Obama vs. Osama

Around the time of the November election, John Nagl, a retired Army Colonel, took a helicopter ride across Afghanistan. What he saw below worried him. Nagl, who is 42 with trim brown hair and academic eyeglasses, spent three years in Iraq, including as part of a tank battalion in the Sunni Triangle, where he witnessed brutal combat in the war’s worst years. A West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar, Nagl applied the lessons of his Iraq experience to the Army-Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which he helped write and which was published last year. He currently specializes in the study of war and counterinsurgency at the Center for a New American Security, a center-left Washington think tank, and it is in this capacity that he recently traveled to the Afghan war zone. As his military chopper swooped over high mountain ridges and plunging valleys, he grimly surveyed the size and the inhospitality of the Afghan terrain. Winning in Afghanistan, he realized, would take more than “a little tweak,” as he put it to me from back in Washington a few weeks later, when he was still shaking off the gritty “Kabul crud” that afflicts traveler’s lungs. It would take time, money, and blood. “It’s a doubling of the U.S. commitment,” Nagl said. “It’s a doubling of the Afghan army, maybe a tripling. It’s going to require a tax increase and a bigger army.”

For the left in the Bush era, America’s two wars have long been divided into the good and the bad. Iraq was the moral and strategic catastrophe, while Afghanistan–home base for the September 11 attacks–was a righteous fight. This dichotomy was especially appealing to liberals because it allowed them to pair their call for withdrawal from Iraq with a call for escalation in Afghanistan. Leaving Iraq wasn’t about retreating; it was about bolstering another front, one where our true strategic interests lie. The left could meet conservative charges of defeatism with the rhetoric of victory. Barack Obama is now getting ready to turn this idea into policy. He has already called for sending an additional two U.S. brigades, or roughly 10,000 troops, to the country and may wind up proposing a much larger escalation in what candidate Obama has called “the war we need to win.”

But, as Nagl understands at the ground level, winning in Afghanistan will take more than just shifting a couple of brigades from the bad war to the good one. Securing Afghanistan–and preserving a government and society we can be proud of–is vastly more challenging than the rhetoric of the campaign has suggested. Taliban fighters are bolder and crueler than ever–beheading dozens of men at a time, blasting the capital with car bombs, killing NATO troops with sniper fire and roadside explosives. Meanwhile, the recent savagery in Mumbai has India and Pakistan at each other’s throats again, a development that indirectly benefits Afghan insurgents. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — The Taliban seem to have picked up a trick from native American Indians: they’re sending smoke signals. They come out of Peshawar. The smoke rises up and the message goes out: here are your precious tax dollars going up in smoke. Send us a few more dozen Humvees; we’ll happily burn them up too. After 100 military trucks went up in smoke on Sunday, a US military spokesman assured reporters, “It’s a very insignificant loss in terms of everything transported into Afghanistan.” Within 24 hours another 50 containers had been torched. How many more statements can Col. Greg Julian come out with before he starts being called “Kabul Bob”?

America’s failure in Afghanistan seems no less certain than that of the Soviet Union. The only unanswered question is whether in the aftermath we can avoid experiencing similar economic ruin. The signs are not good.

“How badly do we want to win this war to ensure that nobody can use this territory to kill three thousand Americans again?” John Nagl asks. “I’m willing to pay an extra dollar a gallon of gas for that to happen–who’s with me?”

Let’s have a referrendum. If Americans can be assured of the absolute secrecy of the ballot, I suspect most will slyly opt for the cheaper gas.

Taliban expanding foothold in Afghanistan, report finds

The Taliban have expanded their footprint in Afghanistan and now have a permanent presence in nearly three-quarters of the country, according to a new report.

The Paris-based International Council on Security and Development, a think tank that maintains full-time offices in Afghanistan, said the Taliban have spread across much of the country and are beginning to encircle the capital, Kabul.

The group said Taliban fighters have advanced out of southern Afghanistan, a region where they often hold de facto governing power, and carry out regular attacks in western and northwestern Afghanistan as well as in and around Kabul. Taliban forces can be found in 72% of Afghanistan, up from 54% a year earlier.

