Month: July 2011

The Afghanistan war’s last casualty

Steve Clemons has noted how the Afghanistan war, once a magnet for the best and the brightest, has been left to Joe Biden’s lonely ingenuity:

Biden is the right guy to help Obama to deliver the political outcome in Afghanistan that we need to get to. Biden has thought through strategies to deal with components of the Taliban, understands the vital role Pakistan must play, gets the strategic gaming that is also part of the package and which would no doubt involve India, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps China and Russia.

Clemons doesn’t even mention the highly competent Marc Grossman, who replaced Richard Holbrooke as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. I guess he is just chopped liver.

It is easy to see why the power players are abandoning the Afghanistan account. There isn’t much upside left. President Karzai’s closest associates are being assassinated, the warlords are predominant, the drug trade is resurgent, the country’s biggest bank has failed due to blatant fraud and corruption, and the Americans are beginning to withdraw, with a target date of end of 2014 for full withdrawal.

It’s hardly worth mentioning that USAID and the U.S. Embassy of which it is a part are at odds, or that GAO thinks better accountability for assistance money is required.  Except those are perennial problems that go unnoticed when things are improving.

With Osama bin Laden dead and Al Qaeda diminished, the only remaining justification for the U.S. to spend over $100 billion per year on the war in Afghanistan is the prospect that it might one day harbor extremists who would destabilize Pakistan, a nuclear weapons state whose dicey political and economic situation is more likely to worsen than improve.  That’s a threat worth worrying about, but it’s hypothetical rather than imminent.

So the United States is suing for peace, trying to arrange an end to the Afghanistan war that is short of ignominious:  peace with honor, or at least a minimum of dignity.  This will mean accepting a Taliban role in Afghanistan’s future governance–that’s what getting them off the UN’s terrorist lists portends.  It will also mean continuing to aid Pakistan, even if Islamabad steals a good part of our money and fails to do a lot of what we would like.  As Dennis Kux notes in a recent piece for the Real Instituto Elcano, that kind of muddling through with Pakistan has been going on for decades.  Why should it stop now?  The foreign policy experts are betting it won’t, despite serious bilateral frictions.

I’m not so sure, but the reasons have more to do with the dueling over the debt and deficit than foreign policy.  The United States is in no position to continue spending over $100 billion per year in Afghanistan, but so far we’ve done it because that’s what we’ve locked ourselves into.  Those few extra billion (it looks like under $5 billion per year) for Pakistan’s military and economy may not seem like much in the scheme of things, but the Tea Party won’t see it that way.  Aid to Israel is sacrosanct even in the Tea Party, but aid to a Pakistani government and military that can’t see its way to helping us get Al Qaeda is not.

So either we abandon Pakistan because we get tired of having our money stolen, or we continue the aid but leave Pakistan at the mercy of whatever arrangements we are able to make on the Afghan side of the border before we leave in 2014.  One way or the other, Pakistan will be the Afghanistan war’s last casualty.

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Off the deep end

So much is being written so quickly about a Norwegian whose name I don’t care to remember it is very difficult to keep up. But if you have time for only one piece, for the moment I’d recommend Spencer Ackerman’s.  I don’t like the title, so I won’t repeat it, but it does a good job of showing the parallels between extremist thoughts on both sides of the Western/Muslim divide.  And the accompanying video expounding the Norwegian’s appeal for a new crusade against multiculturalism and Islam is worth browsing. Also worth a mention, Blake Hounshell’s quick account of what the Norwegian killer was trying to accomplish.  And if you are a glutton for punishment, try Reidar Visser,  who has the virtue of commenting also on the Norwegian political context.

There will be a temptation to treat the Norwegian incident as a one-off, pretty much the way we’ve treated Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City attack.  Isn’t most terrorism today Islamic?  The answer is no, as demonstrated in Islam 101’s now aging post from January 2010 on terrorism in the U.S. and Europe.  In Europe, most terrorism is associated with separatists (Basque, Corsican and Irish principally).  In the U.S., it appears Latino, leftist and Jewish terrorist incidents were more numerous than Islamic ones, at least until 2005.

