Why NATO Commanders Are Suddenly Giddy

Despite an uptick in ambushes and attacks by Taliban insurgents last month, American military officials are reporting that the war effort may finally be moving in the right direction. All of the additional troops pledged last December are now in place, the deadly Haqqani network is losing fighters every single day, and Taliban representatives are exploring negotiation with Hamid Karzai’s government. The military cites the killing of 3,000 insurgent fighters in Afghanistan over the past few months. American civilian officials are boasting about the implementation of new reconstruction projects and the building of new schools. And NATO training teams are increasingly confident that the Afghan Army is growing in both manpower and capability.

Not to sound skeptical, but the celebratory statements coming out of NATO headquarters are still a bit premature. As US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry states, “there are areas with significant instability.” Insurgents continue to cross the Afghan-Pakistani border with virtual impunity, which is making the lives of coalition forces in eastern Afghanistan more difficult. Taliban commanders are being killed and captured at a record rate, but the lack of troops in the north and northeast of the country provide other Taliban factions with an opportunity to expand in areas that were quiet before.

But perhaps the greatest setback to NATO’s positivity is the lack of trust between coalition forces and the Karzai government. Afghan military units see little cause for celebration, particularly when Pakistan is still the big elephant in the room that remains unaddressed. Indeed, insurgents are still relatively secure in Pakistan’s tribal agencies. The lull in offensive operations by the Pakistani military (or at least well publicized operations) provides the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network the time they need to regenerate their ranks after some are lost. With all of these loopholes still present, rounding up insurgents inside Afghanistan should be seen more as a tactical success instead of a turning point.

Embedded deep within the rhetoric is another point worth considering. Both the United States and NATO are consistently disclosing how many insurgents have been killed, as if killing the enemy is evidence that the Taliban are losing popular support in the war. Yet the conflict in Afghanistan is anything but a war in the conventional sense. Killing the adversary is meaningless if the instigators of insurgency are still left to fester — corruption, a sense of helplessness, economic disparity, etc. If this were World War II style combat, then bragging about succeeding on the battlefield would be appropriate. But the fighting in Afghanistan is much more dynamic than simply putting a bullet in between the Taliban’s eyes. The insurgency has no official army, no uniforms, no conventional weaponry, and doesn’t follow the laws governing international conflict. What is more, it will probably not surrender after a final battle.

In this context, the kill/capture ratio is but a sideshow to the operations that will really “win” this war — regular employment, a more or less clean government in the capital, an indigenous security service that is professional, and a power-sharing agreement that will represent all of Afghanistan’s ethnic communities. These are the metrics that the United States and NATO should be talking about.

Jones Out, Donilon In

Former Marine Corps General James Jones stepped down as President Barack Obama’s national security advisor last week. The resignation of such a top official would normally be treated as big news in Washington, particularly when that official is responsible for US security around the world. But Jones’ departure comes as an exception to the rule. Many inside the Beltway expected him to quit over the past few months. Indeed, this view was parallel to Bob Woodward’s portrayal of Jones in his new book Obama’s Wars as a depressed character who never managed to garner the respect he deserved from other members of the administration.

Jones reportedly didn’t have a close working relationship with the president, which is a “must have” in his position. Some of the decisions that were implemented by the president were taken without his advice. General Jones failed to be the president’s eyes and ears on national security. He never truly confronted the military when the situation called for it. Nor did he stick up for the White House during the Afghanistan strategy review last fall.

With Jones out, Obama has tapped Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon as his replacement. While I personally have no recollection of Donilon as a player, he is apparently well versed and highly regarded by everyone who has worked with him over the years.

Before serving as Deputy NSA, Donilon was the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs during the Clinton Administration, where he was in charge of — you guessed it — improving the State Department’s image. Donilon also served as a top member of Obama’s campaign team, so he knows how the current president operates in crisis mode.

