Afghanistan: Time To End This War

Western officials are hoping the violent outburst after the careless Koran burning at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan will not happen again. Despite their deepest desires there is no doubt that it will.

This was not the first furious demonstration against the U.S. and its NATO partners, who Afghans consider occupiers, and it definitely will not be the last. No As-Salāmu `Alaykum or apology is going to help. Such blatant disrespect only further insights the anger and anxiety of endless war and violence that existed before the post 911 invasion and continues to thrive today.

The majority of foreigners, both civilian and military, should pack their bags and get out. Of course they will not. Afghanistan has this way of convincing even the savviest imperialist that there is hope the place might actually be tamed. This is an illusion. Afghans have their own culture and way of life and it doesn’t coincide with the efforts of modernization by the West.

The U.S. and NATO will dismiss the signs of failure, much like Brits and Soviets, and, instead, “stay the course.” That is because their idea of “stay the course” involves two things simultaneously. The first is negotiation with the Taliban and handing over Afghan security to the Afghans or replacing armed NATO soldiers with armed Afghan ones. Might as well go right back to the civil war where the Taliban and mujahedeen fighters killed and maimed while fighting for power.

Basically, the U.S. will again prop up the really nasty guys – in tandem this time. The Taliban will get the government back and the warlord members of the former Northern Alliance will get control over something we like to imagine called ‘security.’ The Taliban will probably keep its name while the Alliance will strategically be called the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police hoping no one will notice.

Although the Taliban is really vile, during the civil war, the Northern Alliance was brutal. These warlord/mujahedeen fighters raped women, burned up communities, and brutally murdered and tortured anyone who got in their way. Afghans hate the Taliban, but fear the leaders of the Northern Alliance. They do not trust them now and I guarantee that these feelings won’t change in 2014 when the troops retreat.

A new goal, followed by a thought process and strategy, is long overdue. If the parties want to leave without all hell breaking loose they need to start thinking beyond war.

There must be an Afghan political solution. The U.S. must assist the Afghans in stabilization the country instead of turning it into a martial state. Holding the space so that the Afghans can structure their own government instead just training a “security” force and causing yet more war is the key.

Recent FY 2010 figures show that the U.S. is spending around $2 billion a week on this war. I am sure two years later that it is more, but for arguments sake, I’ll leave it at that. With 52 weeks in a year, and two more years of battle, that comes out to around $208 billion (oh what I could do with $208 billion!).

I tried, but cannot seem to find out how much a Jirga or a tribal assembly of elders costs (A Jirga is a large group of people, sometime numbering up to 2000, that makes decisions by consensus), but after a bit of research I can safely assume that it costs less than a million a week. Since I like to overestimate, let’s just go with that number. At a million a week, the US can save a bundle over the next two years.

Now, why a Jirga you ask? Well, because this is the Afghan next best thing to democracy (and actually includes more people in the decision making than its American counterpart). Further, a Jirga will finally allow the Afghans to sit down and hash out their own future. While the West saves money and the elders debate lives will be saved because they’ll be busy talking instead of shooting or blowing things up. Historically Afghans have found one way or another to work out immense differences through this type of method.

Time gives another opportunity. One that would include bringing in regional actors so they too can participate and understand the benefits of dropping the “great game.” Pakistan, India, China and even Iran must agree to stop playing tug of Kabul. Perhaps in the process the U.S. can kiss and make up with Iran (I know, wishful thinking, but why not?)

The Afghans can develop an Afghan government for the people, by the people with Western mentorship instead of imposition. Let’s face it folks the Afghan government has done nothing but pretend to try to like the constitution and centralized American style government forced on them.

Will it be perfect? Probably not. Tell me one governance system that is. Afghans have had a pretty tough history filled with endless war and talk about post trauma stress… so it will all take time and patience. Reminds me of that saying, “good things come to those that have patience.” (ok, so I changed the last part, but you get the picture).

It is, however better than more NATO and U.S. officers dying, an all out Afghan civil war, propping up more malevolent warlords, or bringing back the Taliban so they can beat women if their shoes make noise.

