more than anything else, that fuels support for the insurgency. The problem begins at the top with Hamid Karzai who, shamefully, intervened to get Salehi sprung from jail shortly after his arrest.

Some in the U.S. government believe that there is nothing to be done about such corruption and that fighting it is counterproductive because it will damage our “relationships” with key Afghans. As one “Obama administration official” tells Filkins and Mazzetti:  “Fighting corruption is the very definition of mission creep.” Wrong. Fighting corruption is the only way to achieve our mission.

Mark Kleiman:

Once you start intervening in the politics of corrupt countries, you can’t live without the crooks, and you can’t live with them. I never thought I’d say it, but Michael Moore was completely right about Karzai. The problem with this sort of foreign-policy “realism”is how unrealistic it is in imagining that the victims of the crappy little tyrannies we support won’t come to hate our guts.

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“I’m Pat F*cking Tillman.”

Andrew O’Hehir at Salon:

The death of Pat Tillman, the National Football League star turned Army Ranger who was killed by friendly fire — or “fratricide,” as the military puts it — in Afghanistan in April 2004, was a strange event in recent American history. On one hand, Tillman’s death was covered far more extensively than those of any of the other 4,700 or so United States troops killed in the Iraqi and Afghan combat zones. To put it bluntly, he was the only celebrity among them.

On the other hand, Tillman’s story remains poorly understood and has little social resonance. As a colleague of mine recently put it, Tillman didn’t fit, either as a living human being or a posthumous symbol into the governing political narratives of our polarized national conversation. That’s true whether you’re on the right or the left. If he struck many people at first as a macho, hyper-patriotic caricature — the small-town football hero who went to war without asking questions — it eventually became clear that was nowhere near accurate. Yet Tillman was also more idiosyncratic than the equally stereotypical ’60s-style combat vet turned longhair peacenik.

Mind you, Tillman might well have become a left-wing activist, had he lived longer. He had read Noam Chomsky’s critiques of U.S. foreign policy, and hoped to meet Chomsky in person. But as Amir Bar-Lev’s haunting and addictive documentary “The Tillman Story” demonstrates, Tillman was such an unusual blend of personal ingredients that he could have become almost anything. It’s a fascinating film, full of drama, intrigue, tragedy and righteous indignation, but maybe its greatest accomplishment is to make you feel the death of one young man — a truly independent thinker who hewed his own way through the world, in the finest American tradition — as a great loss.

Eric Kohn at Indie Wire:

Narrated by Josh Brolin, “The Tillman Story” tracks the uneasy investigation into the reality of the player’s death launched by his family in the wake of an official attempt to celebrate him as a hero. Each step of the way, the corruption grows slightly deeper: The military waits until after Tillman’s funeral before declaring that he was killed by friendly fire, but his parents and siblings determine that the story runs even deeper than that. An unnaturally humble public figure, Tillman never revealed his intentions for going to war—but a twisted publicity campaign launched in the wake of his death assumed otherwise.

The government turned Tillman into a hero, elevating his posthumous stature while burying the atrocious errors that led to his death. Recounting the events through interviews with the Tillman family and previously classified government documents, director Amir Bar-Lev provides an exhaustive account of the wrongdoings at hand. It’s not the sole definitive version of the story—Jon Krakauer’s “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman” came out in 2009—but by framing the story as a conspiracy thriller, Bar-Lev finds a natural cinematic hook: Coming across like “The Manchurian Candidate” as a ghost story or “All the President’s Men” with civilian journalists, “The Tillman Story” is loaded with dramatic potential.

Bar-Lev assembles the story with layers of media, old and new. He finds a compelling plot point in the contrast between the mainstream Tillman narrative and his family’s background struggles.Voice-overs accompany footage of Tillman’s stone-faced relatives at a massive memorial held in the Arizona stadium where he used to play for the Cardinals. They express their frustration on the soundtrack while news cameras capture it on their faces. Distraught over the elevation of Tillman to the level of a trite patriotic symbol, their anger drives them toward detective work. “He didn’t really fit into that box,” exclaims Tillman’s mother, Mary, sounding both mournful and disappointed that the country her sons served let them down.

Kurt Schlichter at Big Hollywood:

Call me fussy, but I prefer that my conspiracies and cover-ups actually involve conspiracies and cover-ups.  The Tillman Story, a new leftist documentary on football player turned Army Airborne Ranger turned friendly fire casualty turned symbol of…something…posits a massive conspiracy to do…something…and an enormous cover-up of…something…but never quite explains what.  However, there are lots of ominous shots of George Bush and Karl Rove, so we can somehow gather that whatever it is is, in some way, all Bushitler’s fault.

This is a bad film, both in its execution and its intent.  As a lawyer, it insults my intelligence.  As a veteran, it insults my professionalism.  As an audience member, it failed me as a film.  Pat Tillman, first seen in footage sitting nearly silently in a studio, begins the film as a cipher and ends as a cipher.  I know little more about the man or his motivations than I did coming in.  All I know is that I could not wait for it to be over.

This over-praised documentary is based on the premise that there was an enormous, mysterious conspiracy surrounding the death of Pat Tillman, which is a problem for the filmmaker since it is clear there is no giant, mysterious conspiracy surrounding the death of Pat Tillman.  The filmmakers cannot explain who conspired, or what they conspired to do.  Was there a cover-up?  Of what?  The film desperately wants there to be one, as does the family – perhaps that would give them the story the producers need and generate the meaning the family wants.  But, as the film demonstrates beyond all reasonable doubt, there isn’t one.  This is a story of mistakes, not malice.

Pat Tillman died in a tragic battlefield accident.  That happens – young men, powerful weapons, and “the fog of war” all combine to make fratricide a terrible and ever-present reality of infantry combat.  I know nothing about the circumstances of Tillman’s death other than what the film showed (including several instances where the camera focused on Army investigation documents that revealed information the filmmakers did not highlight).  But what the film shows makes it clear that there are no “unanswered questions.”

John Nolte at Big Hollywood:

On May 3rd, 2004, a memorial for Pat Tillman took place in San Jose’s Municipal Rose Garden. Tillman was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and both his family and the whole world believed he had been killed in a Taliban ambush during a brave attempt to draw their fire in order to save his own men.  Just a few weeks later, the Army would come forward to acknowledge that this narrative was wrong and that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire.

At this point, the question that came to my mind was why would the Pentagon and the Bush Administration voluntarily come forward and uncover their own conspiracy? The film makes no mention of any outside pressure on the Pentagon from the Tillman family or even the media to get the bottom of anything. Meaning that at this point everyone believed the initial report and apparently all the Administration and military had to do to keep us all believing was to keep their mouths shut.

So the question is: If the idea was to use Tillman’s death for nefarious pro-war purposes, why just a few weeks after the memorial service would those with the most to lose from doing so, voluntarily kick over a political hornets’ nest by telling the truth? Why not milk the situation for as long as possible and for as much propaganda as possible, especially with a presidential election just five months off? At the very least, why not save all the political heartache and fallout this revelation was sure to bring (and did) and stall until after Bush is reelected?

A producer once told me that whenever you have a film character open a refrigerator door you either have to show them close it or include the sound effect of the door closing, or else the audience will get unsettled thinking the door has been left open. Bar-Lev’s refusal to address or explain why a supposed-group of conspirators would of their own volition blow the whistle on their own supposed conspiracy leaves that door open. And no fancy camera move or sinister scoring is going to close it.

Stephanie Zacharek at Movieline:

Bar-Lev — whose previous directing credits include the 2007 My Kid Could Paint That — trusts his instincts enough to know that he doesn’t need to embellish or intensify any angle of this story to make it more dramatic or more affecting. His treatment of Tillman’s parents is particularly low-key. Dannie Tillman, who has since written a book about her son’s case, speaks at one point about how uncomfortable it is to be a parent grieving intensely and privately in the midst of a grand and glitzy public outpouring of grief. Against that, Bar-Lev shows footage of Dannie, Patrick Sr. and Marie standing stiffly and politely on a football field as earnest speeches are made and marching-band music is played. At one point, incomprehensibly, a team of prancing and high-kicking dancers line up before them, a truly weird way of honoring a fallen soldier.