But the qualities that Donilon exhibits are perhaps much more important than the jobs he has held in the past. From all accounts, he is a workhorse in all things policy and he never takes a day to slack off. Steve Clemons calls him an expert at a “speedy, inclusive, decisionmaking process.” Bob Woodward praises Donilon as someone who runs “100 mph” compared to Jones’ 35. And sources within the administration have confirmed that Donilon has essentially been running the national-security shop for months, organizing meetings, questioning deputies, and making sure the president is fully informed on all the policy options that are available.

It will be interesting to see whether Donilon’s appointment will affect the campaign in Afghanistan, for he is skeptical about American success in that part of the world. Jones had skepticism about the war as well, but he was consistently undermined by the military brass, all of whom were unified in their request for more troops. Donilon is no pushover, and he has already sparred with the military over troop levels.

The White House has been shaken up for the time being. Expect more departures in the coming months if the Democrats do poorly in the midterm elections.

Do American Military Bases Foster Terrorism?

To date, the United States have approximately seven hundred military bases across the globe, with hundreds of American service members stationed at each location. Okinawa, Japan, consists of 39 American military facilities alone. Thousands of American soldiers remain stationed on the Saudi Peninsula for deterrence purposes. Fewer than 30,000 are currently in South Korea and an additional 60,000 call Germany home. These numbers don’t even include the bases in Afghanistan and Iraq; the covert facilities in Pakistan, nor the aircraft carriers that skim across the waters of the Persian Gulf on a daily basis.

Ask any strategic planner involved in American military deployments, and I suspect that most would argue that these bases, even the smaller ones, are extremely useful for maintaining American hegemony in crucial parts of the globe. Exerting military pressure serves American interests, they may say, and bases are a surefire way of living up to American treaty commitments.

The states which host American bases are largely happy with the arrangement as well. Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates in particular view a American presence as a cheap way to deter regional rivals from engaging in any funny business. To be sure, the Iranians would think twice before launching a strike against a country defended by American soldiers who are ready to respond tenfold.

American military facilities on foreign soil seems like a win-win scenario. In exchange for protection, Washington is allowed a certain amount of discretion in pursuing objectives that boost the interests of the United States more broadly. But this arrangement, according to Robert Pape — the pioneer in the study of suicide terrorism — is slowly starting to expire. People are getting fed up by the large presence of American soldiers in their homeland. South Koreans and Okinawans are complaining about occupation. Violent protests have erupted in the Middle East and South Asia, with military bases the primary targets. And last but certainly not least, Osama bin Laden continues to cite the US “crusade” of Saudi Arabia as a cause for his operations against American civilians.

Is it time for policymakers in Washington to rethink the value of American bases, particularly in Asia where most of the world’s troubles are concentrated? Pape certainly thinks so. In fact, he believes, not without reason, that the proliferation of suicide terrorism globally is a response to a feeling of helplessness and foreign occupation by the United States. Of course, whether this rationale justifies terrorist attacks is entirely debatable. But common sense logic means little when the people perpetuating these types of attacks firmly believe in the claim.

Removing American military facilities from peaceful areas such as Europe and Japan would remove the underlying logic of suicide terrorism. Indeed, shutting down bases would save the United States an enormous amount of money, for the cost of maintenance is quite large. More American soldiers would be able to travel home and spend much needed time with their loved ones, while US support in states as Japan may increase. But at the same time, American global power — at least explicit military power — would decrease in regions deemed vital for American national security. And with the Pentagon worried about Chinese predominance in the Pacific, closing bases in Japan doesn’t appear to be a worthwhile option. It may even be counterproductive.

There are two sides to every story. One side will inevitably lose the debate. But it’s a debate that we should have, particularly when Defense Secretary Robert Gates is searching for ways to save money and cut wasteful spending.

Congressional Apathy Toward Iraq

As our military draws down, our dedicated civilians … are heading into the lead to support Iraq as it strengthens its government, resolves political disputes, resettles those displaced by war, and builds ties with the region and the world.

