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Archive for February, 2009

[Originally published in The Randolph Herald.]

Quite apart from whether the passage of the new economic stimulus package will do much for the job creation, just think what it has done to President Obama’s long-held hope for a new sense of bipartisanship in Washington.

Many Americans voted for Barak Obama for President because he promised he would change the way Washington does business. There would no longer be the bitter disputes that characterized the old battles between the Democrats and Republicans.  The newly elected Democrats would not run roughshod over the Republicans, as the Republicans had done to them during the Democrats’ long years out of power. “Bipartisanship” would be the new Obama mantra.

Now, in the first test of this new bipartisan approach to governance, we have the first old style partisan battle of Obama’s presidency.  And it took less than two weeks to get it started!  However, there is a slightly new twist here.

We appear to have both a traditional ideological battle between Republicans and Democrats, as well as a practical tiff between the White House and the House Democrats.

The long suffering and clearly angry Democratic majority in the House initiated the bill that kicked off the present dispute. It contained a number of items on the Democratic wish list, items that the Democrats had been unable to pass in the face of a Republican majority or a presidential veto.  Many of those items bring little promise of job creation.

Unless you consider the Democratic House leadership to be inordinately stupid, you would have to conclude that they knew exactly what they were doing and that they did it because they saw in the urgency surrounding the economic stimulus package the opportunity to turn their previously thwarted dreams into reality.

If you match that up against President Obama’s clearly articulated goal of restoring bipartisanship to Washington, then it is clear that the Democrats who supported the bill as written saw that support as more important than supporting their new president – the one, incidentally, who brought so many of them to Washington on his coattails.

Nevertheless, House Democrats, smarting from years of suffering in the political wilderness, put together a bill that pretty much used up their wish list of legislation designed to benefit their base. The opportunity presented by the financial and economic crises was far too tempting to let pass.  Perhaps they thought that in the spirit of bipartisanship, the bill would have to be passed and that in order to not look partisan and mean spirited, the Republicans would have to go along, thus ensuring the passage of all those Democratic wish list items.

Of course, the problem is that the Republicans refused to play along and called the bill what they saw it to be, a new pork barrel.  They really played their hand well and many Americans, Democrats included, became concerned that the bill was pure pork politics and not the stimulus package everyone was looking for.

For the sake of a few billion dollars of legislation favoring their base, the House Democrats tried to slip this one past the Republicans and failed.  In the process, they have seriously jeopardized President Obama’s hopes for more Congressional cooperation on upcoming legislation designed to cope with the critically important economic problems that face us.

The sad part of the situation is that thanks to an overly partisan Democratic approach in the writing of the bill in the House, President Obama’s hopes for real bipartisan approach to governance has taken a heavy hit.  Given the recent comments of virtually all the Republicans on the Hill, it would appear that hopes for future bipartisan cooperation are increasingly dim.

Will the three “liberal” Republican Senators who signed onto the stimulus package be eager to support the Democrats again? That’s unlikely, unless, of course, the package as passed solves all our problems.  Given the probability that no one in either party really knows for sure how to deal with our economic problems, this seems highly unlikely.

No, the Democrats have clearly forgotten how to wield power to their own advantage.  In forgetting those old, immutable lessons, their impatience has seriously threatened their own legislative hopes for the future.

Haviland Smith is a former long-time resident of Brookfield.  He lives now in Williston.

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In distant land, threads remain tangled

[Originally posted in the Barre Times-Argus and the Rutland Herald.]

Starting before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Americans were bombarded with chapter after chapter of the Bush Administration’s definition of and plans for “success” in Iraq. They constantly told us of the near proximity of “success” if only we would “stay the course.”

The problem was that the “success” of our invasion was based on an illusory target. It started out as a campaign to find and remove WMD, then morphed to the “most important battle in the War on Terror” and ended up in a plan to “bring democracy to Iraq.” The salient issue here is that no Bush administration insider has told us why America really invaded.

Without benefit of such inside knowledge, it seems likely that the Neoconservatives on the Bush team pushed the invasion on the Administration. Those are the same Neoconservatives who prefer to function in secret, eschew diplomacy and all foreign alliances, see military force as the first weapon to be used in the conduct of foreign relations and, of critical importance, see the Middle East as the most important theater for the exercise of these policies.

Now we have the new Obama Administration which has committed itself to transparency and is currently involved in a re-examination of Afghan policy. In direct contrast to the past six years, this new openness should enable us to learn precisely what our definition of success is in Afghanistan, what our goals are and how we plan to pursue them.