The Tillman Story is often painful to watch, even when the images in front of us are nothing more than military documents that have been marked, by Dannie, with a highlighter. Dannie was given thousands of pages of official reports and documents by the U.S. military, a sea of pages with every significant name or detail blacked out; the presumption was that once she started going through this material, she’d simply become exhausted and give up. But with Goff’s help, Dannie unearthed many of the more excruciating secrets surrounding her son’s death, notably the fact that the soldiers responsible for it (their story isn’t told here, and appears to be wholly shrouded in secrecy) explained their actions by saying, “I was excited,” and, “I wanted to stay in the firefight” — details the U.S. military wouldn’t be particularly eager to publicize, for obvious reasons, and which can only intensify a parent’s suffering.

Bar-Lev recently lost an appeal to have the MPAA ratings board change the rating for The Tillman Story from an R — for the movie’s use of, as the ratings board so delicately puts it, “excessive language” — to a PG-13. That’s particularly cutting considering that one of the most piercing revelations in The Tillman Story is that Tillman’s last words, shouted out as a last-ditch effort to keep his fellow soldiers from shooting at him, were “I’m Pat f*cking Tillman.” Sometimes the use of an expletive, beyond being a sticking point for a group of de facto censors, really is a matter of life and death.

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What Happens If We Publish This On Our Cover

Richard Stengel at Time:

Our cover image this week is powerful, shocking and disturbing. It is a portrait of Aisha, a shy 18-year-old Afghan woman who was sentenced by a Taliban commander to have her nose and ears cut off for fleeing her abusive in-laws. Aisha posed for the picture and says she wants the world to see the effect a Taliban resurgence would have on the women of Afghanistan, many of whom have flourished in the past few years. Her picture is accompanied by a powerful story by our own Aryn Baker on how Afghan women have embraced the freedoms that have come from the defeat of the Taliban — and how they fear a Taliban revival. (See pictures of Afghan women and the return of the Taliban.)

I thought long and hard about whether to put this image on the cover of TIME. First, I wanted to make sure of Aisha’s safety and that she understood what it would mean to be on the cover. She knows that she will become a symbol of the price Afghan women have had to pay for the repressive ideology of the Taliban. We also confirmed that she is in a secret location protected by armed guards and sponsored by the NGO Women for Afghan Women. Aisha will head to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery sponsored by the Grossman Burn Foundation, a humanitarian organization in California. We are supporting that effort. (Watch TIME’s video on photographing Aisha for the cover.)

I’m acutely aware that this image will be seen by children, who will undoubtedly find it distressing. We have consulted with a number of child psychologists about its potential impact. Some think children are so used to seeing violence in the media that the image will have little effect, but others believe that children will find it very scary and distressing — that they will see it, as Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, said, as “a symbol of bad things that can happen to people.” I showed it to my two young sons, 9 and 12, who both immediately felt sorry for Aisha and asked why anyone would have done such harm to her. I apologize to readers who find the image too strong, and I invite you to comment on the image’s impact. (Comment on this cover.)

But bad things do happen to people, and it is part of our job to confront and explain them. In the end, I felt that the image is a window into the reality of what is happening — and what can happen — in a war that affects and involves all of us. I would rather confront readers with the Taliban’s treatment of women than ignore it. I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.

Meenal Vamburkar at Mediaite:

This reasoning follows what many might agree is the definition and purpose of good journalism. The things that are hard to look at are often the things that are most necessary to look at. Whether readers think the cover is bold or too graphic, the shock value cannot be denied. Without diminishing the value of telling a difficult story about a seemingly endless war, it’s hard not to wonder how the shock value will translate in terms of newsstand sales.

Mark Finkelstein at Newsbusters:

The risk that Afghanistan might once again become a staging ground for al Qaeda attacks on the US?  Meh.

The danger of cross-border raids from Afghanistan into Pakistan that could lead to nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists?  Yawn.

But a US withdrawal from Afghanistan that would lead to a setback for women’s liberation there?  Now you’ve got the liberal media concerned!  Rick Stengel of Time gave a perfect illustration of the phenomenon on today’s Morning Joe.  As is his Friday wont, he unveiled the new Time cover, which portrays the heart-rending image of a young Afghani woman who had her nose and ears cut off for fleeing an abusive family and husband.

Max Fisher at The Atlantic with a round-up

Choire Sicha at The Awl:

The story contains this: “As the war in Afghanistan enters its ninth year, the need for an exit strategy weighs on the minds of U.S. policymakers. Such an outcome, it is assumed, would involve reconciliation with the Taliban. But Afghan women fear that in the quest for a quick peace, their progress may be sidelined…. For Afghanistan’s women, an early withdrawal of international forces could be disastrous.” So… which is it? That sure sounds like an argument—and, you know, a very moving and affecting one!—for something like a permanent or at least extended occupation. Making things a little more complicated? The new issue also has an article by expert-without-portfolio Joe Klein, which goes: “Afghanistan is really a sideshow here. Pakistan is the primary U.S. national-security concern in the region.” So now what am I supposed to think while I’m not going on summer vacation because it makes our children stupider?

Irin Carmon at Jezebel:

Such stories are obscene, not at all uncommon, and need to be told. But there is an elision here between these women’s oppression and what the U.S. military presence can and should do about it, which in turn simplifies the complexities of the debate and turns it into, “Well, do you want to help Aisha or not?”

While Aryn Baker’s story features the voices of many Afghan women who worry that the likely compromise with the Taliban vis a vis a possible U.S. exit will curtail their new freedoms, it doesn’t actually forcefully make the case that American military presence is the only solution to their problems. (That’s probably because Baker is a reporter, not a commentator, and it’s the job of headline writers to grab readers at almost any cost.)

There are, however, conflicting signals about how seriously committed U.S. officials are, in the context of an exist plan, to pushing back at the resurgence of the Taliban as it affects women in the country. One anonymous diplomat tells Baker, “You have to be realistic. We are not going to be sending troops and spending money forever. There will have to be a compromise, and sacrifices will have to be made.” On the other hand, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently told reporters that women’s rights are a “red line” that won’t be crossed: “I don’t think there is such a political solution, one that would be a lasting, sustainable one, that would turn the clock back on women,” she said, after relative quiet on the issue last year.

As David Petraeus put it in his remarks upon assuming command in Afghanistan: “We must demonstrate to the Afghan people, and to the world, that Al Qaeda and its network of extremist allies will not be allowed to once again establish sanctuaries in Afghanistan from which they can launch attacks on the Afghan people and on freedom-loving nations around the world.” That doesn’t say anything about what happens to young girls who flee from their in-laws. Protecting them was not among the things he exhorted his troops to do. And when he addressed himself to the people of Afghanistan he didn’t mention anything along these lines either:

Finally, to the people of Afghanistan: it is a great honor to be in your country and to lead ISAF. I want to emphasize what a number of our country’s leaders recently affirmed – that our commitment to Afghanistan is an enduring one and that we are committed to a sustained effort to help the people of this country over the long-term. Neither you nor the insurgents nor our partners in the region should doubt that. Certainly the character of our commitment will change over time. Indeed, Afghans and the citizens of ISAF countries look forward to the day when conditions will permit the transition of further tasks to Afghan forces. In the meantime, all of us at ISAF pledge our full commitment to help you protect your nation from militants who allowed Al Qaeda sanctuary when they ruled the country. Moreover, we see it as our solemn duty to protect the innocent people of Afghanistan from all violence, whether intended by the enemy or unintended by those of us pursuing that enemy. And we stand with you as we all work to defeat the enemies of the new Afghanistan and to help create a better future for you and your families.

Defend Afghan allies from being targeted by the Taliban. Check. Avoid accidental killing of Afghans by NATO forces. Check. Women’s rights? Not so much.

And you can see this time and again if you look at statements about US policy in Afghanistan from George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Donald Rumsfeld, Robert Gates, Stanley McChrystal, David Petraeus, etc. We are fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Thus, emphasizing that the Taliban is a group of bad people is often a rhetorical point of emphasis. The Taliban’s poor treatment of women often comes up as a sub-point here to illustrate the theme that the Taliban are bad. But actually altering social conditions in southern and eastern Afghanistan isn’t on the list of war aims.

