Afghanistan: I don’t believe in miracles

by David Isenberg | November 24th, 2009 | |Subscribe

Unlike my fellow blogger Matt Rojansky I do not support sending more troops to Afghanistan. Doing so is the geopolitical equivalent of Newton’s third law of motion, i.e., “To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Sending more troops only strengthens the Taliban, and non-Taliban Afghans, especially the Pashtuns, who just don’t want foreigners in their lands.

Yet despite all the attempts to pretend that there is some huge debate in the White House about whether or not to send more troops to Afghanistan there has never been any serious question that the Obama administration will not do so. The only question is how many.

After all, can you remember the last time a newly elected president decided to withdraw troops from a war he inherited? Neither can I. In fact, right now the insider wisdom seems to be that Obama is settling on around 32- to 35,000 more troops, which is over 80 percent of what Gen. McChrystal, U.S. commander in Afghanistan, asked for in his strategy report.

That said let’s hope someone in the Obama administration is thinking about other issues. For example, putting aside the future ultimate sacrifices measured in lives lost and physically and mentally wounded, the financial costs will start mounting up.


Bringing the Public to the Table This Thanksgiving

by Matthew Rojansky | November 23rd, 2009 | |Subscribe


Two years ago this week, on this blog, I wrote the following about politicians who thank men and women in uniform “for their service” without doing anything to improve their lot:

After six years of war, we must pay more than lip service to our gratitude.  We must act to ease the burden on our armed forces, and to give strategic vision and moral depth to our national security policy.

It has now been eight years of war in Afghanistan and approaching seven in Iraq.  We have a new President, a new Congress, new military commanders on the ground, and a new set of relationships on the world stage.  Yet I am concerned that Americans have seen too little progress on the foreign policy challenges that matter most.

The Obama Administration, less than a year into its tenure, has reached a national security tipping point.  Despite swift and significant troop reductions in Iraq (coupled with a handover of security duties to Iraqis), invitations to Iran and North Korea to sit down at the negotiating table, and an ongoing policy review on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the new Administration has won few admirers for its national security program.  One obvious reason is the lack of clear, immediate payoffs.  Other than “resetting” the US public image in European capitals, it is not clear that Obama’s changed approach has delivered any concrete benefits appreciable to average Americans, or to our elected leaders on either side.


Corruption in Afghanistan Reaches New Heights

by PSA Staff | November 19th, 2009 | |Subscribe


When it comes to statistics for Afghanistan, the numbers are usually daunting. Number of additional troops requested by General McChrystal: 40,000. Number of fraudulent Karzai votes in the 2009 elections: 1 million. Amount of money the US has spent in Afghanistan since 9/11: over $227 billion. But this year in Afghanistan, one statistic has reached a new low, the number 2.

Afghanistan is, according to Transparency International, the second-most corrupt country in the world, beaten out for first only by antediluvian Somalia. Keeping close company with Afghanistan and Somalia is a veritable who’s who of failed states and repressive regimes: Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Burma, Guinea, and Chad, to name just a few. While some corruption is inevitable in a country torn by war, Afghanistan has been steadily worsening: in 2009 Afghanistan was the 2nd most corrupt country surveyed; in 2008 it was the 5th most corrupt; in 2007 the 9th; and in 2005 the 43rd.

Afghanistan’s number two spot is important not only because it underlines just how poorly the Karzai government is doing, but because it demonstrates the need for a US strategy that takes the problem of corruption head-on. If the above list is anything to go by, corruption goes hand-in-hand with instability, despot leaders and humanitarian crises- in other words, everything we don’t want for Afghanistan.

As Obama announces he’s close to making a decision on troop increases in Afghanistan, let’s hope he remembers to think about numbers other than those involving the US military.

Afghanistan Debate Tonight

by Matthew Rojansky | November 18th, 2009 | |Subscribe

Tonight I will be participating in a bipartisan debate titled “The Hard Path Forward,” on whether the US military presence in Afghanistan should be increased or reduced.  The debate is the first event co-sponsored by the DC Democratic and Republican parties, and should be interesting as much for what we wonky panelists have to say, as for who turns out to listen, and how they interact with us and with each other.  I find it significant and positive that at least on a local level, Democrats and Republicans have recognized that national security and foreign policy is an appropriate subject for productive bipartisan engagement.

Here are the details:

When:  Wednesday, November 18, 7:00 p.m.-8:30 p.m.

Where:  University of the District of Columbia, David A. Clark School Of Law, 4200 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Building 39, Room 21.

Who:  Dr. Assem Akram, Professor, American University, School Of International Service; Matthew Rojansky, Executive Director, Partnership for a Secure America; Malou Innocent, the Cato Institute (standing in for Michael Darner from Rep. Conyers’ office, a PSA Congressional Fellow); Mackenzie Eaglen, Research Fellow, Heritage Foundation.


Ted Sorensen on Bipartisanship

by PSA Staff | November 17th, 2009 | |Subscribe

Ted Sorensen, former White House Special Counsel to President John F. Kennedy, came to Washington last week to meet with PSA Congressional Fellows and speak at a briefing on Capitol Hill. Sorensen kicked off the PSA Congressional Fellowship Program alumni series with a private lunch for Fellowship alums, where he spoke about his personal experiences as a young Hill staffer in Washington. Sorensen explained the need for PSA’s Fellowship program, saying that “showing young staffers new to Washington that the other side is not necessarily the enemy, they don’t wear horns, they can be nice folks and come to agreement on issues that are important to the country as a whole; I think that’s very important.”

