Sunday, January 17, 2010

Karzai faces more rejection over nominees

President Karzai's cabinet nominees were once again rejected by the Afghan Parliament. Two weeks after Karzai saw 17 of his 24 nominees denied, Parliament approved seven more. This leaves Karzai's cabinet with fourteen approved appointees, but ten vacancies two months into his presidency.

The main issue, as during the first round of nominations, is Karzai's attempt to appoint cronies of local warlords he owes favors to for their support during last year's presidential elections.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Al Qaeda, Afghanistan, Yemen and a Confused American Intelligence Community

Before the underwear bomber captured America's attention, there was a growing rumbling about the "next front" of the fight against terrorism, Yemen.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, and it is run by a despotic president who lavishes himself with exorbitant mosques and palaces while his people suffer from lack of food and water. President Sellah will be our "ally" as we seek to crack down on the hundreds of local Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, but the more important figure in the equation is Sheik Abdulmajeed Al-Zendani (pictured above). The most important religious leader in Yemen, Zendani has given the green light to target CIA operatives in Yemen as a form of Jihad.

Zendani is not so subtly cautioning against U.S military intervention in Yemen, a sentiment offered by the brilliantly titled Minister of Religious Endowment and Islamic Guidance, Hamoud al-Hitar. Al-Hitar has said said that military action by the U.S or any other government will inflame and unite the Yemenese people.

These words of caution are being disregarded by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), who rather cavalierly suggested that the U.S should consider airstrikes in Yemen. Levin has held reasonable positions on Iraq and Afghanistan, so his hawkishness could be a classic Washington case of "finding the good war," which is how Obama because so committed to escalating Afghanistan.

A recent article by the excellent Tom Engelhardt reveal seismic weaknesses in our Afghanistan intelligence operations that seem likely to be repeated in Pakistan and Yemen. Whether intentionally or not, the military and intelligence community continue to insist on referring al-Qaeda as a global operation, when it is in fact a highly fragmented series of cells that largely do not communicate with each other.

Engelhardt calls this bin Laden's "open-sourcing-" basically any set of disgruntled young militants that subscribe to his beliefs can carry out their evil deeds "in the name of al-Qaeda." This open-sourcing renders our pursuit of "top al-Qaeda leadership" in Afghanistan and Pakistan less meaningful than we might be led to believe. Yet we still pour in thousands of troops to these mountainous wasteland, creating what Engelhardt calls a "666:1" ratio between NATO forces and known al-Qaeda fighter.

My summary can't do Engelhardt justice, so you should reach his whole piece. The larger point, however, is that both Afghanistan and Yemen currently contain known jihadists looking to attack the United States in some capacity. In the first country, we have engaged in an exhausting, deadly and expensive 3024-day war with no end in sight. In the latter, we still have choices. Let's choose a little more carefully before we jump to military action in Yemen.

Grim Numbers for Afghan Civilians in 2009

The United Nations is reporting that more civilians were killed last year than any other since the US-led invasion of 2001. According to the UN mission in Afghanistan, over 2,400 died in 2009, a 14 percent increase from 2008. These figures come in the heels of a report from the Afghanistan Rights Monitor alleging that over 1,050 people under the age of eighteen have been killed in Afghanistan, an average of at least three every day.

We are back to report...more of the same

We are back after nine days, the longest lay-off at this site yet. I've been working on a lawsuit against Mayor Bloomberg, which has eaten up my time. Here are some refreshers:

The war in Afghanistan has now lasted 3024 days.

As of this moment, the war has cost the United States $247, 604,000,000.

The U.N released a report calling 2009 the bloodiest year for civilians since the war began in 2001. According to the report, 2412 civilians were killed, two-thirds by anti-government forces, mainly the Taliban. The number killed by NATO forces was actually lower than the year before. General McChrystal has made the reduction in civilian deaths a priority, and he deserves credit for that.

President Obama's $33,000,000,000 request to fund the surge has confirmed the once disputed notion that this war costs the United States approximately $1,000,000 per soldier per year. Obama's overall defense budget request will top $700,000,000, becoming the largest defense budget in history. To be fair, the defense budget grows pretty much every year, so this is a 'record' that will only last until the 2011 budget request.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Karzai Nominations- Update

President Karzai has ordered, by decree, that Parliament remain open until key Cabinet positions are confirmed. Currently seventeen of the twenty-four positions remain vacant, including the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Public Health. Unfortunately, Parliament is set to begin a six week vacation (apparently they have inherited American legislators' love of vacations) and remain unlikely to confirm Karzai's second choices anyway.

