Archive for February, 2010

[Originally published in The Randolph Herald.]

When America invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, our stated national purpose was to eliminate Al Qaida. That goal was rapidly forgotten with the ill-timed invasion of Iraq in 2003 and our focus subsequently morphed from counter-terrorism to counter-insurgency.

Since then, we have fought Al Qaida in Iraq, while they joined an ongoing insurgency against us, and waged an unconventional war against them, mostly in Pakistan, consisting of special operations and drone missile strikes against their known and suspected people and positions. Those operations have decimated Al Qaida leadership.

We have focused on Pakistan because there are virtually no Al Qaida terrorists left in Afghanistan. What is left of the original Al Qaida leadership is now hunkered down somewhere in Pakistan’s Waziristan, simply trying to survive.

Al Qaida as we knew it has radically changed. It has been franchised out to discrete local volunteer terrorist groups. They now exist as Al Qaida Maghreb, Al Qaida Arab Peninsula, Al Qaida Yemen, and on and on. Al Qaida Central has little if any command and control over these groups. The situation is further complicated by the new phenomenon of singleton volunteers like the Nigerian Abdul Mutallab and US Army Major Hassan who were self-radicalized and therefore extremely difficult to uncover and neutralize.

Quite simply, America is today fighting a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, an exceedingly difficult task. As long as that is our primary goal, the tactics we use will draw more and more fighters to and sympathy for Al Qaida, making them, our real enemy, increasingly difficult to defeat.

Combating terrorism, compared to counter-insurgency operations, is relatively simple and always potentially more successful. Terrorists do not often enjoy the support of the populations where they are operating. This has been true in Iraq and is definitely true in Afghanistan today. For that reason, they are easier to vanquish than insurgents.

Insurgents usually do have the support, or at minimum the tolerance of the local population. More often than not, as natives, they are preferable to a disliked regime in power or a foreign occupier. They can fade into that supportive population whenever threatened.

As things stand right now, we have none of the necessary advantages in Afghanistan needed to defeat an insurgency, a fact that makes any sort of ultimate “success” exceedingly illusory.

We do not have the overwhelmingly superior troop numbers needed to shut down a country as vast and geographically complicated as Afghanistan.

We do not have the support of the population because we are the foreigners and we are allied with a central “government” for which they have little use.

As long as that is the reality, we will not have the quality intelligence needed to adequately protect ourselves and keep them on the defensive because neither we, nor the Karzai government, is trusted by the bulk of the Afghan people.

In this respect, it doesn’t really matter that we think of ourselves as benevolent liberators, it only matters that Afghans think of us as foreigners occupiers.

Because Afghanistan always has been what it now is—a group of tribes unfavorably disposed to foreigners telling them how to live—our prospects for success in any form are extremely limited.

Al Qaida is finished in Afghanistan. The Obama administration, like its predecessor, claims we are fighting terrorism there. That is simply not true. It is a pure counter-insurgency issue. Why have we changed our goals? What is our concern with this purely national insurgency? What is our real goal and is it attainable?

We clearly hope to install a government of our liking in Afghanistan, yet it’s not at all clear what it would look like. The age-old resistance of the Afghan people to any sort of central government will make it difficult to implement any plan for the country that is consistent with our values.

The logical outcome, in the unlikely event we are successful in defeating the Taliban insurgency, would be further involvement in nation building in Afghanistan. Yet there is little evidence to indicate that the goal of any kind of “nation” familiar to us is attainable.

It took 33 years for Sri Lanka to vanquish the Tamil Tigers’ insurgency—and that struggle never involved foreign troops of any kind. In fact, there are very few examples of successful counter-insurgencies.

How long will the American people support an American counter-insurgency program in Afghanistan, particularly when its success, however unlikely, would likely lead to decades of costly nation building?

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 is a former long-time resident of Brookfield who now lives in Williston.

Read Full Post »

Are there solutions?

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

Al Qaida has a major, long-term, existential problem in the Middle East and the greater Muslim world. It is a problem that they certainly cannot fix on their own. However, America’s counterterrorism policy has given Al Qaida hope for the short-term and if we continue that policy, it may well assist them in their ultimate goal of establishing a hegemonic Caliphate in the Muslim world.

