So Much for the Good War

It's time to admit that Obama's Afghanistan strategy is a total failure.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the plight of the Afghan woman was a minor, but important part of the narrative that shaped the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Girls, for the first time in years, headed to schools, and women -- at least in Kabul -- were able to move without the blue shuttlecock burqas that symbolized their bondage under the Taliban.

So it is with great irony that this week, one of the worst ever for coalition forces in Afghanistan, foreigners were killed in Kabul by a suicide bomber who was neither male nor linked to the Taliban. The perpetrator was a young woman affiliated with the Hezb-i-Islami (HIG) militant group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a bitter foe of the Taliban and former U.S. proxy who on 9/11 was self-exiled in Iran.

The ever pragmatic Hekmatyar is a weather vane, indicating the trajectory of the conflict in Afghanistan and the ever shifting domestic and regional power game. His role in the Sept. 18 bombing shows that the insurgents have the upper hand, their fight against the United States and Kabul government will continue, and Afghanistan is headed toward a messy, full-scale civil war.

Hekmatyar is the ultimate hedger. During the 1990s, he was at one point taking cash from both Iran and Pakistan. Today, his group is allied with his former Taliban enemies and is back in cahoots with the Pakistanis -- it continues to dominate Pakistan's Shamshatoo refugee camp and operates freely in Peshawar -- after having been dumped by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence for the Taliban in the mid-1990s. Yet, out of all the insurgent groups, HIG has been most inclined to negotiate with Kabul. It in fact has a prominent network of fellow travelers in Afghan President Hamid Karzai's cabinet, a network consisting of people who have left Hekmatyar's branch of Hezb-i-Islami but still speak of him with reverence. A leading HIG negotiator now says that the peace talks are dead. And in a small-scale but ominous reminder of the chaotic intra-mujahideen war of the 1990s, recently HIG fighters have led so-called local uprisings against the Taliban. Warlordism still rules.

What's in store for Afghanistan is more war. The most perilous scenario is a renewed, full-fledged civil war -- total conflict with every faction for itself. Many, including people in Kabul, Washington, Islamabad, and Rawalpindi, will be responsible for the carnage that could follow. But it is indisputable now that the Obama administration's once-vaunted "AfPak" strategy is a massive failure.

Osama bin Laden is, of course, dead. His killing and the rescue of General Motors were crudely displayed together at the Democratic National Convention as President Barack Obama's greatest achievements. A vigilant drone campaign has depleted al Qaeda's core. Many commanders have fled for greener pastures in the Arab heartland, where the next great jihad could begin.

But the jihad in South Asia continues despite the Obama campaign's celebratory chants. Al Qaeda affiliates and partner groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- including the Haqqani network and a variety of Pakistani Taliban groups -- remain resilient. The region is on fire, and growing instability creates a potential habitat for groups that will challenge regional security and, perhaps down the road, past the current U.S. election cycle, the American homeland.

Beyond al Qaeda, the U.S. president has achieved little of strategic importance in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is incorrect, if not disingenuous, when he says that the Taliban's momentum has been "blunted." The Taliban's spear is sharp as ever. Last week, on Sept. 14, it cut through Camp Bastion, one of the most secure foreign bases in Afghanistan. There, in a complex attack that cost $10,000 or $20,000 at most, it destroyed six jets valued at up to $180 million. The ratio of cost to achievement of the $100 billion-a-year war in Afghanistan is indefensible, though it must be said that the president, with his emphasis on "nation-building here at home," recognizes this uncomfortable fact.

The U.S. surge is over. All troops brought into Afghanistan after December 2009 will have returned home by the end of this week. But the Taliban surge has just begun. Attacks on coalition forces by Afghan security personnel -- the Taliban are responsible for a small, but probably growing number of these -- are on the rise. The Taliban reintegration campaign -- designed to bring low-level Taliban into the fold -- is working, but in an unintended way, with the penetration of the Afghan security forces by Taliban infiltrators.

The local militias raised by coalition forces and Kabul are a motley of opportunistic, quasi-jihadi criminals on temporary leave. The training program has been put on hold due to the rising green-on-blue attacks. The most crucial element of Obama's Afghanistan strategy -- the transition of control to Afghan security forces -- has been effectively suspended with the pause in joint coalition-Afghan operations.

And what of Afghanistan's civilians? The country's weakest are perilously vulnerable. Recall this past winter, when young children froze to death in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Kabul, just miles from the "splendors" (iced lattes, expensive carpets, child sex slaves, and more) enjoyed by Kabul's overnight millionaires and war-contractor expats. Afghan officials responded only after being shamed by New York Times reports on the spate of dying children. Meanwhile, in Helmand and Kandahar provinces -- the heart of Obama's surge -- nearly 30 percent of children suffer from acute malnutrition. They and the thousands of IDPs are the invisible faces of this surge, lost amid the president's indifference and the callous selfishness of Afghanistan's power elite.

