Mere Thousands of Troops Could Be Left in Afghanistan

Barack Obama Hamid Karzai
Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan walk at the White House in Washington DC, May 12, 2010 (White House/Pete Souza)

With Afghan election workers continuing to count the ballots of the country’s most important presidential election since 2001, the Obama Administration is once again reopening the debate about how many troops should remain in Afghanistan after the end of this year.

The debate has been ongoing since last year when Afghanistan’s outgoing president, Hamid Karzai, put his foot down and refused to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement — a document that would allow foreign forces to stay in Afghanistan after NATO’s war mandate expires in December 2014. But with Karzai now due to be replaced by either Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani, the administration is putting renewed energy into the question of what kind of force would best accomplish the post-2014 mission.

Both leading candidates in Afghanistan’s presidential election have signaled their support for the security agreement and both have acknowledged that Afghanistan’s own troops need continued support from America’s and NATO’s if they have any chance at keeping the country secure from the Taliban. The debate inside the White House and Pentagon right now is therefore not about whether American troops should stay but how many should be deployed. Read more “Mere Thousands of Troops Could Be Left in Afghanistan”

Abdullah, Ghani to Square Off in Second Afghan Vote

Nearly two weeks after more than seven million Afghans ventured to the polls to participate in the country’s presidential election, the Afghan Independent Election Commission released for the first time initial results of the contest. And, as was expected by Afghan officials and Western analysts monitoring the voting process, the presumed favorites garnered the biggest share of the vote.

Of the eight candidates, only two managed to score in the double digits. Abdullah Abdullah, President Hamid Karzai’s challenger in the 2009 presidential election, and Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and World Bank economist, are at the top of the field with 42 and 38 percent support, respectively. Zalmai Rassoul, the man thought to be favored by Karzai, came in third with nearly 10 percent.

According to Afghan electoral law, a candidate can only claim the presidency if he manages to draw at least 50 percent of the votes in the first round. Otherwise, the top two candidates have to square off in a second round. Read more “Abdullah, Ghani to Square Off in Second Afghan Vote”

Former Defense Chief Calls for Tougher Action Against Russia

Robert Gates
American defense secretary Robert Gates delivers a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington DC, June 24, 2010 (DoD)

It has been nearly a month since Russian president Vladimir Putin, in response to the overthrow of Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovich, ordered thousands of Russian soldiers into the Crimean. Seemingly caught off guard by Putin’s moves, which came despite American intelligence assessments that he would not enter into Ukraine by force, the Obama Administration has been forced to react to the situation largely on the fly.

Republican lawmakers in Washington DC have attempted to use the crisis in Ukraine to bolster their narrative of Barack Obama as a president who is unable to anticipate events or demonstrate strong leadership during times of crisis and unwilling to send a visible message to America’s adversaries that bad behavior will be met with stern consequences. The government, assisted by Democratic Party allies, has fought back against such accusations. And, despite poor approval ratings and concern in Democratic circles that Republicans could pick up more seats in the congressional elections this fall, President Obama has brushed aside criticisms as partisan and contrary to the facts.

But when a former cabinet official starts to question the president’s policy, the criticism seems less partisan and more substantive. Read more “Former Defense Chief Calls for Tougher Action Against Russia”

Obama Talks Middle East Peace Amid Crimea Crisis

American president Barack Obama welcomes his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, to the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, May 28, 2009
American president Barack Obama welcomes his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, to the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, May 28, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

Washington’s attention may be focused on events in the Crimea but the rest of the world is not standing still. Indeed, on the very day Russian officials moved to formally annex the peninsula from Ukraine, President Barack Obama delved into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On Monday, he hosted Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in Washington DC. As was the case when Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the White House earlier this month, Abbas was treated to a red carpet welcome and both leaders exchanged platitudes in front of reporters about the need for peace, the importance of the diplomatic process and why the conflict needs to end after festering for so many years. As President Abbas said, “We don’t have any time to waste. Time is not on our side.”

As usual, President Obama was cautiously upbeat about the situation, despite the fact that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators remain far apart on the very issues that have ruined previous talks: settlements, borders, security arrangements and the status of Jerusalem.

“This is obviously an elusive goal and there’s a reason why it’s taken decades for us to even get to the point where we are now,” the president said. “But we remain convinced that there is an opportunity.” He added, “I believe that now is the time for not just the leaders of both sides but also the peoples of both sides to embrace this opportunity for peace.”

