Is Afghanistan going to be Obama’s Iraq?

President Barack Obama is facing warnings that the US risks repeating some of its errors in Iraq as the new administration turns its focus to Afghanistan, where Nato forces are engaged in a conflict which has already lasted longer than the Second World War.

Having received a briefing on his first day in office from General David Petraeus, the top US commander in the region, Mr Obama is preparing to meet his military chiefs to decide on the size and shape of the Afghanistan reinforcements he promised during his election campaign. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, said just before Christmas that up to 30,000 more troops could be sent by summer, nearly doubling the size of the US force in the country. Britain, the next largest contributor in the 41-nation international force, has fewer than 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, which means American dominance of the campaign against the Taliban is set to increase.

“There are fears that this could become a US war rather than a Nato one,” said Christopher Langton, senior fellow for conflict at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in London. “With other Nato members already planning to scale back, the US could find itself isolated. Rather than being an international operation, it would become another ‘coalition of the willing’, as in Iraq – though with the crucial difference that the Afghan mission has had a United Nations mandate throughout.” [continued…]

In Afghanistan, terrain rivals Taliban as enemy

It was near sunset when the tire on one of the armored vehicles blew out on the way back through the village of Khuga Kheyl this month. The U.S. Army convoy stopped dead in a narrow, rocky cleft between two small mountains. A gang of Afghan boys ran down a nearby slope toward the convoy as it jerked to a halt near the border with Pakistan.

That morning, Capt. Jay Bessey had warned his platoon not to waste time and to stay tight. There was word that a suicide attacker might try to infiltrate his small base in a remote district in the eastern Afghan province of Nangahar. There was also a rumor that Taliban forces may have planted more than a dozen bombs along the convoy’s route near another isolated district close by.

A flat tire an hour before sunset was the last thing Bessey needed. Yet there he sat, waiting for another unit to arrive with a spare. The incident underscored what all U.S. forces operating near the 1,500-mile-long border know: that the tyranny of the terrain is almost as formidable an obstacle to their goals here as the treachery of the Taliban. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — “… the tyranny of the terrain is almost as formidable an obstacle to their goals here as the treachery of the Taliban” — that a statement like this can be made eight years after 9/11 is tragically absurd. At that time any American capable of looking at a topographical map and understanding the tell-tale features of difficult terrain and who was willing to give a cursory glance at the history of military operations in the Hindu Kush, could have quickly concluded (as many of us did) that launching a war in this region would be an act of folly. All we needed to do was exercise the same level of military prudence that Hitler used in deciding not to invade Switzerland. There is no military might that is capable of crushing mountains.

Radio spreads Taliban’s terror in Pakistani region

Unlike the fringe tribal areas, Swat, a Delaware-size chunk of territory with 1.3 million residents and a rich cultural history, is part of Pakistan proper, within reach of Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Islamabad, the capital.

After more than a year of fighting, virtually all of it is now under Taliban control, marking the militants’ farthest advance eastward into Pakistan’s so-called settled areas, residents and government officials from the region say.

With the increasing consolidation of their power, the Taliban have taken a sizable bite out of the nation. And they are enforcing a strict interpretation of Islam with cruelty, bringing public beheadings, assassinations, social and cultural repression and persecution of women to what was once an independent, relatively secular region, dotted with ski resorts and fruit orchards and known for its dancing girls. [continued…]

Obama’s minimalist approach to Guantanamo

As majestic and spacious as it is vague, President Obama’s draft executive order directing the shuttering of the prison colony at Guantánamo is at once transformative and evasive.

Obama has taken a critical step in the right direction. But he has also evaded the hardest moral and legal quagmires of the Bush administration, denying both his critics a target and the many innocent detainees the swift relief they deserve. The result is a masterpiece of subtle political indirection — one that captures and exploits the moral poverty and specious reasoning of national debate over Guantánamo, even as it offers a promissory note for transformation in the future.

To understand the draft executive order’s acuity and its limits, it’s helpful to recall a term popularized by Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor, former Obama adviser, and the new head of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs — “minimalism.” [continued…]

Guantanamo case files in disarray

President Obama’s plans to expeditiously determine the fates of about 245 terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and quickly close the military prison there were set back last week when incoming legal and national security officials — barred until the inauguration from examining classified material on the detainees — discovered that there were no comprehensive case files on many of them.