That quotation is from none other than President Barack Obama himself, as he spoke directly to the American people on national television about the formal end of the American combat mission in Iraq. Most of that speech was dedicated to the achievements that Iraq has made as a country over the past four years: credible elections, diminished sectarian violence, a weakening of Al Qaeda, and the growing excitement among Iraqis about finally taking absolute control over their internal affairs. But a substantial piece of the speech was also what strategists would call Washington’s “blueprint” for Iraq over the next three to five years. And not surprisingly, much of this blueprint will go directly to the State Department’s portfolio.

So why after all of the bombast associated with the official termination of America’s combat role — and after millions of people tuned into Obama’s nationwide address — is the United States Congress considering cuts in the State Department’s Iraq budget? Is it political necessity, considering the weak recovery at home, or is there another reason? Are the United States simply trying to forget that the “misadventure” in Iraq ever happened?

For the sake of the American troops that have fought and perhaps died in the war, we should hope that the latter assumption is just that — an assumption. But judging from the direction that Congress is taking, Iraq doesn’t seem to be that much of a concern compared to other issues on the government’s agenda anymore.

To be fair, Congress has yet to cut spending on civilian operations in Iraq, at least in an official capacity. The Senate has only suggested that American contributions may be lowered, and that the Iraqis should take on more responsibility for the costs of postwar programs. Nothing has been acted upon as far as concrete legislation. But at the same time, the Senate Armed Services Committee — at least from Chairman Carl Levin’s perspective — has already decreased the Pentagon’s request for an additional $2 billion for Iraqi training. Not a good sign.

There is a growing disillusionment among some senior government officials now that the war in Iraq is over and done with. Apathy is starting to brew over Iraq’s future. “Let the Iraqis take care of it. It’s their country. Americans are tired of footing the bill.” These criticisms are understandable. Yet criticisms aside, simply walking away by refusing to build upon the military’s successes would be detrimental to Iraqi development. It would also be a slap in the face to those who invested so much in the mission.

Drones are America’s Default Option

For the past six years, counterterrorism officials have considered Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) as a top priority in the fight against Islamic extremism. For the United States specifically, FATA has frequently been cited as the main hub of Taliban and Al Qaeda activity. Indeed, there appears to be a stack of evidence on their behalf; most of the attacks against coalition troops in eastern Afghanistan have originated across the border in Pakistan. The fact that western Muslims are traveling to Pakistan in droves to join the jihad draws another dimension to the FATA problem.

The hard part for American and NATO officials has always been how to diminish the threat of terrorism in the FATA badlands. What techniques should be used? Relying on the Pakistani military to clear the area of militants has been an option, but recent operations by Islamabad have only worked in specific circumstances. Pakistani officials have repeatedly argued that the Swat Valley and South Waziristan have been totally cleared of belligerents, yet bombings against Pakistani policemen continue unabated. And North Waziristan, an agency that houses numerous Al Qaeda factions, has been virtually untouched by the Pakistanis.

The introduction of American troops into Pakistan would at first appear to be another effective strategy. But Islamabad is not willing to permit American boots on Pakistani soil.

Therein lies the importance of American-operated drone strikes in the battle against extremism in Pakistan. Since the program was initiated in 2004, the stealthy unnamed planes have killed hundreds of low level militants and perhaps dozens of senior terrorist commanders. Countless plots have been disrupted or scrapped due to the relentless pressure of the drones on terrorist hideouts, particularly in North Waziristan. Al Qaeda has been forced to replace its third most powerful leader multiple times over the past two years alone, and all of this has been made possible without a single American casualty.

Yet despite all of the benefits associated with drone strikes, civil liberty activists and an increasing amount of think-tank researchers have questioned the sustainability of the program. Many of these individuals are particularly disturbed that the UAV attacks are allegedly operated by the CIA, which obscures the transparency and accountability which international law requires of all United Nations member states. Indeed, the criteria that is used to place a terrorist operative on the “kill list” is hidden from the public domain.

