U.S. Foreign Policy and Egypt: Myths and Realities

Hosni Mubarak is on his way out as President of Egypt.  The protests have reached the critical tipping point: labor strikes are on schedule for Tuesday along with a million man march.   The Egyptian military, which ultimately will decide the fate of the embattled president, has already shown an inability or unwillingness to control the streets.  Soon its desire to preserve its reputation in post-Mubarak Egypt will force it to act against the President.  For the Americans two questions remain: How will this unrest affect U.S. interests and what can be done policy-wise to manage the situation.

Before addressing these questions, it makes sense to debunk some of the myths that have pervaded the conversation up to this point, especially with regards to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Myth #1:  The U.S. is in a position to dictate the future of Egypt.


This myth takes a variety of forms.  Some argue that the U.S. has the ability to push Mubarak out of power.  Undoubtedly, once he leaves, conspiracy theories involving nefarious U.S. involvement will proliferate.  In reality, the U.S. has relatively few policy levers to influence events in Egypt which will be determined by protesters and the military.  What can the U.S. do?  We can issue public statements in support of the democrats or in defense of the current regime; we can withhold or continue to supply military aid—or use military aid as a bargaining chip; we can use our close relationship with the military to gather intelligence, and we can work with other countries in the region (Israel, perhaps?) to diffuse the international element of the crisis.   The U.S. cannot dictate Egypt’s future; we cannot force Mubarak to leave. Continue reading

Suffering From a Case of Afghan Withdrawal

Nancy Youssef from McClatchy News has just produced a real head-scratcher of an article writing that the administration is walking back its commitments to the July 1st deadline to begin withdrawing troops.   Some of the highlights from the McClatchy Piece:

The new policy will be on display next week during a conference of NATO countries in Lisbon, Portugal, where the administration hopes to introduce a timeline that calls for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan by 2014, the year when Afghan President Hamid Karzai once said Afghan troops could provide their own security

The original plan, as I understand it, was to begin a phased withdrawal starting in July 2011—with the pace of the withdrawal to be “conditions based.”  From this paragraph it is not clear whether the administration is proposing a complete withdrawal by 2014, a move which would actually impose a tighter timeline on the administration.  If I were being charitable to the Obama administration, I would argue it is attempting a two-step:  With one hand they are delaying drawdown next summer, with the other hand, presenting a more detailed plan for a complete withdrawal.   If this is indeed the strategy, it is a risky one.  By their own admission, conditions in Afghanistan are “unlikely to allow a speedy withdrawal.”  The U.S. cannot afford to continue waffling on its commitments, lest it lose what little credibility it has with Afghan people.  Reneging on the July deadline will also likely have adverse political effects given that war is already very unpopular.

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What to do about Pakistan

One point that seems to have been surprisingly neglected by the media is the penchant for Pakistan to release high-value Taliban leaders.  Last week, Asia Times reported that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the Taliban’s most senior officials, second perhaps only to Mullah Omar, had been released.  This release is not a-typical, just earlier this year, Baradar’s replacement Abdul Qayum Zakir was captured and released by Pakistani security forces.  Several other high-level Taliban have been captured and subsequently released to rejoin the insurgency as documented in this April Newsweek article. Where is the outrage in the press, congress, and the public sphere that our ostensible ally is clearly acting to undermine the war effort?  It is absolutely astounding that we continue to look the other way as Pakistan openly aids and abets the enemy.

On a more practical note, any deal that tries to ignore or sideline Pakistan is unlikely to succeed since Pakistani Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) will work tirelessly to undermine any reconciliation effort that they cannot influence.  This fact leads me to be more skeptical of the current “peace talks” especially when I read in the New York Times that Mullah Omar is being blocked from talks because of his ties to the ISI.  Incorporating Pakistan into the peace process will not be easy.  Afghan expert, Matt Waldman, who recently conducted research on negotiations with the Taliban, argued that many Taliban field commanders have disdain for the Quetta Shura due in large part to its ties to the ISI.  Furthermore, there is a worry in certain quarters that Pakistan is infringing on Afghan sovereignty.  These concerns notwithstanding, Pakistan should be involved in the talks if for no other reason than that it will incentivize them away from disrupting the reconciliation effort.

