Ditch Nation Building and Go After Al Qaeda

You don’t need to be genius to recognize that the war in Afghanistan is going much worse than people would have predicted a year ago. At a time of immense economic trouble at home, more and more Americans are wondering whether the fight was even worth it in the first place. A remarkable question as we pass the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

Afghans themselves aren’t particularly pleased with foreign troops on their soil either. A recent poll study shows that 68 percent of Afghans in Helmand and Kandahar provinces don’t think NATO is protecting the population. 70 percent in the Taliban heartland blame American and NATO armed forces for making the lives of Afghans worse. An astounding 99 percent in Marjah are equally convinced that the foreign military presence is contributing to instability. Those aren’t good numbers when the whole essence of NATO strategy is to gradually wean Afghans away from the Taliban.

But if you don’t need to be a genius to figure this, you don’t necessarily need to be smart to recommend a change in US strategy either. Just ask any of the pundits on television and they will tell you that America is heading for failure in Afghanistan. But ask them what exactly the White House should do to change course, they get a little starry eyed and resort to the same “Obama doesn’t get it” argument.

So it’s refreshing to see that some people are actually working hard to conduct an alternative strategy. A report (PDF) from the Afghanistan Study Group is a worthy illustration. Granted, the report is long and the content can get a bit overwhelming, but each recommendation is well founded and based on facts instead of mere assumptions. (If you don’t care to read the entire thing, do be sure to read the summary.)

Without getting into the details of the report, the authors essentially make the argument that Washington can no longer afford to sustain a fully resourced counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. It costs $100 billion a year just to fund it; it claims the lives of dozens of American soldiers (66 in July alone), and it is increasingly transforming into a twenty-first version of Vietnam. Or, to put it in the words of the report itself, “Prospects for success are dim. The 2010 spring offensive in Marjah was inconclusive, and a supposedly ‘decisive’ summer offensive in Kandahar has been delayed and the expectations downgraded. American and allied casualties reached an all time high in July, and several NATO allies have announced plans to withdraw their own forces.” Doesn’t sound very good, does it?

Instead, the authors believe that the president should reverse course and ditch the entire concept of counterinsurgency altogether. If defeating Al Qaeda is America’s central objective in Afghanistan, then why try to prop up a national government in a country that is predisposed to localized politics? Why try to “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people if eliminating terrorists is the priority? But more importantly, why continue to sacrifice American blood and why continue to overextend military resources when the enemy you are trying to crush is just a few hundred hardcore fighters?

Counterterrorism should the overarching strategy for NATO, say the authors, not building schools or digging irrigation ditches. After nine years of war, the best that America and its allies can do is bring the stakeholders in Afghanistan together (Iran, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Central Asian states, etc.), hash out a political compromise between the main factions (the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras) and keep persistent pressure on Al Qaeda training facilities.

Whether or not the strategy will work, of course, is anyone’s guess. Critics of the report cite that its authors are neglecting the symbolic importance of a American withdrawal, and how “cutting and running” would be celebrated as a victory by the insurgents. Advocates, on the other hand, are arguing that a counterinsurgency strategy would require a substantial American presence for at least another five to ten years (American troops are supposed to start withdrawing next summer). Others yet are on the fence, completely baffled with Afghanistan to begin with.

In the end, the policy report may be just that — a report. The Obama Administration may not even pay attention to its findings when it reviews its war policy this December. Or, the report may generate media coverage and begin to sway public opinion. But whatever the final outcome, the Afghanistan Study Group’s research contributes to the debate. And at a time when the United States are themselves confused about where their grand strategy is going, anything that helps to shed light onto an increasingly puzzling subject may be a significant contribution.

Hamas: “Pay Attention To Us”

Throughout the history of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, opponents of reconciliation have often invoked violence and incitement in order to derail the very notion of progress.

Such was the case during the first ten years of serious negotiations, when radicals on both sides proved to be quite successful at killing off the prospects of an accord. After the historic Oslo Agreement in 1993, Palestinian militants in the West Banka and Gaza launched a devastating wave of terrorist attacks against Israel proper, which resulted not only in the deaths of over 1,000 Israelis but the virtual termination of goodwill between Jews and Palestinians. The historic concessions that were made by the compassionate Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 cost him his life at the hands of a far-right Israeli assassin. And of course, who can forget the Camp David Summit hosted by former President Bill Clinton in 2000, which seemed so close to an agreement but was in reality so far away. (You might remember that the only thing that these talks produced was another intifada.)