Philip Alston, the UN official in charge of extrajudicial killings, is especially worried about these implications. In June, Alston submitted a scathing critique (PDF) of the drone program to the organization’s Human Rights Council, claiming that Washington is essentially executing drone operations on an “ill-defined license to kill.”

Just this past Friday, Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations expanded upon this critique by offering a strategic rationale to the anti-UAV position. In addition to the innocent human lives that are often lost as a result of drone operations, Zenko argues that the entire program reinforces a “quick fix” mindset among officials responsible for counterterrorism policy:

Under pressure to act in response to a threat and seduced by the allure and responsiveness of limited force, presidents elevate military options above other instruments of statecraft. Once the bombs have been dropped…and the politically necessary “do something” box has been ticked, complex, robust secondary measures rarely come to fruition.

But what is the alternative? A fully resourced and expensive nonmilitary campaign? The rebuilding of infrastructure that would cost the American taxpayer billions of dollars? Economic development and institutional formation? Actually, this is precisely what Zenko recommends. Unfortunately, Americans’ and Europeans’ patience is running thin. Nobody wants to embark upon another nation building exercise, particularly when infrastructure is crumbling at home and military resources are tied down in neighboring Afghanistan. A Western counterinsurgency campaign in Pakistan is unfeasible.

Given the lack of options that are both politically plausible and financially acceptable, targeting terrorist hideouts in Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal areas will likely remain the default choice. The Obama Administration certainly believes that covert attacks are worth continuing: last September saw the highest amount of drone strikes in western Pakistan since the program began.

All of this, of course, assumes that terrorist networks based in Pakistan don’t successfully launch a major attack on American and European targets in the near future. If such an incident does occur, expect the United States to quickly forget about the limitations of Pakistani sovereignty.

Inside Hamas’ Negotiating Strategy

While the Americans negotiators try to fend off a complete collapse of the one month old Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, other players in the conflict are hedging their bets and trying to predict what will happen next.

As of now, Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank has resumed, prompting colonists and far-right members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition to celebrate with open arms. Settler organizations are launching the resumption of building with a symbolic victory parade, releasing 2,000 balloons into the air to represent the 2,000 new apartment blocks that will be erected in the foreseeable future.

And all the while, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas is shamefully figuring out what to do next. He will go before the Arab League on Sunday to try to gain political cover for continuing the negotiations.

But there is another important Palestinian faction hedging its bets and preparing for its next move, despite the fact that the group is technically not a part of the negotiations. Hamas, which remains isolated from the peace talks despite its control of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, is in fact embracing an “all hands on deck” strategy.

A few weeks ago, I suggested that the killing of four Israeli settlers in the West Bank town of Hebron was a way for Hamas to remind the United States that it was a party to the conflict. Indeed, I stand by that judgment, however controversial it may be. But it also appears that the Hamas leadership is more than willing to play the nationalist card; Khaled Mashal, Hamas’ political leader, declared that it was high time for all Palestinian groups to come together.

Quoting the DPA story:

Mashal argued that internal reconciliation would make the Palestinians more powerful in negotiations, calling it a national necessity and the best way to react to the “Zionist intransigence.”

At first, Mashal’s comments seem to warrant a positive response. Abbas’ Fatah movement and the Islamist Hamas have been at each other’s throats for the past four years. The humiliating electoral defeat at the hands of Hamas still leaves a bad taste in the mouths of Fatah officials and the internal conflict between the two groups only worsened after Abbas’ forces were routed from the Gaza Strip.

In addition to the human calamity of Palestinian infighting, the lack of a unified movement leaves Palestinian negotiators in a very weak position vis-à-vis Israel. On one side of the table sits a strong prime minister, supported by the whole of the Israeli cabinet. On the other side, a weakened president who only governs around 65 percent of the Palestinian people. The odds aren’t good for any negotiator faced with a situation of such magnitude.