Although the Obama Administration is clearly still working out its own Afghan policy, it has not yet shared any details with us. Nonetheless, realities on the ground dictate that any reexamination of current policy consider the same basic realities that have long existed in Afghanistan. Counter-narcotics, insurgency, terrorism, the rule of law, police and army training, tribalism, will all have to be considered in forming a new policy. The results should illuminate our goals and provide a definition of success in Afghanistan

To put these issues in context, it is important to understand some Afghan realities. First, Afghanistan is a very, very large country. If it were ever to be pacified, which has never happened, it would take hundreds of thousands of troops. No central government, even in Afghanistan’s best and most peaceful times, has ever pacified much more than a few of the largest cities and historically, Afghanis have been unwilling to accept even central indigenous governance.

Poppies, Pashtuns and Pakistan are another reality we must face. The Pashtun tribes and clans are both Afghan and Pakistani. They are also the Taliban who rely on poppies (Heroin) for their financing. Worse yet, Afghan farmers find poppies the most reliable and profitable available crop.

Given our modest level of success in the “War on Narcotics” here in the Western Hemisphere, it is hard to believe that we will suddenly figure out precisely what to do in Afghanistan, a culture infinitely more alien to us than that of Mexico.

Because of the pervasiveness of the Taliban, any solution will have to involve Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. The Pashtuns who are the base of Taliban power, occupy both sides of the border. By definition and in the face of the ongoing decline of Al Qaida, we will be involved in counter-insurgency rather than counter-terrorism — a far more complicated, long-lasting and difficult task.

There are two issues that complicate any hopes for any movement toward a more secular or democratic system – the rule of law and corruption. There is a long tradition of pervasive corruption in Afghanistan.

Islam already provides a legal system in the Shariya, or Muslim system of law based on the Koran, the Hadith and centuries of interpretations and precedents. Afghanis won’t look favorably on new western ideas of what its legal system ought to be.

If the recent emergence of Taliban influence in the Swat Valley in Pakistan is a harbinger of things to come, Shariya is the law of the future in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Finally, Afghanistan is tribal in a way that makes Iraq look homogeneous. Sadly for us, tribal societies, where tribal loyalties far outweigh national loyalties, do not form cohesive or successful national armies or police forces.

Any American plan for success in Afghanistan that includes the commitment of significant numbers of additional troops will put more stress on our current military and domestic financial problems. Their mere presence in Afghanistan will encourage increased Afghan opposition to our plans and programs.

We need a new definition of “success”, one more in keeping with realties on the ground both in Afghanistan and in the United States where a disastrous economy with a murky future and a war-weary population give scant hope of being willing to support an inordinately expensive and long-lasting military campaign.

We will not make over Afghanistan into an image pleasing to us. The road to “success” in Afghanistan will be tribal and non-secular and will almost certainly involve the Taliban in some as yet unforeseen, but increasingly more significant way.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff. He lives in Williston.

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What’s the plan in Afghanistan?

[Originally published on Nieman Watchdog.]

Even as President Obama sends more troops to Afghanistan, a former CIA station chief raises questions about the administration’s goals there, and whether they are remotely achievable.

The U.S. government is currently involved in a re-examination of its Afghan policy. And because the Obama Administration has committed itself to transparency – in stark contrast with the previous administration – that should lead to a public discussion of what our goals are in Afghanistan and how to pursue them.

So far, the Obama administration has not shared many details of its thinking with us.  Nonetheless, realities on the ground dictate that any reexamination of current policy consider the same basic issues.  Insurgency, terrorism, police and army training, counter-narcotics, the rule of law, our definition of success and our goals in Afghanistan have not and will not change with the adoption of a new policy.

Q. What is our ultimate goal for Afghanistan?

If it is security and stability, that simply cannot be achieved militarily. If Afghanistan were ever to be pacified, which it never has, it would take hundreds of thousands of troops. Afghans have never accepted foreign domination of any kind. They have even been unwilling to accept central indigenous governance.  Whatever security and stability they achieve will have to arise from within the Afghan people, and will presumably reflect the character of those people, which is insular, secular and tribal.

Q. How do you create a “national army ‘ or “national police force” in a tribal society?

If Afghanistan is to somehow deal with its own internal issues of instability and tribalism, it will have to have some sort of central police and military organizations. How does the Administration propose to accomplish that?

Afghanistan is tribal in a way that makes Iraq look homogeneous. Sadly for us, tribal societies rarely form cohesive or successful national armies or police forces.

Q. How does the Administration propose to deal with the armed groups that currently control most of the country?

Because of the pervasiveness of the Taliban, any solution will have to involve Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. The Pashtuns, who are the base of Taliban power, occupy both sides of the border. By definition and in the face of the ongoing decline of Al Qaeda, we will be involved in counter-insurgency rather than counter-terrorism – a far more complicated, long-lasting and difficult task.

Q. Is the Administration prepared to deal with Shariya Law as the basis for Afghanistan’s future legal system?

Afghanistan already has a “Rule of Law” in the Shariya, or Muslim system of law based on the Koran, the Hadith and centuries of interpretations and precedents. Afghanis won’t look favorably on new western ideas of what its legal system ought to be. If recent changes in the status of the Swat Valley in Pakistan are a harbinger of things to come, Shariya is the law of the future in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Afghanistan also has a long and proud tradition of corruption.