Yet despite all of that history, people seemed somewhat surprised when violence broke out in the West Bank a few days ago. The incident was reported as a drive-by shooting against Israeli civilians near the town of Hebron. Hamas quickly claimed responsibility for the attack (which left four Israeli citizens dead) as a violent signal of protest to the ongoing discussions between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The response to the attack has been predictable. Israelis are downright appalled that violence has once again struck at the center of innocence. Yet surely they expected something like this to happen?

Abbas is a bit embarrassed, for the West Bank is usually described as a newly minted success story. Indeed, the territory has been routinely quiet over the past three years, in stark contrast to the 1990s, when terrorists would flood into Israel from camps in the West Bank.

And Americans are just as upset as the Israelis, issuing a White House statement condemning the attack in the harshest terms. Meanwhile, the Palestinian security forces have begun a crackdown on Hamas operatives inside the West Bank.

The good news so far is that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been smart enough to press ahead with the talks as planned. He no doubt recognizes that his negotiating partner has absolutely no control over the activities of Hamas, and is therefore willing to give him a pass on this latest incident. The question is whether he will continue to give Abbas a pass if these types of attacks continue. I suspect that the current niceties would soon blow away if Hamas steps up its operations, in which case we might as well pack up and go home.

Thankfully, we haven’t come to that point yet. But Hamas isn’t a dumb organization. They fully recognize that time is on their side, and they also recognize that just the right amount of terrorism will sabotage the participants’ will for a complete resolution. Spoilers have been doing this for years, and Hamas is no different.

But perhaps Hamas is signaling something else through these shootings. Conventional wisdom would tell you that Hamas is completely opposed to direct talks with Israel in any form and they may be still firmly committed to that line. But perhaps this is Hamas’ not-so-subtle-way of reminding Abbas and Netanyahu that they too are a major player in this conflict.

Thus far, the United States, Europe, Israel, and some members of Fatah have written off Hamas as a partner and refused to reach out to their representatives. Hamas has been in the dark ever since its victorious 2006 parliamentary elections, totally isolated from the international community and virtually delegitimized in the mainstream Arab world as a political force.

This shooting, especially gruesome, changes this entire calculus at least for the short term. Indeed, the killings quickly received the attention of the international media. And more importantly, it solicited a response from both the United States and Israel.

Hamas is back on the map. And in its own perverse way, may be trying to play ball.

Same Old “Peace Talks”

Barack Obama Mahmoud Abbas
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)

Call me a pessimist or a downer, but I’m truly skeptical about the sincerity of Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas on closing the book on this conflict.

Despite some confidence building measures from both sides in the last year — like Netanyahu’s temporary settlement freeze in the West Bank and Abbas’ clampdown on radical Palestinians — the Israeli and Palestinian delegations are at polar opposites on every major issue.

Rumors are already going around in the Israeli press that Netanyahu is kowtowing to the right on resuming settlement expansion when the moratorium ends September 26.

A weak and indecisive Abbas is looking for any excuse to pull out of the talks, for he really didn’t want to engage the Israelis in the first place. It took some extra cajoling from American diplomats George Mitchell and Hillary Clinton to convince the tired Abbas to travel to Washington. Read more “Same Old “Peace Talks””

CIA Versus the White House in Afghanistan

The end of summer is fast approaching and by the beginning of next month, the full contingent of the surge that President Barack Obamas promised last winter will be arriving in Afghanistan. With violence at an all time high and Taliban insurgents expanding their area of operations in different parts of the country (like a recent attack on Afghanistan’s northern border with Tajikistan), American and NATO forces need all the boots they can get to turn the tide.

Yet at this point, there seems to be little difference between success and failure. Whatever happens on the ground, critics and officials still resort to the same old questions about the mission. 1) Is it actually possible for the United States to stem the Taliban’s momentum? 2) Can NATO achieve its security objectives if Afghan government corruption continues to push the civilian population away? But more importantly: 3) Should the White House minimize its goals of rebuilding Afghan society to tracking down and killing international terrorists? Read more “CIA Versus the White House in Afghanistan”

Mission Not Accomplished

It’s now official: the American military is no longer a combat force inside Iraq.