The U.S. policy for the Muslim world that evolved after the events of 9/11 was crafted by policy makers who honestly believed that the solution to US problems in the Muslim world, or for that matter, anywhere else, lay in the swift application of American unipolar military might. That position might have worked in other parts of the world, but its application in the Muslim world has brought with it problems that its authors probably had not envisaged and for which they clearly had not planned.

U.S. interests in Islam

Years ago it was said that, “The United States does not have a Middle East policy. That is probably a good thing, because if it did, it would be the wrong one.” That reality has not changed much in the last half century, which underlines the politically partisan difficulties involved in constructing a precise definition of our national interests. Nevertheless, it is impossible to talk about solutions to our problems in the Muslim world without first broadly defining those interests. That said, it is probably safe to settle on the following generalities:

  • Stability or the absence of armed conflict.
  • The maintenance of U.S. commercial interests.
  • An end to being viewed as the enemy of the Muslims.
  • Realizing our National Security interests, i.e. inhibiting the growth of terrorism by marginalizing secular and religious extremists and supporting Muslim moderates.

U.S. and terrorism

After 9/11, the Bush Administration established fundamentalist Muslim terrorism as our primary concern in the Muslim world. The Obama administration appears to be following that

Bush program and for the last eight years, we have chosen military confrontation as our primary tool for dealing with terrorism.

At the same time, largely because of our choice of military confrontation, the nature of the threat we have faced has changed. Iraq was never a terrorist problem before our 2003 invasion. It became one solely because we were there militarily. We provided Al Qaida with an opportunity for first-rate live training, a target-rich environment and excellent prospects for recruiting. They moved in under the cover of the Iraq insurgency against our troops.

The Afghanistan situation began as a struggle with terrorism and has since morphed into a counterinsurgency. Today, there are hardly any Al Qaida fighters left. Again, we are dealing with an insurgency. Unlike terrorist movements, which are often overcome, insurgencies are extremely difficult to snuff out.

So, we start out with a major contradiction. We want to fight terrorism, but we are fighting insurgencies. The nature of the Muslim world is such that virtually any time we choose to go after Al Qaida militarily, we will end up fighting insurgencies, whether in Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria or Pakistan. All of those countries, like much of the Muslim world, have built into them the kinds of internal ethnic, tribal, religious and political contradictions that make general civil strife a perpetual nightmare waiting to happen. All it takes to push it over the edge into insurgency is something foreign, like American military involvement.

It would be nice, however irrational, to believe that one day we could actually conquer Al Qaida and bring an end to the terrorism that has plagued us for over a decade. Unfortunately, that is not going to happen. If we are ultimately to rid ourselves of this terrorist phenomenon, it will be because the terrorist movement itself dies, as has been the case with most of the terrorist organizations that have not survived during the past half-century.

According to a 2006 Rand Corporation study, in the past fifty years, the tactic least likely to succeed against terrorism is military confrontation. The Rand finding is supported by Israeli experience, which says that wars against terrorism turn into extended counterinsurgency operations which are seldom won.

Our goal in this ongoing struggle with terrorism is clearly to figure out how to help Al Qaida die.

Al Qaida today

The methodical decimation of Al Qaida leadership over the past few years, mostly by drones and covert operations, has resulted in the franchising of their terrorist operations. Al Qaida’s leadership has been sharply reduced and inhibited by unconventional attacks. With its surviving leadership concentrating almost entirely on its own survival in Waziristan, there is little if any central command and control left for their operations.

National franchises have sprung up around the world. They operate in Yemen, Somalia, the North African Maghreb, Pakistan, Indonesia and elsewhere. They are even currently advertising for a start up in Muslim north Nigeria. The scene is further complicated by the arrival on the scene of the new phenomenon of self-motivated singleton volunteers who present a very difficult counterterrorism problem. There is a new air of unpredictability in the counterterrorism field. As these terrorists get more efficient and change their tactics and targeting, which they certainly will, we will have more difficulty anticipating their activities.

