Voice

Parsing Team Holbrooke

 This morning I slipped in as one of the very last people let in to see Richard Holbrooke and most of his team at a packed room in the St. Regis Hotel (thanks, anonymous CAP staffer who came to usher me in past the bouncers).  Holbrooke's decision to showcase his entire team was quite interesting in and of itself, as was his determination to offer the Obama administration's approach to Afghanistan as a model and test case for a new "whole of government" approach to security issues.  I had a bunch of meetings the rest of the afternoon, so in internet time this is already ancient history -- there's already been a lot of good commentary and discussion of the event on the blogs.  I'll just throw out a few of my own reactions anyway and leave it at that. 

 It was obvious the moment it came out of his mouth that most of the commentary from today's event would focus on Holbrooke's statement that we would know success when we saw it (I think I may have been the first to Twitter it, at least!).  The "Supreme Court" test has triggered the fears of a wide range of obvservers, with Michael Cohen declaring it the "jumping the shark" moment for his Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch.  Let's just say that I didn't find this reassuring.  

 But I'm actually less worried about the absence of metrics than I am by the continuing lack of clarity about the strategic rationale and core objectives of the mission.  Moderator John Podesta zeroed in ruthlessly on this in his first question:  what happened between President Obama's March 27 declaration of a limited set of objectives --"I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future"  -- and the expansive goals of "armed state building" which appear to now define the mission?  

 Holbrooke restated the importance of Pakistan, and the interconnections of al-Qaeda and the Taliban(s), but ultimately didn't answer the question.  Indeed, tension appeared to exist between different members of his team.  Holbrooke and other team members talked about a vast range of necessary steps across the entire spectrum -- the U.S. can't succeed unless Afghan farmers succeed, the Afghan government must gain legitimacy, and so forth.  But at another point, team member Barnett Rubin said, in line with the original Obama policy, that "we are committed to fight there until we are secure from terrorist attacks launched from there and until the region is safe from nuclear terrorism." 

 Is that still the goal, or is constructing a stable and functioning Afghan state now a goal in and of itself? Does achieving the clear, precise goal of fighting al-Qaeda really require the long-term commitment to state-building and counter-insurgency in Afghanistan which is now being pursued?  Does it even require defeating the Taliban?  I could be convinced that such an approach is required -- but find it disturbing that the case is not being made, and that goals remain alarmingly elastic.   As Spencer Ackerman points out, discontent is growing among people who support the Obama administration about the way this policy is evolving -- it's not just me. 

 On other matters, I found  Holbrooke's discussion of the regional diplomacy to be one of the most interesting parts of the event.  Holbrooke pointed with some pride to the rapid evolution of multilateral participation in his mission of creating  what Rubin called a regional environment with a stake in stability in Afghanistan.  Among the 25 countries which he described as regularly participating, he singled out Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE -- raising all kinds of intriguing questions about regional interconnections, and what these countries are actually doing for and with Afghanistan, financial flows, and whatnot.  

 The most important and problematic of those interconnections, of course, has to do with Iran.  Pressed by Podesta to reconcile American policy towards the Iranian nuclear program with Iran's potential importance inside of Afghanistan, Holbrooke acknowledged bluntly (and correctly) that Iran has a legitimate role to play in the resolution of the Afghan issue -- and pretending that they don't is not helpful.  He denied direct contacts with Iran on the issue, specifically excluding them from the 25, but the dots seem there to connect. 

 But this once again raises crucial strategic questions:  how is Holbrooke's team coordinating with the administration's Iran policy makers (presumably but not transparently led by Dennis Ross)?  How will the administration assess the tradeoffs between pressuring Iran on the nuclear issue and seeking its assistance in Afghanistan, as both issues come to a head over the coming months?  Which will give if a choice must be made?   Obama's foreign policy has always been characterized by a strong recognition of the inter-related nature of the various regional challenges --- so how do the parts here, in these two vital theaters, fit together?  

 The other really interesting part of the event, to me, was the discussion of strategic communications and the media by Vikram Singh and Ashley Bommer -- but I'll leave that to another post since it raises a whole range of issues of ongoing interest to me. More later. 

Marc Lynch

Tough times for the Awakenings -- crisis or opportunity?

 Like most people who follow Iraq, I've been watching the mounting tensions surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence with some concern.   I don't think that we're seeing the "great unravelling" quite yet, nor that we're yet seeing a return to higher levels of violence, insurgency and civil war.   But the increased violence and the growing chorus of complaints about the failures of political accommodation should be a cautionary note to the Iraqi government and to the major political players that time is running out to make the crucial political power-sharing agreements necessary before American troop withdrawals pick up their pace.

 The arrest of a leading Awakenings figure by Iraqi Security Forces which led to a highly-publicized military standoff a few weeks ago is only one instance of a wider pattern.  Tensions surrounding that arrest were exacerbated by an inflammatory blizzard of statements by Maliki and others warning that the Awakenings had been infilitrated by Baathists and al-Qaeda.  A series of attacks by unknown groups have added to the tension.  It all adds up to a general sense of apprehension, with members of the Awakenings worried about their future and many others worried that the security situation may be on the brink.