To the United States, this is an historic achievement in its own right. It was only three years ago when hundreds of American soldiers were dying in Iraq every month. It was only three years ago when an all time high of 150,000 GIs were patrolling all across the country, with 20,000 more solidified in the worst neighborhoods of Baghdad. Few Americans could have predicted that the United States would be essentially out of the conflict years down the road. But this is what has happened. Conditions on the ground improved just enough for the Americans to hand over security responsibilities to the Iraqi Security Forces. Granted, violence in Iraq is still abound, but American troops were no longer taking the lead.

In a display that was as much political as it was ceremonial, the last Stryker Brigade crossed the southern Iraqi desert into Kuwait, demonstrating to the world that the United States was no longer engaging in “combat operations.” For President Barack Obama, this moment gave him a boost just before his party starts campaigning for the midterm elections in November. And for the administration, it fulfills a promise to end America’s intervention in Iraq after seven long and bloody years.

The only problem is that the American intervention hasn’t really stopped. The remaining 50,000 troops will remain in the country for another year. And combat operations haven’t necessarily ceased either. While Washington trumpets the transition from a combat to advisory role, US Special Operations Forces will still be working with Iraqis in counterterrorism operations well into the foreseeable future. Troops will still be susceptible to risk when patrolling with Iraqi divisions.

Iraq isn’t a peaceful country, no matter how much progress the Iraqis have made and how degraded Al Qaeda in Iraq may be from its heyday in 2006. Bombs continue to go off in the capital, and Sunnis associated with Al Qaeda are still more than willing to strap explosives to their body. If you need an example, just look at last week’s attacks across thirteen Iraqi cities, in which fifty Iraqis died (mostly police officers) in a spate of car bombs, suicide attacks, roadside bombs, and small arms fire. Insurgents are still clearly able to coordinate with deadly effect, striking paralysis in the ranks of Iraqi forces virtually everywhere in the country.

And close to six months after the last parliamentary elections, Iraq’s political leaders are still squabbling among themselves over who has the right to form the next government. All the while, Iraqi civilians are becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of public services.

Americans have a right to be cheerful that the war in Iraq is drawing to a close. But the administration should be careful about gloating too much, or embarking on its own “mission accomplished” tour. In many ways, Iraq is still up in the air.

In addition, we should not be coming to the conclusion that American influence in Iraq is over for good. As the military engagement winds down, the American diplomatic presence inside the country will most likely intensify. A new diplomatic team has already arrived in Baghdad, with US Ambassador James Jeffrey picking up where his predecessor Christopher Hill left off. The diplomats need to get right to work, with the first order of business being the establishment of an inclusive Iraqi government.

And let’s not forget that the Iraqis still don’t have an air force, nor have Iraqi soldiers been trained in conventional conflict against an outside threat. The United States will still be defending Iraq’s air space for many years to come.

“Mission accomplished?” Not yet. The American-Iraqi security partnership will continue, and it would be to no one’s surprise if Washington negotiated a brand new defense back with Iraqis to ensure that America’s hard work over the last seven years is sustained. American troop levels may be at its lowest since the start of the war. But there are still actors inside Iraq who are wishing to make that country a weak and destabilizing nation — outside and inside actors alike.

Everybody Loves Robert Gates

Whether the characterization is fair or not, many Americans have labeled the George W. Bush Administration as the most incompetent American presidency in the past thirty years. But if that is true, Robert Gates should be considered the sole survivor — indeed the sole exception — to the generalization.

Even before Washington was ready to absorb Bob Gates into the Pentagon’s senior ranks, the Beltway was intimately familiar with his intense work ethic and focused personality. Gates is a Washington veteran in every sense of the word. He has served a total of six presidential administrations over a time span of forty years.

His first Washington gig took the form of a low level CIA analyst, where he was responsible for assessing classified information on anything and everything Soviet.

But his low status didn’t last very long. After a short eight year stint at the agency, he served on the staff of President Gerald Ford’s National Security Council, only to return to the CIA a few years later as a top analyst in the agency’s Strategic Evaluation Center. Little did Mr Gates know that his hard work would eventually earn him the attention and respect of an American president. Two years later, he was nominated by George H.W. Bush to be his top official in the Central Intelligence Agency. (To date, Gates’ is the only employee in the agency’s history to have climbed the entire CIA career ladder.)

All of these accomplishments should be noted. Indeed, a normal person would probably find it tempting to quit after a grueling period as CIA chief. But Bob Gates is no normal person. He’s a worker, a highly respected intelligence leader, and a savvy bureaucratic infighter. He also happens to be someone who can reach across the partisan aisle on a tough issue and extend a hand when the country needs a burst of unity.