Greg Mitchell at The Nation:

I  have to ask:  In Time‘s mission to really “illuminate what is actually happening on the ground” has it ever put on its cover close-up images of  1) a badly wounded or dead U.S. soldier  2)  an Afghan killed in a NATO missile strike  3) an Afghan official, police officer or military commander accepting a bribe from a Taliban war lord.  Alison Kilkenny has her own examples here.

No one makes light of the plight of women and children in Afghanistan under the Taliban–and, contrary to Stengel’s claim, many Americans do know about it.  Indeed, liberal women’s groups in the U.S. have raised the issue often and expressed mixed feelings about staying (or even escalating) in Afghanistan because of it.  It’s a serious issue.  And please see the response to Time by the Feminist Peace Network.  Jezebel with another good take here.

But I’d propose here a few alternative, or at least additional,  cover images, all showing Americans here at home,  that Time might go with an upcoming cover on “What Happens If We LEAVE Afghanistan.”  Please supply your own ideas  in the Comments section below.

— A student in a high-tech classroom.

— Workers streaming into a newly re-opened factory.

— A poor black or Hispanic  woman examined by a doctor in a first-class facility.

— A returning soldier embraced by his wife and two kids.

— Solar panels being erected on a huge office building.

Well, you get the idea.  Contribute or take issue below.

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Now That’s What I Call A Document Dump

Wikileaks

Nick Davies and David Leigh at The Guardian:

A huge cache of secret US military files today provides a devastating portrait of the failing war in Afghanistan, revealing how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents, Taliban attacks have soared and Nato commanders fear neighbouring Pakistan and Iran are fuelling the insurgency.

The disclosures come from more than 90,000 records of incidents and intelligence reports about the conflict obtained by the whistleblowers’ website Wikileaks in one of the biggest leaks in US military history. The files, which were made available to the Guardian, the New York Times and the German weekly Der Spiegel, give a blow-by-blow account of the fighting over the last six years, which has so far cost the lives of more than 320 British and more than 1,000 US troops.

Their publication comes amid mounting concern that Barack Obama’s “surge” strategy is failing and as coalition troops hunt for two US naval personnel captured by the Taliban south of Kabul on Friday.

The war logs also detail:

• How a secret “black” unit of special forces hunts down Taliban leaders for “kill or capture” without trial.

• How the US covered up evidence that the Taliban have acquired deadly surface-to-air missiles.

• How the coalition is increasingly using deadly Reaper drones to hunt and kill Taliban targets by remote control from a base in Nevada.

• How the Taliban have caused growing carnage with a massive escalation of their roadside bombing campaign, which has killed more than 2,000 civilians to date.

Spiegel

New York Times

Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room at Wired:

Turns out “Collateral Murder” was just a warm-up. WikiLeaks just published a trove of over 90,000 mostly-classified U.S. military documents that details a strengthening Afghan insurgency with deep ties to Pakistani intelligence.

WikiLeaks’ release of a 2007 Apache gunship video sparked worldwide outrage, but little change in U.S. policy. This massive storehouse has the potential to be strategically significant, raising questions about how and why America and her allies are conducting the war. Not only does it recount 144 incidents in which coalition forces killed civilians over six years. But it shows just how deeply elements within the U.S.’ supposed ally, Pakistan, have nurtured the Afghan insurgency. In other words, this has the potential to be 2010’s answer to the Pentagon Papers — a database you can open in Excel, brought to you by the now-reopened-for-business WikiLeaks.

Now, obviously, it’s not news that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligences has ties to the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami That’s something that pretty much every observer of the Afghanistan war and the Pakistani intelligence apparatus has known for the better part of a decade.

But as the early-viewing New York Times reports, WikiLeaks presents a new depth of detail about how the U.S. military has seen, for six years, the depths of ISI facilitation of the Afghan insurgency. For instance: a three-star Pakistani general active during the 80s-era U.S.-Pakistani-Saudi sponsorship of the anti-Soviet insurgency, Hamid Gul, allegedly met with insurgent leaders in South Waziristan in January 2009 to plot vengeance for the drone-inflicted death of an al-Qaeda operative. (Gul called it “absolute nonsense” to the Times reporters.)

Other reports, stretching back to 2004, offer chilling, granular detail about the Taliban’s return to potency after the U.S. and Afghan militias routed the religious-based movement in 2001. Some of them, as the Times notes, cast serious doubt on official U.S. and NATO accounts of how insurgents prosecute the war. Apparently, the insurgents have used “heat-seeking missiles against allied aircraft,” eerily reminiscent of the famous Stinger missiles that the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Pakistan provided to the mujahideen to down Soviet helicopters. One such missile downed a Chinook over Helmand in May 2007.

Typically, NATO accounts of copter downings are vague — and I’ve never seen one that cited the Taliban’s use of a guided missile. This clearly isn’t just Koran, Kalashnikov and laptop anymore. And someone is selling the insurgents these missiles, after all. That someone just might be slated to receive $7.5 billion of U.S. aid over the next five years.

That said, it’s worth pointing out that the documents released so far are U.S. military documents, not ISI documents, so they don’t quite rise to smoking-gun level.

Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy:

I’ve now gone through the reporting and most of the selected documents (though not the larger data dump), and I think there’s less here than meets the eye. The story that seems to be getting the most attention, repeating the longstanding allegation that Pakistani intelligence might be aiding the Afghan insurgents, offers a few new details but not much greater clarity. Both the Times and the Guardian are careful to point out that the raw reports in the Wikileaks archive often seem poorly sourced and present implausible information.

“[F]or all their eye-popping details,” writes the Guardian‘s Delcan Welsh, “the intelligence files, which are mostly collated by junior officers relying on informants and Afghan officials, fail to provide a convincing smoking gun for ISI complicity.”

The Times‘ reporters seem somewhat more persuaded, noting that “many of the reports rely on sources that the military rated as reliable” and that their sources told them that “the portrait of the spy agency’s collaboration with the Afghan insurgency was broadly consistent with other classified intelligence.”

Der Spiegel‘s reporting adds little, though the magazine’s stories will probably have great political impact in Germany, as the Wikileaks folks no doubt intended. One story hones in on how an elite U.S. task force charged with hunting down Taliban and Al Qaeda targets operates from within a German base; another alleges that “The German army was clueless and naïve when it stumbled into the conflict,” and that northern Afghanistan, where the bulk of German troops are based, is more violent than has been previously portrayed.

Otherwise, I’d say that so far the documents confirm what we already know about the war: It’s going badly; Pakistan is not the world’s greatest ally and is probably playing a double game; coalition forces have been responsible for far too many civilian casualties; and the United States doesn’t have very reliable intelligence in Afghanistan.

I do think that the stories will provoke a fresh round of Pakistan-bashing in Congress, and possibly hearings. But the administration seems inclined to continue with its strategy of nudging Pakistan in the right direction, and is sending the message: Move along, nothing to see here.

Stephen F. Hayes at The Weekly Standard:

Expect this story from the New York Times to restart the discussion on U.S. policies and strategies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Under the headline “Pakistani Spy Service Aids Insurgents, Reports Assert,” a team of Times reporters summarize and analyze a huge batch of secret U.S. intelligence reports on the war in Afghanistan. Those reports show, in compelling detail, that Pakistan’s ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) has been actively – and regularly – aiding insurgents fighting Americans in Afghanistan.

[…]

The central claim in the piece is not new. Tom Joscelyn and Bill Roggio have written about ISI’s duplicity for years. See here, here and here for examples.

The Times report – along with the public examination of the trove of WikiLeaks documents – will almost certainly reignite the public debate over the war in Afghanistan, and the Obama administration’s strategy there. The president’s already soft support in his own party will probably soften further. The key question is whether nervous Republicans will join them.

Michael Scherer at Swampland at Time:

The White House has reacted in full damage control mode to the release of classified documents detailing the U.S. military’s struggles in Afghanistan, which the New York Times calls “in many respects more grim than the official portrayal.”

To see the New York Times summary of the documents, click here. To see the Guardian’s coverage, click here. (Advance copies of the documents were provided to both the Times and Guardian, on the condition that they not be released until Sunday.) For more on Wikileaks and its founder, read this excellent New Yorker profile here.

