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.

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Bringing the Public to the Table This Thanksgiving

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

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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.

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More Bad News for Mexico

by Alexis Collatos | November 23rd, 2009 | |Subscribe

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This month, a coalition of business groups in Juarez made a request for a deployment of UN peacekeepers. Juarez, a border city of 1.5 million people, has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. In 2008, over 1,600 people were killed in drug-related violence, an average of almost 31 a week. This year, that rate has soared to 50 people a week, or 1,800 in the first nine months of 2009 alone. Obviously, this type of a death rate warrants some serious armed intervention- hence the call for peacekeepers. What’s unusual about the request, however, is that Juarez is already pretty much under martial law. Currently, 7,000 Mexican soldiers and 2,300 federal policeman patrol the streets, or around 1 federal operative for every 161 people.

So, if Juarez has such a large number of armed government representatives patrolling its streets, why are businessmen calling for UN peacekeeping forces? One possibility is that the whole thing is a publicity stunt by businessmen fed up with living in a real-life version of a slasher flick. The other possibility- the one that has some serious ramifications for the entire Mexican approach to drug violence- is that the Mexican Army is a bigger part of the problem than everyone thought.

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Corruption in Afghanistan Reaches New Heights

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

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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.

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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.

Mexico’s Drug War: Our Newest National Security Threat?

by Alexis Collatos | November 13th, 2009 | |Subscribe

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A five year old boy killed by a shot of acid to the heart. Bodies dissolving in vats of chemicals. Plastic bags containing severed heads dumped in shopping centers. These are brief glimpses into the brutality of Mexico’s savage drug war, which has killed over 13,000 people since Mexico’s President Calderon deployed the army to curtail cartel activity in 2006. While grisly headlines churned out by the American media ensure that the chaos in Mexico is well known in the US, the long-term ramifications of that chaos have not yet been fully considered. Nor, it seems, have they been a priority in DC since the signing of the Merida initiative. But even though the maelstrom in Mexico has been overshadowed by national nail-biting over Afghanistan and Iran, it carries a heavy impact for the security of many Americans. The Obama administration, busy as it may be, cannot afford to continue ignoring the situation south of the border. Instead, Obama must be proactive, addressing the situation now before it worsens and the US finds itself with security threats on its border, not half a world away in Afghanistan.

Mexican drug violence is increasingly spilling over into the US. Already, the Department of Justice has designated Mexican drug cartels as the biggest organized crime threat in the US.  In the past few years there has been a substantial increase in the number of cartel-related crimes in the US, with cartel activity in forty-eight states. In 2006, the Justice department estimated that 100 cities in the U.S. were affected by cartel activity. By 2009, that number had risen to 230. Accompanying these rising numbers are rising crime statistics. In Phoenix, for example, the police department has recorded 700 home invasions in the past two years, all of them linked to drug and human smuggling. Between 2004 and 2007, a Mexican drug trafficking ring tortured and killed nine men in San Diego, dissolving two of their bodies in acid. And in Alabama in 2008, police stumbled upon the corpses of five men who had their throats slit for not paying their debt to a drug-trafficking ring.

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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.

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Making Common Cause in Southeast Asia

by Catharin Dalpino | November 9th, 2009 | |Subscribe

Reinvigoration of US policy in Southeast Asia is an early hallmark of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.  Besides the “soft power” boost from Obama’s boyhood ties to the region, there is considerable low-hanging fruit to gather.  The administration’s commitment to multilateralism; willingness to engage former enemies or antagonists; signing the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation; and a vow that the Secretary of State would attend the annual meetings of the ASEAN Regional Forum – the last a dig at Condoleezza Rice, who missed two of the four ARF meetings – all contrast favorably to Southeast Asians’ impressions of second-term Bush administration policies.

In addition, the administration has announced an early menu of more specific innovations and adjustments.   To strengthen US relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Obama will participate in the first-ever meeting of a US President with leaders from all ten ASEAN member states, to be held on the margins of this week’s APEC meeting.  The US Ambassador for ASEAN Affairs will no longer be based in Washington but will move to Jakarta, where the ASEAN Secretariat is located.   A new initiative in the Mekong region and the decision to lift OPIC restrictions on Cambodia and Laos shore up the US presence in the smaller, poorer countries of Southeast Asia that the United States had all but ceded to China in the past decade.  But in terms of international attention, the sum of these policy shifts is overshadowed by the administration’s 45-degree turn in Burma policy, to pursue longstanding objectives of promoting political openness there by adding engagement to a sanctions-heavy policy.

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Winning Turkey’s Support on Iran

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

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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…)

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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.