Al Qaida goals

“Muslims hate us for who we are and everything we stand for” was an almost constant mantra for the Bush Administration. That is simply untrue. Muslims admire our standard of living, our entrepreneurial spirit, our business acumen and our creativity. Those Muslims who hate us, and today they come in ever increasing numbers, hate us not for who we are, but for what we do. They hate us for our policies.

Unlike Al Qaida fundamentalists, moderate Muslims, where they may have serious complaints about American policy, are not enthralled at the thought of fundamentalist Islam taking over their lives. Moderates represent our greatest potential allies in this struggle with Al Qaida, but they are also easily turned against us.

What turns all Muslims, including moderates, against us is that:

  1. They are offended by the stationing of non-Muslim, foreign (American) troops on the holy soil of Saudi Arabia.
  2. They resent the American history of supporting and maintaining in power despotic regimes that rule Muslim people by force and intimidation.
  3. They hate us for killing Muslims, waging war in and occupying Muslim countries.
  4. They would like to see Palestinian aspirations treated with the same respect and care by America as the US treats Israeli aspirations.

Al Qaida’s primary goal is the re-establishment of strict Islamic rule in a new Caliphate, modeled on the Eighth Century Caliphate that stretched from Spain through North Africa and on through the Middle East to the eastern border of what is now Iran and which held sway over what was then the entire Muslim world.

The establishment of this new Caliphate is designed to rid the Muslim world of what Al Qaida sees as the corrupting influences of the West. An established Caliphate would diminish support of elements in the Muslim world which would today be opposed to Al Qaida goals. That would include virtually all of the regimes now in power there, including those that Al Qaida considers to be the corrupt secular Muslim regimes supported by the West.

In 2005, Robert Pape of the University of Chicago analyzed over 500 suicide or martyrdom attacks around the world over the past quarter century. He concluded that “what over 95 percent of all suicide terrorist attacks around the world since 1980 have in common – from Lebanon, to Chechnya, to Sri Lanka, to Kashmir, to the West Bank – is not religion, but a specific strategic goal: to compel a modern democracy to withdraw combat forces from territory the terrorists view is their homeland, or prize greatly.”

It follows that the activities of groups that use such tactics are directed toward local, not international goals. Al Qaida is focused on reestablishing strict Islamic rule in a new Caliphate. To that end, Al Qaida is doing everything it possibly can to keep the US militarily involved in the Muslim world in the short run. They know that the Muslim world is not yet ready for their fundamentalist Caliphate. They want us to stay in Iraq and Afghanistan because our military presence and activities strengthen their position with their co-religionists.

Al Qaida “martyrdom attacks” are designed to create and maintain an unstable situation, which, in the short term, the US will find difficult to leave. They need us to stay in the Middle East in the short run because our military presence daily coalesces more and more moderates against us and for Al Qaida.

Moreover, they would be absolutely delighted to see us involved on the ground in Somalia, the Yemen or any other Muslim state. Our continued presence and military activities provide them with critical advantages they would not have in our absence.

Direct Al Qaida attacks in the West are designed to show the Muslim world how all-powerful they are. They even claim unsuccessful attacks. It would also increase western insecurity and disrupt their resolve to maintain their long-term interests in the Muslim World. Such attacks are not designed to take over the West or any part of it.

The old Bush notion that “we will fight them over there, so we don’t have to fight them at home” has no basis in fact.

Thus, it is in Al Qaida’s interest to keep America on edge at home. When and if airplanes become less vulnerable targets as a result of western countermeasures, Al Qaida will switch to softer targets; ships, subways, buses, trains, etc. They will do this until they believe America no longer represents a long-term threat to their goals in the Muslim world, when we have withdrawn, or when they have died a natural death.

To survive, Al Qaida must have an external enemy and we have turned ourselves into Al Qaida’s enemy of choice. If we disengage from their battlefield before the majority of moderates turn against us, they will have to deal immediately with all those unavoidable, intractable, internal Muslim issues that have made our lives so complicated since the Iraq invasion. Religious, ethnic and national differences, rivalries and conflicts will be Al Qaida’s to deal with in their quest for the Caliphate.

