Category Archives: Foreign Policy

An Attainable Standard?

Perhaps. Paul Wolfowitz and Michael O’Hanlon make an interesting argument that the US should implement a Plan Afghanistan that is modeled not on our operations in Iraq, but on Plan Colombia, which was implemented in 1999 by the Colombian and US governments to combat Marxist-Leninist guerrilla groups, especially the FARC.

Many analysts have noted that the surge strategy in Afghanistan needs to be fundamentally different from that in Iraq. It is not an accident but rather a product of geography and the demography that Iraq has had strong central governments over the course of thousands of years, whereas Afghanistan has never had one. An Iraqi government can aspire to control all or nearly all of its territory. Indeed, any notion of success in Iraq virtually requires it. An Afghan government, on the other hand, cannot aspire to such an ambitious goal and, critically, success in Afghanistan does not require it.

Strange though it may sound, success in Afghanistan would look a lot more like the success that has been achieved in Colombia over the last 10 years, rather than the success that we are hoping for in Iraq. This is a point that was made two-and-a-half years ago by Scott Wilson, a Washington Post reporter who had spent four years in Colombia as a correspondent and a year in Iraq. Writing in April 2009, Wilson said that Obama “may want to look south rather than east in charting a new course” for Afghanistan. Though they hide in triple-canopy jungles rather than forbidding mountains, the insurgents in Colombia, like those in Afghanistan, will always enjoy the benefit of sanctuaries inside the country. And, until Pakistan withdraws its support for the Taliban, Pakistan will cause the same problems for the Afghan government that Venezuela does for Colombia.

There is a lot to be said here. The Plan Colombia had many successes. In the 1990s, violent deaths in Colombia rose to five times per capita what they are in Afghanistan today, and the FARC controlled as much as 30% of Colombia. The DIA reported then that Colombia could be lost in as few as five years.

In response to that growing danger, in 2000, the Colombian government put forward an ambitious Plan Colombia, which was warmly embraced by the Bill Clinton administration and later the George W. Bush administration. According to a recent Congressional Research Service study, the country has “made significant progress in reestablishing government control over much of its territory, combating drug trafficking and terrorist activities, and reducing poverty,” through a combination of brave actions by the Colombian military, some $7 billion in U.S. assistance, a relatively small number of U.S. military advisors and, particularly, the strong leadership of President Alvaro Uribe from 2002 to 2010. A number of senior FARC leaders have been killed, some through targeted air strikes, and thousands of FARC fighters have demobilized, partly as a result of a government amnesty program. According to Colombian government statistics and other sources, the number of FARC fighters has declined by half since 2001 (though they still number almost 8,000) and they are having difficulty recruiting new members. The International Crisis Group estimates the average age of FARC recruits today at less than 12 years old.The country remains plagued by violence, to be sure, but is no longer in danger of state collapse and no longer has the omnipresent feel of a war zone.

Uri Friedman offers this assessment:

Plan Colombia, which is now overseen by President Juan Manuel Santos, can count a number of successes. James Story, the director of the Narcotic Affairs Section at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, told CNN last week that since Plan Colombia’s inception, coca cultivation in Colombia has dropped 40 percent, cocaine production 60 percent, homicides 50 percent, and terrorism and kidnappings more than 90 percent. According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, FARC forces have declined by approximately half since 2001 to just under 8,000, and the percentage of Colombians living in poverty dropped from 54 percent in 2002 to 46 percent in 2009.

Wolfowitz and O’Hanlon (and Friedman) are aware of Plan Colombia’s weaknesses, among them the arming of right-wing paramilitary groups and the subsequent extrajudicial killings, and the movement of the drug trade farther north to Mexico. These are no small matters, but, they conclude, the pros outweigh the cons. This might be the best option for us to implement in Afghanistan, flawed though it is. Does this constitute defeat? Wolfowitz and O’Hanlon again:

Some might object that the articulation of such an outcome as our goal in Afghanistan would be an acknowledgement of failure. True, it is a less desirable end state than either the Bush or Obama administrations initially envisioned for Afghanistan or than the United Nations envisioned in the heady days back in Bonn. But such an outcome would in fact be substantially better than current conventional expectations after 10 years of a war that many Americans and Afghans think we are actually losing.

It is at least a realistic plan, and not some pie-in-the-sky ideal of remaking Afghanistan in our likeness. It would also be a welcome departure from our current strategy, which this morning Tom Ricks aptly described: “The strategy is to fight, talk, and build. But we’re withdrawing the fighters, the Taliban won’t talk, and the builders are corrupt.” (I actually doubt Ricks would support this plan, but the quote seemed to fit. It’s from his blogpost discussing things generals know but aren’t allowed to say.)

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Filed under AfPak, Foreign Policy, Latin America

America’s Unsavory Allies

Uri Friedman at FP has put together a list of some of our unsavory allies. Kind of painful to look at the photos of our leaders with theirs, but there are few alternatives.
Among those listed: Teodoro Obiang Nuguema Mbasogo (Equatorial Guinea), Islam Karimov (Uzbekistan), Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa (Bahrain), Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz (Saudi Arabia) and perhaps most disappointingly, Truong Tan Sang (Vietnam). The war is long over and we need to check China’s power in the South China Sea. I’m sure this pains many veterans, but is there an alternative?

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Is American Withdrawal an Iranian Victory?

