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Archive for December, 2009

[Originally published in The Herald of Randolph.]

Most of the world has just met in Copenhagen, intent on arguing about climate change. On the one hand, it seems that a majority of the worldwide scientific community believes that climate change is caused by human behavior. On the other, the nay-sayers say that is simply untrue. Emotions are high. Demonstrators on both sides are über-passionate.

Either way, it means that opportunity knocks for America and that we can use this situation to our advantage. It presents an opportunity for us to solve our own pressing economic problems, while at the same time allowing us to look uncharacteristically benevolent in the eyes of the rest of the world.

America is in the midst of a major recession. We are extraordinarily deep in personal and national debt, have largely lost our manufacturing base and are mired in two ongoing overseas conflicts that exacerbate our debt problems. We have little reason to anticipate a rosy future.

In addition, the world is running out of its traditional sources of energy. Fossil fuels are finite and quite frankly, it’s irrelevant precisely when we run out.  It will happen.

And while we are running out of energy, mankind continues at breakneck speed to produce the only commodity that is capable of exacerbating our problems – an endless supply of additional people to feed, clothe and energize.

Overall, a glorious opportunity for America.

What America seriously needs are jobs that produce products that will be sought after here and in the rest of the world. Someone in the world is going to do just that.  In fact, since the 1990s, Japan, through a conscious, targeted, investment policy, has concentrated strongly on “green” industry and Japanese citizens now own 40% of world patents in that sector.

It is not sufficient that we simply go back to the old ways that didn’t work for us.  While some foreign cars are getting over 50 miles per gallon, American producers, smarting from their pursuit of the perfect Hummer, now brag that their cars get 30.

Although it may seem creative, typical of those old ways is General Motors’ approach to its Volt electric car.  GM scotched the Volt decades ago as economically unadvantageous to the company.  Now, in the face of criticism of their decades-long disinclination to change with market demands and reality, they have reinvented the Volt.  The problem is that it is going to go on the market at near  $50,000.

Most american cars travel under 100 miles a day.  Driving takes place within a chip shot of owners’ residences.  What is needed for that kind of driving is an electric car that sells for one quarter of the Volt, without the typical Detroit bells and whistles designed to jack up the price, and with a battery-powered driving range of around 100 miles.  That should be within our technological reach, but America does not appear to be pursuing that at this time.

Cars aside, the real opportunity for us lies in renewable energy.  In America’s short history, we have distinguished ourselves as a people by our creativity and inventiveness.  We have invented half the things that have made life better for mankind over the past two hundred years and there is absolutely no reason why we can’t do that again.

Whether fossil fuels warm the planet or not, they are getting daily more expensive and will run out.  At this moment, electricity generated by renewable sources is the logical replacement for fossil fuels.  We know that wind, rain, tides, water, geothermal, sunlight, biomass and probably many other things are viable sources for the production of electricity.  If Americans were not so guilt-ridden over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear power would be a natural for us, as it is in much of Europe.

Worldwide production of wind power is growing at 30% per year.  In 2007, Africa bought 30,000 small solar power systems.  America has the world’s largest geothermal and photovoltaic power installations.  Renewable power generation is growing at an amazing rate around the world and there is absolutely no reason why American industry should not be in the vanguard of that industry.

So, who cares who is right about global warming?  The world and most importantly the US clearly will benefit from a galvanized American-led effort to exploit viable renewable energy sources.  If we don’t do it, someone else will and there will be little economic benefit to the US.

There are countries and companies abroad that are active in this renewable arena.  They plug along while we argue endlessly and pointlessly about climate change.  It seems absolutely incredible that American capital is not pouring into this field, whether to save mankind from climate change or to create new jobs and line our pockets.

It does seem like a no-brainer.

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

The good news for President Barack Obama on his Afghan decision is that, along with those predictable Americans who routinely favor military solutions to foreign policy problems, a solid number of Americans are prepared to wait and see if his plan will work.

The bad news is that there is a vocal group of Americans who are terribly disappointed, even angry, that the president has decided to up the ante in Afghanistan, committing tens of thousands of additional troops and treasure to what they think is a conflict that cannot be “won.”

So, you’re either with him or against him. The problem is that there is hardly any discussion going on about the plan and its viability, or of any alternate plans. One would think that for an administration that prides itself on its deliberative processes, both of those issues are worth public examination.

The best we can hope for is that we can get out of Afghanistan at minimum cost, without making the situation worse than it now is. In order to do that, we will have to do two things. We will have to weaken the Taliban to the point where they are amenable to the table and we will have to negotiate the conditions of our departure with them.