In hindsight, perhaps this is why George W. Bush would ask Gates to lead and revive a defense establishment that was losing morale amid two frustrating wars.

Rewind to the latter months of 2006. President Bush’s party just got trounced in the midterm elections; the war in Iraq was spiraling out of control; America’s credibility in the entire Muslim world was at an all time low; and the Taliban was starting to make a comeback in Afghanistan. Hundreds of American troops were dying in combat every month. To say that the Defense Department was looking for someone who could calm things down and bring everyone together would be an understatement.

The United States was at a turbulent point in its history. It didn’t stop Robert Gates from accepting the job of defense secretary.

Four years later, we can now sit back and reminisce about how great of a job Gates has done. Thanks in part to his temperate leadership style and his complete trust in his commanders, America’s most contentious foreign policy challenges are now starting to simmer down to a somewhat tolerable level.

An Iraq that was once labeled as an unwinnable quagmire was gradually becoming less violent as a result of a new strategy. Sunni insurgents that were wreaking havoc on Iraqi society were now becoming marginalized by a broad sector of the Iraqi population. Iraqi civilians once hostile to American forces were now responding to a little military concept called counterinsurgency. A certain degree of trust was rebuilt between American troops and Iraqis, resulting in information that would crack down on insurgent operations. Meanwhile, Gates was shielding General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker from congressional scrutiny, which allowed the duo to take risks that were required to turn the situation around.

Now, one administration later, Secretary Gates has expressed his desire to leave public service and move on with his life. In an exclusive interview with Fred Kaplan, the Washingtonian commented that he is quite happy with what he has accomplished and would be content on retiring next year if President Barack Obama didn’t ask him to stay on.

You may recall that Gates said a similar thing at the end of the Bush Presidency. But incoming President Obama found the secretary to be so transformative and so connected that he asked him to continue his job for another year. Six months later, Gates is not only still part of the Obama team but one of the most popular members of the administration.

Does the secretary really want to retire? If so, will President Obama let him? At a time when the United States are still active in Iraq, escalating in Afghanistan and fighting a covert war in Pakistan, Obama may not feel comfortable in letting him go.

Either way, the Obama Administration better start searching for replacements. Lord knows it’s going to be extremely difficult to fill Gates’ shoes.

Where’s the Love for Pakistan?

When natural disasters strike at the heart of a society, the world tends to unite to ease the human suffering. In fact, throughout history, governments and private organizations often work in tandem by donating money, personnel, and resources to mitigate the damage. The 2004 tsunami that resulted in the deaths of some 250,000 people rallied a world traditionally fractured by religious, ethnic and political differences, all for the sake of compassion. Arabs, Jews, Iranians, Americans, Brazilians, Turks, Chinese, and Indians poured in hundreds of millions of dollars for lifesaving operations. Food, makeshift tents and help were all given to those whose lives were damaged indirectly, as well as to those who lost their businesses, homes, livelihoods, and entire families. Celebrities and musicians put on performances and benefits for the victims, and national governments actually found themselves competing with one another for the title of “top donor.”

When all was said and done, the humanitarian response in its entirely was nothing short of remarkable. 1.2 million children were vaccinated to prevent disease, UNICEF helped rebuild 107 schools, 59 health clinics, and trained a total of 56,000 health specialists. A tremendous response, given the millions who were left homeless or stranded.

This is only one example of the world casting aside its differences and uniting under the banner of humanity. Just six months ago, countries from every corner of the globe were quick to respond to the earthquakes that devastated Haiti’s already poor infrastructure. American citizens donated approximately $31 million simply through their Blackberrys and iPhones. International institutions like the United Nations and the World Bank donated millions more, giving Haitians a sign of hope in an otherwise terrible situation. Again, the world heeded the call of compassion.

So why, after three weeks of the worst flooding in Pakistani history, is the world so silent on this latest natural catastrophe?

The United Nations has estimated that over four million Pakistanis have been displaced, another eight million are in need of emergency assistance (food, clothing, shelter, drinking water), and a total of twenty million have been affected in one way or the other. Close to one third of Pakistan’s land mass has been flooded or destroyed; 1.6 million acres of cropland ruined; and key infrastructure like bridges and roads are inaccessible. The Pakistani population in the hardest hit areas is getting impatient, wondering why they are not seeing aid and trying to figure out why their own government is slow in delivering supplies.