 The situation is extremely murky, and it's hard to really know anything with confidence.  What I've been seeing in the Iraqi and Arab media, and hearing from the people I've spoken with, is a wide range of competing interpretations and arguments over everything from the identity of the attackers (al-Qaeda? rival Awakenings groups? Shi'a militias looking to stir things up?) to the intentions of the Iraqi government (eliminate the Awakenings?  weed out the 'bad elements' within them? force the U.S. to take sides, and test the U.S. implementation of the SOFA?).  The high level of uncertainty and confusion is itself a significant point -- the impact of fear and uncertainty on strategic calculations should never be underestimated.

 Given all that uncertainty, it would be unwise to offer a confident assessment of what's really going on.  But the emerging crisis surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence do both seem to be primarily driven by the continuing refusal of Maliki and the Iraqi government to make meaningful political accommodations and their decision to move against at least some of the Awakenings groups at a convenient moment.  

 The official moves against the Awakenings look like salami tactics, divide and rule rather than a full-scale assault. Maliki, as in the past, seems quite happy to work with parts of the Anbar Awakenings (talk of a political deal with Ahmed Abu Risha is in the air again) even as he moves against Awakenings elsewhere.  Maliki's government sees very clearly how fragmented, mutually mistrustful and competitive the Awakenings are.  They are likely gambling that this fragmentation creates such intense coordination problems that they can take out a few of their most dangerous potential enemies here and there without triggering a widespread Sunni uprising.  Watching the reaction of the various Awakenings thus far -- as some protested angrily but others cheered -- suggests that they are right.  It's a dangerous game, though.  The question would be whether there is some tipping point, at which a large number of uncoordinated and self-interested small groups suddenly switch sides (as arguably happened in the other direction in the spring of 2007).

 It would not take a revolt en masse for a change in the status of the Awakenings to have an effect on security.  In a recent interview with al-Arabiya, Salah al-Mutlaq warned that the government's failure to deliver on its promises of security and civil jobs to the Awakenings and the arrest of a number of Awakenings leaders were spreading fear and uncertainty through their ranks. Members who aren't getting paid, see their leaders targeted, and see diminishing prospects of future payoffs could begin to fade away. They could stop performing their local security functions, allowing violent groups easier access to areas which had been off-limits for the last year or two.   Or some could return to violent action in an individual capacity -- and even if only 10% went that route, that could put 10,000 hardened fighters back into play (in addition to people recently released from the prisons, another issue which factors in here).

 The crackdown on the Awakenings has regional implications as well, particularly with the ever-skeptical Saudis who have generally supported the Awakenings movements.  The Arab press has taken careful note of their reversal of fortunes, which Adel al-Bayati in al-Quds al-Arabi calls Maliki's coup against the Awakenings.  Tareq al-Homayed, editor of the Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat (which usually reflects official Saudi thinking), complains bitterly today that recent events have made his warnings from last August about the coming betrayal of the Awakenings come true.  The Awakenings were not bearing arms against the Iraqi state, argues Homayed, but rather were protecting the Iraqi state against al-Qaeda and assisting its stabilization ahead of the American withdrawal. But, he warns, narrow, sectarian perspectives in Baghdad are winning out over the Iraqi national interest with potentially devastating consequences. 

 This reflects a theme which extends beyond the Saudi sphere. Most Arab writers (for example, the Kuwaiti Shamlan Issa in al-Ittihad yesterday) point the finger at the continuing lack of progress on political accommodation and national unity -- which for them, generally means the accommodation of Sunni interests and the integration of the Awakenings.  The "resistance camp" paper al-Quds al-Arabi has been covering the "coup against the Awakenings" as closely as have the Saudi-owned media (though with a bit more schadenfreude). Many of them are reading the crackdown on the Awakenings through as unmasking the "true Shia sectarianism" of Maliki's government -- reinforcing their pre-existing, deep skepticism about the new Iraq.  

 I'm obviously worried about all of this.  I've been warning about the potential for trouble with the Awakenings project for a long time, and it would be easy to say that those predictions are now coming due.  But I think it's way too early for that -- there is still time for these troubles to demonstrate the costs of political failure and to become the spur to the needed political action. 

 That's why it's really important that the United States not now begin to hedge on its commitment to the drawdown of its forces in the face of this uptick in violence.  It is in moments like this that the credibility of commitments is made or broken.  Thus far, the signals have been very good -- consistent, clear, and tightly linked to continuing pressure on political progress.  President Obama reportedly pushed hard on the political accommodation front during his stopover in Baghdad last week, and General Odierno did very well to emphasize on CNN yesterday that the U.S. is firmly committed to removing its troops by the end of 2011.    Maliki and everyone need to take deep breath and strike power sharing deals before things go south, and understand that they will pay consequences if they don't.