The question now, as it has always been, is whether Israel and the Palestinian Authority feel the same sense of urgency.

Judging from Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts in recent months, it does not appear that either side is willing or able to come to the difficult political decisions that the Americans say are needed for diplomacy to succeed. Where Kerry was once optimistic about concluding a final peace agreement by April of next year, he has dialed those expectations down, pushing instead for a framework agreement that would stretch out the process further into the year. Despite the fact that the parameters of a peace agreement have been well known since the Clinton Parameters of 2000, Abbas and Netanyahu are constrained by multiple factors — some of which, like the holdout of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, are outside of their control.

Over the long-term, Obama’s discussions with Abbas are unlikely to produce more than his talks with Netanyahu; that is, without any progress on moving the process forward. At best, the administration, with Secretary Kerry in the lead, will keep Israeli-Palestinian talks going for the remainder of the year and hope that a framework will find enough common ground for Abbas and Netanyahu to latch onto.

The dispute is difficult and challenging, as Obama and Kerry have constantly said. But if there is one positive, it is that the Israelis and Palestinians continue to negotiate, if for the simple reason that neither side wants to be blamed for spoiling an effort that John Kerry has invested so much of his own credibility in.

Congress, Pentagon Tussle Over Defense Spending Priorities

General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, answers questions from congressmen during a hearing in Washington DC, March 6
General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, answers questions from congressmen during a hearing in Washington DC, March 6 (DoD/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

Defense secretary Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey, America’s military chief, faced skeptical lawmakers last week after they had unveiled their department’s spending plans for the next year. Yet those same lawmakers are responsible for the budget austerity that has forced the Defense Department to make the very cuts they were critical of.

Under the Budget Control Act Congress passed three years ago, the Pentagon is allowed to spend about $496 billion in its annual defense budget — a measure that many defense experts believe puts an unnecessary and potentially dangerous cap on how the department can operate.

Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, certainly agrees with that argument, making clear in a press briefing that artificial spending caps force the department to cut back on weapons platforms and personnel that would ordinarily remain untouched or even be expanded. “The smaller and less capable military,” he argued, “makes [our] obligations more difficult.” He added, “Most of our platforms and equipment will be older and our advantage in key domains will be eroded.”

Yet the Pentagon, by law, will have to cut spending. Secretary Hagel, who was appointed by President Barack Obama one year ago, has been trying to save money by eliminating loopholes and unnecessary costs, hoping that those savings can be reinvested in other areas of the military budget. Members of Congress, however, are not all sympathetic to the choices he had made.

As was demonstrated throughout hearings last week, virtually every congressman and senator has something to complain about. The ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, used the hearing as an opportunity to take another swipe at the Obama Administration’s defense priorities. President Obama’s gutting of the military, he claimed, is seen by adversaries like Russia’s president Vladimir Putin as a sign that America is no longer interested in maintaining unparalleled global influence.

“Throughout this administration,” said Inhofe, “I have also warned that if the United States does not maintain a ready and capable military, we would surrender our global influence and leave a vacuum that will be filled by Russia. I warned this day was coming and it is here.”

Inhofe was referring to Russia’s invasion of the Crimea last month, a peninsula that belongs to its former satellite state Ukraine but is populated mainly by ethnic Russians.

Buck McKeon, a Republican from California who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, had an equally strong rebuke to the defense cuts, calling them dangerous to America’s position in the world and a force multiplier for the likes of China and Russia, both of which are raising their military spending instead. “We must resist the president’s compulsion to continually trade national security for financial responsibility while getting neither,” he argued. “Peace through strength is more than a slogan.”

Dempsey and Hagel find themselves in the unenviable position of making tough compromises to the military’s force structure by virtue of congressional restrictions, only to be criticized for which platforms, branches and aircraft they chose to retire or decommission.

Over the coming weeks, that criticism will likely persist and grow stronger as other congressional committees get involved in negotiations and defense hawks in Congress continue to bash the Pentagon’s leadership for cutting the size of the Army, Marine Corps and National Guard.

But from the view of the White House and Pentagon, the best way Congress can solve the problem is by reforming or repealing the budget caps it itself put in place — before thousands more soldiers are phased out of the service.

