Posts tagged ‘Afghanistan’

Thoughts on the 3rd Presidential Debate: Foreign Policy

By , 23 October, 2012, No Comment

I watched last night’s presidential debate with a group of wonks and journalists at the Council on Foreign Relations. It was interesting to be among people who care deeply about international affairs, given that most voters don’t.

Indeed, knowing that foreign policy won’t win them this election, both candidates took every opportunity to pivot the discussion to the economy. Moreover, the candidates agreed with one another on almost all the issues they touched on. Together, the tactics of agreement and evasion made for an uninformative 90 minutes.

But, a few things that jumped out at me:

1. As expected, the candidates used the question on ‘America’s role in the world’ to spar over the defense budget. Most viewers will remember this segment for President Obama’s quip equating Romney’s push for greater naval spending to a demand for ‘horses and bayonets.’

But what I found notable was the contrast between Romney’s planned cuts to government social spending and his desire to double down on military spending that even the Pentagon doesn’t recommend. The important thing to understand about this debate over defense spending is that it has very little to do with foreign policy and everything to do with economic stimulus. As Daniel Drezner put it in his comments at CFR yesterday, defense expenditures are about the only form of Keynesianism the contemporary GOP supports.

2. I tweeted on Sunday that it would be a big surprise to see either candidate talk seriously about the centrality of women – their empowerment, their role in public life and in civil society – to American foreign policy. Last night, I was pleasantly surprised to see the topic come up, and even more astonished to find that it was brought up by Mitt Romney. Most likely, that’s because Romney has a wide gap to close with women voters, but I welcomed the comments nonetheless.

3. I was pleased that Bob Schieffer raised the topic of drone warfare. At CFR, Rachel Kleinfeld of the Truman Security Project noted that her organization’s polling of its audience indicates that drone warfare is among President Obama’s most unpopular policies, rivaled only by his failure to close Guantanamo Bay. Given that, it’s a shame that Mitt Romney didn’t use the opportunity to push back against the policy: the American public deserves to hear the issue debated in full.

It’s not just a humanitarian issue – though the civilian casualties from drone warfare are an outrage. It’s also a strategic issue, in that the use of a deeply unpopular policy hurts American soft power around the world.

Most concerning to me is the fact that this kind of high-tech war often takes place away from the public eye. We focus heavily on the use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of a broader debate about the ground war there. But how many Americans know that the U.S. is also using drones to intervene in Yemen, or Somalia? Because drone warfare can be pursued without putting any boots on the ground, those interventions have happened with little to no public scrutiny. To my mind, a military technology that can be deployed without public debate is a technology that makes wars more likely, and that’s dangerous.

I talked about this, and the rest of the Afghanistan portion of the debate, on Huffington Post Live this morning. You can watch my segment here.

UN Week Blogging

By , 8 October, 2012, No Comment

Belatedly, taking note of two blog posts I’ve written for Forbes recently based on events I attended during UN Week.

1. The UN hosted an event on energy access and sustainability that was notable because it tried to bridge the gap between environmental activism and anti-poverty work.

Energy access is a critical prerequisite to poverty reduction, necessary for everything from heating homes to delivering public services to powering the businesses that create jobs.

Emerging powers sometimes paint these economic imperatives as incompatible with the fight against climate change. They see emissions caps as an unfair restriction on their economic advancement. But they’re wrong.

The IEA’s most recent World Energy Outlookconcluded (see p. 488) that achieving universal electricity access by 2030 would result in only a 2% increase in global emissions. That’s because the 1.3 billion people living without electricity today live in the world’s poorest countries. And poor countries that do have universal electricity today draw far less power, on a per-capita basis, than rich ones.

Of course, the ultimate aim of expanding energy access is to spur economic growth and allow poor countries to become richer. But even with dramatic economic growth, these countries won’t be approaching the kilowatt-hours consumed in the developed world until long after 2030. And by that time, we could and should have viable, affordable carbon-neutral energy systems in place.

Read the rest here.

2. The Concordia Summit held a panel discussion on women in Afghanistan that was notable because it highlighted the role the U.S. government has played in helping Afghan women achieve economic and political freedom, just days before U.S. government officials began telling the press that the U.S. won’t have much role in the postwar peace.

But the most important, and least frequently discussed danger (it gets no mention in the Timesstory) is the fate of Afghan women. One of the few goods to have come of the ISAF presence in Afghanistan is an Afghan constitution that gives women equal legal status to men (Article 22), the right to go to school (Articles 43 and 44), access jobs (Article 48) and hold political office (Article 84). Not only would a postwar government with Taliban members reverse such gains, but many woman who have made social, political and economic gains in the last decade would be in danger of suffering violent retribution and shaming from the men in their communities.

Read it all here.