On the eve of the U.S. withdrawal, it may be difficult to see the extent to which Iran’s policy in Iraq is in shambles. Since the displacement of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Tehran has pursued two contradictory policies. On the one hand, the clerical state seeks cordial relations with the Iraqi government and has provided aid and commerce as a means of solidifying bilateral relations. Yet Iran has also been arming and nurturing Shiite militias that plot against authorities in Baghdad. Such a paradoxical approach seemed sustainable during the civil war, as Iraq’s hard-pressed Shiites looked to Iran for assistance and thus countenanced its interventions in their country. The end of Iraq’s war, however, has left Iran without a coherent policy. Tehran’s inability or unwillingness to resolve the fundamental contradictions in its approach have done much to alienate the Iraqi government and a populace eager to put the burdens of conflict behind it. Whereas Washington was ill-prepared to deal with the start of Iraq’s civil war, Iran seems unable to deal with its aftermath.

Whether the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq is wise is an issue worthy of debate. But the imperative at hand is to ensure Iraq’s continued stability and prevent Iranian mischief in light of America’s departure. The key to this lies as much in diplomacy as in military deployments.

Today, the essential estrangement of Iraqi Shiites from the larger Arab world, and the neighboring Sunni regimes’ unease with their empowerment, makes them vulnerable to Iranian machination. A more forceful U.S. diplomacy, pressing allies to integrate Iraq into the Arab state system, would offer Baghdad additional economic partners and regional interlocutors as well as a means of reestablishing itself as a pivotal state of the Arab world. As the Middle East struggles with transitions that often pit identities against interests, Iraq can offer some useful lessons. Indeed, such a development would not only aid Iraq’s rehabilitation and assist the region political evolution but would further isolate Iran in its immediate environment.


Others, including most notably Charles Krauthammer, see this very differently. They see the American withdrawal as either proof of American defeat or a prelude to it. As I wrote before, if the Iraqis need or want more American troops, more can be arranged. It may be politically difficult in the US, but so will watching Iraq unravel and Iran blatantly and visibly exert its influence during the process. I’m not so sure that the withdrawal of American troops will lead to Iraq’s downfall. The Iraqi government, security forces, and people will have more work to do, but that is inevitable. Let’s hope it’s not too soon for them to take those responsibilities. Douglas Ollivant makes the persuasive case that the withdrawal is both necessary and worthwhile. It is well worth the read.

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A Subtle Jab

But a classy one.

Time magazine: You’ve played piano with some big names. Who’s more difficult to work with, Aretha Franklin or Dick Cheney?

Condoleezza Rice: Oh, goodness. Neither of them is difficult to work with. Look, people have strong views, and that’s fine. I’m accustomed to  people and places with strong views. But Yo-Yo Ma and Aretha Franklin really know what they’re doing, so I can take it a little easy.

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Monday Smorgasbord

I don’t have time to post these by themselves. They’ve been sitting in my “to do” pile for too long, but I find them all to be interesting reads. Read what interests you.

“How to Prevent a Depression” by Nouriel Roubini.

France imposes a “fat tax” on sugary soft drinks to combat obesity.

CNAS publication: “Hard Choices: Responsible Defense in an Age of Austerity,” by LtGen David Barno, Nora Bensahel, and Travis Sharp.

Megan McArdle: “By 2020, cases of throat cancer caused by the human papillomavirus may outnumber those of HPV-caused cervical cancer.”

Hitch on the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki.

Maurizio Viroli: Silvio Berlusconi and the moral malaise of Italy.

“The Value of Values: Soft Power Under Obama” Mark P. Lagon

A debate on whether too many students are in college. (My answer is yes.)

Cliff May, “Autocracies United: Why “reset” with Russia and “engagement” with Iran have failed”

A journalist on the argument for better football helmets, and an economist on the trade-off.

Lot of stuff going on here. Enjoy.

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Filed under Economics, Education, Europe, Foreign Policy, Health & Nutrition

Americans to Withdraw from Iraq

“The last American soldiers will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high, proud of their success and knowing that the American people stand united in their support for our troops,” the president said. “That is how America’s military efforts in Iraq will end.”

I’m not sure how much credit the president deserves for this decision. In recent years he had taken credit for the withdrawal although it proceeded at the pace set forward in the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed by President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki, not at Obama’s pace. “But the agreement was reached with a wink-and-nod understanding that a politically palatable way would be found to keep a substantial American troop presence in the country after that date.”

Fast forward to 2011, and there is not a politically palatable reason to keep troops there because there is little reason to keep troops there at all. If the need for support increases, a new agreement can be debated. Options are now on the table, as they should be.

Possibilities being discussed are for some troops to come back in 2012, an option preferred by some Iraqi politicians who want to claim credit for ending what many here still call an occupation, even though legally it ended years ago. Other scenarios being discussed include training in the United States, in a neighboring country such as Kuwait or having some American troops come back under the auspices of NATO.

In the meantime, an agreement is in place to keep more than 150 Defense Department personnel, both military and civilian, in Iraq to secure the American Embassy, manage military sales and carry out standard duties of a defense attaché and office of security cooperation. They will operate under the authority of the State Department, which will be taking the leading role in Iraq.

American officials continued to express concern about gaps in Iraq’s security capabilities to withstand what they view as continued threats of sectarian violence and Iran’s malign influence. But if those gaps are to be addressed by American military assistance, it will have to be in a different form than imagined during negotiations that faltered, and now have failed.

Overall, it’s a good thing our troops are finally coming home.

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Filed under Foreign Policy, Iraq, Middle East

American Troops to…

US President John F. Kennedy Barack Obama has announced he is deploying 100 advisors “combat-equipped” troops to Vietnam Uganda to help efforts against communist guerillas rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), who Washington accuse of grievous human rights abuses.


President Obama’s letter describing his decision is here.

Info on the LRA is here.

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