To make matters worse, the Taliban and other Islamic extremists in Pakistan have been quite willing to exploit the situation to their advantage. In some cases, Islamic charities are beating nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to the punch, dishing out meals in a quicker and more efficient manner. The situation is getting so out of hand, says Senator John Kerry, that Pakistan is inching ever closer to full on violence if the United States and its allies do not pick up the pace.

Indeed, the world is starting to get the message. Saudi Arabia recently announced that it would be donating $107 million to various humanitarian organizations on the ground inside Pakistan’s tribal areas. After a visit to the frontline, Senator Kerry announced that Washington would be increasing its own contributions by another $150 million. But even with this good news, emerging powers like Brazil, Russia, India, and China (informally known as the BRIC) have not fulfilled their “rising power” status. China has had double digit economic growth for the past three decades, yet the Chinese leadership has given a frugal $2 million to relief organizations.

Which again brings us to the crucial question that’s on everyone’s mind: Why are people not stepping up and donating to Pakistan, as millions of people worldwide did to Sri Lanka and Haiti a few years ago?

Some have suggested that perhaps the world is biased toward Muslims, so therefore relief donations are at a minimum. Others have claimed that Western countries are simply sick and tired of giving money to overseas ventures when their own economies are still losing jobs and struggling to maintain growth rates (although this is hard to belief. Western economies were in pretty bad shape a few months ago but that didn’t hamper aid to Haiti in any significant way). Many analysts cite America’s skepticism of the corrupt Pakistani government as a reason. On this very channel, Mosharraf Zaidi, a Pakistani journalist and a former political economy advisor to the UN, seems to think that negative stereotypes from Western media may have something to do with it as well.

Yet all of these reasons are still unacceptable, because each justification seems to indicate that the world is punishing innocent Pakistani civilians for the actions of its government. This form of punishment is all the more disturbing when considering the general hostility that ordinary Pakistanis already possess toward their own civilian leaders. Making people suffer for the crimes and ineptitudes of their politicians isn’t exactly kosher, nor should it be a rationale for withholding aid that could serve millions of people.

The United States have vastly outstripped other donors so far. But America could be doing a lot more by lobbying allies and making Washington’s demands clear. Stabilizing Pakistan after a natural or man made disaster is an urgent national security priority for the United States. Peace and stability in Pakistan is in many ways a precedent for peace and security for the entire world community.

As a leader of that world community, President Barack Obama must work the phones and solicit all of the contributions he can get. Anything short of this effort would be cataclysmic for America’s battle against an unforgiving jihadist ideology, and a terrible crime to the entire nation of Pakistan.

Obama Nuking His Own Nuke Policy

For all of the foreign policy challenges that the Obama Administration is attempting to manage and resolve, none seems as important to the president personally than the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. Nuclear nonproliferation continues to be the backbone of Barack Obama’s security policy, and an issue that the president himself has worked extensively hard on over his first eighteen months in office.

Two months ago, the United States hosted the very first “Nuclear Security Summit” which was designed to find and lock up loose nuclear material around the world before international terrorists could get a hold of these dangerous components. The summit was a great illustration of the president’s appeal across the world at that point in time. Forty-seven national leaders chose to make the journey to Washington DC to participate in the discussions. And when all was said and done, all 47 produced a collective communiqué outlining the urgent need to find and secure nuclear material for the sake of global security. Nuclear nonproliferation was once again an issue on the world stage.

But the summit was only the start of the administration’s campaign. Around the same time, the White House shocked the Washington establishment by diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in American foreign policy. The United States would no longer point its nuclear arsenal toward the direction of nonnuclear weapons states, even if American interests were directly threatened (although the actual wording of the National Security Strategy excluded Iran and North Korea from this promise). In an extreme transformation from the Cold War era, the National Security Strategy (NSS) prohibited the offensive use of nuclear weapons in an armed confrontation. Last but not least, the NSS stressed that America’s large and powerful nuclear stockpile was to be used only for defensive purposes. Or as Washingtonians like to say, for deterrence purposes.

But perhaps more important than the actual directives of the NSS was the way the strategy itself portrayed nuclear weapons: outdated, expensive, dangerous, and useless for the twenty-first century.

The central aim of both events was to demonstrate to the world the extent of Washington’s sincerity. The NSS and the summit were also political moves which administration officials hoped would convince other states to back America’s stance on the Iranian nuclear program.