Nevertheless, Jennifer Rubin–having already made the mistake of suggesting that Al Qaeda was responsible for the Norwegian events–acknowledges that mistake and goes on to compound it:  

That the suspect here is a blond Norwegian does not support the proposition that we can rest easy with regard to the panoply of threats we face or that homeland security, intelligence and traditional military can be pruned back. To the contrary, the world remains very dangerous because very bad people will do horrendous things. There are many more jihadists than blond Norwegians out to kill Americans, and we should keep our eye on the systemic and far more potent threats that stem from an ideological war with the West.


I can agree that “we should keep our eye on the systemic and far more potent threats that stem from an ideological war with the West,” but many of them come from nationalists, racists, and Islamophobes, something the American right is loath to acknowledge. It might cut altogether too close to the bone.

The happy fact is that a privileged elite is being dethroned from power in many countries by people who don’t think power, privilege or even citizenship should derive from the color of one’s skin, gender, sexuality, position on abortion rights or the vehemence of one’s devotion to Christianity.  There are losers in that process of democratization.  Some of them are going to go off the deep end.  We need to be far more attentive to the violent risks they pose than we have been so far.

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The Balkan high road

Asked to talk with Fulbrighters going to Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia, I did the following notes for myself.  They are not much, but they represent only a small part of the presentation, which consisted mainly of answers to their questions.  I focused on U.S. relations with these countries because that is what a former Fulbrighter told me she would have liked to know more about before departing.

Fulbright Presentation

July 21, 2011

1.   Someone has been kind to me:  they gave me the easy countries in the Balkans.  All of you are going to places that are on the high road:

  • Slovenia has already arrived in NATO and the EU, even in the euro zone
  • Croatia is in NATO and will soon be in the EU
  • Montenegro is in NATO negotiations and expected to accede in 2012; it already has a Stabilisation and Association Agreement and EU candidacy status
  • Serbia has not decided on NATO but likely will gain EU candidacy status by early next year

2.  The only one that has had real problems is Serbia

  •  The arrest of Goran Hadzic eliminates a key obstacle to EU candidacy
  • Northern Kosovo and Bosnia remain stumbling blocks–it would be best if both were removed before the EU offers candidacy

3.  U.S. relations with these countries

  • Slovenia and the U.S. have been on excellent terms for decades
  • Croatia and the U.S. had a close relationship in the 1990s, but a problematic one:  recovery of Croatian territory and cooperation on Bosnia were big issues
  • Montenegro and the U.S. have been on good terms since Djukanovic turned against Milosevic in the late 1990s
  • Serbia has been the problematic one

4.  U.S./Serbia relations:  troubled waters, calmer recently

  • The U.S. contested Milosevic’s efforts at “all Serbs in one country”
  • This led eventually to NATO bombing of the Bosnian Serbs in 1995 and the Dayton agreements
  • It also led to the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 to prevent the expulsion of Albanians from Kosovo
  • Relations with Serbia have since been fully normalized:  trade, investment, cooperation on law enforcement, nuclear issues
  • But the U.S. still has serious disagreements with Serbia about Bosnia and especially Kosovo, where Belgrade continues to harbor territorial ambitions
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Can citizens bridge the divide?

Pew yesterday published the results of its survey of Western and Muslim attitudes towards each other, updating a 2006 survey.  Andy Kohut presented the results at a Carnegie Endowment event yesterday, “A Great Divide?  How Westerns and Muslims See Each Other.”  I won’t try to summarize:  best that you read it in Pew’s own words.

There were some striking findings.  The percentages of Muslims believing that Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks has gone down since 2006.  Pew deadpans:

There is no Muslim public in which even 30% accept that Arabs conducted the attacks. Indeed, Muslims in Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey are less likely to accept this today than in 2006.

Another stunner:

Muslim publics have an aggrieved view of the West — they blame Western policies for their own lack of prosperity. Across the Muslim publics surveyed, a median of 53% say U.S. and Western policies are one of the top two reasons why Muslim nations are not wealthier.

