Once more unto the Afghanistan breach, dear friends, once more

by David Isenberg | September 28th, 2009 | |Subscribe

I really, really, did not want to blog about Afghanistan again, after doing so in my last post. There are, after all, other places and issues to discuss. But it is not every day that one has a leaked assessment by the top U.S. general in Afghanistan discussing in unsparing terms past U.S. progress, or lack thereof, and what is necessary in the future, at least in his view, to achieve mission success.

Given that the time for the Obama administration to put off making a decision on what to do in Afghanistan is diminishing the assessment is as unvarnished and stark of the status quo and choices available to it, as to what to do in the future, as we are likely to have for some time.

So, now that the Pentagon released a declassified version of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s assessment which includes minor deletions of material that officials said could compromise future operations, as opposed to the one marked “confidential” that the Washington Post had originally obtained, let us simply ponder the significance of some of the passages. I comment below each excerpt. Be advised, I unavoidably go long on this post.

The situation in Afghanistan is serious; neither success nor failure can be taken for granted. Although considerable effort and sacrifice have resulted in some progress, many indicators suggest the overall situation is deteriorating. We face not only a resilient and growing insurgency; there is also a crisis of confidence among Afghans — in both their government and the international community – that undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents. Further, a perception that our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents.

Give credit to Gen. McChrystal for being bluntly honest. To address just one aspect of the above, which the report never really addresses, how is the Afghan’s people crisis of confidence in their government going to improve, when their own government can’t hold an honest election? Or as he says on the next page, “However, progress is hindered by the dual threat of a resilient insurgency and a crisis of confidence in the government and the international coalition. To win their support, we must protect the people from both of these threats.” (more…)

Fixing the Federal Shield Law

by John Eden | September 24th, 2009 | |Subscribe

The Society for Professional Journalists has for quite some time wanted Congress to pass a law that would give reporters a right to keep their sources confidential.  Such a law, commonly referred to as a “shield” law, has obvious advantages from the perspective of the dedicated professionals that collect and disseminate news for the rest of us.

The current shield law making the rounds in Congress is called the Free Flow of Information Act (FFIA).  According to FFIA advocates, the bill is essential because it will enable journalists to collect information of essential importance to the public without laboring under the fear that they will one day have to disclose their sources.  The thought is simple and appealing:  When journalists are able to protect the confidentiality of their sources, the public benefits from the increased access to accurate information that journalists would otherwise be unable to obtain.  In this way, shield laws like FFIA are consistent with the free-speech values that undergird our Constitution.

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Richardson Weighs in on Mideast

by Raj Purohit | September 24th, 2009 | |Subscribe

Just a short post from me this morning. I wanted to share this interesting op-ed from New Mexico Gov Bill Richardson on peace in the Middle East. I’m in the camp of folks who believe Richardson can be a major asset to the Obama administration as it seeks to tackle an ever increasing number of foreign policy challenges. In this piece Richardson makes a strong case for Obama’s engagement:

It is clear that failure to address the enduring Arab-Israeli conflict severely impedes our ability to advance new interests in the Middle East. Those challenges are especially noteworthy as we look to begin strategic negotiations with Iran.

He goes on to outline the core of the President’s plan:

The president made it clear that the United States wants permanent status negotiations to begin without preconditions based on the parameters from past negotiations: security for Israel and Palestine, refugees, borders and Jerusalem. The president added that the United States seeks peace agreements on all fronts, including with Syria and Lebanon.

Anyway, I think it is a terrific piece — you can read the entire op-ed here.

PSA Welcomes New Class of Congressional Fellows

by Joel Meyer | September 23rd, 2009 | |Subscribe

It was an exciting summer at PSA, with 26 Hill staffers completing the first session of the PSA Congressional Fellowship Program.  They met with Governor Tom Kean, Chairman of the 9/11 Commission, and Tony Lake, former National Security Advisor.  They simulated a National Security Council Deputies meeting on piracy and terror in Somalia.  They practiced negotiation techniques and met with senior White House NSC officials, and discussed bipartisanship and foreign policy issues at their Retreat at Wye River in Maryland.

We are now excited to announce the new class of PSA Congressional Fellows .  They are 29 staffers from the House and Senate, including personal, committee, and caucus staffers.  They cover homeland security, foreign affairs, military and defense, and other issues for their Members of Congress, and they bring a wide range of career experiences to the Fellowship.

The interest we saw in the high volume of applications for the Fall Session reflects the underappreciated desire for bipartisanship among Hill staffers.  The goal of our Program is to bring foreign policy staffers from both parties together to meet each other, learn skills together, and reflect on their roles in the policy process together.  It is a forum for them to make new friends and connections, share common interests, and to learn through experience that differences can be discussed openly and honestly, and in the context of a shared purpose of making better policy.