Neighboring Pakistan has been both victim and culprit in this debacle. Pakistan's historical support of jihadists -- a lot that murders American, Afghan, and Pakistani civilians and soldiers -- has pushed the country toward strategic death. The generals in Rawalpindi are morally responsible for this cancer that is eating Pakistan from within and threatens its neighbors. And this is well-known. What few recognize, however, is the massive destabilizing impact of continued conflict in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Millions have fled violence in Pakistan's northwest, contributing to thousands of Pashtun migrants pouring into Karachi, settling in informal settlements in the crowded megacity, and putting its ethnic, economic, and political fault lines under great stress. Since 2008, thousands have died in ethnic and political violence in Karachi, and the number grows every year. Obama's war is not the sole contributor to Karachi's ethnic violence, but it is an unrecognized cause of its uptick.

Remarkably, a president who ran on campaigning that Afghanistan was the good war and Pakistan was an even greater challenge has been inattentive to these two wars. There is a noticeable absence of presidential leadership and resolve. The ambitious surge announced in 2009 was time-limited, telegraphing to the Taliban that they just had to outlast limited American patience. The next year, the Obama administration downgraded its goals for Afghanistan, abandoning the pretense of nation-building. By 2011, counterinsurgency was completely tossed out the window.

Obama accelerated the pace of drone attacks in Pakistan, trying to win the war against al Qaeda on the cheap and without much consideration for the negative externalities of this phantom war. These unilateral attacks -- combined with the Raymond Davis episode, the bin Laden raid, and the accidental attack on a Pakistani base in November 2011 -- widened a rift with Pakistan, without which Obama will never get the political settlement with the Taliban that he needs to responsibly vacate Afghanistan.

But Obama let the NATO supply route crisis with Pakistan fester. He is at fault for delegating the decision-making to subordinates, who bickered for months over whether to give Pakistan an apology. The president's closest advisors were ill-equipped for the task. National security advisor Tom Donilon lacks foreign-policy experience. Donilon, according to James Mann's new book, was told by his predecessor, James Jones, "You frequently pop off with absolute declarations about places you've never been, leaders you've never met." Another close Obama advisor, Ben Rhodes, is in his early 30s. But administration officials, according to Mann's account, derisively call consultations with Washington's most experienced foreign-policy hands -- Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, and Zbigniew Brzezinski -- the "old farts" meetings.

It is difficult to imagine the "old farts" making irresponsible statements like those of defense secretary and former CIA chief Leon Panetta. In August, Panetta preempted Pakistan's military and told the media that Rawalpindi would probably launch operations in North Waziristan soon. The gaffe put the Pakistan Army on the defensive and weakened its ability to mobilize public opinion in favor of a limited campaign against the Pakistani Taliban. Panetta also recently described the successful Afghan Taliban attack on Camp Bastion as the insurgency's "last gasp" -- which would be a more appropriate description for the U.S. mission there.

The troubles in Afghanistan and Pakistan did not begin with Obama, and America's failings there during his presidency are by no means his responsibility alone. Afghanistan's elites are myopic plunderers whose war wealth is spent on Italian shoes and Dubai mansions. And the Pakistani military's deadly tryst with jihadists began when Obama was a college student. Rawalpindi remains wedded to using jihadists, even as they point a gun at their own heads, though the Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, recognizes the existential threat they pose and could be looking for a way out. In August, in his Independence Day address, Kayani condemned rising religious extremism and warned that jihadi militants could push Pakistan toward civil war.

Therein lies the common ground. Pakistan needs a political settlement in Afghanistan to avert a civil war that will bleed into its territory and reignite ethnic tensions and jihadism. And that settlement can only be forged while U.S. forces are in Afghanistan. America, too, has little interest in seeing chaos spread in nuclear-armed Pakistan and the re-emergence of jihadi havens in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration, which once thought it could strong-arm Pakistan, must work with it and partners in Kabul to avert a civil war in Afghanistan. The Pakistani foreign minister is in Washington now. President Asif Ali Zardari will be at the U.N. General Assembly meeting later this month. And Kayani could visit in October. There's an opportunity for the Obama administration to revive a trilateral peace initiative, but the clock is running out. It is time for Washington and Islamabad to work with Kabul for a lasting solution to the Afghanistan problem, as equals.



An Open Letter to the United States of America

Some unsolicited thoughts from an Egyptian revolutionary.

Dear Americans,

I have a confession to make: While the whole world was transfixed by us, yet again, due to that whole attacking-the-embassy business, I was going through a tumultuous emotional journey, alternating between bewilderment, horror and shock-based laughter, ending with the most unexpected of feelings: pride. I must say that currently I am filled with a sense of ironic pride for my country and my revolution, for the status both have achieved over the past 19 months. The attention and importance given to Egypt, well, it has been nothing short of overwhelming. We sure have wowed you.

Sure, the scenes on your screens might be so disturbing that some of you openly wondered whether we are going through a second revolution or something, but let me assure you with both facts and personal experience: There is no second revolution, there are no open riots on the streets. The action was totally confined to a 250-meter radius around the embassy, with people going to eat, drink, and smoke shisha within earshot of the fighting. For most Egyptians, this whole video thing didn't affect us at all. And after the initial clashes, the majority of the 2,500 young dudes stationed around the embassy were soccer fans -- the Zamalak Ultras -- who were there simply to do what they do best: battle with the police. The rest of us just went about our lives.