It is because of this unbalanced negotiating environment that American and Western negotiators have devised a new strategy. Rather than continue with the same old divide-and-conquer approach, the United States may find it necessary to get off its “high horse” by extending an “unclenched fist” toward the Hamas delegation.

Such a proposition is extremely hard to swallow for pro-Israel lobbyists and Washington insiders who have continued to evaluate Hamas exclusively through the prism of terrorism. Indeed, Hamas has perpetuated horrific crimes against innocent Israelis over the years and continues to do so. But refusing to draw Hamas into the peace process — or worse, discouraging Palestinian reconciliation — will prove to be far more detrimental to Israel, Palestine and the United States in the long run than any rocket attack.

No solution to the Middle East dispute will be sustainable unless all Palestinians are represented, Hamas included. Glancing at Daniel Byman’s latest essay in Foreign Affairs could perhaps serve as a working blueprint.

The Roller Coaster Decade

When historians begin to look back at the first pivotal decade of the twenty-first century, what will they see? What types of words will they use to describe the 2000-2010 years, and how will those words hold up to other decades in terms of prosperity, popular culture, and innovation?

These questions seem out of the blue, given our ever changing environment. But these queries need to be answered, or at least pondered to some degree. Every single decade of the twentieth century has been labeled to some degree or another, usually with unique events in mind.  The 1920s came to known as the “Roaring Twenties,” the 1930s saw the “Great Depression,” and the 1980s were considered to be the time of “the me generation” (whatever that means). Of course, the 1960s and 70s were both regarded as decades of immense cultural ferment in the United States, as social and political issues previously hidden or suppressed demanded their rightful place on the public agenda.

The verdict for the 2000-2010 period is still up in the air, and not without good reason; it takes generations before scholars can accurately analyze a time period in its full dimension. After all, it has only been seven months since the decade came to a close. But it’s interesting to start speculating, both because we have all experienced the tumult of those years and because the world changed drastically in a number of areas.

On its merits, the first decade of this century doesn’t appear to have been a particularly happy time for mankind. In the United States, it started with a terrible financial scandal at a huge corporation (Enron), where thousands of employees lost their hard earned livelihoods as a consequence of corrupt business executives. Of course, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 killed some 3,000 innocent civilians and gave birth a dark cloud that continues to hover over us up to this day. Hurricane Katrina, the Asian tsunami, the Haitian earthquake, and the SARS outbreak in China all demonstrated that humans are still unable to control everything, despite their technology and brainpower. Fighting erupted around the globe, from Afghanistan to Iraq, and from the Sudan to the Caucasus.

Despite all of these disasters and catastrophes, there were also tremendous achievements throughout the last ten years. According to Charles Kenny of the New America Foundation, literacy rates across the world rose to 80 percent of the human population. In Africa, the most destitute continent, two-thirds of people can now read and write, perhaps paving the way for a new era in African development. People are being paid more, with an average global annual income of over $10,000. Agricultural yields have increased in the developing world, and the low price of grains over the last decade enabled more families to afford food and provide for their children. The number of children that have died from measles (a preventable disease) has dropped by 60 percent due to the widening availability of immunizations. And child mortality has declined by 17 percent, which could potentially help poor countries beef up their economic productivity.

From where we stand now, the last ten years seem like a mixed bag. Terrorism and violence crept into areas that were previously quiet, but intelligence services have responded with improvement. The global economy is still struggling to get out of the hole, but families are bringing more money into the household. In other words, the decade has witnessed a lot of balance, with pros butting heads against cons and solutions creating even more problems. One year, you’re at the top of the game, and the next, you’re at the bottom of the pile.

How about “the roller coaster decade?”

Bob Woodward’s Bombshell

Robert Woodward may be one of the most astounding journalists that the United States has to offer. The man uncovered the biggest instance of presidential corruption in American history (the Watergate scandal), has authored numerous articles that have stoked debate in the public discourse, and has written books galore about the hot political topics of the day. His latest three books about the war in Iraq were particularly satisfying to the gossip hungry reader (In a span of three volumes, Woodward digs into the lower bowels of the Bush Administration in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. He engages in a great deal of political psychology, using President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell as his case studies.)