In response, the White House press office is emphasizing two facts. First, the documents concern a time period (2004 to 2009) that precedes the Presidents latest new strategy for Afghanistan. Second, government officials have not exactly been secretive in the past about the connection between the Pakistani ISI and radical elements in the region that are working against U.S. interests. “In the past, there have been those in Pakistan who’ve argued that the struggle against extremism is not their fight, and that Pakistan is better off doing little or seeking accommodation with those who use violence,” President Obama said, when he announced his latest strategy in December of 2009. (Indeed, in recent months, as TIME has noted, there has been some good news on this front, with the Pakistan government, including the ISI, taking more aggressive actions.)

Laura Rozen at Politico:
“It is important to note that the time period reflected in the documents is January 2004 to December 2009,” National Security Advisor ret. Gen. Jim Jones said in a statement Sunday.”On December 1, 2009, President Obama announced a new strategy with a substantial increase in resources for Afghanistan, and increased focus on al Qaeda and Taliban safe-havens in Pakistan, precisely because of the grave situation that had developed over several years,” he continued. “This shift in strategy addressed challenges in Afghanistan that were the subject of an exhaustive policy review last fall.”

Some 180 of the war logs and raw intelligence reports concern previously reported allegations that the Pakistani intelligence services have been providing covert support to Afghan insurgents.

“Taken together, the reports indicate that American soldiers on the ground are inundated with accounts of a network of Pakistani assets and collaborators,” the New York Times reports.

But, the paper cautions, many of the raw intelligence reports and field threat assessments “cannot be verified,” while “many … rely on sources that the military rated as reliable.”

“The records also contain firsthand accounts of American anger at Pakistan’s unwillingness to confront insurgents who launched attacks near Pakistani border posts, moved openly by the truckload across the frontier, and retreated to Pakistani territory for safety,” the paper said.

Adrian Chen at Gawker:

This is going to be huge. And Wikileaks’ strategy to collaborate with mainstream media this time around should heighten the impact of this data. The Guardian is using the log to argue that it presents “a very different landscape” than the one put forward by coalition leaders. Meanwhile, the Times picks out military concerns that Pakistani intelligence is directly aiding insurgents. That “real” journalists are in charge of these reports should move focus off the biases of Wikileaks and Julian Assange—as happened with their “Collateral Murder” video—and onto the leak itself. (Wikileaks agreed to not have any input into the stories built around their leak.)

It’s unclear at this time if this leak is related to the case of army intelligence specialist Bradley Manning, the alleged source of the Apache video. But this leak should cause a similar-sized uproar and deliver a more pointed impact than even that graphic video did. The elaborate packages put together by the Times, Der Spiegel and The Guardian are only the beginning of this story.

Andrew Bacevich at TNR:

The leaks are unlikely to affect the course of events on the ground. However, they may well affect the debate over the war here at home. In that regard, the effect is likely to be pernicious, intensifying the already existing inclination to focus on peripheral matters while ignoring vastly more important ones. For months on end, Washington has fixated on this question: what, oh what, are we to do about Afghanistan? Implicit in the question are at least two assumptions: first, that something must be done; and, second, that if the United States and its allies can just devise the right approach (or assign the right general), then surely something can be done.

Both assumptions are highly dubious. To indulge them is to avoid the question that should rightly claim Washington’s attention: What exactly is the point of the Afghanistan war? The point cannot be to “prevent another 9/11,” since violent anti-Western jihadists are by no means confined to or even concentrated in Afghanistan. Even if we were to “win” in Afghanistan tomorrow, the jihadist threat would persist. If anything, staying in Afghanistan probably exacerbates that threat. So tell me again: why exactly are we there?

The real significance of the Wikileaks action is of a different character altogether: it shows how rapidly and drastically the notion of “information warfare” is changing. Rather than being defined as actions undertaken by a government to influence the perception of reality, information warfare now includes actions taken by disaffected functionaries within government to discredit the officially approved view of reality. This action is the handiwork of subversives, perhaps soldiers, perhaps civilians. Within our own national security apparatus, a second insurgent campaign may well have begun. Its purpose: bring America’s longest war to an end. Given the realities of the digital age, this second insurgency may well prove at least as difficult to suppress as the one that preoccupies General Petraeus in Kabul.

UPDATE: Richard Tofel at ProPublica

Allah Pundit

Jay Rosen

James Joyner

Andrew Sullivan has a round-up

Andrew Exum at NYT

UPDATE #2: Marc Ambinder

Fred Kaplan at Slate

Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy

UPDATE #3: Richard Fernandez at Pajamas Media

Uncle Jimbo at Blackfive

UPDATE #4: Anne Applebaum at Slate

Ed Morrissey

UPDATE #5: Marc Thiessen at WaPo.

Eva Rodriguez responds at WaPo

Thiessen responds to Rodriguez

Michael Scherer at Swampland at Time

Mark Thompson at The League

UPDATE #6: Joshua Cohen and Jim Pinkerton at Bloggingheads

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Come Up To The Table, And We’ll Argue Whether To Stay Or Go

Ross Douthat at NYT:

Here is the grim paradox of America’s involvement in Afghanistan: The darker things get and the more setbacks we suffer, the better the odds that we’ll be staying there indefinitely.

Not the way we’re there today, with 90,000 American troops in-theater and an assortment of NATO allies fighting alongside. But if the current counterinsurgency campaign collapses, it almost guarantees that some kind of American military presence will be propping up some sort of Afghan state in 2020 and beyond. Failure promises to trap us; success is our only ticket out.

Why? Because of three considerations. First, the memory of 9/11, which ensures that any American president will be loath to preside over the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. Second, the continued presence of Al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan’s northwest frontier, which makes it difficult for any American president to contemplate giving up the base for counterterrorism operations that Afghanistan affords. Third, the larger region’s volatility: it’s the part of the world where the nightmare of nuclear-armed terrorists is most likely to become a reality, so no American president can afford to upset the balance of power by pulling out and leaving a security vacuum behind.

This explains why the Obama administration, throughout all its internal debates and strategic reviews, hasn’t been choosing between remaining in Afghanistan and withdrawing from the fight. It’s been choosing between two ways of staying.

The first is what we’re doing now: the counterinsurgency campaign that Gen. David Petraeus championed (and now has been charged with seeing through), which seeks to lay the foundations for an Afghan state that’s stable enough to survive without our support.

The second way is the “counterterrorism-plus” strategy that Vice President Joe Biden, among other officials, proposed last fall as a lower-cost alternative.

Advocates of a swift withdrawal tend to see Biden as their ally, and in a sense they’re right. His plan would reduce America’s footprint in Afghanistan, and probably reduce American casualties as well.

But in terms of the duration of American involvement, and the amount of violence we deal out, this kind of strategy might actually produce the bloodier and more enduring stalemate.

It wouldn’t actually eliminate the American presence, for one thing. Instead, such a plan would concentrate our forces around the Afghan capital, protecting the existing government while seeking deals with some elements of the insurgency. History suggests that such bargains would last only as long as American troops remained in the country, which means that our soldiers would be effectively trapped — stuck defending a Potemkin state whose leader (whether Hamid Karzai or a slightly less corrupt successor) would pose as Afghanistan’s president while barely deserving the title of mayor of Kabul.

Noah Millman at The American Scene on Douthat:

Ross gives three reasons why we won’t leave: first, because we can’t “lose” to the people who attacked us on 9-11; second, because we need Afghanistan as a base to fight in Pakistan; third, because we can’t allow a “vacuum” in Afghanistan that might destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan.

All the work related to actual American interests is being done by that last sentence. America has an enormous interest in preventing nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of al Qaeda or other groups who might actually use them as weapons of terror; to the extent that our presence in Afghanistan helps prevent that eventuality, you’ve got your justification right there for spending a great deal of blood and treasure. But that “to the extent” is where the real argument is: whether our presence is making things better or worse in terms of stability in Pakistan. Reverse the sign on that equation, and your whole argument blows up.

