Archive for the ‘Afghanistan’ Category

Quick Thoughts on Bin Laden Killing

Sunday, May 8th, 2011


Any morally calibrated person felt a sense of justice delievered upon hearing that mass murder Osama Bin Laden had been killed by US Special Forces. An important measure of justice comes from the realization that Bin Laden was not killed instantly from a cruise missile attack. Rather he must of had time to realize that the Americans had found him and his last sight was of an American SEAL.

I was a little surprised to see the street celebrations in Washington and New York City. At first glance, there was a superficial resemblance to the celebrations in the Islamic world after the 9/11 attacks. It does not take too much thought to see the difference. Americans were celebrating killing a mass murderer, the radical Islamists were celebrating mass murder of the innocent. Americans were waving their own flags, radical Islamists were burning the American flag. Americans chanted “USA’’ into the evening air, radical Islamists shot AK-47’s into air. I am not personally given to such street demonstrations, but for anyone upset at these rather modest celebrations after the killing Bin Laden — live with it.

Kill or Capture

In old westerns and cop shows there were many times when the criminal had been captured, but has not been shot by the heroic protagonist. It would not be morally right for the “good guy’’ to shoot the “bad guy’’ in cold blood. However, writers sometimes used the convention that the bad guy would start to shoot at the good guy and be killed in self-defense. The plot device maintained more clarity.

Perhaps in keeping with this sort of narrative, early this week spokesmen in the Obama Administration suggested that Bin Laden had gone down fighting Americans. Later he was said to be reaching for a gun. This effort only served to undermine the Administration’s credibility and competence after it had executed the extremely competent mission to get Bin Laden.

The attempts to construct a story missed the point. The mission to get Bin Laden was not a criminal enforcement with the primary goal of apprehension, it was an tactical strike in a war Bin Laden had declared. The goal was to kill the enemy. The only way that Bin Laden would not be shot is if he immediately and conspicuously surrendered. In war, an enemy combatant are typically shot on sight.

Enhanced Interrogation

During in the Bush Administration, arguments about “enhanced interrogation’’ techniques, the claim by some was it doesn’t work. In turns out that one of the threads that began to unravel from the pull of “enhanced interrogation’’ led to information about Bin Laden’s couriers and ultimately to Bin Laden himself. One can argue against enhanced interrogation from a variety of stand points, but one can no longer make the argument that such techniques don’t at times work. This does not make enhanced interrogation legal or moral, but does suggest that there may be a moral dilemma associated with their use. Perhaps the arguments about enhanced interrogation now can be made with more intelligence and less righteous bluster.


The Obama Administration has correctly decided not to release photos of a dead Bin Laden. The photos are surely gruesome and need not be released. Americans should not display vulgar trophies of victory. If there are people who believe Bin Laden is still alive, they would not be convinced by photos which a skeptic could dismiss as easily as other evidence. If there are some people foolish enough to believe Bin Laden is still alive, let them.

Egypt: Reason for Optimism

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

Given the recent chaos in the Egypt, the short term outcome has been about as positive as one could hope to expect. Authoritarian strong man Hosni Mubarak was forced to leave office with little violence. The military has taken control providing stability and vowing to honor peace agreements with Israel, accompanied with the realistic hope of early elections. However, the final outcome of revolutions is difficult to predict with certainty. The American and French Revolutions occurred in the same era and employed much the same language. The American Revolution brought us George Washington, while the French Revolution resulted in Napoleon Bonaparte.

Fortunately, we have experience over the last hundred years or so that points to optimism in the case of Egypt. This case for optimism must overcome some serious concerns. Although the peaceful revolution came from the streets, that the radical Muslim Brotherhood did not seem to lead, they are perhaps the most organized and passionate party. One could easily imagine that they use the current instability to move Egypt to a theocracy rather than a liberal democracy. Moreover, if Zogby is to be believed, Egyptians cling to some disturbing ideas. About 90% believe that Israel is a threat to them, and a strong majority believe åçthat clerics should play a larger role in government. However, consider the reason for optimism.

The number of democratic countries has exploded. Polity IV, of the Center for Systemic Peace and Colorado State University, scores countries on a scale of -10 to 10, where -10 is an hereditary monarchy and +10 is a stable democracy. The plot below shows the number of countries scoring higher than eight from 1800 to 2003. Clearly, while not always successful and with setbacks, the move to governments underpinned by the consent of the governed is Zeitgeist of the last century or so.

Studies of this growth in democracies suggest that economic development and the presence of a middle class are the determining factors on longevity. A 1997 study by Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi of the world from 1950 to 1990 concluded that if the per capita income of a fledgling democracy was less than $1500, the democracy had a life expectancy of less than 10 years. Above $6000 in per capita income, a democracy essentially lives indefinitely. Indeed, they found that the “relation between levels of development and the incidence of democratic regimes’’ could explain 77% of the observations. Some of the deviations from the relation have to do if the wealth is associated with a middle class. In cases where a country’s wealth comes primarily from natural resource extraction as opposed to more diversified commerce, per capita income did not necessary translate into a middle class.