In the meantime, it is time for everyone else — civilian and military alike — to reevaluate the lack of impact they are having and leave. Afghans need their space and the world needs to allow them to ‘ask’ for help when they need it. After all, it is preferable to ask for things not have them shoved down your throat.

Besides, there are too many compounds surrounded by concrete and barbed wire enclosing too many people doing way too little. I am not saying that they don’t mean well, I’m just saying in that type of environment a small stealth imprint makes much more impact. Fortresses with armored everything don’t really encourage relationships at all let alone long-term reciprocal ones.

Civilians can bow out fairly gracefully, however, it is those left behind to tear down the monstrous bunkers and the military withdrawal that will be a bit more complex to remove. The Obama Administration will have to be very strategic as it brings back most of its troops while leaving a very small contingency just in case. Historically as troops pack up and leave Afghanistan fighters from surrounding villages sabotage them. Both those in the British and former Soviet military can attest to that. Therefore, any extraction must be carefully calculated. Nevertheless, it must be done.

After speaking to some people on the ground, it is clear that the protests that were triggered by the Koran burning were a built up reaction to the overwhelming presence of “the foreign occupiers” and the Afghan people are feeling helpless as things get progressively worse. They continue to struggle for even the basics — electricity, water, and food.

Taking steps to allow Afghans to take the lead while supporting their efforts toward peace, governance and security will satisfy interests on both sides. U.S. and NATO troops can go home leaving a somewhat more stable nation while continuing a political partnership with the Afghans and their neighbors. We will all save money, but more importantly we will save lives on all sides by finally ending this war.

To go or NOT to go to war with Iran

Israeli Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, is on his way to the United States to argue, again, for a war with Iran. Plenty of US officials including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have also been in Israel to discuss this very issue.

Then, Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, who just called General Dempsey “a puppet of Iran,” will be making his way over to mobilize the right wing American-Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC) to send American men and women back to war.

To make matters worse, the US Congress seems to be yet again representing Israel instead of their American constituencies who already have war fatigue not to mention a $15 trillion dollar deficit costing tax payer $4 billion a day. Senators Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania), Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), Joseph Lieberman (I-Connecticut) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) are pushing through “let’s get everything off the table except bombing the hell out of Iran” legislation and Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) is siding with the Israel Prime Minister instead of the American Joint Chief who is right in his assessment that the US should not rush to war.

Nevertheless, the US, Israel and their coalition of the “willing to overthrow every regime on the face of the globe” are continuously debating going after the next victim. Attacking Iran, however, will not be a simple Shock an Awe operation. Iran actually has a formidable military. Perhaps maybe the world is just craving a traditional war with air fights, naval standoffs, and tanks rolling in – all coupled with asymmetric hybrid confrontations.

The most disturbing part of this whole picture is that the world seems to have forgotten that they can actually think beyond war. “All options on the table” seems to dismiss everything other than bombarding things, people or both. For too many years, Americans and allies alike have completely ignored robust diplomacy. They rushed into Afghanistan failing to acknowledge that the Taliban was ready to give up Osama bin Laden – threats instead of savvy cultural posturing and negation led to a ten-year war. Everyone couldn’t wait to hang Saddam Hussein despite the fact that all intelligence showed there was no mushroom cloud, not to mention the fact that he provided the United Nations with all the necessary documentation showing he had no weapons of mass destruction.

The US Secretary of State – America’s top diplomat – threw her patience right out the window calling for the Libyan President, Qadaffi, to be “captured or killed.” In her most recent outburst, she is calling for mutiny in the Syrian army to, yes, rid themselves of President Bashar Al-Assad.

Next stop – Iran.

So where is that “Diplomacy 3.0″ that the US State Department’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) was touting just two years ago. Apparently all those foreign service officers that were suppose to be deployed to “centers of influence” missed the Middle East and Southwest Asia and/or are more likely they are unsuccessfully trying to influence behind giant slabs of concrete and perpetual lockdown.

Governments of the world, let your people go. The days of addressing today’s threats cannot be done behind armored vehicles and barbed wire or even at the barrel of a gun, people need to get out and get to know the people, not just hob nob with corrupt ministers – although that is important too. There are plenty of people who knew the “Arab Spring” was coming, but even the most seasoned diplomat can’t evaluate the changes from behind bars.