And, while I don’t want to belabor comparisons between Nixon and Obama that I’ve made before by bringing up the Cambodian incursion, the sign probably should be reversed. The Pakistani military and intelligence services bankrolled the Taliban for years. But their goal is to secure their rear, to make sure that Afghanistan does not become an ally of any potentially hostile power (the old Soviet Union once, now Iran or India) and thereby become a potential base for operations against them. Given that our war in Afghanistan is very unpopular in Pakistan, and is directly contrary to the interests of the Pakistani military, it’s not at all clear why we should assume as a given that the war serves the interest of securing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons against capture by terrorists.

I mean, think about it. The purported goal of our counterinsurgency campaign is to prop up an Afghan state capable of surviving “on its own.” But “on its own” certainly doesn’t mean “able to avoid being undermined by Pakistan,” a vastly larger and more powerful country next door with a profound interest in Afghan affairs. So what exactly does it mean?

Let’s be honest. The United States attacked Afghanistan not because we could not tolerate a failed state that played host to terrorists – Afghanistan isn’t the only one of those in the world, and it’s far from clear that the war and occupation was either necessary or sufficient to achieve that aim – nor because we were worried about Pakistan being destabilized by the Taliban next door – if anything, we were worried from the beginning that our attack would destabilize Pakistan, indeed that al Qaeda attacked us precisely because they knew we would respond, and that our response might destabilize Pakistan, finally delivering its nukes into their hands – but because al Qaeda attacked us on 9-11 and we needed to respond by destroying those who attacked us, lest we invite further attack. If we had carried the bodies of Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and Ayman al-Zawahiri out of Tora Bora, we would not now be debating how to achieve “victory” in Afghanistan; rather, we’d be talking about what policies would be most likely to prevent a recurrence of a 9-11-type attack. And, in that hypothetical scenario, even if the Taliban were still active on both sides of the Af-Pak border, I’m not at all sure that Ross would be taking the view that we should occupy Afghanistan indefinitely for the sake of stability in the region.

Millman then references this Matt Yglesias piece in the Daily Beast:

Afghanistan and Iraq are different in many ways, but the “good war” could also benefit from some reframing. In particular, we’re currently suffering from a bad case of unrealistic expectations. The United States went into Afghanistan with a pretty clear goal of getting the bad guys responsible for 9/11. We succeeded to some extent, but failed to nab the key leaders, at which point Bush decided he wanted to invade Iraq. He didn’t, however, either declare victory in Afghanistan or admit failure. Instead, he shorted resources for the mission even while allowing it to be reframed in terms of grandiose aspirations to create a functioning, democratic Afghan central government.

Perhaps at some point this would have been achievable, but years of drift have made the goal ever more distant. What’s more, the government of Afghanistan centered around Hamid Karzai simply hasn’t proven itself to be especially capable or well-intentioned. Consequently, the surge of forces McChrystal’s been overseeing appeared to be going nowhere fast—killing Taliban operatives and flushing money around the country even while the legitimacy and credibility of the Afghan government continued to erode. Utterly committed to the goal of winning the war, McChrystal has been coming into conflict with other members of the Obama administration over his willingness to pour an essentially limitless quantity of money and manpower down the drain in an effort to crush the Taliban.

Strategically, this just doesn’t make sense. Despite the military’s best efforts to repackage old information about lithium reserves as a newfound trove of wealth, Afghanistan is a poor, distant, landlocked country containing essentially nothing of value. It would be much more reasonable to restrain our goals, shy away from efforts to conquer hostile territory, and simply try to provide some help to friendly Afghans while scaling our commitment of resources down to a more sustainable level. The politics, however, are bound to be treacherous, especially for a Democrat with reason to fear opportunistic attacks from the warmongering right.

Douthat responds:

Noah Millman’s critique of my column today makes reasonable points about the potential advantages of accepting failure in Afghanistan and simply picking up and leaving. I wish, though, that he’d reckoned a bit more with what I intended to be the thrust of the piece — namely, the fact that what many critics of counterinsurgency keep presenting as an exit strategy (drawing down troop levels and focusing on counterterrorism) might well turn out to be anything but.

Millman praises the realism of this Matt Yglesias piece, for instance, but note where Yglesias ends up: He concludes that American policy toward Afghanistan should “restrain our goals, shy away from efforts to conquer hostile territory, and simply try to provide some help to friendly Afghans while scaling our commitment of resources down to a more sustainable level.” Aiming for “a more sustainable” American presence doesn’t sound like a policy oriented toward an actual withdrawal; rather, it sounds like a recipe for what Rory Stewart, in an essay admirable for its honesty about the scope of the commitment he has in mind, suggested would be 20 years or more of muddling through in Afghanistan.

This possible future seems at once unacceptable and all-too-plausible. And it’s precisely because I don’t think we can afford to spend upwards of two decades heavily invested in the Hindu Kush that I’m unwilling to give up on the hope of a more decisive outcome — not a final victory, which I agree is a chimera, but a shift in the balance of power in Afghanistan that makes it easier for leading U.S. policymakers to embrace a real withdrawal. I’m not optimistic that this is attainable, but I’m very pessimistic about what seems to be the other option on the table at the moment — and the main purpose of today’s column was to explain the reasons for my pessimism, not to attempt to permanently settle the “should we stay or should we go?” debate.

The Rory Stewart essay Douthat mentions, in the New York Review of Books:

A more realistic, affordable, and therefore sustainable presence would not make Afghanistan stable or predictable. It would be merely a small if necessary part of an Afghan political strategy. The US and its allies would only moderate, influence, and fund a strategy shaped and led by Afghans themselves. The aim would be to knit together different Afghan interests and allegiances sensitively enough to avoid alienating independent local groups, consistently enough to regain their trust, and robustly enough to restore the security and justice that Afghans demand and deserve from a national government.

What would this look like in practice? Probably a mess. It might involve a tricky coalition of people we refer to, respectively, as Islamists, progressive civil society, terrorists, warlords, learned technocrats, and village chiefs. Under a notionally democratic constitutional structure, it could be a rickety experiment with systems that might, like Afghanistan’s neighbors, include strong elements of religious or military rule. There is no way to predict what the Taliban might become or what authority a national government in Kabul could regain. Civil war would remain a possibility. But an intelligent, long-term, and tolerant partnership with the United States could reduce the likelihood of civil war and increase the likelihood of a political settlement. This is hardly the stuff of sound bites and political slogans. But it would be better for everyone than boom and bust, surge and flight. With the right patient leadership, a political strategy could leave Afghanistan in twenty years’ time more prosperous, stable, and humane than it is today. That would be excellent for Afghans and good for the world.

Meanwhile, Obama’s broader strategic argument must not be lost. He has grasped that the foreign policy of the president should not consist in a series of extravagant, brief, Manichaean battles, driven by exaggerated fears, grandiloquent promises, and fragile edifices of doctrine. Instead the foreign policy of a great power should be the responsible exercise of limited power and knowledge in concurrent situations of radical uncertainty. Obama, we may hope, will develop this elusive insight. And then it might become possible to find the right places in which to deploy the wealth, the courage, and the political capital of the United States. We might hope in South Asia, for example, for a lighter involvement in Afghanistan but a much greater focus on Kashmir.1

I began by saying that “calling” in poker was childish and that grownups raise or fold. But there is another category of people who raise or fold: those who are anxious to leave the table. They go all in to exit, hoping to get lucky but if not then at least to finish. They do not do this on the basis of their cards or the pot. They do it because they lack the patience, the interest, the focus, or the confidence to pace themselves carefully through the long and exhausting hours. They no longer care enough about the game. Obama is a famously keen poker player. He should never be in a hurry to leave the table.

Millman responds to Douthat:

I want to thank Ross Douthat, first of all, for responding to my critique of his latest column, and I think I understand better what he’s getting at. Now let me see if I can clarify what I am getting at.The choices Ross presented in his column, and that are usually presented, are between trying to win and just muddling through. The third, usually excluded choice, is: planning for the exit. Ross explicitly excluded that choice by simply saying that the Obama Administration is not considering it and that “the memory of 9/11, which ensures that any American president will be loath to preside over the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul.” But neither of these are arguments for staying – they are arguments for not considering whether we should stay because we simply will. He chose to frame the question that way, and that framing shaped my response.