I’ll be discussing what NATO withdrawal means for Afghan women on HuffPost Live today at 10:30AM Eastern. You can watch it here.

Some Thoughts on the Wikileaks

By , 18 August, 2010, 5 Comments

When the massive data dump that was the Wikileaks Afghan War Logs showed up on my screen three weeks ago, I did what–apparently–no one else had yet done: read the whole thing. At the time, this seemed like Journalism 101. But by the time I finished [at the end of the week], I was more bored and overwhelmed than stimulated or enlightened. Because, as others had concluded by then, there really isn’t that much that’s earth-shattering in the logs. And I’ve been pondering what to say ever since .

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What McChrystal really said

By , 22 June, 2010, 3 Comments

For several weeks, I have been working on a piece about civil-military relations, but this morning’s news about Stan McChrystal essentially preempts the story I wanted to tell.

In case you’ve missed it, McChrystal agreed to a profile for Rolling Stone, a magazine whose non-arts coverage I usually find to be shrill and unscrupulous. But Michael Hastings, the reporter, did not need stridency to slam McChrystal–the general’s own words, those of his closest aides and advisors, and even of his soldiers, did that for him. In the piece, McChrystal and co. complain about the President’s lack of military knowledge coming into office, about the ‘interfering’ role played by the State Department’s Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, about the outdated thinking of ‘clown’ National Security Advisor Jim Jones, and about the ‘betrayal’ of the military by Amb. Karl Eikenberry and Vice-President Biden, both vocal opponents of McChrystal’s proposed surge in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the American rank-and-file in Afghanistan tell Hastings the surge isn’t working.
This afternoon, a furious Obama summoned McChrystal to Washington, and the punditocracy is abuzz over whether Obama will sack him.

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In Defense of Anglophilia

By , 15 May, 2010, 1 Comment

Regular readers of this blog, as well as followers of my Twitter and Reader feeds, will know that for many months, I have been obsessed by the British general election. Earlier this week, my friend and True/Slant blogger Ethan Epstein chastised American journalists for over-hyping this story at the expense of more significant elections, like the August ouster of the Liberal Democrats in Japan.


To be sure, in their domestic political contexts, the recent Japanese or (I might add) Chilean elections were milestones that deserved better treatment from the media. But from the perspective of U.S. media outlets concerned primarily with American foreign policy, the British election carries weight.

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Video: The Phantom Dog

By , 19 January, 2010, No Comment

I’m back on BloggingHeads today, this time talking up my work in Pakistan with Zeke Webster (alias: Don Zeko) of the blog Discord. We cover counterterrorism and counterinsurgency in general, US counterterrorism/counterinsurgency in South Asia, what Pakistan is really thinking, and the rights of South Asian women. Though they just posted this to BHTV, we filmed in mid-December, when I was in Karachi, and before the last wave of attacks in Pakistan and in the U.S. Some of this is outdated, but hopefully it still informs and entertains.

Comment here.

*Title Character is revealed at 10:28, 24:05 and most hilariously, at 42:00.

A Subcontinental Water-Fight

By , 18 December, 2009, No Comment

I’ve got a short item in this week’s Newsweek on control of Afghan water:
What alarms Pakistan most is the possibility that India will gain control over the water from two Afghan rivers that flow into the volatile Pakistan border regions, where water shortages could inflame local insurgencies. Indian investment in Afghanistan has doubled since 2006, to $1.2 billion, and up to 35 percent of that is going into canals for local irrigation, as well as hydroelectric dams that will supply power to Iran and Turkmenistan, India’s gateways to Central Asia and the Gulf.

Read and comment here and see the write-up on my project at the Columbia J-school website.

Why Af-Pak is really just Pak

By , 6 December, 2009, 1 Comment

The latest, cross-posted from my Pulitzer Center blog:

It’s been a big week here in Islamabad. First off, there have two more bomb attacks, one at the naval compound down the street from where I am staying and one out in Pindi, the next town over. Secondly, Barack Obama finally announced his plans for the war in Afghanistan: 30,000 more troops now; phased withdrawal started in 18 months. Thirdly, Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani completed a tour of Germany and Britain.

The three incidents shared space on the front pages of the Islamabad dailies and in the national mind. After all, while Americans heard the speech live on Tuesday night (7 am here), most Pakistanis watched it on replay later on Wednesday, and many Pakistanis did not begin responding to the policy until Thursday. Conventional wisdom did not form till the weekend, by which time the capital was also dealing with the bomb blasts and with the developing story in London, where, in a Thursday morning press conference, the PM pushed back against British intelligence reports that some 60% of global terrorist plots emerge from Pakistan.