Al Qaida and its fundamentalist allies are no more likely to succeed in this than America was in attempting to forcibly install democracy in the Muslim world.

The key to the future of Islam lies in its moderates. Whoever secures their allegiance and cooperation, secures the region. Unfortunately, today’s moderates are driven more by their hatred for US policies than they are about Al Qaida’s un-Islamic excesses. They are less offended by Al Qaida’s taking of innocent Muslim lives than they are by US military activities and policies.

When America no longer poses a threat to Al Qaida, that is, after American military disengagement, the moderates will become the primary counterbalance to the radical excesses of Al Qaida. Until then, with our military present, killing Muslims and trying to keep the despots in power, we will exacerbate tensions with the moderates and drive them toward Al Qaida.

Failed states

Much is made of the necessity for us to pay attention to and “do something” about failed and failing states. Taking Taliban Afghanistan in the pre 9/11 period as our national model, we have apparently decided that the elimination of failed states is the answer to our problems with terrorism.

In the real world, that does not compute, a fact that is perfectly illustrated by Richard Reid, the shoe bomber whose terrorist odyssey was focused largely on the UK, hardly a failed state. Other Al Qaida affiliated operations have been planned in the UK, Spain and other non-failed states.

All an enterprising terrorist organization needs to carry out a shoe bombing or an underwear bombing is a reasonably secure safe house in a country where not too much attention is paid to people who mind their own business and thus do not come to the attention of local internal security authorities. The 9/11 attacks could easily have been planned in New York City itself and, significantly, required that its participants get their flight training in America.

Such conditions exist all over the world and provide Al Qaida affiliates with all the options they could need to plan their operations. However, even if it were not the case, the issue of dealing with failed or failing states presents an entirely different set of problems and pitfalls for American policy makers.

The Muslim world is comprised of a number of “nation states” that were more the creation of Western imperialist powers than the result of natural cultural, political, and economic evolution. The result can be seen in Iraq where there are two major interpretations of Islam, Shia and Sunni, plus two major ethnic groups, Arabs and Kurds. In Iraq, as in all the other “failed and failing states”, those divisions and conflicts are at the root of our difficulties in trying to find solutions to problems there and that are in keeping with our goals and values.

How can we solve our problems with Al Qaida when the host governments of countries where we have tangible military goals are not sufficiently helpful. They are either uninterested in our problems, as in Somalia, so busy trying to deal with their own that they have no time for our issues, as in the Yemen, or actually have reasons of their own not to help us out, as in Pakistan with the Taliban. In effect, we are left competing for the time and attention of the reluctant or incompetent governments on which our own policies have forced us to rely. That is not a good formula for success.


There really are only three available solutions for our problems with terrorism in the Muslim World: (1) we can respond to all such situations with military power, (2) we can disengage militarily from the Muslim World or (3) we can try to implement a hybrid of the first two. Under the Bush Administration, we were totally married to the military solution. Under the Obama administration, it would appear we are flirting with the hybrid. No one has tried disengagement.

What we know is that a decade of military confrontation has created at least as many problems for us as it solved, largely because it has alienated, infuriated and neutralized moderate Muslims. It seems highly unlikely that the ongoing hybrid Obama approach will be any more successful, as the same issues of alienation and hostility still exists.

Yet, a careful examination of the realities of the Muslim world and our relationship with it will argue favorably for our complete military disengagement from the region. That act would effectively remove the primary motivation of present and future moderate Muslims who, as a result of our ongoing policies, have come to support, or at least not actively oppose Al Qaida.

There will be major concerns that our military disengagement from both Iraq and Afghanistan will precipitate internal strife in those countries, or worse yet, a general conflagration in the Middle East. Almost all of the disparate ethnic and sectarian components in each of the countries there have external advocates or protectors in the Muslim world. Iraqi Shia have Iran, the Sunnis have Saudi Arabia and Syria, etc.