I am excited to welcome our new Fellows, and on behalf of all of us at PSA, congratulations to them.  We look forward to a great Fall.

Obama Reiterates Commitment to Middle East Peace

by Raj Purohit | September 22nd, 2009 | |Subscribe

Well, no one said it would be easy. After months of shuttle diplomacy from Middle East Special Envoy Sen. Mitchell, President Obama reengaged on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and committed to securing a final status agreement between the two parties.

For those of us who have been frustrated by the delays in this process the President’s remarks today were very welcome. In particular I was encouraged by this portion of his statement:

Simply put it is past time to talk about starting negotiations — it is time to move forward. It is time to show the flexibility and common sense and sense of compromise that’s necessary to achieve our goals. Permanent status negotiations must begin and begin soon. And more importantly, we must give those negotiations the opportunity to succeed. And so my message to these two leaders is clear. Despite all the obstacles, despite all the history, despite all the mistrust, we have to find a way forward. We have to summon the will to break the deadlock that has trapped generations of Israelis and Palestinians in an endless cycle of conflict and suffering. We cannot continue the same pattern of taking tentative steps forward and then stepping back. Success depends on all sides acting with a sense of urgency. And that is why I have asked Secretary Clinton and Senator Mitchell to carry forward the work that we do here today. Senator Mitchell will meet with the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators next week. I’ve asked the Prime Minister and the President to continue these intensive discussions by sending their teams back to Washington next week. And I’ve asked the Secretary of State to report to me on the status of these negotiations in mid-October.

There is little doubt that the path to a final status agreement will be a tough one but I agree with the President that it is a national security imperative. The question to be answered is whether supporters of a two state solution can provide the political support needed to allow the negotiations to be completed. With that in mind I was encouraged by this letter from prominent faith leaders (see below).

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Obama Takes a Long View of Missile Defense

by Matthew Rojansky | September 22nd, 2009 | |Subscribe

The following op-ed appeared in the Grand Forks Herald this morning

President Barack Obama’s decision last week to scuttle missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic was the second time the U.S. has withdrawn a ground-based missile defense system.

In 1975, the Pentagon actually deployed a missile defense system codenamed Safeguard in North Dakota and supported by personnel from the Grand Forks and Minot Air Force bases. That system of interceptor missiles and ground-based radar was designed to counter the threat of a Soviet nuclear first-strike against launch sites in the Upper Midwest, but was canceled after less than a year, officially because of ineffectiveness and high cost.

The truth is that U.S. missile defense reversals then and now were motivated by broader strategic goals as much as considerations of expense and efficacy. In the mid-1970s, U.S.-Soviet arms control talks led to two landmark agreements (SALT I and II) which made Americans safer by reducing the likelihood of nuclear war. Pushing ahead with missile defense at that time might have convinced the Soviets the U.S. was not serious about arms control.

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Speaking Honestly to the American People about Afghanistan

by Christopher Preble | September 18th, 2009 | |Subscribe

At the risk of turning Across the Aisle into the “All Afghanistan, All the Time” channel, I want to commend David Isenberg for his characteristically thorough post, and to take issue with Brian Vogt for what was an uncharacteristically superficial one.

Specifically, Brian points to a BBC poll of Afghans concerning the US/NATO mission and their preferences for government — the current government wins overwhelming support (82 percent), the Taliban barely registers (4 percent).

He concludes, therefore:

if the military presence is done right and actually brings increased security to Afghan citizens, they will be inclined to support it rather than the alternative.

Of course, that’s the big “if” – if the military presence is done right. The problem is that for most of the past seven years, the US and NATO forces have been ill equipped and too few in number to actually execute a proper counterinsurgency strategy.  I agree that things have not been going well.  Most Afghans in the south and east see little security benefit from either Afghan or US/NATO security forces.  It’s no wonder that many have put their lot in with the Taliban.  It seems that one response to this problem would be a greater presence – not less – of security forces. (Emphasis mine)

This is a variation on the incompetence dodge, about which I have written much. Our past failings should not be taken as evidence that we cannot succeed in the future. We have a new military team (Petraeus and McChrystal), and still relatively new White House team (Obama et al). We’ve learned from our mistakes. We can fix this. (more…)