Egypt currently has a per capita income of $6200. Even with inflation, this gives Egypt a reasonable chance of achieving a long-term democracy. Despite wide-spread poverty, if the middle class is large enough the tendency to authoritarian rule can be mitigated. The depressing part of this sort of analysis is not related to Egypt. Iraq and Afghanistan have a per capita incomes of $3600 and $1000, respectively. The prospect of long-live democratically-based regimes in these countries would appear to be dependent upon rapid economic growth.

Petraeus’s Sweet Revenge

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

We noted here several months ago that Vice President Joseph Biden was claiming Iraq as an Administration success. We argued then that we know that a policy has been a success when everyone claims credit for it. Before Democrats were in agreement that George Bush’s surge policy in Iraq would not work and would increase violence. When the exact opposite happened, the first response was to argue that Iraq would have improved under any circumstances in spite of anything that Bush did. The final end to the cycle is when the original opponents to the policy claim credit for its results.

We have additional evidence this week of the consensus that the surge worked. In light of the intemperate remarks of General Stanley McChrystal with regard to civilian leadership, President Barack Obama appointed General David Petraeus, the architect of the surge strategy in Iraq, to command US efforts in Afghanistan. Certainly, if Petraeus’s signature policy, the surge in Iraq, had been a failure or at best an accidental success, there would have been little reason to place such trust in Patraeus.

The success of Barack’s foreign policy will be in large measure dependent on success in Afghanistan which in turn is dependent on the military and political competence of Patraeus. The irony is that in 2007, when Patraeus appeared before Congress in defense of the surge policy,, ran an ad asking “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then Senator Clinton, refused to condemn the ad. Then Senator Obama also refused to condemn the ad unless other ads were condemned.

Patraeus proves that competence and success are the sweetest revenge. Given Patraeus’s stature, it seems that he could push Afghanistan policy in any direction he feels appropriate. If he chose to resign rather than implement an Obama policy he does not believe in, any failure in Afghanistan would resound on the Obama Administration.

Yes We Can

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

It is easy to forget how new a face President Barack Obama is. Obama first came to national public notice we he delivered a rousing keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that nominated Senator John Kerry for President. Kerry lost to President Bush, but Obama won his election as US Senator. Almost immediately afters he started running for president. Running for president was perhaps his most notable qualification for president. During one election cycle, Obama was an unknown Illinois State Senator and a little more than four years later, he is President of the United States.

There has never been even the smallest doubt about Obama’s rhetorical skills and charisma. Despite the fact, that he started out as a long shot to the obvious next Democratic nominee Senator Hillary Clinton, he never wavered in his personal confidence. He was manifestly capable of emotionally motivating young campaign workers and other supporters with the buoyant chants of “Yes We Can… Yes We Can…”

Obama never betrayed any doubts about his ultimate victory. He never publicly hedged in his personal conviction. Whether he harbored an personal doubts, he certainly knew that it would deflate supporters if he expressed an hesitancy. Obama never said that he would be committed to running to a particular point in the primaries and then he would reassess. Obama instinctively knew that confidence breeds more confidence and increases the likelihood of ultimate victory. Why then is Obama so tentative in his ambitions in Afghanistan?

Given the fact that Al Qaeda under the protection of the Taliban in Afghanistan planned and executed the September 11, 2001 attacks, it appears foolish to allow the Taliban to return to their previous status. When running for president, Obama called the War in Afghanistan the “necessary war.” Was this a conviction, or simply a rhetorical club with which to bludgeon the Bush Administration for its decision to fight in Iraq? In any case, one does not win either an optional or a “necessary” war with tentativeness an equivocation.

This last week, Obama gave a professorial speech to the cadets at West Point matter-of-factly explaining that it was important to keep the Taliban from returning to power. He would increase troops levels almost to the point originally requested by his hand-picked General Stanley McChrystal,  for 18 months and then would reassess. He would perhaps begin to bring troops home at that time. There was no talk of victory, no talk of overwhelming force, no mention of the previous success of a similar strategy in Iraq, no emotional rallying of the troops to face those who threaten the United States.

In this West Point speech, Obama could not marshal the same enthusiasm to encourage the troops as he did for his campaign workers in the 2008 election. The most charitable interpretation is that as gifted a speaker as Obama is, he has not yet fully embraced his leadership role as Commander-in-Chief. He displays none of the trademark Obama confidence about sending young men and women off to war. There is a more cynical interpretation: He would settle for nothing less than victory in his presidential run, while in the case of Afghanistan he would just like disengage as soon as possible.

For now, Obama has made the correct decision with regard to Afghanistan, though he has perhaps followed the former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld strategy of being a bit too parsimonious with troop numbers. His tentative speech delivered in far too measured tones undermined the chances for victory there. You ought not send off troops halfheartedly to war. Why has Obama not embraced the General  Colin Powell Doctrine of once committing to conflict, use overwhelming force?