Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Letter to President Obama on Afghanistan

Dear President Obama,

In your speech of March 27, 2009, you laid out in clear terms why the conflict in Afghanistan is a vital security concern to the United States. As you stated then, Afghanistan was and is a "war of necessity;" the U.S. had no choice but to engage those harboring the murderers of more than 3,000 Americans. Unfortunately, under the previous administration the conflict was both under-resourced and conceptually ill-planned, resulting in eight years of stalemate. Your call for renewed effort, increased commitment, and a global strategic overhaul was absolutely correct, as was your decision to increase U.S. troop levels by 17,000 personnel.

I am distressed, therefore, to see signs that you are contemplating a retreat from this wise declaration of resolve. Partisan politics has predictably created a perfect storm of opposition to your Afghan policy, coming from all parts of the political spectrum. This should not, however, dissuade you from the correctness of the strategic principles on which you campaigned. As a long-time supporter and a donor from the days before the Iowa caucuses, I write to express my support for your position on Afghanistan and Pakistan as it was originally formulated: that this theater represents the true epicenter of the war against al-Qaeda, and must be engaged with all the strategic resources and energies of the United States. I would urge you not to capitulate to political pressure, but to implement the advice of the Commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal.

Like you I opposed the invasion of Iraq, and agree that the mission there was an unfortunate distraction from the vital conflict in Afghanistan. Though almost every aspect of the previous administration's strategic thinking with regard to Iraq was deeply flawed, one important principle is exemplified by that experience. The resolve that the Bush administration evinced in Iraq must be doubly applied to Afghanistan, as the stakes in the latter mission are exponentially higher.

Withdrawal from Iraq was and is a viable strategic option from the perspective of U.S. security, where withdrawal from Afghanistan is not. Al-Qaeda never had genuine traction within Iraqi society. It was absent from Iraq during the regime of Saddam Hussein and only achieved a tenuous foothold there as a result of the power vacuum created by the U.S. invasion. We can be highly confident, therefore, that a worst-case scenario does not include a robust presence of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Iraqis have historically exhibited a low tolerance for al-Qaeda, and there is no reason to expect that will change in the near or short term.

Such calculations do not apply in Afghanistan.The Iraqis are deeply divided by sectarian allegiances and united (with the exclusion of the Kurds) by their common Arab ethnicity, thus religious ideologies like that of al-Qaeda have little political utility in Iraqi society. The situation is reversed in Afghanistan (and central Asia more broadly). There the community is riven by ethnic divisions but largely united by a common affiliation with Sunni Islam, thus a politicized religious ideology like that of al-Qaeda or the Taliban can be an effective mechanism for building broad strategic coalitions. Where the presence of U.S. troops boosted al-Qaeda's presence in Iraq, it is only the insertion of U.S. troops that effectively displaced both al-Qaeda and the Taliban from Afghanistan. Where a U.S. withdrawal will not increase al-Qaeda's presence in Iraq, withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan will almost certainly result in the return of al-Qaeda to its bases of operation there.

Though the worst-case scenario for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq presents no compelling argument for constraint, the best-case scenario for a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan gives genuine cause for alarm. It is true that the Taliban is deeply unpopular through much of Afghanistan, and may not possess the strategic power to retake Kabul in the wake of a U.S. withdrawal. Even if they do not, however, we can be certain that the Taliban, already deeply entrenched despite a robust ISAF presence, will enjoy an even broader and more deeply rooted position along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier once the ISAF is gone.

This would effectively constitute a "Talibanistan" quasi-state, one empowered, in the absence of either the ISAF or a robust Afghan government, to cultivate and manage its own revenues (from narcotics smuggling and other enterprises) and to conduct foreign policy with neighboring nations and international organizations. The mayhem that might be sewn by such a "Talibanistan" is difficult to overestimate. The possibilities range from abetting extremist groups in Pakistan and elsewhere to purchasing nuclear technology from rogue elements of the Pakistani intelligence services. Though al-Qaeda and the Taliban should of course be treated as distinct from a tactical perspective, in general strategic terms they both represent an equivalent threat to the security of the U.S.