To grapple with the heart of Ross’s argument, then. Apart from the overarching point that our resources, our responsibilities, and our interests are all limited, the key point that Rory Stewart makes in his article that Ross cites as “admirably honest” is that “[t]here are, in reality, no inescapable connections between Afghanistan and Pakistan, al-Qaeda and the Taliban.” If this is true, then if our goal is overwhelmingly to keep al Qaeda from again regaining its prior position in Afghanistan, to say nothing of Pakistan, then we should not assume that defeating the Taliban and/or keeping them out of power should be a primary war aim. Right now, nearly all the discussion about Afghanistan is predicated on the assumption that the American goal is to keep the Taliban out of power. If, instead, the assumption were that the Taliban, in some form, was inevitably going to return to power – not necessarily to exclusive power, of course – then we’d be having a very different conversation.

The key questions are: what does Pakistan (or the Pakistani army) really want; is it well-aligned with what we want; can they deliver; and can we live with giving them whatever it is they want that doesn’t dovetail with what we want.

My sense is that Pakistan wants a docile Afghanistan dominated by the Pashtun majority that is beholden to Islamabad and, in particular, doesn’t have any meaningful relations with India. Al Qaeda is more a threat to their regime than to us, so I should think if our preeminent war aim is to separate al Qaeda from the Taliban, that our aims are well-aligned in that regard. Whether we can live with Afghanistan being turned into a Pakistani puppet is another question – but it’s a question worth asking.

Whether Pakistan can deliver is another story entirely, but it strikes me as very peculiar indeed to believe simultaneously that the Pakistani army can’t be relied on but that after a decisive effort we could hand the reins over to the Afghan army.

The question remains: does occupying Afghanistan recruit more than 50 terrorist for al Qaeda? At 51 new Jihadists, we are creating more terror than we are defeating in Afghanistan. And since the only way to tackle al Qaeda in Pakistan is by exactly the kind of tactics that Biden – and not Petraeus – has suggested for Afghanistan, one has to ask if pursuing counter-insurgency in one place and counter-terrorism in another is … well, spectacularly incoherent. You get all the human and fiscal cost of counter-insurgency occupation and all the blowback and Jihadist-recruitment of counter-terrorism.

Then there’s the factor that Ross doesn’t even mention: what if the core object of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan is, in the best of all possible worlds, simply impossible? What if that failed state, after a generation of religious and ethnic warfare, cannot be turned into a functional state at any price in any foreseeable time-frame? Washington doesn’t like to believe there are some things it simply cannot do. Even now. Even after Iraq, they still believe in their power to do anything.

This is how great powers destroy themselves. By the pride of elites and the fears of the masses.

Douthat responds to Millman:

The point has been made, correctly, that much of David Petraeus’s accomplishment in Iraq involved managing expectations, shifting goalposts, cutting deals, and redefining “victory” to mean a halfway decent outcome rather than a triumph for democracy. But these essentially political successes were inseparable from the surge’s military gains, which strengthened America’s hand and improved the position of Maliki’s government even as they weakened the irreconcilable elements of the insurgency and incentivized more compromise-inclined elements to peel off and negotiate. And likewise, the weaker the Taliban’s position in Marja or Kandahar or any other contested territory, the better the chances of a grand bargain that actually stabilizes the country, and that has some hope of holding up without a permanent American presence.The point of a counterinsurgency campaign, in this sense, isn’t to crush the Taliban once and for all. It’s to create an environment in which they feel like they could be crushed, and to turn those security gains to political ends. Whereas so long as the Taliban’s leaders and fellow travelers are convinced that they’ve all but won the war, any “orderly entry” into government that they negotiate is likely to end in disaster — for our interests, and for Afghanistan.

UPDATE: Ross Douthat and Noah Millman at Bloggingheads

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We’re Steele Having Fun And He’s Steele The One

Eric Kleefeld at Talking Points Memo:

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele may be misremembering exactly how and when the Afghanistan war began.

At a Republican Party fundraiser in Connecticut on Thursday, Steele declared that the war in Afghanistan “was a war of Obama’s choosing” that America had not “actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in,” in a response to an attendee’s question about the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal — which Steele called “very comical.”

“The McChrystal incident, to me, was very comical. And I think it’s a reflection of the frustration that a lot of our military leaders have with this Administration and their prosecution of the war in Afghanistan,” said Steele. “Keep in mind again, federal candidates, this was a war of Obama’s choosing. This is not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in.”

“It was one of those, one of those areas of the total board of foreign policy [“in the Middle East”? — Note: The audio is not quite clear in this section.] that we would be in the background, sort of shaping the changes that were necessary in Afghanistan as opposed to directly engaging troops,” Steele continued. “But it was the president who was trying to be cute by half by flipping a script demonizing Iraq, while saying the battle really should be in Afghanistan. Well, if he’s such a student of history, has he not understood that you know that’s the one thing you don’t do, is engage in a land war in Afghanistan? All right, because everyone who has tried, over a thousand years of history, has failed. And there are reasons for that. There are other ways to engage in Afghanistan.”

Bill Kristol at The Weekly Standard:

Dear Michael,

You are, I know, a patriot. So I ask you to consider, over this July 4 weekend, doing an act of service for the country you love: Resign as chairman of the Republican party.

Your tenure has of course been marked by gaffes and embarrassments, but I for one have never paid much attention to them, and have never thought they would matter much to the success of the causes and principles we share. But now you have said, about the war in Afghanistan, speaking as RNC chairman at an RNC event, “Keep in mind again, federal candidates, this was a war of Obama’s choosing. This was not something that the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in.” And, “if [Obama] is such a student of history, has he not understood that you know that’s the one thing you don’t do, is engage in a land war in Afghanistan?”

Needless to say, the war in Afghanistan was not “a war of Obama’s choosing.” It has been prosecuted by the United States under Presidents Bush and Obama. Republicans have consistently supported the effort. Indeed, as the DNC Communications Director (of all people) has said, your statement “puts [you] at odds with about 100 percent of the Republican Party.”

And not on a trivial matter. At a time when Gen. Petraeus has just taken over command, when Republicans in Congress are pushing for a clean war funding resolution, when Republicans around the country are doing their best to rally their fellow citizens behind the mission, your comment is more than an embarrassment. It’s an affront, both to the honor of the Republican party and to the commitment of the soldiers fighting to accomplish the mission they’ve been asked to take on by our elected leaders.

There are, of course, those who think we should pull out of Afghanistan, and they’re certainly entitled to make their case. But one of them shouldn’t be the chairman of the Republican party.

Sincerely yours,

William Kristol

Think Progress:

Dear Bill,

You love, we know, war. Love it. Always trying to get America into new and bigger ones. It’s your thing. We get it.

But we think you’re being unfair towards RNC Chairman Michael Steele. Sure, he was wrong when he said that Afghanistan “was a war of Obama’s choosing” and “not something that the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in.” But as you correctly note, his entire term has been marked by “gaffes and embarrassments” — such as telling African Americans they “don’t have a reason” to vote Republican, by suggesting Republicans are “drinking that Potomac River water” and “getting high,” and telling the public that it has “no reason, none, to trust” the GOP. But none of this produced from you the slightest peep of protest.

You express concern that Mr. Steele breaks from Republican orthodoxy by voicing his criticisms of the Afghanistan war. But when Mr. Steele broke from Republican principles and expressed his view that abortion should be an “individual choice,” we didn’t hear your call for his resignation. (In fact, your publication defended him.)

What really irks you is that Mr. Steele has the temerity to suggest that the continued war in Afghanistan is not a good idea — which is a debate worth having. It’s therefore no surprise that the one thing that should motivate you to call for the resignation of Mr. Steele is his suggestion that it’s a bad idea for the U.S. to continue to “engage in a land war in Afghanistan.”

For the crime of questioning an American war, you feel that Mr. Steele must pay. This shouldn’t be a political issue — members of both parties have concerns about the current course in Afghanistan, and members of both parties should be having this debate. Not just Democrats.

So Mr. Kristol, instead of calling on Mr. Steele to resign, challenge him to a debate on Afghanistan to discuss your foreign policy views. And as for Mr. Steele, we hope he stays.