It does not appear at this time that any of those “protectors” actively seeks to precipitate strife either in the countries involved or in the greater region. Quite the opposite, they have every reason not to seek regional strife. It is far too destabilizing. However, if such strife does come on the heels of US military disengagement, it will be the endemic hatreds and rivalries that will precipitate it, whether we leave now or in fifty years. These divisions and hatreds have existed for millennia. How long are we prepared to stay?

It will be argued that military disengagement will jeopardize the West’s energy supplies, but oil is fungible and only has value when pumped out of the ground and traded. It is also the only major economic asset most of those countries have.

Some will say Israel will be jeopardized, but we have been their primary mediators for forty years. What Muslims view as our totally biased involvement has led only to a deterioration of the situation there. Demographics argue for a two-state solution for both Israeli and Palestinian survival. It may be time to let them sort it out themselves for their own survival. Our disengagement should help mitigate the participants’ excuses for not really negotiating.

Are we deserting our friends? Who are they and are they really friends, or are they in it simply to get whatever support they can from us for their own narrow national goals, without making more than a minimal commitment to us and to our needs?

The fact is that our recent military-based and spearheaded policies in the Muslim world have exacerbated our problems with terrorism, added endless new terrorists to our enemies’ ranks, sullied our previously good reputation with Muslim moderates, maintained and encouraged despots in power and accomplished very little positive for us.

If nothing else, it’s time to consider change. In that context, it might be a profitable departure for America to see the world as it really is, not as we would like it to be. Only then will we get policies that are in harmony with the existing facts on the ground.

New policy

Within the framework of our national interests, there is no viable military solution for terrorism in any part of the Muslim world. Everything we do militarily is directly contradictory to our national interests. The reason for that lies partly in the fact that Muslim terrorism seems to regularly morph into or become absorbed by insurgencies as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More importantly, it stems from the critical, decades-old complaints that Muslims have had about American policies and activities in their region. What Americans need to understand is that as long as those American policies continue, we will be dealing with terrorism and rejection in the Muslim world. They are the causative factors behind the fact that, “they hate us for what we do, not who we are”.

If, on the other hand, we were to change those policies, Al Qaida would not last long in an increasingly moderate Muslim world hostile to their extreme and un-Muslim philosophies and activities. Without the United States as an intrusive, compliant, external whipping boy, Al Qaida would be forced to deal with the realities of their own diffuse and fragile Muslim world, a world largely hostile to them.

But this is a suggested policy built on the realities on the ground in the Muslim World and we all know that U.S. policy is more often built on the internal political needs of the Administration in power, in this case, the Obama administration.

Whatever happens, whatever decisions are made, we will not “win” our struggle with fundamentalist Muslim terrorism with our military establishment. Quite the contrary, as long as we are militarily involved, we will lose far more than we will gain and we will see no end to this terrorism.

Finding himself in a recently weakened position today vis-a-vis the Republicans and facing disapproval from elements of his own party, President Obama is faced with unhappy choices. If he were to see merit in complete military disengagement from the Muslim world, he would face onslaughts from Republicans and from all those who see advantages in the “long war”, including those people and organizations that benefit politically and economically from its continuation. That might just be enough to do him in.

On the other hand, if he can make up his mind to consider what is in our national interest and is prepared to suffer the perhaps dire political consequences of going against the supporters of the “long war”, he could, at minimum, begin the process of solving our most basic problems with the Muslim world and with terrorism.

Read Full Post »

Foreign Policy Formulation

[Originally published on AmericanDiplomacy.org.]

A career intelligence officer and contributor to this journal gives us his take on contemporary foreign policy and the political domestic influences which shape it for good or ill.-The Editor

Fifty years ago, the Democratic and Republican parties were close enough philosophically so that an electoral change from one to the other did not create chaos.  Quite the opposite, such a level of political agreement was a blessing for the United States.  Inter-party transitions were smooth and relatively uncomplicated.

That was a time when other economically advanced countries, Great Britain, for example, were plagued by political polarization.  When Britain voted one party in and the other out, it meant either the nationalization of basic industry, or its denationalization.  Taxes went to 95% on unearned income, or were completely removed.  There was absolutely no way to predict who would win and what would then happen.  That level of political and economic uncertainty meant that businesses couldn’t plan.  Economic, political and social progress was difficult to impossible to achieve.