Critics of the Afghan mission might protest that we are faced with the choice of either allowing a "Talibanistan" to emerge or committing to a permanent U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. This is not true. As General McChrystal observes in his strategic assessment, the Afghan people themselves are deeply disaffected with the Taliban and its history of abusive rule. They have lived through the results of rapid U.S. disengagement following the Soviet defeat of the 1980's, and are open to a partnership with NATO in pursuit of a more stable and progressive social contract, if only the U.S. and its allies will demonstrate the resolve that had been lacking in the past. A window of opportunity exists to assist the Afghans in establishing a robust state of their own, one that would effectively counter the influence of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the region. The window will be lost, however, if the U.S. wavers at this critical moment in the mission.

It has been widely reported in the press that you are contemplating an alternative strategy championed by Vice President Biden, a plan to reduce our forces in Afghanistan and redirect their mission toward rooting out al-Qaeda along the Pakistan frontier. This would be an extremely unwise change of course. As General McChrystal and other analysts have noted, the crux of the struggle against both al-Qaeda and the Taliban is not military, but political. Al-Qaeda will not be dislodged from the region as long as state authority remains weak and local society remains embattled. There is no alternative remedy to a sustained counterinsurgency campaign that combines military operations with improved governance and efforts to bolster state legitimacy. Deploying a small force that ignores the plight of the Afghan people as it engages in a wild goose chase after al-Qaeda operatives is a recipe for disaster. Such a strategy would be rapidly self-subverting and surely leave the U.S. less secure in the long term.

General McChrystal lays out in stark terms the profound difficulties entailed by the strategic objectives of an intensified Afghan mission. The parallels to Vietnam are numerous and real. The insurgency enjoys the advantage of a difficult terrain, numerous outside sources of assistance, and the tactical cover of the frontier with Pakistan. One stark difference with Vietnam is determinative of our strategic priorities going forward, however. Unlike Vietnam, the Afghan-Pakistani theater harbors forces that have directly attacked the United States and are planning to do so again if given the opportunity. The U.S. thus has no choice but to pursue this counterinsurgency campaign despite its daunting obstacles.

Among the many outstanding policy shifts you initiated upon taking office was an overhaul of the mechanisms by which strategic decisions were made in the executive branch. The previous administration had all but completely politicized the strategic planning process, thus in most instances when the former President declared that he was "consulting with his generals" everyone understood that he was waiting to be told what he originally wanted to hear. Thus far you have demonstrably operated in a different mode. The past few years have brought to the fore a new generation of erudite and sophisticated commanders, such as General David Petraeus and Brigadier General H.R. McMaster, who have adapted to the strategic and tactical complexities of our ongoing engagements. You have demonstrated, with moves such as the appointment of General McChrystal in Afghanistan, your resolve to work with this new generation of commanders in the crafting of an effective strategy for mission success.

Having made these initial steps in the reform of executive strategic culture, I would urge you not to retreat now. Do not allow your planning of policy to be derailed by partisan politics. You tasked General McChrystal with developing an informed, coherent, and intelligent strategic plan for the mission in Afghanistan, and he has risen to those demands. Do not set aside his counsel, and your own strategic judgment, because of the pressure being exerted upon you by misguided or self-serving politicians. You have the opportunity to establish the kind of sober, deliberate strategic process our nation desperately needs in this time of crisis. Please do not let that opportunity pass.

The politics of an intensified Afghan mission here at home present obvious difficulties. The electorate has been disenchanted by eight years of official obfuscation and strategic inertia. The security stakes are too high, however, to admit faltering in the face of such challenges. Efforts must be made to explain the necessity of the mission to the public at large. Democrats like myself (to borrow a phrase, the "silent majority" who support the continued Afghan mission) should be systematically mobilized to counter and deflect pressure from the "left." Most importantly, the opportunity for genuine bipartisanship should be seized. Republicans like Senator John McCain and independents like Senator Joseph Lieberman may be persuaded to rally in support of a strategy derived from the assessment of General McChrystal. Though consensus may never be reached on contentious domestic issues such as health care and energy policy, our common national security interests may serve as the focal point of a broad centrist coalition that would drive the implementation of a difficult but necessary strategic engagement.

Like millions of Americans I was inspired by your tough yet elegant campaign and by your historic election to our highest office. I know that your patriotism is unsurpassed by any citizen's, and remain confident of your leadership in days ahead. Please accept my thanks for your attention and my prayers for your continued success in the execution of your duties.