The Obama administration has decided that intensifying the struggle with the Taliban by raising troop levels is the answer. Unfortunately, that may be the worst approach to the problem. Raising troop levels, irrespective of whether we use them in combat against the Taliban or to build infrastructure, will simply turn more and more Afghans against us. And you can bet that there will be more combat between us and the Taliban, because the Taliban knows that such combat will primarily benefit them, not us.

Additionally and unfortunately and despite our constant protestations, the Afghans people know a invader/conqueror when they see one and we fit the bill.

So, how do we weaken the Taliban without ramping up counterproductive military operations against them? One way is to do the exact same thing that we did when we went into Afghanistan after 9/11. We buy them off.

The Taliban, after 5 years in power and another 8 in their current comeback, is not beloved by the Afghan people. Their brand of radical, repressive Islam is not benign and in the process of denying girls education, blowing up historic Buddhist statues and generally behaving like tyrants, they have alienated masses of their countrymen. We are not talking here about an insurgency that is beloved by its people. Feared perhaps, but not beloved.

That gives us wiggle room. We need to create something for Taliban fighters that is more attractive than the Taliban. The simple act of raising Afghan National Army salaries to the point where they are competitive or even superior to Taliban salaries is a good starting point.

The Taliban is really only a problem in the south of the country. The northern tribes, ethnically different from the Taliban Pashtuns, are not arrayed with the Taliban against us. That allows us to concentrate on the Pashtuns and the south, where broad support of the Taliban, even without our involvement, is already problematical at best.

Afghanistan will not evolve without the Taliban. It will be part of the coming management of any unified country. Thinking they can be eliminated is simply absurd. They want power and they do not seek a further relationship with Al Qaida. To portray the Taliban as waiting eagerly to welcome back Al Qaida is delusional and self-serving for those who want to step up our military involvement there.

Many Taliban fighters are reluctant at best. By actively working to wean them away from their organization, as we have done successfully elsewhere in the region and know how to do, we should be able to weaken their organization and encourage them to negotiate.

By attacking the problem this way, we avoid an augmented military presence and the concomitant combat, which will only exacerbate our problems and help Taliban recruitment and indigenous support. Actively seeking to weaken the Taliban buy buying them off is the only approach that accomplishes our goal of bringing a weakened Taliban to the table.

As it is now, having made this war his own by taking the military option, President Obama has set himself up for total blame for the virtually inevitable ultimate failure of his policy. And you can bet that the party that created the situation that got him into that mess will be the first and most vociferous in laying that blame on him.

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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[Originally published on Nieman Watchdog.]

Journalists don’t need to dig far to find the self-deception at the heart of Obama’s Afghan surge: A little Googling is all it takes to see that his hopes for the Afghan forces are absurdly high.

The success of President Obama’s surge in Afghanistan depends on raising the effectiveness of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) to the point where they will be able to secure and hold their own country.

But it seems the Obama administration is mired in the same bog of self deception in which the Bush administration foundered, that is, they see the world as they wish it were, not as it really is. As long as that is the case, and as long as these kinds of important decisions are made on the basis of the domestic political needs of the Administration (the coming congressional and presidential elections), rather than the objective facts in Afghanistan, they will lead to the adoption of policies that try to please as many people as possible, rather than solve policies and probably will not find success.

At the most elemental level, and putting aside all the legitimate concerns about the nature of Afghanistan, its people, culture and present leadership, our press might properly and profitably zero in on the most important element in this just-announced Afghan policy – the Afghan security forces.

There are few if any secrets involved in this matter. The Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) have been the focus of every conceivable examination and inquiry the United States has to offer and there is a plethora of results of such examinations on the internet.

All an enterprising reporter has to do is Google “Afghan Army Readiness” or some permutation thereof and a world of estimates of the combat readiness of the ANA and ANP will appear authored by foreign news services, the GAO, the Armed Forces Journal, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Foreign Policy Research Institute and legions of others. The first 200 hits out of almost one million produced by the aforementioned search raise enough questions about Afghan readiness to keep the press occupied for decades.

Afghanistan cannot be considered to be a modern state with a modern population. It is a family-based agglomeration of towns, villages, valleys and mountain tops where residents identify themselves as where they are from, rather than what they are. On the “what they are“ scale, they are dead last “Afghan”.

Therefore, the root question is whether or not such a state can rationally be expected to produce effective and appropriately ethnically diverse national organizations like Police and Army, when the primary allegiance of their people is to the family. What will a Tajik soldier do when asked to participate a military operation in Pashtun country? A Pashtun the north? Will they fight, run abstain, defect or mutiny? Those will be the questions every time a multi-ethnic force gets committed in Afghanistan.