Three Baffling News Developments from Afghanistan

If you think you understand Afghanistan, try to make a coherent narrative out of the following three news stories reported this week:


1.        The New York Times reports that the U.S. flew Taliban elites to Kabul in order to meet with the Karzai administration, but this same article states that Taliban leader Mullah Omar is being cut out of negotiations because of his ties to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.  Furthermore the article suggests that ISI has penchant for eliminating Taliban members who seek conciliation with Kabul.

2.       The Asia Times reports that Pakistan has released Taliban Second in Command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.  Baradar was captured by Pakistani forces in January.  Initially the capture was hailed as a great victory for coalition forces, until the New York Times pointed out that Baradar was lead negotiator in secret peace talks with Karzai. By capturing the Taliban’s number two, Pakistan effectively stalled the peace talks.  Now, Baradar is free again.

3.       The New York Times reports that that the NATO campaign in Kandahar is successfully ousting forces from the region.  The same article notes that insurgents have retreated into—you guessed it!—Pakistan’s tribal regions.  Meanwhile in the think tank world, Oxfam’s Head of Policy in Afghanistan, Matt Waldman, has recently produced a paper on the prospects of negotiation.  In a conference at the United States  Institute for Peace on Thursday, Mr. Waldman stated that one of the Sine Qua Non’s of a successful counterinsurgency is there be no sanctuary to which the insurgency can escape.

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Robert Pape and Offshore Balancing

Last week, I attended a two-day conference at the New America Foundation on terrorism organized by Robert Pape from the University of Chicago.   In his new book, Cutting the Fuse, Pape argues that the suicide bombings are largely a function of foreign occupation.  Using empirical research, he demonstrates that a surge in terrorism attacks is almost always accompanied by foreign invasion and occupation.  “Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq there had never been a suicide terrorist attack in Iraq,” reports Pape in his book.  Since the U.S. invasion, however, there has been a boom in suicide attacks culminating in 2007 with over three-hundred attacks.  Similar patterns were also present in other major terrorist regions including Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Israel.  In order to reduce the number of suicide bombers—and also diminish the number of terrorist recruits—Pape recommends that the U.S. engage in offshore balancing: the use of naval and air-craft capabilities to maintain a projection of force in the region, while simultaneously reducing the U.S. footprint in the hostile country.

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Re-Examining the Surge in Iraq


On January 11, 2007 President Bush announced in a nationally televised address a shift in policy for the war in Iraq.  He would augment the troops in Iraq with 20,000 extra troops.  These troops were assigned to provide security in the countryside creating the space necessary for positive political development.   Counter-Insurgency (COIN) tactics would now be adopted, aimed at wining the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.   Along with the new strategy came changes up and down the military and political leadership, the most important of which were General Petraeus—himself an architect of COIN—as head of military forces and Ryan Crocker as the new American ambassador.  Three years after the announcement of the surge, violence in Iraq has fallen significantly, American combat operations have ended, and the Iraqis are well on their way to establishing a new coalition government.

  • Conventional wisdom says that the surge was clearly a resounding success, but in this case conventional wisdom is, if not entirely wrong, certainly missing the bigger picture.  Policymakers would do well to heed the “lessons of Iraq” with great care when developing Afghan strategy.
  • The difficulty in assessing the true impact of the surge lies in the old statistical dictum: “correlation does not equal causation”.  Clearly, the timing of the surge correlates to reduced violence, but in order to infer causation other potential explanations have to be taken into account.  Alas, in Iraq there are at least two other major contenders to explain the precipitous drop in violence:

1. Political developments which left the insurgency without an obvious base of local support.

2. The establishment of a deadline for complete U.S. withdrawal.

The Importance of Popular Support in Fighting an Insurgency

A critical aspect of Counter-Insurgency tactics is the removal of popular support for the insurgency.  In Iraq this process had already begun by the time the surge was announced.  In a process known as the “Sunni Awakening”, as early as 2005, sheiks in Anbar province began to form armed militias in order to promote security.  Initially these forces formed part of the insurgency against U.S. occupation; however, starting in 2006 communities in Anbar province turned on Al Qaeda in Iraq and began aiding U.S. forces.   It is important to note that this movement developed prior to and independent from the Iraqi surge, largely in response to al Qaeda atrocities and overreach.