In today’s world, we need to stop warring and start a dialogue, one that lasts more than an hour and contains options other than coercive threats on the agenda. So what if we don’t like them, they probably don’t like us much either. if you can get eventually along with one monarch or dictator, why not another?

The bottom line is that there are more options on the table than mutually assured destruction. Political, economic and, most importantly, diplomatic options for Iran exist. It is time for us to break out of this over zealous combat mindset and try something new. In the grander scheme of things, it is much better than sending more of our young men and women off to yet another war or causing Armageddon. Maybe 2012 will be the end after all, if, that is, we make our own prophetic nonsense come true instead of thinking critically in order to find a better solution than more war.

Time for Israel to Embrace the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring began 2010. Many across the region continue to protest against repressive governments that are robbing populations of their basic human and civil rights. The “revolution” that has gripped the region has had vastly different impacts. Nevertheless, while the Arab masses continue to fight for their freedoms, Israel is, in turn, speechless because it realizes that it too is part of the oppression game. Israel is, in essence, one of the oppressors.

It is quite clear to the Israeli government that this regional push toward democracy will directly affect them in a negative manner. After all, Israel continues to occupy over three million Palestinians in the West Bank and keep another million or so imprisoned in Gaza. Not necessarily a positive in anyone’s book.

As the Arab Spring continues, Western influence wanes. In tandem, Israel is becoming more isolated. This isolation has not transitioned into support of the democratic civil society movements of its neighbors. In fact, it has done quite the opposite. These anti-regime populist movements, which arguably started with the Green Revolution in Iran, have instead pushed Israel toward a more agitated, fear based and increasingly paranoid posture.

In response, the Israeli government has moved on two fast and furious initiatives. The first is to escalate the annexation of the West Bank by increasing settlements and confiscating land, while keeping Gaza under its thumb with daily aerial bombardments. And the second is to ensure its hegemonic position in the region by directly challenging its only capable opponent — Iran.

According to a new report by Israeli organization Peace Now, Torpedoing the Two State Solution – The Strategy of the Netanyahu Government, there has been a “20% rise in construction starts in the settlements — at least 1,850 building starts for housing units, 35% of them (650 units) in isolated settlements east of the planned route of the Separation Barrier” and “at least 3,500 units under construction during 2011 (started to be built or continued construction from previous years).”

The report goes further to say that although the Netanyahu government promised to dismantle illegal outposts, this has been skirted by, instead, making them legal. In addition, more roads connecting Palestinian towns have been severed by settlement expansion making it close to impossible to travel and if Palestinians do, they will encounter even more checkpoints. There are some 500-plus “physical impediments,” as the United Nations calls them, in the West Bank. B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, reported that, in addition to permanent checkpoints, the army erects hundreds of surprise flying checkpoints along West Bank roads at will.

Israel is successfully appropriating the West Bank to ease its fear-based obsessions. It craves a level of security that is non-existent yet these policies continue.

Despite the consequences, keeping the Palestinian territories is, in the Israeli mind, one major step to keeping them protected. This along with their ever-growing stockpile of weapons, nuclear and otherwise allows the Netanyahu government plenty of time to focus on its desire for imperial dominance and the destruction of its only regional competitor — Iran.

Israel has been testing the waters for some time to see if it can in effect bully Iran into relinquishing its, to date, minimally influential regional place. To keep the pressure on, Israel has relied on the West to impose sanctions while continuously threatening Iran with military strikes. This has been going on since about 2004. For almost ten years now — give or take — Israel has claimed that Iran is building a nuclear weapon and at any moment it will drop it right in the middle of a bunch of nations it actually has good relationships with just to destroy Israel.

No one can deny Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s bellicose rhetoric against Israel, but if they were to really to use nuclear weapons that would be a surefire way to wipe out not only Israel, but major portions of the five surrounding states in the process and most probably would poison many more — including Iran itself.

Our bombs today are much more powerful than they used to be. “Today, the B-2 Stealth bomber is capable of delivering 1,280 times the destructive power that the Enola Gay brought to bear on Hiroshima in 1945″ says Peter Fedewa in his Ploughshares Fund blog post Nuclear Weapons To Scale. Thanks to the US taxpayers, Israel has twenty-five of them.