This despite very large quantities of aid given to some Muslim countries by the West, and an astounding amount of money sent to other Muslim countries in payment for oil.

On a more hopeful note:

…both Muslims and Westerners are concerned about Islamic extremism. More than two-thirds in Russia, Germany, Britain, the U.S. and France are worried about Islamic extremists in their country. Fully 77% of Israelis also hold this view.

But extremism is considered a threat in predominantly Muslim nations as well. More than seven-in-ten Palestinian and Lebanese Muslims are worried about Islamic extremists in their countries, as are most Muslims in Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey.

The Carnegie Endowment discussion yesterday had some high points too. Shuja Nawaz of the Atlantic Council noted the similarity of what people want in Muslim countries and in the West (freedom and democracy, no violence) but underlined the U.S. neglect of education about the world beyond its borders, noting that less than half of 8th graders know that Islam originated in Saudi Arabia.

Shuja thought Muslims react more to U.S. policy than to Americans as a people (or the U.S. as a political system); they see the U.S. as backing autocratic rulers, fighting in Islamic countries and wanting to sustain its hegemony. Six out of ten Pakistanis want improved relations with the U.S., but few have any direct contact with Americans.  What we should be trying to do is establishing more society-to-society, people-to-people relations, in particular with the middle class, but American visa policy does the opposite (and is opaque and demeaning to boot).

Samer Shehata of Georgetown University agreed, suggesting that U.S. policy has given Muslims little reason to change their views of the West in a positive direction since 2006, apart from the still incomplete withdrawal from Iraq.  He also noted that there have been no serious protests against the NATO action in Libya, which is broadly supported in Muslim countries.  Still, Muslim attitudes are heavily conditioned by the Palestine/Israel conflict, the presence of U.S. troops in Muslim countries, and U.S. support for Arab and other autocrats.  Shehata also asked a lot of good questions about the assumptions and framing of the Pew survey.

Kohut agreed that personal exposure makes a difference to attitudes, whereas there appears to be little correlation with age and education.  American assistance after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2005 Kashmir earthquake was positively received, but the effect was not dramatic.  President Obama has disappointed Muslim expectations.

On 9/11, Shuja Nawaz said that in Pakistan most of the conspiracy theories originate on the crackpot fringe in the U.S., but no one counters them once they reach Pakistan, where they consequently gain greater currency.

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The rich get richer

Yesterday’s conference on investment prospects in the wake of the Arab Spring over at the World Bank’s Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) was a lively couple of hours–these economic types are briefer and more to the point than their political counterparts–but the bottom line was gloomy:  the GCC states and Iraq are likely to attract the lion’s share of investment while Egypt and Tunisia (Syria, Yemen and Libya weren’t even mentioned) go begging in the short term.  There was disagreement on longer-term prospects, with Ian Bremmer registering a strong minority view that the geopolitics are unfavorable, both because of Iran and the Israel/Palestine conflict.

An upbeat and indefatigible Afshin Molavi started off underlining that we live in a world of surprisingly interconnected risk, that there is a lot of diversity in what we should not really label “Arab Spring,” and that the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) has a young population, many unable to get married because of the lack of jobs and looking for “dignity.”  Growth has now slowed, hurting their prospects.

Citibank’s Hamid Biglari said investors have adopted a wait and see attitude toward the more revolutionary part of the region and are shifting their attention towards the GCC and Iraq, whose prospects are good if Baghdad can get security under control.  Multinationals are not pulling out.  Egypt is a larger and better known market than Tunisia, which however is more homogeneous, more secular, more middle class and better educated.  Tunisia is more likely to succeed economically, but Egypt is the bigger prize.  The immediate concerns of investors are about legitimacy and whether the new governments will treat the old elite decently, but it will be a decade before “equilibrium” returns.