  • The Anbar Awakening was a decisive factor in the surge’s success.  According to General MacFarland: “70 % or 80 % of credit for the success of the counter-insurgency fight in Ramadi goes to Iraqi people who stood up to al Qaeda.”

Although the Sunni Awakening is the most obvious example of a political event leading to the development of improved security conditions, also significant was the disarmament of the Mahdi army which took place between August 2007 and March 2008.  Following brief incursions in May 2008, Maliki ordered the Iraqi army to take over positions in Basra, the center Sadr’s support.  The battle which lasted six days effectively decimated the Mahdi army.  Three months later Sadr ordered the disarmament of the Mahdi army, leaving only a small cadre of elites to continue the fight.   Increasingly Sadr has attempted to influence Iraq through supporters in parliament.

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Andrew Bacevich on Afghanistan

Literary magazine Guernica just published an interview with military historian and author Andrew Bacevitch.   In the interview, Bacevitch discussed his views on the U.S global military posture.  Particularly striking were his thoughts on the Taliban:

Andrew Bacevich: First of all, it’s not clear that the Taliban has aspirations beyond ruling Afghanistan. We should not confuse the Taliban and al Qaeda. Their aspirations are quite different. Also, when that argument is made, it is posed, once again, as if there are only two choices: either we have to continue to fight the war until the cows come home or we’re just going to let the Taliban do whatever they want. There are other choices. For example, let’s say that our withdrawal led to the Taliban returning to power. It would be quite plausible for us to communicate to the Taliban the following message: ‘We don’t much care what you do in Afghanistan as long as you don’t allow Afghanistan to again become a sanctuary for terrorists intent on attacking the U.S. Should you choose to disregard this then you are going to be subjected to a very fearful punishment.’ That threat I suspect would have considerable influence on the Taliban. Why? Because they know we are capable of throwing them out of power. Since they want to stay in power, they would probably respect those kinds of red lines that we drew.

One of the central debates right now is how to define the Taliban.  One side of the debate claims they are a fanatic Islamic group that will re-invite al Qaeda back to Afghanistan, impose Islamic Sharia on the population, and return Afghan women to a state of semi-slavery.  Under this view, there can be no meaningful negotiations with the Taliban because the group will never compromise on its core beliefs.  This group also tends to view the Taliban as largely monolithic.

A second view, argued persuasively here by Bacevitch, says that the Taliban’s political aims supersede their extreme religious ideology.  Under this argument, the Taliban would be willing to compromise on issues such as al Qaeda’s return.  The Taliban are seen largely as a rational actor, capable of modifying their behavior in order to preserve power.

So which group is right?  Those in the first group can point to the post-September 11 ultimatum delivered to the Taliban and ultimately ignored by Mullah Omar.  If the Taliban are capable of compromise, why didn’t they turn over Osama Bin Laden when they had the chance?  Well, there is significant evidence that the Taliban were deeply divided on the Bin Laden question; furthermore it remains to be seen, whether, having been burned already from al Qaeda, the Taliban would be eager to invite the terrorist organization back.

Recent developments suggest that the Taliban would be willing to make some concessions on the issues relating to al Qaeda.  On the thorny issue of women’s rights, the Taliban again appear to be evolving.  According to the Washington Post, the Taliban has made women’s rights the centerpiece to their effective propaganda campaign that is spreading across Afghanistan.   If the Taliban are capable of evolving and are willing to negotiate, the threat they pose to the U.S. can be contained using traditional diplomacy.   Under this more plausible scenario, the U.S. could use very credible threat of military intervention to deter the Taliban from inviting al Qaeda back into Afghanistan.