Various authors, including this one, have voiced numerous ways to use diplomacy to solve this Israeli-Iranian doomsday scenario. Iran is in no way perfect, but it has at the very least shown ample willingness to talk. It is most unfortunate though that Israel, and by proxy its US supporters, are hell-bent on war.

It seems that Israeli leaders have dismissed the fact that “all options on the table” includes robust diplomacy and actually conversing. Although it took about seven years for Muammar Qaddafi to come around, the Iranians were only allotted about twelve weeks from the Obama Administration to put up or be punished with yet more sanctions. Bush, as you might recall, labeled it as part of the ‘axis of evil,” which gave that Administration a sub-zero chance.

Yes, talks take time. It may be easier to pick up a weapon; however, that would probably guarantee one of two things: 1) everyone will end up right back where they started or 2) due to nuclear fallout — we will all be dead.

Sanctions at this point are definitely working. How can they not? In addition to freezing Iran’s hard currency assets and boycotting their banks, the West has successfully sanctioned everything from pistachios to caviar and carpets and now they are targeting Iranian oil. This has not only starved a lot of very poor Iranians who don’t even like their government, it has set Iran’s nuclear timeline back several years back.

Let us get real, though: sanctions will not and cannot work forever so why not get our diplomatic efforts moving toward preemption through negotiation instead of preemption through total destruction.

The US can and should immediately take the lead in this effort. It would behoove the Israelis to forgo war and jump on board — for once.

Israel’s short-term future may be guaranteed by occupation and bullying. In the long run, however, it is a high-risk wager to continue on such a violent path. A path that will only ensure more anxiety, mistrust and unrelenting blowback, which we have already seen for many years. Reaching out with a handshake instead of a weapon is the only way to guarantee the semblance of the security the Israeli state desires.

It is time for Israel, and those who support it, to rethink its defensive posture and look at the regional push toward democracy as an opportunity instead of a threat. No, it won’t gain friends overnight, but at least it will start to convey that it is a willing partner in the region. A partner that prefers peace and security for all, not just Israelis, as well as one that is against war and destruction not committed to it.

Also see Huffington Post

Military Budget Cuts: No Big Deal or Excellent Opportunity?

Secretary Panetta is set to come out with his new “strategy” to offer his assessment on how to cut the military budget. The question remains: will it be the same old or will he have the courage to mandate what truly needs to be done to build a stellar military for America’s future national security needs?

It seems inevitable that US forces will be looking at about a $450 billion budget cut over the next ten years. Moreover, if Congress doesn’t stop its incessant bickering over who stole whose cheese, the military will then lose an additional $500 billion to cover the US government’s flagrant disregard for Congress’s failure to responsibly use your tax dollars.

So I ask you all out there in US land — what is the big deal? Warren Buffett could cover the $45B a year decrease (or $95B a year if the full cut goes through) before you can say Goldman Sachs. Although I bet neither Warren Buffett nor Goldman Sachs would lend or, in this case, give that money away without first figuring out what recipient is going to do with it and, more importantly, what they are going to get out of it.

This, however, is not true for Congress or the Pentagon. Like previous downsizing ventures, the Department of Defense is scrambling. They will be managing these defense reductions on the fly. Congress will yet again mandate cuts without any semblance of a long-term strategic view making it impossible for the Joint Chiefs to make any true change.

Yet again, the status quo will no doubt win out and any possibility that our military’s top brass will be able to ensure that US forces remain ready for a relatively unknown and increasingly complicated future is as unlikely as finding human life on mars.

One can hope, but historically, cuts in defense have failed to produce the real change. Successive U.S. administrations have failed to outline a post Cold War defense strategy while American interests have remained constant over the years and any recent attempt at a global national security or grand strategy has been preempted by fear of rocking the defense department boat, political infighting and, more importantly, two wars.