Sure, there are scary indications of things to come, like the attack on a multinational peacekeepers' camp in Sinai, where the al Qaeda flag was hoisted, the same flag now being sold on T-shirts in Tahrir Square. Then there's the arrest of Alber Saber, a guy whose crime was sharing the trailer of Innocence of Muslims on his Facebook page while being a Copt and an atheist as well, and whose house was attacked by a mob (ironically, just like in the movie), but such things are trivialities compared with our other problems.

Here's what I'm talking about: Egypt's becoming way too much like Pakistan for comfort. We are slowly becoming a dangerous, broken rogue state, just like them. Just this week, we had a Salafi member of the Constituent Assembly (the people who are writing our new constitution) talking about efforts to remove or change the law to lower the legal marriage age for girls to the moment they reach puberty and have their first period, even if they are as young as 9 years old. Yes: We might end up having a constitution that grants us child marriages. And you thought you had a culture war.

I know what you're thinking: How can you possibly be proud of all this?

As an Egyptian, the most fascinating aspect of all of this has to be our effect on the American elections, and how we suddenly became an important campaign issue in the snoozefest that is Obama vs. Romney. Isn't it crazy that Obama -- he of the message of peace and understanding with the Muslim world -- must now contend with Islamist rage fueled by those whom he -- and a million thinkers, analysts, and pundits - has referred to as a moderate Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood. That's the same moderate Islamic group whose people met with his people more than 14 times this past year and a half, who convinced them that America should support them because Salafis and liberals are unpredictable and unreliable, and because the Brothers alone can bring peace to the region. That's the same moderate Islamic group that actually called for and facilitated the protests at the U.S. Embassy on the anniversary of 9/11, all while pretending to have nothing to do with it to the English-speaking world. The same moderate Islamic group that now controls nearly all aspects of the Egyptian government, and the source of his current dilemma.

How is it that, in just four years, Obama went being from the American president who called in Cairo for a new beginning with Muslims to the target of hostile chants by religious extremists storming U.S. embassies across the Islamic world ("Obama, Obama, we are all Osama"). If this ends up becoming a hot campaign issue, and Obama loses, pundits and historians will say that the Obama presidency started with Egypt and ended because of Egypt. As an Egyptian political geek always enamored with international political theater, how can I not be proud of that? How awesome is that?

The icing on the cake in this whole affair has to be the role the Brotherhood played in this attack, and how it provides fantastic fodder for conspiracy theorists and political analysts alike. Here is what we know: A bunch of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi figures started making an issue of this movie, which no one heard of before, a few days before the anniversary of 9/11. Both the Brotherhood and various Salafi groups called for protests at the U.S. Embassy on the anniversary of 9/11.

That day, a friend who works for the embassy informed me, the employees who left at 4 p.m. noticed that both the police and the army forces protecting the embassy had vanished, followed by the attack that you all watched on your plasma TV screens. Over the next few days, the Brotherhood would praise the attackers in the Arabic media and condemn them in their English language media, prompting a testy exchange between the U.S. Embassy and the MB's English Twitter account and Obama's remark that he no longer views Egypt as an ally.

The Brotherhood and its sympathizers went into damage-control mode, asking the world to understand the depth of Muslim anger and blaming the affair on the Interior Ministry, which had assured them everything was cool. So why didn't the army -- which President Mohamed Morsy supposedly now controls -- step in? And why hasn't Morsy fired a single Interior Ministry employee?

Meanwhile, we now have a call from the justice minister to reinstate the emergency law -- again -- and a call to boycott Google, which is so absurd it's hilarious. Will the Brotherhood be throwing Gmail account-deletion parties?

How did we get here? What happened to all those images of cute, flag-waving Westernized-looking Egyptian girls? How did the face of Egypt become the bearded image of Mohamed Morsy? Have we gone from your favorite world drama and the subject of a million social media conferences and think-tank panels to being another cautionary tale, the harbinger of bad things to come, and now a threat to Barack Obama's re-election? My little country, my beloved Egypt, did all of this with one peaceful revolution. Imagine.

OK. Maybe "revolution" isn't the right word for what we did. Because let's face it: the "revolution" is now over for the time being. My secular-minded revolutionary friends have become so traumatized and exhausted by the abuse they've endured at the hands of the army and police that they are now solely focused on holding those institutions accountable, instead of doing the broader work of trying to create the country of rights and freedoms of their dreams. Sure, it is safe to say that with Islamists in power, child brides are nothing but a taste of the horror we are bound to see over the coming years. As someone who fought on the front lines in Tahrir Square and even ran for parliament at the height of my revolutionary exuberance, all this breaks my heart in ways I can't even begin to describe.

But, hey: At least we're still making headlines, and maybe we're even going to overthrow YOUR leader this year. And surely that counts for something.

Best Regards,

Mahmoud Salem

Egyptian Revolutionary