Military Cuts Meet Resistance from Lawmakers

American defense secretary Chuck Hagel testifies before the House Committee on Armed Services in Washington DC, April 11, 2013
American defense secretary Chuck Hagel testifies before the House Committee on Armed Services in Washington DC, April 11, 2013 (DoD/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

Lawmakers and interest groups criticized the spending cuts defense secretary Chuck Hagel announced on Monday as part of a budget to put the United States military off its war footing.

“This is a time for reality,” Hagel told a room stacked with reporters at the Pentagon. “This is a budget that recognizes the reality of the magnitude of our fiscal challenges, the dangerous world we live in and the American military’s unique and indispensable role in the security of this country and in today’s volatile world.”

Unfortunately for Hagel, the decision to unveil his department’s budget a week before it is officially presented to Congress has given groups and individuals opposed to it the time they need to collect their resources and fight the cuts in weapons programs and personnel that they see as harmful to America’s national security. Read more “Military Cuts Meet Resistance from Lawmakers”

Report Warns Afghanistan Security Force Must Not Shrink

Over the past several months, discussions over the war in Afghanistan have tended to center on whether President Hamid Karzai will sign the Bilateral Security Agreement that he agreed to last fall. And, if the treaty is signed, what the American and NATO force presence in the country will be after 2014 to shore up the Afghan army and police through continued training and advising.

What has often been lost in the commentary is a discussion about how large the Afghan National Security Forces should be once counterterrorism and counterinsurgency duties are transferred completely to them. The assumption that the United States and their allies have relied upon is that the Taliban insurgency will be significantly degraded to a point that is manageable for the Afghan army and national police to fight off.

Earlier this year, a panel of former military commanders and defense experts refuted that assumption. Read more “Report Warns Afghanistan Security Force Must Not Shrink”

Syrian Factions Fight Proxy War in Neighboring Lebanon

If one needed any evidence that the violence engulfing Syria was seriously affecting its neighbors, Wednesday’s double suicide attack in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, would be enough to support the theory.

The small country meshed between Israel, Syria and the Mediterranean has seen its fair share of turbulence over the past several decades, including a civil war among Lebanon’s multiple religious communities that lasted for fifteen years. Yet as bad as that violence was, Lebanese from all religious denominations are increasingly concerned that their country is once again on the cusp of another bloody conflict — this time emanating from the war next door.

In addition to the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled their homeland for Lebanon’s border towns, the violence that is tearing Syria apart is having a more deadly affect for thousands of Lebanese. The war is slowly seeping into Lebanon’s own neighborhoods. Read more “Syrian Factions Fight Proxy War in Neighboring Lebanon”

Prisoner Exchanges Hoped to Revive Taliban Talks

Is the United States trying to rescue a struggling peace process in Afghanistan? The answer, according to The Daily Beast‘s Josh Rogan, is yes. And just as previous attempts to reach out to senior Taliban officials began with a discussion over prisoner exchanges, Obama Administration officials are hoping that this issue will build the confidence that is sorely needed to open up a comprehensive dialogue between the Afghan government and the insurgents.

Rogan reports that talks between the Taliban and the United States about exchanging prisoners would be linked to a broader effort “to lay the groundwork for a potential reconciliation between the Afghan government led by Hamid Karzai and the Taliban.”

As part of the outreach effort, American officials have repeatedly asked the Pakistani government to release a captured Taliban leader. Meanwhile, semi-official talks are ongoing in Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban maintains an office that officially never opened.

Those who have been following the war in Afghanistan can be forgiven for assuming that peace negotiations are a lost cause. Over the previous three years, Afghan and American officials have launched two separate peace tracks with Taliban representatives, both of which collapsed after only a few sessions. Read more “Prisoner Exchanges Hoped to Revive Taliban Talks”

Report Accuses Assad of Detaining, Torturing Children

In times of crisis or violence, children are often the most vulnerable members of society — psychologically scarred by the acts of brutality that occur around them, susceptible to manipulation and in many instances forced to fend for themselves if their families are displaced by fighting.

In Syria, children are put in even greater jeopardy by the deliberate actions of their government — acts that include widespread arrests, detention under horrendous conditions and outright torture for their confessions.

These are some of the grave and disturbing findings published last week by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and his team of field researchers. The report was delivered and briefed to members of the Security Council in the hope that the chamber would at least be able to come together and issue a clear statement of condemnation against the crimes that have been perpetrated. Read more “Report Accuses Assad of Detaining, Torturing Children”