Sincerely yours,

The Think Progress team

Erick Erickson at Redstate:

I have heard Michael Steele’s comments regarding Afghanistan and the President.

I have read the RNC’s statement on the matter.

The RNC statement is indecipherable in the context of what Michael Steele actually said.

The war in Afghanistan is not a war of Barack Obama’s choosing. It is a war of Al Qaeda and the Taliban’s choosing. We responded.

Michael Steele must resign. He has lost all moral authority to lead the GOP.

Greg Sargent:

The statement from DNC spox Brad Woodhouse, just out:

RNC CHAIRMAN MICHAEL STEELE BETS AGAINST OUR TROOPS, ROOTS FOR FAILURE

“Here goes Michael Steele setting policy for the GOP again. The likes of John McCain and Lindsey Graham will be interested to hear that the Republican Party position is that we should walk away from the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban without finishing the job. They’d also be interested to hear that the Chairman of the Republican Party thinks we have no business in Afghanistan notwithstanding the fact that we are there because we were attacked by terrorists on 9-11.

“And, the American people will be interested to hear that the leader of the Republican Party thinks recent events related to the war are ‘comical’ and that he is betting against our troops and rooting for failure in Afghanistan. It’s simply unconscionable that Michael Steele would undermine the morale of our troops when what they need is our support and encouragement. Michael Steele would do well to remember that we are not in Afghanistan by our own choosing, that we were attacked and that his words have consequences.”

The DNC argument for using this script is that Dems rarely attack Republicans as being against the troops, while Republicans go after Dems this way on a nearly daily basis. They would insist that the strong language really is warranted. Steele said that history suggests we can’t win there — this is what the DNC describes as “betting against our troops.” And Bill Kristol agrees that this is an “affront” to them.

Are liberal Dems who have made much the same case about Afghanistan also “rooting for failure” and “betting against our troops”? The DNC would argue that this is a different situation — that Steele’s argument isn’t in good faith. It cuts against what he himself has said in the past — that we must win — and is at odds with his entire party. Also, they’d argue that coming from a party leader, his words really do have consequences for troop morale and for the war effort.

But Steele didn’t “root for failure” anywhere. And he isn’t really “betting against our troops.” He’s saying that this an inherently unwinnable situation, however brave and tough the troops are. I don’t know if that’s what he believes, but that’s what he said.

Clearly, Dems are opting for strong language to break through on a Friday before a holiday weekend in the belief that this does raise real questions about Steele’s candor. But this is Karl Rove’s playbook. I don’t care how often Republicans do it — this blog is not on board with this kind of thing from either party.

The DNC is taking a hit at Steele, but it’s not really a fair one because he isn’t alone in being a Republican who is expressing doubts about continued American involvement in Iraq. George Will said pretty much the same thing, albeit much more eloquently than Steele, back in September. And, earlier this year, The Cato Institute hosted a forum in which several conservative intellectuals and Members of Congress essentially endorsed the idea that America needed to drastically scale back it’s involvement in Afghanistan. So, to say that Steele is bucking his own party on this issue simply isn’t true.

At the same time, though, Steele’s assertion that Afghanistan is a war of “Obama’s choosing” is simply absurd. For one thing, the war itself was started, and continued, under a Republican President. Moreover, while it’s true that the President did make the idea of concentrating on Afghanistan instead of Iraq part of his campaign, he was hardly alone in arguing that we needed to continue our involvement in Afghanistan. In fact, it’s hard to say what would be different in that war if John McCain had won in 2008 instead of Barack Obama. So, calling it a war of “Obama’s choosing” is simply ridiculous.

And while it is refreshing to hear Republicans questioning the war, I have to wonder if they’d be saying the same thing if the President had an R after his name.

Actually, I don’t have to wonder.

David Frum at FrumForm:

So I feel like an idiot.

About a week ago, one of the young staffers here proposed an article: “What happens if Republicans bug out on Afghanistan?” I nixed it. “Let’s not deal with hypotheticals.” Oops.

Michael Steele’s Afghanistan-skeptical comments seem to have been unscripted, but who knows. FrumForum’s Tim Mak placed an immediate call to the RNC to ask whether the chairman had perhaps been misunderstood or had possibly misspoken. The RNC had no comment. The comment is not being walked back, not today anyway.

Some thoughts in reply:

1) The time to make the case against an enhanced commitment to Afghanistan was a year ago, before that commitment was made. Back then, however, Republicans almost unanimously supported the president’s decision. Indeed Republicans pressed the president to make the decision and upbraided him for taking too long. Karl Rove and Sarah Palin, among others, myself included, signed a letter pledging bipartisan support for an Afghan surge. Back then, as I remember it, the main Republican criticism of the president was that he should not have mentioned a deadline for the Afghan surge.

2) Maybe as time passes people change their minds. Fine. But if they do change their minds, they should acknowledge that is what they have done. They should not revise history so that a strategy that was broadly supported by all becomes “Obama’s war.”

3) Maybe the strategy is genuinely wrong. Maybe the Afghanistan commitment is not worth the costs. Maybe instituting a stable central government in Afghanistan is an over-ambitious project. Again: fine. But with the guns firing, that’s a point of view to advocate in a serious and considered way, as part of a debate over national interests, not to score political points. The debate should be aimed at finding a resolution in Afghanistan that is maximally successful for the U.S. and partners, not the way that is maximally humiliating to the president. Obama may fail in Afghanistan. But if he does, the whole country fails with him

There is a lot to catch up after the last week away, but I thought I would start by saying a few things about Michael Steele’s Afghanistan remarks. They have predictably drawn the ire of Bill Kristol, who has called for Steele’s resignation, but Steele’s continued tenure at the RNC doesn’t interest me very much. What I do find interesting is how the utterly shameless, reflexive Republican opposition to everything Obama touches has finally run into the brick wall of one issue that most Republicans and mainstream conservatives consider to be completely non-negotiable. Incorrigible misrepresentation of every other foreign policy initiative Obama undertakes is permitted, but staking out a relatively less hawkish position than the administration is simply not tolerated.

Obviously Steele’s Afghanistan comments are not derived from any serious principled objection to an American presence in Afghanistan, and they certainly don’t reflect any fundamental opposition to foreign entanglements. As far as I can tell, Steele has rarely given these questions any attention at all until now, and he was a reliable backer of the Iraq war all along just like virtually every other aspiring Republican office-seeker and elected official. Steele evidently believes that Afghanistan is now a political liability for Obama, and he wants to take advantage of this, but far from being a potential “turning point” it is just another example of how clueless and hopeless Steele is when it comes to serving in a leadership capacity for Republicans. I can hardly wait to hear how Steele’s cynical posturing is another sign of the rise of antiwar Republicanism.

However, even if Steele were sincere and principled in his objections, it would be important to explain why he is wrong. It is true that last year Obama chose to increase the number of soldiers in Afghanistan, where the war effort had been chronically under-manned and under-resourced for most of the last decade, but this has been the one war in the last fifteen years that the U.S. did not choose to enter. It probably grates on many Republicans that the one war that comes closest to anything resembling a just or necessary war in the last decade is the one that they quite deliberately starved of resources and manpower. It is also probably discomforting that they did this to pursue a war in Iraq that has consumed far more lives, both American and Iraqi, and which had not even the remotest connection to American interests. Steele says that there are “other ways to engage in Afghanistan,” which confirms that he has no desire to disengage fully from the country, but if other “antiwar” Republican arguments are anything to go by he means that we should bombard Afghanistan from afar and hope for the best. Steele doesn’t really mean what he’s saying, but even if he did we shouldn’t take it seriously.

UPDATE: Ann Coulter at Human Events

Andrew Sullivan on Coulter

Tom Maguire on Coulter and Sullivan

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You Can’t Spell “Corruption” Without “Afghanistan”

Greg Miller and Ernesto Londoño at WaPo:

Top officials in President Hamid Karzai’s government have repeatedly derailed corruption investigations of politically connected Afghans, according to U.S. officials who have provided Afghanistan’s authorities with wiretapping technology and other assistance in efforts to crack down on endemic graft.