“While the international community’s prospects in Afghanistan have never been bleaker, the Taliban has been experiencing a renaissance that has gained momentum since 2005,” the report said. “The West is in genuine danger of losing Afghanistan.” [continued…]

Militants strike as Pakistan cracks down

Asia Times Online has learned that the public faces of the Jamaatut Dawa, such as its chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, will be spared. But people such as Zakiur Rahman, the commander-in-chief of the LET, are marked men for interrogation by a joint US Federal Bureau of Investigation-ISI team for their alleged role in the Mumbai attack.

A senior member of the LET confirmed to Asia Times Online that there had been a raid on one of the Jamaatut Dawa’s offices, and warned that if Zakiur Rahman was grilled, it would be tantamount to civil war in Pakistan.

“So far the province of Punjab [the largest Pakistani province] has been spared from all sorts of violence, but if such action is carried out, Punjab will also burn in violence,” he said.

The latest move might go some way to appeasing the US, but militancy cannot be easily stamped out – it has a habit of re-inventing itself. [continued…]

Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, ‘Mumbai mastermind’, among 12 arrested in Pakistan raids

Pakistani security forces have raided a training camp used by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the militant group blamed for last month’s attack on Mumbai, and arrested at least 12 of the group’s activists, government officials said today.

One Pakistani official told The Times that among those arrested was Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, LeT’s operations chief, whom Indian officials have accused of masterminding the Mumbai attack.

The raid last night near Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, was Pakistan’s first attempt to respond to mounting pressure from India and the United States to take action against LeT after the Mumbai strike.

It is unlikely to satisfy either Delhi or Washington unless Islamabad follows up by prosecuting those arrested and taking further action against other militant groups linked to attacks on Indian soil. [continued…]

Pakistan’s spies aided group tied to Mumbai siege

Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based militant group suspected of conducting the Mumbai attacks, has quietly gained strength in recent years with the help of Pakistan’s main spy service, assistance that has allowed the group to train and raise money while other militants have been under siege, American intelligence and counterterrorism officials say.

American officials say there is no hard evidence to link the spy service, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, to the Mumbai attacks. But the ISI has shared intelligence with Lashkar and provided protection for it, the officials said, and investigators are focusing on one Lashkar leader they believe is a main liaison with the spy service and a mastermind of the attacks. [continued…]

Pakistan militant group builds web of Western recruits

The Pakistani extremist group suspected in the Mumbai rampage remains a distant shadow for most Americans. But the threat is much nearer than it seems.

For years, Lashkar-e-Taiba has actively recruited Westerners, especially Britons and Americans, serving as a kind of farm team for Islamic militants who have gone on to execute attacks for Al Qaeda, a close ally. The Pakistani network makes its training camps accessible to English speakers, providing crucial skills to an increasingly young and Western-born generation of extremists. [continued…]

Revenge of the nerds

By electing Barack Obama, the American people have proved a lot of political clichés wrong: that Americans wouldn’t elect a black man, or a northern Democrat, or a senator, or someone without extensive national security experience in a time of war. But there’s another cliché that has also bitten the dust, even though it hasn’t received much attention. By electing Barack Obama, Americans have showed that you can win the presidency without appearing dumb.

For more than a half-century, anti-intellectualism has had a pretty good run in presidential politics. In fact, Republicans would never have gotten where they are without it. In the 1950s, when the modern conservative movement was born, the right had a problem: It was seen as elitist, a hangover from the depression years, when Thomas Nast-style plutocrats opposed social security, labor unions and federal aid to the poor. Conservatives needed a way to turn the tables, to show that liberals—those self-proclaimed tribunes of the common man—were the real elitists. That’s where anti-intellectualism came in. If FDR had practiced class warfare, the Cold War right turned to brain warfare instead. William F. Buckley, founder of the right’s flagship publication, National Review, began going around saying that “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” [continued…]

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