Hazy Reasoning on Black Carbon

by Alexis Collatos | September 17th, 2009 | |Subscribe

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Every February and March, a black haze descends onto mainland Southeast Asia, lowering visibility and driving thousands of people with respiratory complaints into hospital emergency rooms. The cause of this haze has been known for years- the widespread use of slash-and-burn agriculture that results in large swathes of farmland going up in flames annually. What hasn’t been known until recently, however, is the global impact that hazes like this, made up of airborne soot, has had not only on air quality but on the earth’s rising temperature. Scientists now believe that soot, more formally known as black carbon, is responsible for almost twenty percent of the increase in the earth’s temperature over the past century, making it the largest contributing factor to climate change after carbon dioxide. Through legislation aimed at further reducing domestic black carbon emissions and promoting international projects and agreements aimed at emissions cuts, Congress can take immediate, definitive steps towards reducing black carbon’s effect on the rate of climate change.

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The Ashcroft Dilemma

by John Eden | September 16th, 2009 | |Subscribe

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Take a moment, dear friends, to consider Judge Milan Smith’s sentiments about the practice of detaining Americans as “material witnesses” to terrorist activities without formally charging them with a crime:

“We find this to be repugnant to the Constitution, and a painful reminder of some of the most ignominious chapters of our national history.”

Those words were taken from in al-Kidd v. Ashcroft, a decision by a Ninth Circuit panel holding that John Ashcroft may be sued for his participation in detaining suspected terrorists or terrorist affiliates under the federal material witness statute. In particular, the court held that:

1. (absolute immunity) Ashcroft is not entitled to absolute immunity from suit as representative of the United States government because in allegedly detaining al-Kidd, Ashcroft was engaging in investigative conduct, not purely “prosecutorial” conduct of the type for which officials receive absolute immunity from third-party liability.

2. (rights violations) Ashcroft may be sued for allegedly violating al-Kidd’s Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful detention and statutory rights afforded al-Kidd under the federal material witness statute because it is possible that Ashcroft did play a critical role in al-Kidd’s detention.

However, Ashcroft cannot be sued on the theory that he played a role in determining the allegedly harsh conditions of al-Kidd’s confinement under the high-bar for such allegations set out in the Supreme Court’s Iqbal decision (which I have criticized at some length here).

3. (qualified immunity) Even though Ashcroft is entitled to qualified immunity as a representative to the United States government, al-Kidd may bring an action against him because at the time Ashcroft allegedly decided to use the material witness statute to detain al-Kidd, it was legally certain that doing so would be unlawful. (more…)

Be Careful for What You Ask For Because You Just Might Get It

by David Isenberg | September 15th, 2009 | |Subscribe

Today let me join other PSA bloggers, such as Chris Preble and Brian Vogt who have recently written on Afghanistan.

Now that Iraq is no longer a geopolitical black hole, sucking all political discussion and media coverage into its event horizon, commentary on Afghanistan seems to be everywhere. In fact, it is not. The fact is that after nearly eight years of fighting there should be far more. Indeed, during the 2008 presidential campaign it was Barack Obama who said the United States should concentrate on Afghanistan. So now we are and everyone is making up for years of lost time.

But before we go any further perhaps we should take a moment to consider some of the ongoing costs and I don’t mean budgetary. I know it is not fashionable to do this; that the SOP among the elite is to focus on big picture national and international security impacts and realist politics but for just one moment, especially as a veteran, I say screw that. So,  let’s remember some of the most recent:

1st Lt. Tyler E. Parten, 24, of Arkansas, died Sept. 10 in Konar province, Afghanistan, of wounds sustained when insurgents attacked his unit using rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire.

Lance Cpl. Christopher S. Fowlkes, 20, of Gaffney, S.C., died Sept. 10 from wounds sustained Sept. 3 while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

Sgt. Youvert Loney, 28, of Pohnpei, Micronesia, died Sept. 5 in Abad, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his vehicle using small arms and recoilless rifle fires.

Petty Officer 3rd Class James R. Layton, 22, of Riverbank, Calif., died Sept. 8 in Kunar province, Afghanistan, while supporting combat operations.

Capt. Joshua S. Meadows, 30, of Bastrop, Texas, died Sept. 5 while supporting combat operations in Farah province, Afghanistan.

Staff Sgt. Michael C. Murphrey, 25, of Snyder, Texas, died Sept. 6 in Paktika province, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device.

There will be many more to come. Okay, now I return you to the establishment approved method of discourse, bloodless and emotionless

Right now the Obama Administration reminds me of the old saying, be careful for what you ask for because you just might get it. You wanted more resources devoted to Afghanistan? Okay, you have it, and will be getting more of it, because despite all the public handwringing, nobody really expects the Administration not to send more troops, beyond the additional 21,000 they deployed earlier this year. (more…)

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All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.