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The “unscrupulous” Mr. Karzai

When the solid matter hits the air circulating equipment, everyone looks out for their own interests. Are we?

“For it is dangerous to attach one’s self to the crowd in front, and so long as each one of us is more willing to trust another than to judge for himself…

Seneca the Younger, On The Happy Life

Groupthink is a dangerous thing. And while they may disagree about everything else under the sun, Washington-types have unanimously directed their ire at Afghan President Hamid Karzai.  An apparent quote from an unattributable source about Mr. Karzai threatening to join the Taliban, if international pressure on him did not cease, made the rounds in international media.  Ex-UN envoy to Afghanistan Peter Galbraith questioned Mr. Karzai’s mental condition and suggested that the president may have a drug use problem.

Steve Coll’s blogpost followed suit, with a detailed account of the pervasive corruption that the Karzai administration had fostered.  Fred Kaplan on The Slate asked whether a successful COIN operation could in fact be carried out in Afghanistan, given the manner in which Mr. Karzai is running things in Afghanistan.  Former US Assistant Secretary of Defense, Bing West, rather plainly called Mr. Karzai an “obstacle to progress” in his op-ed in The New York Times.

Washington’s foremost thinkers and analysts, singing together in perfect harmony. Mr. Kaplan sums up the groupthink perfectly — the US is of the opinion that Mr. Karzai believes he (and by extension, Afghanistan) is too big to fail, and with the stakes being as high as they are, the US is left with no option but to continue to pour resources — monetary and military, to sustain the Karzai government.

But a closer inspection at events unfolding in the region presents a clearer picture of Mr. Karzai’s intentions and US angst. Hamid Karzai began his second  term in office by stepping up engagement with China.  Mr. Karzai then invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who proceeded to chastise the Americans in the presence of his host.

Therein lies the US’s angst — Hamid Karzai appears eager to consolidate power and dilute US influence in Afghanistan.  To accomplish this, he needs the assistance of other regional powers — hence, the dialog with China, the invitation to Iran and the visit to Islamabad. He sees the benefits in ensuring an extended US stay in Afghanistan (the Americans are, after all, his primary financiers), but no longer desires to see the US as  the absolute dominant power in the country.

This is effectively the source of frustration in Washington.

As China, Pakistan and Iran prepare to step up engagement with Afghanistan, there are question marks about where the recent developments leave India.  While the Karzai government has in the past pressed New Delhi to play a larger role in the country, India has restricted its involvement in Afghanistan to providing humanitarian and  economic assistance. Frustrated, the Karzai regime now looks to hedge its bets elsewhere.

This puts India in a precarious position.  The prospects of a reemergence of a Russia-India-Iran order in Afghanistan aren’t great, given that Indo-Iranian relations are at a low.  But we’re still very far away from throwing in the towel.  There are significant caveats and complications in the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran relationship for it to become an order.

Both India and Iran share mutual interests in Afghanistan, and it is therefore imperative that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government make amends for its folly at the IAEA. India’s attempts at revitalizing its relationship with Russia is a positive step — it is important that this relationship extend itself to securing both nations’ mutual interests in Afghanistan.

Ultimately, it is in India’s best interests that no one order — be it the US and its Western allies, or the Pakistan-Saudi-China triumvirate — dominate Afghanistan’s landscape.  This landscape will include the “unscrupulous” Mr. Karzai, and increasingly, warlords (affiliated as well as adversarial) and Taliban remnants.  India must therefore work with regional powers and political players to ensure that its interests in Afghanistan are protected, at a time when power equations in the war-torn nation are rapidly changing.

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US-Russian START Treaty

Find a lofty ideal; use creative accounting to make it work.

Non-proliferation hawks in the Democratic Party will be happy — the United States and Russia sealed the deal on a “new” START treaty on taking steps towards nuclear disarmament.  US President Barack Obama feels strongly about the issue and wants to work towards a multilateral framework for eliminating nuclear weapons and controlling nuclear material.  In this respect, START III sounds like a great idea; except, as they say, the devil is in the details.