That was then. The world has changed markedly over the past few months, and as a consequence, the United States has changed its stance on the nuclear issue.

In the latest case of American knee buckling, Washington recently signed a nuclear cooperation deal with Vietnam that would in effect spread nuclear technology to East Asia. To be fair, the deal is not entirely unprecedented. Under President George W. Bush’s administration, the United States enacted a similar agreement with India. President Obama largely followed the Bush blueprint by approving a nuclear sharing pact with the United Arab Emirates in 2009 (which Congress later signed into law). Like previous agreements, the American-Vietnamese deal focuses solely on the peaceful development of nuclear energy, which officials hope will show other states that nuclear transparency is the better option.

However, there is one vital difference that could damage President Obama’s entire nuclear nonproliferation policy. As the American-Vietnamese nuclear agreement currently stands, the Vietnamese government would still be allowed to enrich its own uranium, rather than importing it from the world market.

To some in the administration, the clause may not seem to be such a big deal, particularly given Vietnam’s quick transformation as a responsible actor in the international system. But the omission of a “gold standard” in the Vietnam deal is in fact significant in a number of respects.

First off, the gold standard omission portrays to the world an America that is both unsure of its own nuclear policy and a nation that is all too willing to make exceptions to those labeled pragmatic or strategic. In essence, Washington is saying one thing and doing another. “If your country is in an unstable environment or is a reluctant partner, then don’t expect the United States to support your right to domestic enrichment.” Iran clearly fits in this camp, as do Jordan and Saudi Arabia, albeit at a much smaller scale. “If, however, your leaders comply with American demands, then Washington will drop its objections.”

Is this the type of message that the United States want to send to the developing world? If the Obama Administration truly wants to improve American credibility in areas that are traditionally hostile to American objectives, then the answer would appear to be no. A “my way or the highway” mentality can hardly be labeled constructive within the broader campaign of international outreach.

Why the Obama Administration decided against following the India-UAE example with Vietnam is anyone’s guess. Perhaps this was the only way the United States could finalize a very profitable business contract. Perhaps the Vietnamese were unrelenting during negotiations. Or perhaps Washington is not concerned about the Vietnamese getting the Bomb.

Whatever the reason, the American-Vietnamese agreement is not going to sit well with the Iranians. Tehran has been trying to exert the very same nuclear enrichment rights that the Vietnamese were privileged enough to squeeze out of Washington.

What is more, the United States may have also established a dangerous precedent in future nuclear negotiations. Countries like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt may now insist that they be granted the same nuclear enrichment rights. This not only puts the United States in a tough position with members of the developing world, but also ruins Obama’s strategy of an eventual “world without nuclear weapons.”

No one said the foreign policy business was going to be easy. But it may be a lot easier if the United States exerted some consistency on a major security issue.

Lebanon Braces for Judgment Day

Five years ago, a former Prime Minister of Lebanon and longtime American ally, named Rafiq Hariri, was assassinated by a car bomb in the heart of Beirut. The incident fueled a popular uprising of Lebanese civilians commonly referred to as the “Cedar Revolution,” which would quickly pressure Syrian forces out of Lebanon after decades of occupation.

Yet the removal of Syrian troops from Lebanese territory was not the only aftershock of the Hariri killing. The United States government under President George W. Bush would later blame Syrian authorities for orchestrating the attack on a moderate and Western Arab politician. Washington would sever all diplomatic ties with the Syrians until five years later, when President Barack Obama entered the Oval Office. The Shiite militant movement Hezbollah, which was already on the American security radar for past terrorist attacks, would bear the brunt of America’s attention.

Now in August 2010, after that intense and tumultuous time in Lebanese politics, a UN investigation will release its final judgment on the Hariri murder. Syria has been exonerated from any wrongdoing. That leaves Hezbollah operatives as the main instigators of the attack.

On the eve of the judgment, with everyone preparing to finger Hezbollah for the crime, Lebanon is once again bracing for a political firestorm that could quickly turn violent. The irony is that Rafiq Hariri’s son, Saad Hariri, is now the man who has to keep the lid on the simmering pot.

Unfortunately, this is going to be exceedingly difficult for the younger Hariri to accomplish. He is in a tough position regardless of who is blamed for his father’s murder.