At the same time, American political transitions were fairly pain-free.  This led to a climate that favored development in the broadest sense of the word.  There was no reason to consider any negative aspects of impending political change when making business or other decisions, simply because they were so unlikely to occur.

Would that that was true today!

Today, America is so politically polarized that we have become a country of single party rule.  That is, one of our two parties is always in charge, with the other party marginalized and in total opposition. Over the past few decades, there has been little to no bipartisanship.  What used to be called honest negotiation has become heinous compromise.  Those in power have shoved their agendas down the throats of the minority while, as we see so clearly today, the party out of power, having no real agenda of its own, simply obstructs anything and everything in every way it can.  There is no arena in which this is more evident than in the formulation and conduct of foreign policy.

During the Clinton years, his administration was prone to getting involved in foreign issues that were not necessarily of critical national interest. Bosnia, Haiti, Northern Ireland, North Korea, Somalia, Rwanda, and the Middle East all come to mind, no one of which, with the exception of a Middle East “success” that has since gone no farther, could be counted as critical to the US.

Under George W. Bush, the Neoconservatives wrested control of foreign policy from whatever moderates may have existed in the Bush Administration at the time.  Neoconservatives posited that in this unipolar world, America had to take sides between good and evil and stake out the moral high ground.  They had total distain for conventional diplomacy, international organizations and pragmatism.  Further, they said that military power and our willingness to use it was critical and that our focus had to be on the Middle East and Global Islam as the principal theater for our overseas interests.  Ultimately, they re-adopted regime change and nation building, two practices earlier condemned and rejected by the Republican Party.

This led to eight years of preemptive unilateralism during which we did whatever we wished to do militarily around the world without any reference to the advice or needs of any other country or organization.  That approach to foreign policy has left us bogged down in Iraq, faced with a true Hobson’s Choice in Afghanistan, poorer by trillions of dollars and thousands of terminated and forever altered lives, most emphatically counting our wounded who will be with us for decades to come.  It left us with little leverage abroad, precious few international friends, declining international status, as well as a “war on terror” which has only played into terrorists’ hands and enhanced their future prospects.

And where were the Democrats?  Either getting the Republican policies jammed down their throats or spinelessly going along.

Perhaps we are too newly into the Obama years to draw any truths or make any judgments.  Certainly, the Obama administration finds itself in a far more difficult position than any administration since FDR.  Quite apart from an extensive list of domestic issues, it inherited what are essentially unsolvable problems in Palestine/Israel, Afghanistan/Pakistan, Iraq and Iran.

These issues are not inherently unsolvable — they are politically unsolvable because of the broad and deep split that has come to America.  The Republicans have consolidated their power as far to the right as they can go and a Democratic Party drift to the left has matched this.  In fact the right and left fringes of the parties now pretty much dictate the policies they will support, leaving the vast moderate center of our political spectrum out in the cold.

This is particularly true for a centrist Democrat or a liberal Republican, both of which groups are in the crosshairs of the extremists in their own parties.

Given this reality, what happens to foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East where we are in such trouble today?  Congressional Democrats, seeing the difficulties created by the Bush era’s neoconservative policies and enjoying a swing in their direction in the general population, recently have keyed their foreign policy plans to those Americans who, after eight years, were weary of war in the Middle East and looking for a way to withdraw.

Obama himself said often that Iraq was a war we needed to leave, but that Afghanistan remained the main stage of our struggle with terrorism and needed to be fought.  In saying that, he created a large problem for himself.  With a new General of his own choosing in charge, he has been faced with requests for large numbers of additional troops.

But somewhere in the process, Afghanistan lost its terrorists and the real issue there became the Taliban insurgency.  Terrorists and insurgents!  They bring major differences requiring totally different approaches.  Terrorism tends not to last much more than 10 years when left to its own devices because it gets little if any support from local populations.  Insurgencies, on the other hand, stem from the population, generally enjoy support, particularly against foreign invaders (read Americans) and therefore seldom get beaten.  Consider the Tamil Tigers who, even if they really are beaten today, as is claimed, lasted 33 years against the Sri Lankan government’s military onslaught.