And yet again it seems the powers that be are reverting to past practices instead of future realities. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s first major policy address focuses on air and sea-based capabilities and highly modernized adversaries which are code words for “the US is sending military policy right back to the cold war paradigm.” The Administration is, again, repeating history. The Army will shrink substantially to control current debt and fatigue after a decade of war. While America’s other forces ramp up and focus on China, which will replace the defunct Soviet Union.

Forces will be subject to the age-old percent budget based ancient parameters instead of need. As usual the Army will get the lion’s share and the same old safe solutions will be again based on past budget deduction cases and, not on the hard choices and changes our military must make. Choices like keeping planes and ships in production, which support Panetta’s speech and are sure to please the military industrial complex, do nothing to address larger national security requirements.

Unfortunately, percentage cuts, which are the easy way out, will probably win out. Thus, it is up to those who lead to ensure that America’s military remains strong and able. The military chiefs must not allow petty politics to intrude on making a comprehensive military assessment and creating a 21st century military to address its outcome.

Despite the inevitable drawdown, the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the military have a unique opportunity to make wide-ranging change in the pentagon as a whole. By streamlining bureaucracy, minimizing operational overlap, reorganizing personnel and improving the capacity of all troops to truly exhibit “jointness,” America’s forces can continue to be the modernized, adaptable, and rapid reaction military that the United States needs or, if you will, a lean mean fighting machine.

In this context, it is also time that the Defense Department embraced “lessons learned,” instead of gathering them up, filing them and staying the course much like it did during the Clinton Administration and, again, miss this chance to bring the US out of the Cold War and ready for the next decade.

Pure percentage cuts do not make good strategy. They instead cause infighting and fail to look at the overall defense picture viewing the parts instead of the whole. Leaders must therefore look beyond. The US is coming out of two wars where it amassed vast lessons on bringing Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, including National Guard and reservists together to win the fight. Turning our back on these joint operational gains would be a mistake.

The Joint Chiefs and Combatant Commanders must come together to turn the tide away from politics and strategically asses what is needed for a stellar combined force ready for the next twenty plus years while making the Pentagon as disciplined as the troops.

They are part way there. According to the Stimson Center’s report, What We Bought: Defense Procurement from FY01 to FY10, among other things, the military has “completely upgraded all the Army’s vehicles, bought more ammunition than expected, acquired a whole new fleet of F-22s and C-17 cargo aircraft for the Air Force, and a lot of new naval vessels.” All absolutely necessary, however, the main problem, after ten years of upgrades, is not modernization; it is the lack of a long-range comprehensive strategic forecast of the future operating environment including threats and opportunities across regions. That is what will shape future US intervention and defense policy. It includes economic austerity, but is not beholden to it.

Without a complete strategic assessment it is truly impossible to make any reliable assessments as to whether the current force is “good enough.” No one really knows whether an “Air-Sea Battle” focus will prove sufficient, or even right. Devoid of a strategy and proper prioritizing of US national interests, the armed services is again left only with an increasingly difficult “math problem.” One that focuses solely on who gets cut and who gets cut out.

No one can predict the future, but it is counterproductive to try to guess what, where and when threats will present themselves. These types of faulty determinations leave consecutive Administration with the inability to guage whether it should invest more or less in air, sea, or land forces (or combinations thereof). The result is inevitably quantitative assumptions, political debates about which party is better on defense, and, no surprise, parochial competition between services.

Today’s political leaders must play a part in this as well. Rather than consuming themselves with partisan politics and protecting the military-industrial complex, they must take their oversight responsibility more seriously. Congress must understand that within the context of our economic concerns, our nations security is going to depend on a disciplined Defense Department that must plan strategically in order to protect the American people.

Until American lawmakers and military leaders commit to the necessary changes for the nation’s defense, this country is limited to random military decisions and pure speculation on threats and force structure. In the meantime, if the military can do nothing else, it must invest in educating and training the highest quality soldiers, airmen, marines, and sailors while encouraging civilian excellence as well (the highest-quality diplomats, foreign service officers, intelligence professionals, and first-responders, to include our teachers). Our human capital is the only outlay that is more likely to guarantee future success since no one has the courage to engage in strategic planning despite an increasingly uncertain future.