Prime Minister Hariri can either put his firm weight and political support behind the commission’s ruling, making his position known to the world but hurt his appeal with the majority of the Lebanese population (who happen to be Shia and highly supportive of Hezbollah as a social organization). Or he could endorse Hezbollah’s position and denounce the results. He may also choose to order the creation of a new independent commission aiming to uncovering evidence that may have been previously overlooked by the original investigation. This move, however, would hurt him with the United States and Israel at a time when Lebanon is already experiencing a harsh rebuke over the Israeli border incident.

So what can Hariri do?

So far, he’s been trying to straddle both sides by largely keeping his mouth shut and letting the tribunal do its job. This is what Hariri is probably going to do until a verdict is reached.

If Hezbollah isn’t fingered, Hariri has dodged a bullet. But if Hezbollah is in fact implicated, then Hariri may choose to call another investigation in order to keep a potentially violent situation from getting out of control. The Lebanese government’s main concern is to limit a potential civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. The best way to do that is to divert pressure to an outside actor.

This is all speculation of course. In either event, Hariri Junior is going to strain some relationships.

US Military: Give Us More Time

There is a potential revolution in the making going on within America’s Afghanistan policy, and it’s not emanating from where you might think.

Instead of the White House pushing the American military to change its approach and to change its tactics — which is something that Democratic presidents have traditionally embraced throughout American history — it’s the armed forces that are now starting to take that role. The issue in question is none other than Afghanistan, where whole squadrons of junior officers are lobbying the president hard on his July 2011 pullout date. “Too fast and too soon,” say these military leaders. “Don’t abandon Afghanistan like you did in the early 1990s.  Don’t withdraw American forces while the Afghan Security Services are still weak and ineffectual. But most of all Mr President, please refrain from terminating a war policy that has yet had the chance to prove itself.”

In more ways than one, the marines and soldiers voicing this opinion are absolutely right. When President Barack Obama spoke at West Point last December and announced his decision to send an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, most in the audience assumed that the current administration was unveiling a brand new strategy to curtail the Taliban and turn the situation around.

The brand new strategy was called counterinsurgency, an approach that combines the traditional aspect of killing the enemy with the untraditional task of building local governance, promoting economic development, and showing the local population that the United States and the Afghan government were a better alternative to the Taliban. “Winning hearts and minds,” is the catchphrase that Washington has used to describe counterinsurgency, but the strategy is actually much more complicated than that. It’s more like “winning hearts and minds,” sustaining a relentless campaign of violence toward the insurgency, and swallowing your tongue when local residents frustrate your efforts.

Yet seven months later, the situation in Afghanistan is still dire. Hundreds of insurgents have been killed by coalition forces, but the thousands more are still strong enough to coordinate attacks in every corner of the country. Afghan President Hamid Karzai remains an unreliable American partner at best, and large portions of his government are still occupied by corrupt figures. Little headway has been made with the training of Afghan police, despite Washington’s hope that there would be close to 130,000 cops on the beat by July 2011. And America just experienced its deadliest month in the nearly nine year-old war, with 66 American soldiers killed in action by small arms fire, roadside bombs, and suicide attacks.

As a consequence, lawmakers in Congress are getting a little antsy. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, is demanding that the Obama Administration stick with its timetable of withdrawal, and an increasingly high number of House Democrats are questioning the very notion of funding the soldiers that are already in the warzone. As Eric Schmitt, Helene Cooper, and David Sanger wrote in The New York Times, more than a third of the Democratic caucus voted against financing the war, sending a clear signal to Obama that his own party is distancing itself from the entire effort. In other words, Afghanistan in 2010 looks a lot like Iraq did back in 2006: violent, desperate, and a place where hope is in short supply.

Will Obama cave into pressure in order to appease his own party on the war? Or will he listen to a growing number of commanders that are asking the president to give the military more time to make the counterinsurgency strategy work? These are the important questions that will not only determine the course of the war, but also America’s credibility in South Asia well into the future. Afghans and Pakistanis still distinctly remember how the United States packed up and left after its covert intervention against the Soviet Union ended in 1989. The result of that departure was nothing short of a long and brutal civil war in Afghanistan, culminating in the rise of a Sunni fundamentalist movement that drove the United States back into the country twelve years later.

American generals want to get Afghanistan right. But they cannot kill Taliban, beef up a central Afghan government, pave roads, and build schools all before the summer of next year. The mission should be given more time to fulfill these objectives. Otherwise, the United States should either ditch counterinsurgency for a more limited counterterrorism plan, or get troops out altogether.