According to the treaty, the United States and Russia will reduce their “deployed weapons” to 1,550 over a seven-year timeframe.  Deployed weapons only, not weapons held in reserve.  In addition to deployed weapons (~ 2,200), the US also has 2,500 weapons in active and inactive stock, which are not within the treaty’s purview.   So right off the bat, the scope of START eliminates about 50% of the US’s total possible inventory.  Second, upon Russia’s insistence, each heavy bomber deployed with weapons counts as “one weapon” towards that magic number of 1,550 (although each bomber will likely possess multiple weapons).  Pretty fancy stuff.

Some very clever people help us out with the arithmetic:

The United States currently deploys approximately 2,126 strategic nuclear warheads, with a comparable number of warheads in reserve. Russia is believed to deploy approximately 2,600 strategic nuclear warheads. However, since each deployed heavy bomber will now count as only one warhead, under New START the U.S. currently deploys far fewer than 2,126 warheads (according to the best estimates we currently have 500 warheads on 60 or 113 bombers – depending on how you count; if you do the math, that already puts us at 1700-1800 warheads)! [Nukes of Hazard]

In addition to only addressing “deployed” weapons, the cap is specific to deployed strategic weapons only — ICBMs and SLBMs.  This very neatly takes the US’s 500 deployed tactical nuclear weapons (and the 600 tactical weapons in stockpile) out of the the treaty’s purview ( link).  There is also some ambiguity over whether the treaty caps US’s ambitious ballistic missile defense systems (BMDS) project — speculation is abound that it does.  However, the White House has already tried to preempt the battle it will have on its hands with this little fact-sheet.

What does START III mean to the rest of the world? Even with 1,550 nuclear weapons each, the US and Russia will be so far ahead of the third largest nuclear weapons state (France, with 300 weapons) that it is unlikely to have a direct impact on disarmament.  Of course, some countries might choose to “right size” their arsenal (as indeed France is doing), but these are not decisions inspired by START.

START III may be just the sort of thing to parade around New Delhi, coaxing it to ratify the alphabet soup of non-proliferation treaties.  This is a non-starter.  We live in a neighborhood where one power willfully flaunts the terms of the non-proliferation treaties that it is signatory to, and is increasingly belligerent in its dealings with India.  And the lesser said about our other nuclear neighbor’s non-proliferation record, the better.   Treaties such as START III can only be conceivable to lesser nuclear powers like India once minimum credible deterrence is achieved (for which there is no magic number).  Until such time, let such treaties be part of the lofty ideals of countries with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over.

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Mowing the grass

The similarities between Washington, D.C. and Wanat, Nuristan.

UK’s spokesperson for military operations in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Gordon Messenger was at a New America Foundation sponsored event in Washington, D.C., talking about COIN operations and Operation Moshtarak in Marja.  Since the invasion in 2001, COIN operations in Afghanistan  have assumed a “clear-hold-withdraw” pattern, where coalition forces mount operations against  insurgents, maintain momentary control, and either partially or entirely withdraw over a period of time.  This withdrawal invariably creates a power vacuum, which the Taliban return to fill — resulting in another series of coalition COIN operations.  “Mowing the grass, ” The New York Times calls this.

Gen. Messenger spoke at length about the pattern: (h/t nukesofhazardblog.com)

How exactly does one prevent merely mowing the grass?  It sounds simple enough: make sure an Afghan security force is in place to fill any potential security void upon the end of an operation.  Operations should be jointly planned and executed, all the way down to the lowest level, by both ISAF and the Afghan national forces.  Substantive partnering with Afghans will set the groundwork for a strong eventual US and NATO transition out of the country that is not conditions based, said Messenger.  Properly trained Afghan forces (ANP and ANA) gradually taking on an increasingly large percentage of operations planning and execution will allow for ISAF forces to confidently withdrawal and leave a solid security foundation.

Of course, joint operations with Afghan security forces seems theoretically sound and practically feasible.  There’s just one small problem – after spending eight years and billions of dollars, Afghan’s security forces remain staggeringly under-equipped and untrained.  The extent of the lack of operational readiness of indigenous forces is only now being understood by civilian leadership in Washington.  Mark Hosenball observes (h/t pragmatic_d):

[A]t a March 12 briefing in the White House Situation Room, President Obama asked his senior advisers if Afghan police will be ready for action by July 2011 when the scheduled draw down of American troops is supposed to begin. The answer, from Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the American officer in charge of building Afghanistan’s security forces, was not encouraging. “It’s inconceivable, but in fact for eight years we weren’t training the police,” Caldwell told the president and his assembled senior advisers, who included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Bob Gates, and top military, national security, and intelligence chiefs. “We just never trained them before. All we did was give them a uniform,” Caldwell said, according to a senior official who was in the room—and who asked for anonymity when speaking about sensitive information.