Q. How are we going to run a counter-narcotics program in Afghanistan?

Poppies, Pashtuns and Pakistan are the immutable reality we must face. The Pashtuns are both Afghan and  Pakistani. They spill over the border between the two countries. They are also the Taliban who rely on poppies (heroin) for their financing.

Finally, given our modest level of success in the “War on Narcotics” here in the Western Hemisphere, it is hard to believe that we will suddenly figure out precisely what to do in Afghanistan, a culture infinitely more alien to us than that of Mexico.

In Conclusion

Any American plan for success in Afghanistan that includes the commitment of significant numbers of additional troops will put more stress on our current military and financial problems and encourage Afghan opposition to our plans and programs.

We need a new definition of “success”, one more in keeping with realties on the ground both in Afghanistan and in the United States, where a disastrous economy with a murky future and a war-weary population give scant hope of being able to support an inordinately expensive and long-lasting military campaign.

We will not make over Afghanistan into an image pleasing to us. The road to “success” in Afghanistan will be tribal and non-sectarian and will almost certainly involve the Taliban in some as yet unforeseen, but increasingly more significant way.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in Eastern and Western Europe and the Middle East, as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff, and as Executive Assistant in the Director’s office.

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Bipartisan Washington?

One of the problems with our democratic system of government lies in the fact that it encourages an endless cycle of legislative retribution.  First, one party exercises eight years of Congressional power bolstered by presidential veto. Then the other party wins and the first thing they do is try to overturn everything their predecessors did and enact all the measures on which they could not succeed when the system was against them.

Against that backdrop, we have a new President Obama who says, to the delight of a very healthy majority of the electorate, that he wants to do away with that old partisan approach and cooperate with the opposition Republicans in a critical bipartisan attempt to stimulate our flagging economy.

So, the first time the chance for such cooperation arises, the House Democrats, whether ignored, supported or goaded on by the White House, come up with an economic stimulus bill that essentially pokes its thumb in the Republicans’ eye.   So much for the bipartisan approach!

What seems clear about the current Washington wrestling match over the economic stimulus package, is that no one really can pinpoint a solution to our problems.  Neither party has faced this kind of issue before, so all we see offered are theoretical solutions.

Let’s grant that there are legitimate philosophical differences between the Republicans and Democrats on the economic stimulus issue.  Everyone knows that. Yet, when it comes time to act out on this presidential promise of bipartisanship, the Democrats submit a bill that contains a large number of programs that they have not been able to get past a Republican Congress and the Bush veto.

At the same time, in 100% doctrinaire fashion, the Republicans see tax cuts as the only answer to our economic woes.

This is not to say that either tax cuts or those pet Democratic projects are bad.  Clearly, new infrastructure is badly needed in this country and tax refunds, particularly if directed toward the middle class, would be helpful stimuli.

However, the issue is one of timing.  Was it absolutely necessary for the Democrats to include these pet unpassed projects on an economic stimulus bill, particularly if doing so would predictably be offensive to the Republicans?

Isn’t the purpose of the exercise, quite apart from stimulating the economy, to change the country over to a less partisan approach?  Apparently that is not so in the eyes of those congressional Democrats who have been chafing under Republican dominance for years.

It’s funny how crises provide the loopholes through which politicians shove their pet projects.  President Bush quite unashamedly shoved the Iraq invasion and a major diminution of our constitutional rights through a supine congress (Democrats included) only when basking in the ugly results of 9/11.

And so it is true today that our financial/economic crisis has given the long-suffering Democrats an opportunity for retribution.  They have taken it by turning what could have been a bipartisan economic stimulus bill into a mean spirited move to redress years of having their favorite programs slighted.  Strike while the crisis is hot!

All of this adds up to precisely the situation that President Obama says he  wants to avoid.  We are mired in the old politics of partisanship first and problem solving last.  President Obama inherited a Democratic majority Congress that had favorability ratings even lower than those of President Bush.  It is clear from the bill that has come out of the House that Speaker Pelosi is at best disinterested in the program of political cooperation on which President Obama won the election.  President Obama can hardly be pleased and there lurks at the package’s second stage the equally partisan Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid.  Only time will tell what mischief he can work.

The sad part of all of this is that the House Democrats could easily have limited this bill to what it was designed to be – and economic stimulus package.  If they had done that, it is highly likely that the Republicans would have signed on and that might well have changed the tone in Washington for the better.

At that point, with majorities in the Congress and a Democrat in the White House, they could have moved on to their pet projects without starting Obama’s presidency with an old-time, partisan battle. One wonders if this “new tone” in Washington is all a charade, or if the new president plans to have some frank conversations with his so-called allies on Capitol Hill.

We shall see, but it’s hardly an auspicious start.

Haviland Smith worked in and out of Washington for 25 years.

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