In that context, it might be illuminating to examine the effects that some or all of the following issues are likely to have on unit cohesion, morale and effectiveness:

  • The stipulated ethnic balance of the forces; ethnic tensions are said to be high.
  • The effect of ethnicity on future military engagements.
  • An ANA turnover rate or 25% and rising, according to US army figures.
  • The ANA’s unwillingness to fight on certain occasions.
  • Painfully slow training and uneven troop effectiveness.
  • Inadequate ANA and ANP leadership as identified by U.S. military advisors.
  • The effect of endemic national illiteracy on the training process.
  • Very high narcotics use in the security forces.

Journalists should also note that it took eight years to grow the Afghan army to 100,000 soldiers. How long will it reasonably take to get to the desired 350,000, if that’s even possible?

The results of these inquiries will not lead to optimism. The limitations of the human raw material central to our new policies will very likely make our goals difficult if not impossible to achieve.

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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Good luck, President Obama

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

President Obama has just informed us that we are going to remain in Afghanistan long enough to train security forces capable of keeping the Taliban at bay. Given Afghan realities, that is, at very best, problematical.

Afghanistan is not even a pure tribal society. It is a family- and geographically based society. Afghan Tajiks do not think of themselves by tribe. They refer to themselves by the region, province, city, town, or village from which they come. That means that even though two Afghans may be from the same Tajik tribe and speak the same Afghan Farsi, they may have absolutely nothing further in common. They could well have been raised in inaccessible mountain valleys hundreds of miles apart in families that shared virtually no common experience.

In that kind of society, individuals, in the main, owe their loyalties to their family, village, mountaintop or valley, for it is on such entities that they rely for their security and well-being. The concept of a greater loyalty to a national entity is largely unknown, particularly in rural Afghanistan where, given its fragmented geographic realities, there is little prospect for integrating the various groups.

Ethnically, Afghanistan breaks down into eight groupings — Pashtun, 42 percent; Tajik, 27 percent; Hazara, 9 percent; Uzbek, 9 percent; Aimak, 4 percent; Turkmen, 3 percent; Baluch, 2 percent; and others 4 percent.

These realities make the concept of national security forces — the Afghan National Army (ANA) or the Afghan National Police (ANP) — virtually alien. Guidelines set up in 2003 by General Karl Eikenberry, then our commander in Afghanistan, stipulate that the ANA must have proportional ethnic representation from its diverse population.

His guidelines called for 38 percent of the troops to be Pashtun, 25 percent Tajiks, 19 percent Hazaras and 8 percent Uzbek. In reality, Tajiks now account for 41 percent of all ANA troops who have been trained, and only 30 percent of the ANA trainees are now Pashtuns.

First, this is a difficult mix in a society that is narrowly family-based. Second, what do you do when you need the ANA in the Pashtun region? Does the normal 27 percent Tajik membership stand down for the operation because of ethnic differences? Does it stand up and create chaos, or does it refuse to carry out orders it does not favor?

Afghanistan is not America, Australia or Canada where, despite the “melting pot” nature of those societies, all the trappings of nationhood exist. Armies in those liberal Western democracies truly are national armies. They lack any meaningful, negative, ethnic schisms and understand the concept of nation that they are there to support. In Afghanistan, you have all the ethnic differences with no allegiance to the nation, no meaningful understanding of what nation means, and little inclination to support national goals over family or ethnic goals.

Then there is the Afghan flavor that permeates society and the ANA and the ANP. The turnover rate in the army is said to be about 25 percent. That means that statistically, the entire army is replaced every four years. This does little for unit cohesion or combat readiness.

At one point, the ANA rewarded recruits with a Kalashnikov rifles. Recruits accepted the rifle, then either did or did not serve out their enlistments, went home, waited a while and re-enlisted a second time in a new name to get another Kalashnikov.

A recent examination of U.S. Marine trainers of the ANA by the Guardian newspaper in London showed the acute frustrations of the Marines in trying to accomplish their missions. One trainer referred to his group of trainees as no easier to handle than “26 children.” All the Marines questioned said that narcotics use was so high that it seriously hindered the ANA in their appointed tasks. One trainer surmised that if drug tests were used and drug use were unacceptable, 75-80 percent of the ANA would not qualify for service.

These are extreme examples, but they are generally supported by embedded reporters and trainers who have worked with the trainees. Ultimately, the trainees represent what would be expected of a broadly illiterate, backward population of a country that really isn’t a nation at all. And this is the raw material on which our success is to be built?

As under the Bush administration, we continue now to see Afghanistan as we would like it to be, not as it is. There are alternate strategies that better reflect reality. As long as domestic American politics remains at the top of our list of imperatives in foreign policy formulation and we refuse to employ different strategies, our prospects for any kind of “success” in Afghanistan are minimal.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief, who served in Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston.

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