In recent months, the U.S. officials said, Afghan prosecutors and investigators have been ordered to cross names off case files, prevent senior officials from being placed under arrest and disregard evidence against executives of a major financial firm suspected of helping the nation’s elite move millions of dollars overseas.

As a result, U.S. advisers sent to Kabul by the Justice Department, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration have come to see Afghanistan’s corruption problem in increasingly stark terms.

“Above a certain level, people are being very well protected,” said a senior U.S. official involved in the investigations.

Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar denied investigations had been derailed. “There is no case, no instance, in which the palace or anyone from the palace has interfered with a case,” he said.

Afghanistan is awash in international aid and regarded as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Indeed, even as the United States and its allies pour money in, U.S. officials estimate that as much as $1 billion a year is flowing out as part of a massive cash exodus.

Joshua Jamison:

While the Afghan government, one of the most corrupt in the world, has made several attempts at reigning in the those responsible for hindering corruption cases, most have failed miserably.

Afghanistan’s attorney general, Mohammed Ishaq Aloko, was seen as a potential ally against corruption when he took the job two years ago. Some investigations have ended in convictions. But U.S. officials said that Aloko, a native of Kandahar province who studied law in Germany, has repeatedly impeded prosecutions of suspects with political ties.

Some suggest Karzai in fact, is running a game of smoke and mirrors in an effort to garner the favor or various foreign nations.

Critics say Karzai’s initiatives are meant to appease the international community. “It’s all a show,” lawmaker Sayed Rahman said, noting that no senior government official has been imprisoned on corruption charges.

Over the past year, U.S. officials said, Afghan investigators have assembled evidence against three Karzai-appointed provincial governors accused of embezzlement or bribery. All three cases have been blocked. The interference has persisted, officials said, despite Karzai’s pledge in November during his second inaugural address to make fighting corruption a focus of his new term. The extent of the interference has become evident, officials said, in large part because of improvements in Afghan authorities’ ability to pursue corruption cases.

More Londono:

Afghanistan’s attorney general on Tuesday accused the U.S. ambassador in Kabul of threatening to have him ousted if he didn’t pursue the case of a banker suspected of fraud.

Mohammed Ishaq Aloko lashed out at Karl W. Eikenberry during a news conference in the Afghan capital convened to dispute the allegation that his office’s corruption task force routinely bows to political pressure from President Hamid Karzai’s administration. The Washington Post reported Monday that U.S. officials working with the attorney general’s office are frustrated by political meddling that derails corruption probes.

Aloko described his office as “independent” and immune to political influence. He said Eikenberry recently violated “diplomatic ethics” by suggesting that Aloko could lose his job if he didn’t aggressively prosecute a banker incriminated during the prosecution of a minister who left the country after being charged with corruption.

“The ambassador’s discussions with his counterparts are private, and we’re not going to comment on them,” said U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.

Sify:

‘The US ambassador tells me that ‘if you don’t arrest Haji Azimi, then you should resign,” Aloko told a press conference here. ‘It is against all diplomatic principles to threaten the attorney general of a country like this.’

The comments by the country’s top prosecutor, which could strain relations between Kabul and Washington, came a day after a US daily quoted unnamed US officials as saying that Aloko has repeatedly impeded the prosecution of suspects with political ties.

The Washington Post reported that among those protected was Haji Muhammad Rafi Azimi, deputy chairman of the Afghan United Bank, a private bank with its headquarters in Kabul.

Azimi was heard on a wiretap recording discussing bribes paid to Mohammad Siddiq Chakari, the former minister for religious affairs, the paper said.

Chakari, who is accused of taking bribes from companies seeking contracts to take pilgrims to the Muslim holy city of Mecca, has fled the country and currently lives in London.

Since Chakari could not be put to trial due to the lack of an extradition treaty between Afghanistan and Britain, US officials instead asked Aloko to arrest Azimi, pointing to the existence of evidence such as the wiretap recording, the paper reported.

‘I could not arrest Azimi, because we don’t have any evidence against him,’ Aloko said in Tuesday’s press conference.

Aloko said he told Eikenberry that only the country’s parliament or President Hamid Karzai had the authority to ask for his resignation, adding that after Eikenberry failed to persuade him, ‘he got upset and left my office’.

Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy:

As the debate over the road ahead in Afghanistan heats up in Congress, Democrats are using the power of the purse to seek broad changes in the administration’s policy and express their unhappiness with the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai.

In the latest move, a leading House appropriator promised Monday to remove all the Afghanistan foreign operations and aid money from next year’s funding unless she can be assured none of the funds are being wasted due to corruption in the Afghanistan government.

“I do not intend to appropriate one more dime for assistance to Afghanistan until I have confidence that U.S. taxpayer money is not being abused to line the pockets of corrupt Afghan government officials, drug lords, and terrorists,” foreign ops subcommittee chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-NY, said. “Furthermore, the government of Afghanistan must demonstrate that corruption is being aggressively investigated and prosecuted.”

Her subcommittee will mark up the fiscal 2011 state and foreign ops appropriations bill Wednesday. When they do, billions of dollars the president requested for all sorts of non-military work in Afghanistan will not be in the bill.

A spokesperson for Lowey said she was responding, in part, to two articles published Monday that described some of the abuses of U.S. taxpayer funds going to Afghanistan. The Wall Street Journal reported that more than $3 billion of cash has been flown out of the Kabul airport over the last three years, packed in suitcases, and a joint U.S.-Afghan investigation is underway. The Washington Post reported Monday that Karzai is protecting high-level political officials from scrutiny related to the missing funds.

Lowey’s spokesman told The Cable that the largest pots of money to be affected are about $3.3 billion in economic support funds and about $450 million requested for anti-narcotics and law enforcement aid to Afghanistan. Other accounts to be excluded include global health money, anti-terrorism funds, and military training funds for Afghanistan army officers. Humanitarian aid would not be affected.

Lowey also tied the issue to the still struggling U.S. economy, a theme that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, focused on in a separate speech today. Democrats in Congress are preparing to go home to their districts after this week for a July 4 recess that will kick off the congressional campaign season. Accordingly, they are amplifying their rhetoric about deficit spending and expressing their unhappiness with the progress of the war in Afghanistan.

“Too many Americans are suffering in this economy for us to put their hard-earned tax dollars into the hands of criminals overseas,” Lowey said.

Daphne Eviatar at Huffington Post:

Lowey’s statement is an understandable expression of frustration. But cutting off foreign aid now is absolutely the wrong approach for the United States to take in Afghanistan.

After several visits to Afghanistan in the last few years, Human Rights First issued recommendations to the Obama administration last year specifically recommending that the United States help train Afghan investigators on evidence collection and documentation and help Afghan prosecutors provide fair prosecutions. Current plans do just that, in addition to working with Afghan officials on improving their own detention facilities and their judiciary.

Lowey’s frustration is understandable, not only because of the Washington Post‘s recent news stories, but also because of this report prepared for the State Department last year that reviewed a broad range of Afghan institutions and concluded that corruption is rampant and growing. Not surprisingly, thirty years of war has undermined the development of reliable and legitimate institutions, and of a judicial system able to keep corruption in check. But to keep Afghanistan from returning to Taliban rule or simply descending into chaos, the United States has an obligation to help the Afghan government develop and enforce laws that reduce corruption and improve government transparency. Given the recent reports that Afghanistan has some $3 trillion worth of natural resources it’s eager to exploit, transparency will be critical to make sure the proceeds of those riches don’t just get shipped out of Afghanistan like the billion dollars a year flying out of there now.

Although our NATO allies should and will be helping in this effort, the necessary “nation-building” isn’t going to happen unless the United States commits to funding carefully-targeted programs designed to improve governance and reduce corruption. Continued funding can be made contingent on the acceptance and participation of Afghan leaders and institutions with this anti-corruption agenda.

Lowey is right that US aid to Afghanistan should be spent wisely, and not indirectly fund warlords to provide security or corrupt officials to spread as graft. But the State Department and the military’s Joint Task Force in charge of detention facilities in Afghanistan are just beginning their work to improve local government enough to allow the U.S. military to transition out of there. Cutting off the funding that will allow that to happen would not only undermine the development of legitimate government institutions in Afghanistan, but would make the United States’ goal of eventually leaving the country that much more elusive.

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