Ian Bremmer of Eurasia Group admitted enthusiasm for the Arab Spring (“it feels good”) but noted that Ukraine and Georgia felt good at first too.  Tunisia seems to be moving in the right direction, Egypt less so but will likely muddle through.  Iraq is the most exciting investment opportunity in the region.  U.S. influence is declining, and Saudi influence is increasing.  Saudi policy objectives and conditionality will differ from those of the U.S.  Overall though the immediate political risks have been overvalued.  The problem is in the longer term, both because of Iran and the Israel/Palestine conflict.  Europe and the U.S. will increasingly be occupied with other problems.

Cairo-based Walid Bakr of Riyada Enterprise Development, Abraaj Capital, was more optimistic in the medium and long term.  Egypt’s big market and tourist attractions are not going away.  Half the population is under 24, well educated and internet savvy, with lots of entrepreneurial spirit.  The revolution has unleashed strong feelings of national pride and dignity.  Youth is the engine of growth and can contribute to the all-important creation of small and medium enterprises so vital to job creation and wealth distribution.

Dubai-based Yasar Jarrar of PwC Middle East underlined that we are still at the beginning of the changes in the Middle East, which suffered a long period of stagnation (not real stability).  The GCC countries are moving well to kickstart job creation for youth, major infrastructure investments and dialogue between their governments and the citizens.  But it is going to be a long spring in a region that really does matter.  Philip Haddad of Mubadala Infrastructure Partners agreed that we need to take the long view, but in the meanwhile as much as $38 billion is being invested in infrastructure, which is not bad.

The Omani ambassador, Hunaina Sultan Ahmed al-Mughairy, led off with a very upbeat assessment of the Sultanate’s prospects.  The message was “yes, we can” reform ourselves, if we put our minds to it.  Jean Francois Seznec of Georgetown said he was very pessimistic about Bahrain, where the basic issue is governance.  In recent weeks, only 5% of the hotel rooms in Bahrain have been occupied.

There was a good deal of agreement that the issue everywhere is at least in part governance.  Citizens did not feel they were benefiting under the old regimes, because of a lack of accountability.  Political and economic reform need to go together, but it is not clear that new parliamentary democracies will credit competence and choose economic reform, which is discredited because it is associated with the old regimes.

Wrapping up, Ravi Vish of MIGA confirmed the importance of governance, addressing social inequality and the income gap, and job creation, mainly through a stronger and more entrepreneurial private sector.  He also reviewed MIGA’s portfolio of political insurance products, for which demand is naturally rising in the region.



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Better late than never

Goran  Hadžić, the last remaining Serb fugitive from indictments by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, was arrested today and will be transferred to The Hague for trial on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Hadžić was president of the so-called “Serbian Autonomous District /Sprska autonomna oblast/ Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem” and later of the Republic of Serbian Krajina /Republika Srpska krajina, the Serb parastate created in the early 1990s inside Croatia.  He is accused of participating in a joint criminal enterprise to persecute and murder Croats and other non-Serbs as well as imprisoning and torturing them in inhumane and cruel ways.  He is also accused of deporting and forcibly transferring non-Serbs as well as the wanton destruction of their property. 

With this arrest, Belgrade fulfills one of the important conditions for it to achieve candidacy status for European Union membership, thus relieving the Dutch of their promise of a veto unless cooperation with the Hague Tribunal was complete.  It also opens the door to a thorough reform of Serbia’s own security services, which have clearly been implicated in helping Hadžić and Ratko Mladić to hide for many years. I hope the investigation will extend to the Serbian Orthodox Church as well, which the Serbian war crimes prosecutor alleges was implicated in hiding Hadžić.

Is this the end of the conditions Serbia will have to meet?  No.  There will be many more as it makes its way through the many “chapters” of the acquis communitaire, the laws and regulations of the EU.  Important among the conditions will be “good neighborly relations” with both Kosovo and Bosnia, which do not exist today even if there has been some improvement on both fronts.  Further Belgrade/Pristina talks have however been put off until September, suggesting that there are problems in coming to closure on the few, rather elementary items that are said to have been agreed already.

Belgrade, Zagreb, Brussels and Washington all have good reasons to be happy with this arrest, which closes the book on the Serbian indictees even if there are long trials still ahead.  Better late than never.



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