The president, said the official, looked stunned. “Eight years and we didn’t train police?” Obama said.  “It’s mind boggling.” The room went silent. [Newsweek]

This “mowing the grass” is being replicated on the field in Eastern Afghanistan as it is in Washington, D.C.  That Afghan security forces are untrained is known.  Desertion rates (25% each in the ANA and ANP ) are high and institutional corruption is pervasive.  Building a credible security forces under the circumstances is tough enough, without having to factor in shortages in available US and NATO trainers (currently numbering less than 2,000).  These are all long-standing issues which short-term, duct-tape fixes will not solve.  However, even after Mr. Obama’s major review of operations in Afghanistan in November, 2009, the same mistakes are still being committed.

If the goal is to train the 83,000 ANA and 90,000 ANP fast enough for them to be able to begin taking over from coalition forces in 2011, the US must elicit assistance from the pre-eminent military power in the region — India.  Even with Indian assistance, this is going to be a mad dash to the finish line.  For a country admired (and oftentimes disliked) for doggedly pursuing its national interests, even when they conflict with those of its allies, US reluctance in India’s involvement because of Pakistan’s “sensitivities” is inexplicable.

As things stand today, there is a 1:85 ratio of trainers to Afghan security personnel; the numbers just don’t add up.  This is a significant gap whose resolution requires a recognition of the enormity of the challenge, a change in mindset and a commitment to leave behind a stable, secure and functioning democracy in Afghanistan.

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Kayani in Washington

…remember that the man with the laundry list also has a begging bowl.

General Ashfaq Kayani will be in Washington DC for high-level talks on “cementing a long-term strategic partnership with the United States.”  And as Gen Kayani goes to Washington, a slew of articles have appeared in Pakistan’s English-language and vernacular press, virtually popping the sparkling Rooh Afzah in anticipation of benevolence manifold from the US.  Pakistan today is behaving like a giddy teenager who has already chosen the names of her kids following a two day courtship, when in fact, a game of “he loves me, he loves me not” would be more appropriate, given the history of US-Pak ties.

We have done ourselves no favors either, from over-the-top statements from Yashwant Sinha to the vague utterances of SM Krishna, perspective on the Pak COAS’s visit, America’s compulsions and India’s place in world affairs seems to have been lost.  C Raja Mohan attempts to correct that with a brilliant piece in The Indian Express:

Only a bold man will bet that the US-Pakistan relationship will now evolve into something more than the marriage of convenience it has been for decades. After all, there are little commercial or societal ties that bind the US to Pakistan and it might be difficult to sustain the US-Pakistan partnership once the current expediency passes.

Although Pakistan’s leverage in Washington today is real, Kayani might be over-estimating its value. Kayani’s American wishlist is said to have four key demands. There is no way the US can meet the entirety of Pakistan’s demands. Nor can the administration deliver on them unilaterally; some of them — like the nuclear deal — require congressional consensus as well as unanimity in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. There are others that are simply not possible — force Indian concessions on Kashmir.

As it responds to the US-Pakistan strategic dialogue this week, Delhi’s message must be three-fold — global efforts aimed at a positive transformation of Pakistan are welcome; expanded economic and military assistance to Pakistan must be conditioned on Pindi’s commitment to dismantle its jehadi assets; India is ready to address all of Pakistan’s concerns — including Kashmir — if it gives up violent extremism as an instrument of state policy. [The Indian Express]

Certainly, there are critical foreign policy questions that India needs to answer.  Questions about the nature and limitations of this new-found “strategic” relationship with the US, our own perceptions of our place and stature in the region and our relations with Pakistan and powers such as Russia and Iran with regard to the dynamics of the AfPak situation require careful deliberation.  This needs to happen regardless of the Obama-Kayani meet.

This government needs to focus on issues over which it has control; let our neighbors continue to revel in the delusional.

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