Instead, they found that information on individual prisoners is “scattered throughout the executive branch,” a senior administration official said. The executive order Obama signed Thursday orders the prison closed within one year, and a Cabinet-level panel named to review each case separately will have to spend its initial weeks and perhaps months scouring the corners of the federal government in search of relevant material.

Several former Bush administration officials agreed that the files are incomplete and that no single government entity was charged with pulling together all the facts and the range of options for each prisoner. They said that the CIA and other intelligence agencies were reluctant to share information, and that the Bush administration’s focus on detention and interrogation made preparation of viable prosecutions a far lower priority. [continued…]

How many terrorists are really left at Guantanamo, anyway?

Everyone agrees that the order shuttering the camp is the easy part; figuring out what to do with the 245 detainees there is far tougher. Amid all the hooting and hollering you’ll be hearing from around the world today, hard questions linger about how many of the detainees left at the camp are the “worst of the worst” (in the parlance of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld) and how many simply can’t be returned to sender. Are most of the detainees terrorist masterminds or just luckless wanderers? If the former is true, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., is right to be terrified that they will all be dropped off in his back yard at Leavenworth. If the latter is true, the Center for Constitutional Rights is correct in suggesting that closing the camp isn’t nearly as hard as it’s been made out to be. This is not a moral or political or existential question. It’s an empirical one, and presumably this matter can be resolved by the “prompt and thorough” review mandated by the president’s executive order.

One thing that will not help anyone, going forward, is the kind of hyperbole we’ve seen from both sides, suggesting that the whole camp is teeming with assassins or choirboys. So how many truly bad guys remain at Guantanamo? Here’s a start to sorting that out. [continued…]

Iraq election highlights ascendancy of tribes

Here [in Anbar], the new Iraq looks like the old one, imbued with politics that might be familiar to Gertrude Bell, the British diplomat and adventurer who drew the country’s borders after World War I.

There is a saying heard these days in Anbar: “Everyone claims they have the love of Laila, but Laila loves none of them.” In other words, Laila gets to choose. The same might be said of the tribes, whose mantle everyone claims and which often demand a tidy sum for their support. Coddled and cultivated, the tribes are kingmakers. [continued…]

No time for poetry

President Obama did not offer his patented poetry in his Inaugural Address. He did not add to his cache of quotations in Bartlett’s. He did not recreate J.F.K.’s inaugural, or Lincoln’s second, or F.D.R.’s first. The great orator was mainly at his best when taking shots at Bush and Cheney, who, in black hat and wheelchair, looked like the misbegotten spawn of the evil Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the Wicked Witch of the West.

Such was the judgment of many Washington drama critics. But there’s a reason that this speech was austere, not pretty. Form followed content. Obama wasn’t just rebuking the outgoing administration. He was delicately but unmistakably calling out the rest of us who went along for the ride as America swerved into the dangerous place we find ourselves now.

Feckless as it was for Bush to ask Americans to go shopping after 9/11, we all too enthusiastically followed his lead, whether we were wealthy, working-class or in between. We spent a decade feasting on easy money, don’t-pay-as-you-go consumerism and a metastasizing celebrity culture. We did so while a supposedly cost-free, off-the-books war, usually out of sight and out of mind, helped break the bank along with our nation’s spirit and reputation. [continued…]

Obama’s partisan, profane confidant reins it in

Early this month, Barack Obama was meeting with the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and other lawmakers when Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, began nervously cracking a knuckle.

Mr. Obama then turned to complain to Mr. Emanuel about his noisy habit.

At which point, Mr. Emanuel held the offending knuckle up to Mr. Obama’s left ear and, like an annoying little brother, snapped off a few special cracks.

The episode, confirmed by Mr. Emanuel’s office, underscores some essential truths about Mr. Emanuel: He is brash, has a deep comfort level with his new boss, and has been ever-present at Mr. Obama’s side of late, in meetings, on podiums and in photographs. [continued…]

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