Andrew Meyer

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Iran that Could Have Been (and Might Yet Be)

The current moment of fear and anticipation in Iran is (or should be) another reminder of the unrealized potential of Iranian-U.S. relations. Americans' habitual view of Iran as a dangerous enemy distorts the underlying historical truth: the past fifty years of Iranian-U.S. relations were a tragedy that might have been avoided. If the current moment of potential passes unrealized, it will be all the more disappointing for the fact that the chance to restore Iranian-U.S. relations to what they should have been will have slipped away yet again.

Many Americans view Iranian agitation for democracy as a kind of anomaly. As a traditional Muslim society, so this view goes, Iran is a nation deeply unsuited to democratic culture. This is of course a complete misreading, both of recent Iranian history and the nature of Islamic societies more generally. In the decade after WWII, Iran had all of the ingredients of a modern success story akin to that of Japan or South Korea: a long history of stable state institutions, a relatively well-educated populace, a robust commercial economy, copious oil reserves, and a nascent industrial sector and middle class. Turbulent struggles between the monarch, Shah Reza Pahlavi, and the parliament had set Iran on the course toward constitutional democracy.

Iran's late twentieth century might have been a bright one except for the curse of geopolitics: its nascent democracy was sacrificed on the altar of the Cold War. In 1951 Mohammed Mosaddeq, an able, charismatic, and secular leader, was elected by popular majorities as prime minister. Though he enjoyed the confidence of much of Iran's populace, especially the intelligentsia and the middle class, his policies put him afoul of the United States. He opposed British exploitation of Iran's resources and undertook a nationalization of the petroleum industry. In foreign policy he attempted to preserve Iranian neutrality in the emerging strategic contest between the U.S. and Iran's northern neighbor, the Soviet Union. For these transgressions the American CIA helped engineer a monarchist coup that toppled Mosaddeq and drove him into exile, ushering in twenty-five years of absolutist rule by the Shah.

The shadow of Mosaddeq lays across the last fifty years of Iran's history. The choice that Iranian society made for theocracy in the revolution of 1979 was conditioned as much by the bitter disappointment of Iran's brief constitutional spring as the intrinsic prestige of the Shi'ite clerical establishment. The 1953 coup taught the Iranian people that their democratic aspirations, however deeply cherished, could be crushed by the strategic whims of the great powers. The appeal of the theocracy was its resilient capacity to survive the crushing pressures of the Cold War geopolitical vice. A government led by mullahs was a disappointment to some, a tragedy for others, but it had the redeeming virtue of being authentically Iranian.

Despite its theocratic basis, the post-1979 Iranian Republic has persistently incorporated a degree of participatory politics, no matter how restricted and anemic. What the current unrest demonstrates is that the democratic aspects of the Islamic Republic are as much a genuine expression of the political impulses of the Iranian people as the exalted position of Ayatollah Khamenei, perhaps more so. The choice for theocracy never entailed a wholesale abandonment of democratic aspirations: the Iranian people have tolerated the controls placed by theocrats on the electoral process on the implicit understanding that the loss of democratic sovereignty was a fair trade off against the anti-colonial autonomy afforded by clerical rule. The most recent interference by the mullahs, however, in which they seem to have simply discarded the choice of the voters even after rigging the ground rules to induce the outcome they desired, has proved a case of overreach.

Beyond this, the global setting that helped nurture the Iranian Republic's social contract has changed. The Soviet Union is gone, and in its place Iran is now bordered by independent Inner Asian republics. The United States, the nation that overthrew Mohammed Mosaddeq, has elected a man named Barack Hussein Obama who holds out hope of a new orientation in U.S. foreign policy. Both threats that helped redeem the excesses and disappointments of the theocracy have thus somewhat ameliorated, making the theocrats' meddling with the longstanding democratic aspirations of the Iranian people less tolerable.

Though the current violence in Iran may ultimately bring only sorrow, it also marks a moment of potentially hopeful change. We may be witnessing the turn of Iran from its Cold War tragedy back toward the positive course that should have been, and if so we should be prepared to take advantage of this opportunity. In order to do so, America should face this moment mindful of the role we played in forestalling Iran's progressive dreams. If we insist on viewing Iranians through the prism of our own biases, as caricatures of "backward Muslims" or "crazed terrorists," the chance for improving Iranian-U.S. relations will be lost. Rather, we should remain open to the Iran that has always been possible, and which has been circumvented as much by our own transgressions as any inherent weaknesses of Iranian culture or society: an important ally and a force for progress in the Middle East and the world at large.