His most recent project however has generated far more buzz. Obama’s Wars, a detailed account of President Barack Obama’s numerous battles both inside Afghanistan and inside his own administration, is due to be released next week. And while the piece is narrative in tone and easy for the average reader to follow (which is typical of Woodward), this account is anything but unsubstantiated. According to The Washington Post, Woodward bases all of his assertions on thousands of documents, interviews with key White House officials, internal conversations, as well as notes from confidential staff meetings that took place in the Oval Office. In other words, the book is both sourced to the brink and interesting to read.

Similar to Woodward’s series about President Bush, this project is likely to hit Obama’s staff hard. Some of the revelations that are uncovered are none too flattering, and the work paints the Obama Administration as a bunch of egotistical personalities who cannot stand one another’s company. Take a look at these juicy pieces, courtesy of Blake Hounshell of Foreign Policy.

1) The administration’s civilian point man in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, doesn’t think the current strategy makes much sense. Vice President Joe Biden evidently hates Holbrooke’s guts. According to Biden, Holbrooke is “the most egotistical bastard [he’s] ever met.” Not much of an endorsement by any stretch of the imagination.

2) Throughout the administration’s three month-long Afghan strategy review, the president was deeply annoyed with his military commanders for recommending an increase in the ; a proposal that ran contrary to his own personal beliefs about the war.

3) Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a manic depressive who is sporadic in taking his medication. It will be interesting to see whether this description ends up damaging the American counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan. It may not, but a revelation of this kind won’t help bring Karzai closer into the American orbit — an essential ingredient for a successful counterinsurgency approach.

4) President Obama tells Woodward that the United States will be able to “absorb a terrorist attack.” From a political standpoint, this is a remarkably stupid thing to say to a reporter. But from a strategic standpoint, the president is probably right. The threat of terrorism has been ingrained in the minds of Americans for close to a decade, so another hit on American soil will be less shocking than the 9/11 attacks were.

5) General David Petraeus, the man now running American and NATO operations in Afghanistan, wants the White House to stay out of his way so he can run the war free of distraction.

6) The CIA is bankrolling and training an elite Afghan paramilitary force with the purpose of capturing or killing senior Taliban and Al Qaeda members. There are around 3,000 members in this top secret team, and the intelligence agency has given them discretion to pursue militants into Pakistan if necessary. This, however, is not really an ulcer in the belly of Obama when comparing it to the rest of the list. The CIA is tasked to gather intelligence and protect American interests around the world. While human rights lawyers won’t like it, killing or arresting terrorists is an integral part of that job description.

These are just a few of the bullets in Woodward’s book but readers will undoubtedly find more when they preorder it online. And in addition to being an entertaining read, the book may also strengthen the historical record and perhaps contribute to the Obama legacy. Much like life, politics is a frustrating game where arguments of policy can quickly turn personal.

(I commend Obama’s advisors for not going into a self-defense mode. Rahm Emanuel in particular has played it smart so far. “Despite difficult circumstances, the president brings a consistently tough, determined and clear eyed strategic focus to these crises,” he said.)

Saudi Arabia Bulking Up

What do you do when a developing power insists on continuing its nuclear weapons program  Well, you could impose “crippling” sanctions as a penalty and hope that your enemy capitulates to the pressure (as President Barack Obama is doing now). Or if you were a neoconservative, you could use (or threaten) military action and hope that those operations don’t result in a full-scale armed conflict. Either way, both choices are based on a word that isn’t exactly dependable in international relations — hope.

But there is a third option. Sensing that a military strike is too dangerous and economic sanctions are too ineffective, a world power (like the United States) could pump arms into the region in order to boost the deterrence capabilities of its key allies. For instance, the United States could sell advanced military hardware to Israel, Saudi Arabia or Jordan before Iran decides to turn the screws on full weapons development. This is good old-fashioned deterrence at its finest, and the concept has worked remarkably well for the United States throughout the twentieth century.