So, instead of representing a terrorist problem, Afghanistan is purely an insurgency issue. We are aware of the historical disinclination of Afghans to submit to foreign dominance.  What we hear far too little about is the probability that a successful counterinsurgency will likely take decades.   And that assumes that we can be successful at all in a vast and geographically difficult land like Afghanistan!

The favored approach of American proponents of a military solution to the Afghan insurgency is to say that if we diminish our level of military involvement and ultimately don’t “win” (whatever that may mean), the Taliban will invite Al Qaida back in, providing them with a safe haven for further terrorist operations against us. Given the realities of Al Qaida’s severely diminished power, its diffusion around the globe and its lack of command and control over discrete, spontaneous terror groups abroad, they don’t need Afghanistan.  On top of that, Al Qaida cost the Taliban its control over Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11. The Taliban knows that and seems hardly inclined to invite a repeat of what for them was a pure disaster.

And now President Obama has made the decision to augment our military force in Afghanistan by 30,000 troops.  Ultimately his decision will prove to have been wrong and he probably knows it.  He could have decided to go all out militarily or to withdraw completely.  One of those solutions could have been right, but the President clearly opted to go with the middle of the road, hoping to mollify both extremes of our domestic political spectrum, a decision that will most certainly not bring success.

Obama is stuck in the middle of this issue. He got there all by himself.  If he had withdrawn or reduced our troop numbers, Republicans and all their like-minded supporters would have crucified him.  If he had maintained or augmented troop levels to fight a counterinsurgency, something he has never said he favored, he would have lost support in his Democratic base.  Either way, he was faced with making a decision that would have a profound effect on his own chances for reelection.  Ultimately, and for political reasons, he was persuaded to pursue a middle of the road strategy.  Such an approach is almost certainly doomed to failure, which will certainly diminishing his chances for re-election.

The dirty secret here is that that’s the way foreign policy works.  Many of the most important foreign policy decisions made by Republican and Democratic presidents alike, have been made on the basis of their of their Party’s domestic political needs of the moment, rather that on the objective facts in the region or country involved.

Given the severity of the political split in this country, the presidential foreign policy decision-making process becomes almost impossible. Even in better times, without our ongoing political split, the issue of Afghanistan does not lend itself of easy solution.  Not only that, but the rhetoric on all sides of this issue has become so shrill that it is difficult if not impossible for the vast majority of Americans to sort out precisely what the real problems are and to then judge what policy or policies are most likely to forward our national interests.  The debate is ruled by CNBC and Fox news and their acolytes, none of whom seem taken with the notion of bringing clarity to the discussion.

Any President is faced with the same dilemma at some stage of the game.  If, as is so often the case, he opts to let his ambitions for a second term, or the needs of his party, rule the decision making process, he will probably choose a compromise policy designed to placate two totally different constituencies.  That is a virtual guarantee that the policy will fail operationally.

President Johnson faced this issue over Viet Nam by announcing that he would not run for reelection, thus freeing himself at least partially from the pressures of considering domestic political imperatives in the conduct of foreign policy.

If the only outcome of this process were to be the denial of a second term to an incumbent, it might be easier to stomach. The problem, however, is infinitely more far-reaching.  In making the decision to choose a policy designed to placate such diverse political camps, not only is an incumbent likely to fail politically, he will be undertaking a policy, which almost certainly will fail operationally.

On today’s issue of Afghanistan, that scenario brings ramifications for the United States far beyond the re-election of a president.  It brings a failed policy that is likely to have harshly negative, downstream ramifications for America for decades to come.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief. A graduate of Dartmouth, he served in the Army Security Agency, undertook Russian regional studies at London University, and then joined the CIA. He served in Prague, Berlin, Langley, Beirut, Tehran, and Washington. During those 25 years, he worked primarily in Soviet and East European operations. He was also chief of the counterterrorism staff and executive assistant to Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Frank Carlucci. Since his retirement in 1980, he has lived in Vermont.

Read Full Post »