To most people here, the West is a fair weather friend. While waging a war in Afghanistan that sends militants over the border into the Pakistani frontier, the West complains that Pakistan harbors too many terrorists. While insisting that Pakistan both aid that war effort and crackdown on its consequences, America announces that when Afghanistan—and just Afghanistan—is secure, it will pack up its bags and leave. This imbalance certainly anger those who have a knee jerk opposition to the United States or paranoia about American-Indian conspiracies. But the most passionate criticism of this policy has come from elite liberals who have supported and defended the Afghan war and feel, to put it simply, betrayed.

Continue reading “Pakistan: Why Af-Pak is really just Pak” »

All the News that’s Safe to Print

By , 24 June, 2009, 2 Comments

You may have missed it in the hubbub over the journos lost in Iran, but two journalists recently escaped from their kidnappers further east on the AfPak border. The New York Times triumphantly announced that it had covered up the kidnapping of David Rohde and his Afghan colleague for seven months in order to reduce their value to the kidnappers and increase likelihood of their release. Other media outfits quickly owned up to having cooperated in keeping the secret.

The bloggers were quick to jump on the Times with cries of hypocrisy—namely, the paper is supposed to report “all the news that’s fit to print,” meaning all verifiable information of material significance to public debate. Having authoritative, first-hand knowledge that a journalist from a major international title has been kidnapped in a war zone certainly qualifies. Moreover, the Times reports extensively on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or on our government’s homeland security policies–doesn’t that give information to the enemy in the same way the editors claim publishing the Rohde story would have?

It would be possible—and indeed reasonable—to construct a code of professional conduct that drew a line between the ethics of reporting on oneself and the ethics of reporting on the government, but the Times would have to come out and disclose such a code and it would have to be water-tight and consistent with industry norms and standards.

One option would be to define “oneself” as the media writ large: journalists are obligated to report on diplomats and soldiers in danger, but are allowed to protect those who go out to do that reporting. Under this code, all media outlets would be expected to participate in the information blackout, as they did in the Rohde case. But this wouldn’t get the Times off the hook for hypocrisy since they routinely report on lost journalists who work for their rivals. The Times could also get away with a code that allowed them keep secret ONLY their own staffers lost, but that would mean letting other papers do the same. Since the Times asked other papers to help protect ITS staffers, it would be guilty of hypocrisy by this measure of ethics too.

The Times’ hypocrisy, it seems to me, lies not in the way they cover national security but in the way they view their media confreres. David Shuster, are you reading this?

What To Do In Pakistan

By , 2 May, 2009, 1 Comment

As the war in Pakistan rages, there have been many pundits offering ways forward. Each of them gets us halfway to a solution, but in the end, none of them has an adequate plan. In this rather long post (advance apologies), I’ll try to cobble together the best of each school.


To begin with, let me summarize the situation. In Afghanistan, groups with Iranian/Persian roots make up almost 80% of the population, with the others each having 2% or 5% shares. The ethnic power balance is clear. It’s governed, ineptly, by an unpopular U.S. puppet and being challenged/revolted against by a more popular insurgency of tribal leaders, i.e. the erstwhile Taliban government. Over the years, many of those leaders have moved over the border into western Pakistan. In Pakistan, the ethnic situation is more complex, with all the major provinces corresponding, roughly, to a different ethnic group and language. In the area bordering Afghanistan, the majority of the population belongs to the same ethnic group–the Pashtuns–who dominate Afghanistan. Indeed, many in the 1940s thought that region should have been part of Afghanistan anyway. Instead, Pakistan negotiated for the territory but agreed to give the Pashtuns there some semi-autonomy, continuing the borders laid out by the Brits in the 1890s. So over the years, as the Taliban and other Pashtun refugees have come over the border, they have some semi-autonomy when it came to organizing and recruiting: the result is a copycat movement, the Pakistan-Taliban, affiliated but not officially tied to the guys we are fighting in Kabul.

For many years, Pakistan hands and Pakistani political elites assumed that the unofficial alliance meant that any radicals trained in this lawless border region had their eye on Kabul anyway. So long as their enemies were Russians or Americans in Afghanistan, Islamabad did not care. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s military/intelligence units were quite happy to have these radicals training in their backyard in the hope of turning some of them east to fight India. It never occurred to authorities, or they chose to block out the possibility, that the Pakistan-Taliban was also a class movement of the disenfranchised and downtrodden who would turn on social elites in Islamabad directly. Instead, they insisted that if the US had not bungled the first and second Afghan wars (which we did), there would be no Pakistan-Taliban, and that if the US withdrew, the Pakistan-Taliban would just go back to being harmless country bumpkins that Islamabad could ignore. What Pakistani elites have learned, the hard way, these last few years is that the Pakistan-Taliban have it out for them too, that this is not just America’s war but Pakistan’s war too. So long as vast class inequities and social injustices exist, not only in the tribal regions but across the country, the Pakistan-Taliban will be able to expand eastwards.

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