Absent evidence to the contrary, all indications seem to conclude that deterrence will continue to work well. At least that’s Washington’s perspective.

So the United States are selling some $60 billion in weaponry to Saudi Arabia in order to further isolate Iran from the Middle East. Granted, the sale still has to be approved by Congress, which is undoubtedly concerned that this transaction may weaken Israel’s own deterrence capability in the region. But if the package is signed off, it would include the sale of 84 new F-15 fighter planes, 70 Apache attack helicopters, 72 Black Hawk helicopters, and 36 Little Bird (troop carrying) helicopters. If that doesn’t put a little scare in Iran’s strategic calculation, then perhaps Tehran’s leadership is more ideological than I previously assumed.

If conventional wisdom were any guide, the proposed American-Saudi arms agreement would sound like a big deal. The New York Times overhypes the story by writing that the package could “shift the region’s balance of power over the course of a decade.” But when we take history into account, this sale is anything but new. The United States pursued a similar policy in the late 1980s and 1990s, when Saudi Arabia purchased American planes and the United Arab Emirates bought American manufactured weapons systems in bulk (they continue to do so, by the way). Of course, the rationale back then was to box Saddam Hussein’s Iraq into a corner. The only thing that has changed over the past twenty years is the antagonist.

We now wait and see if Congress approves the plan. Some are rightly concerned that placing more weapons into an already volatile region could push Iran to either manufacture its own weapons as a response or buy them through the black market. Others are probably worried that the scheme will simply not work. Tehran may go ahead, as planned.

But absent other options, providing moderate Middle Eastern regimes with an improved defense capability is perhaps the most logical. At least it won’t start a war.

World Watches As Afghanistan Votes

After weeks of intense door-to-door campaigning, and after months of preparation, Afghan politicians hoping to enter into parliament are ready for the electoral competition. The question is whether Afghan themselves are ready to stand in line to cast their ballots.

Electoral democracy in Afghanistan has always been a hard sell, even after Mullah Omar and Company were driven from power nine years ago. Yet the underpinnings of democracy itself have actually been present throughout the country’s history. Historically, Afghans would express their daily grievances to tribal leaders, who would then convene a small jirga (or conference) to address the problem and find a solution. That practice still goes on in villages across Afghanistan to this day. But risking one’s life just to vote for an official who will probably turn corrupt is a whole different story. And unfortunately, after last year’s fraud ridden presidential election, when close to one third of the votes were disqualified, electoral democracy only weakened as a concept.

There is some bright news, however. This year, 2,500 candidates are squaring off against one another for just 249 seats in the lower house of parliament. That, in and of itself, is a great indication of electoral democracy. The fact that some Afghans would rather use the political system is a pretty good sign of how far Afghanistan has come from Taliban rule just a decade ago. In fact, there are reports of semi-independent Taliban commanders participating in the process as well.

But all the candidates in the world won’t do any good if the Afghan people haven’t any faith in these elections. With the Taliban threatening voters and candidates alike, and with intimidation dominating the environment, millions of Afghans may choose to stay away for their own safety. Others, however, will undoubtedly march to the polls and weather the storm.

All in all, the United States and its NATO coalition partners would be wise not to expect too much from today’s election. Ballot stuffing will occur in certain provinces; casted votes will be “lost” in transition to headquarters; violence will target Afghan civilians and election workers; volunteers will be kidnapped; and warlords will probably defeat legitimate candidates who truly want to make a difference. In other words, a lot of things will go wrong, even in the best of circumstances. But the election will have gone forward, and democracy will have played out despite a volatile climate.

If all expectations are met, the United States may be able to use the momentum that the elections provide to the advantage of future coalition operations. But if the contest is less than desirable; if Afghans refuse to vote or if hundreds lose their lives, then it will be yet another dagger in the heart of Washington’s Afghan project.