Iran and the Nuclear Weapons Club

Iran hedged its bets and lost. By turning a blind eye to this week’s violent assault on the British embassy, which had the distinct odor of spin, the regime plowed right over the edge of an already teetering tipping point.

Outrage over the behavior of the international community and its endless war-drumming rhetoric and sanctions is understandable. Acting like a bull in a china shop is not. All things considered, both sides on this equation are behaving like spoiled children who exhibit no end to their temper tantrums because no one is getting their way. Russian and China are actually sounding like the only rational voices. Nevertheless, the problem is all these children masquerading as international leaders and diplomats have deadly means of coercion.

Let’s face it though, no one is innocent here. The Iranian government for its part is playing with fire while the U.S., Israel and the west keep stoking the ashes daring Iran to put it out. The bottom line here is that all of the above want Iran to end their nuclear program because they are terrified Iran is making weapons. To date there is excessive speculation, but nothing has been proven. Problem is this: it’s like the pot calling the kettle black.

The very countries calling on Iran to scrap their nuclear program are armed to the teeth with their own nuclear weapons. The United States, the United Kingdom, France and Israel are all nuclear powers. Germany, the Netherlands and the rest of the NATO countries are “sharers” of nukes kindly supplied to them by the US. Together they could destroy all of mankind ensuring that no life will exist on this planet for, lets say, the next several million millenniums.

In an effort to move toward a non-nuclear world, which is a no-brainer, most countries have signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), by which they all basically try to promote the use of nuclear materials for peaceful purposes while halting the proliferation of nuclear materials for weapons. Iran is a member of this treaty. Israel is not. In fact, the most vociferous instigator of pummeling Iran and sanctioning it until it shrivels is the one country that refuses to admit they have nuclear weapons of their own or sign the NPT. And, might I add, no one is talking about bombing them. Israel, India, and Pakistan, for that matter, all have nuclear weapons and don’t get sanctioned, but get just about all the military support they want from U.S. and the west. Talk about double standards.

No wonder Iran thinks turning their backs on a bunch of thugs climbing embassy walls and tearing up papers is OK. They and the whole world are confused as to who gets to do what, when and where. Apparently they just didn’t get the memo that a state’s freedom ironically depends on submissiveness, subservience, and, giving up sovereignty not fighting the west’s status quo.

Iran has been through this before. Britain wanted all its oil without sharing the proceeds. Like most people who get their resources stolen, they decided to end that zero sum deal. However, instead of saying — gee you’re right, we should pay you for your oil — Britain, with the help of the American CIA, decided to conduct a good old fashioned game of “regime change” overthrowing Iran’s one and only democratically elected leader. In came the Shah, followed by the Mullahs, and here we are sanctioning the crap out of a country we all helped create. We will never learn.

So now everyone is mad because Iran wants to be part of the worldwide international club of “do as I say, not as I do.”

Really, what’s the difference if Iran has British, French or German embassies in Tehran? They don’t seem to be making any difference in the grand scheme of things. The back and forth rhetoric hasn’t changed in decades. There is no progress in helping the Iranian regime see that they’re atrocious behavior must change. These diplomats haven’t been able to build better relations, find out anything about Iran’s nuclear program or help improve Western relations and move non-nuclear negotiations forward. Only Turkey and Brazil could do that and the Americans ignored them anyway.

And what if Iran has nuclear weapons, really? Does anyone really think they’ll use them before the rest of us? Personally, I’m more concerned about Pakistan, who has no leadership, and the fact that Israel and India get U.S. support in their nuclear ambitions without any accountability at all.

At this point, everyone should just calm down and take the marbles they haven’t already lost and go home. Until the world’s wayward diplomats realize that to get anything done, one has to compromise, be consistent and at least try to be fair, nothing is ever going to change. Putting a nuclear free zone across the region would have been a brilliant start, but, of course, no one wants to give up their precious, and extraordinarily lethal, toys. They just don’t want anyone else to have them.

Since that is really the case, I suggest we all get used to a nuclear world that, like it or not and due to all the stubbornness, will include Iran. As the world turns, I’m sure this will all lead to another endless and senseless war, which I’ll remind you — none of the “deciders” will be the ones to fight.