Karzai is currently trapped between placating members of Parliament, who wanted skilled technocrats to lead important ministries, and warlords that want to be rewarded for their political support in the presidential elections last August. Maybe there's some way Karzai could split the baby by appointing technocrats who fill ethnic and regional niches being asked of by warlords, but that's just me talking. The warlords may be making more hardline demands than that.

We'll remain on this story as it develops.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Karzai nominations slammed, rejected by Parliament

In a truly surprising move, the Afghan Parliament rejected 17 out of Karzai's 24 nominees for the Cabinet. In doing so, they sent a powerful message to Karzai that his days as quasi-director may be coming to an end.

Of the seven that were confirmed, five were incumbent ministers, and are generally supported by the United States. All passed by narrow margins, with none winning the support of two thirds of Parliament.

So what to make of this? There's the view of MP Barakzai (Kabul):

"Those who came as a representative of a group, they failed," Ms. Barakzai said. "I hope it will be a good lesson for President Karzai that when the issue of reform comes, he is not alone; the members of Parliament really want reform. It was the moderates and the technocrats who got the vote of confidence."

This would be the optimistic perspective. It rests on the assumption that there are enough technocrats and MPs voting on principle that they can hold Karzai's corruption in line this term. However, the New York Times suggested that ethnic politics might have also been at play.

Either way, watching the Parliament demonstrate such independence from Karzai is a sign that Afghanistan is embracing separation of powers. In our society, that leads to constant paralysis, and blocks most attempts at meaningful reform. In Afghanistan, hopefully it will instead lead to to the birth of political culture that embraces progress and reform, and ultimately the election of someone other than Karzai and his ilk next election, five years from now.

While there's no question that some of his nominees were human rights abusing warlords, my impression was that their nominations were meant to win political support in hard to control areas of the country. What a mess, what a mess. Happy Saturday night all.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Time and Money

The war in Afghanistan has now lasted 3011 days. My previous calculation for the 3000 day mark was mistaken, as it neglected two leap years.

After 2010 money has been appropriated, the United States will have spent $325 billion since the war began in 2001. That means the war has cost the average taxpayer $2,298.80.

The 30,000 troop surge, alone, costs the United States $57,000 per minute. I will be very impressed if someone can demonstrate to me how we are getting a worthwhile return on our investment.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The War Rages On Into The New Year

Afghans celebrate March 21 as the start of the new years, not January 1, but Taliban fighters probably had the western calendar in mind when they launched a series of vicious attacks this weekend. The Taliban killed seven CIA operatives in an attack in eastern Afghanistan, and killed five Canadians in a roadside bombing.

Roadside bombs will be the bane of the occupation. They are inexpensive to make, and with Afghanistan's limited road system, extremely difficult to avoid. While the Taliban's already limited ability to engage us in the battlefield will be further reduced by the surge, the surge will do nothing to reduce NATO vulnerabilities to roadside bombs. As for the CIA killing, rumors are a-swirling of insider betrayal, and the killer was able to smuggle bombs past the security checkpoint without being searched.

But fear not, that Afghan National Army will be ready to step up soon and take our place, so we don't have to be betrayed by double-crossing Afghans and blown up by roadside bombs. Except for one small problem. Buried in the news crush of New Years celebrations and Top Ten lists was an explosive Washington leak: a 25-page report for General David Petraeus declaring that "Nepotism, corruption and absenteeism among ANA leaders makes success impossible...If Afghan leaders do not place competent leaders in charge, no amount of coalition support will suffice in the long term." The report also noted that because Afghan leaders are paid by the number of local soldiers they recruit, Afghan National Army numbers are often inflated by up to 50%.

The surge might provide us some TV-friendly momentary victories. But President Obama, like his predecessor, cannot reconcile NATO's purpose in Afghanistan with a viable strategy for achieving it. If transferring power to Afghans in 18 months is the goal, we should acknowledge now that the transfer will be an ugly, hasty excuse to get the hell out of there, which is, of course, something I don't think we need 18 months to figure out.