Later that afternoon, Sorensen appeared on a panel with Ambassador Thomas Graham at a Security for a New Century briefing on nuclear non-proliferation on Capitol Hill. Both Sorensen and Graham expressed the need for a significant reduction in nuclear arsenals around the world.

Prior to the briefing, Mr. Sorensen sat down with PSA for an interview where he spoke about the impact of bipartisanship over the course of his long and distinguished career in Washington:

To view the rest of this video, click here.

Put Up or Shut Up

by David Isenberg | November 10th, 2009 | |Subscribe

One will not be able to celebrate Veterans Day this week without considering the tragic killing of 13 and wounding over 30 at the Army base at Fort Hood, Texas last Friday. The shootings by U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan rightfully strike people as particularly horrific. There is something about soldiers who are about to be deployed to war zones being shot at by one of their own that is particularly obscene; especially when that man is a psychiatrist, a medical professional who operates under the code of do no harm.

Yet whatever the ensuing investigation uncovers about the motivations of Maj. Hasan we must also face up to the fact that the American military has a significant mental health issue.

When I last wrote about this  in September I noted that the psychic casualties are staggering. The situation has not gotten better.

The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that military leaders acknowledge rampant psychiatric problems in their midst. According to the Army, the suicide rate among soldiers in Iraq is five times that seen in the Persian Gulf War and 11% higher than during Vietnam. The Army reported 133 suicides in 2008, the most ever. In January of this year, the 24 suicides reported by the Army outnumbered U.S. combat-related deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Marine Corps also reported an increase in suicides in 2008, to 41. The Army and Marine Corps have provided most of the troops in the two wars.

Ironically, Hasan had been chosen to be part of an ambitious plan to treat U.S. troops in Afghanistan who need psychological counseling where counselors are often not available. As a result, the Pentagon is flying record numbers of therapists and other mental health workers into combat areas.


Winning Turkey’s Support on Iran

by Volha Charnysh | November 6th, 2009 | |Subscribe


There’s enough Turkey for everyone this season. The United States has Ankara’s support for stopping the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, and the Islamic Republic of Iran enjoys Ankara’s backing of the Iranian nuclear program. One day, however, Turkey will need to choose whose side it is on. With the American and Turkish foreign policy preferences increasingly divergent, Washington may lose an important ally in the region vital to its security, unless it reinvigorates its strategic partnership with Turkey and starts paying more attention to Turkey’s security concerns.

It is the prime minister of Turkey, a state that has been a Western ally for over half a century, who now publicly supports the President of Iran. Last week, Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a friend and accused the West of treating Iran unfairly. Erdogan reaffirmed Iran’s peaceful intentions and pointed out that Iran’s loudest critics are states possessing the largest nuclear arsenals themselves. (more…)

Introducing the “Torture Client Protection Act”

by John Eden | November 4th, 2009 | |Subscribe

For those who love America, one simple thing is supposed to mark the political culture of this country as fundamentally fair and just: the role the law plays in providing protection and redress against the excesses, incompetence, and cruelty of government itself. We believe, deeply and instinctively, that government is sometimes so corrupt and ineffective that mechanisms are necessary to ensure that government officials are accountable for their actions. And, in order to ensure that accountability is real and not just symbolic, we have erected a network of laws to protect the citizenry from its powerful servants in Washington.

Take the Torture Victims Protection Act (“TVPA”), for instance. The TVPA was enacted by Congress to provide ordinary people with the right to sue government officials who commit or authorize others to commit torture where those officials have acted “under the color of” foreign law in doing so. Under the TVPA, an official acts “under the color of” foreign law by undertaking acts under the actual or apparent authority of that foreign nation’s legal system. What does that mean exactly? Well, according to the Supreme Court in Brentwood Academy (531 U.S. 288 (2001)), in the context of civil rights suits it is the court’s responsibility to determine, by taking all the relevant facts into account without using “rigid criteria,” whether an official’s conduct was made possible or facilitated by a foreign legal regime. An U.S. official need not have legal authority or hold office of any kind in a foreign legal system; all that is required is that the U.S. official’s actions or commands are carried out or enabled by a foreign legal regime.

The TVPA provides civil damages for those who can meet this flexible legal standard, and while it would be better if people were never tortured in the first place, the damages available under this law in theory ensure that torture does not go unpunished. (more…)

Who is seeing the real Afghanistan?

by Brian Vogt | November 3rd, 2009 | |Subscribe

Last week the Washington Post printed two letters from different sources who had spent time on the ground in Afghanistan.  They came to very different conclusions about the American presence there.

First, there is the letter from Matthew Hoh, the former Marine captain who had fought in Iraq and had recently taken a temporary foreign service assignment in Zabul province.  One State department official referred to this area as, “one of the five or six provinces always vying for the most difficult and neglected.”  Hoh had developed great misgivings about the war and had become so disillusioned that he chose to resign.  Hoh wote in his resignation letter,

I fail to see the value or the worth in continued U.S. casualties or expenditure of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year old civil war…. The United States presence in Afghanistan greatly contributes to the legitimacy and strategic message of the Pashtun insurgency.

Matthew Hoh has served his country bravely in combat and he has responded to a policy with which he disagreed by making the honorable choice to resign. His observations about the situation in Zabul province merit serious consideration.  I wish that many others in the previous administration who had serious misgivings about policy but waited to reveal them until after leaving office had, instead, followed Hoh’s example. (more…)

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.