What do the attacks in Afghanistan mean?

What should we make of yesterday's Taliban/Haqqani network assault on Kabul and several other Afghan locations, a series of attacks that Taliban sources described as the opening of a new "spring offensive?" I'm not entirely sure, because the evidence can be interpreted in several different ways.

On the one hand, the fact that the Taliban/Haqqanis could stage such an extensive and well-coordinated assault suggests that U.S./NATO efforts to defeat them haven't succeeded. Note that the main attack occurred in Kabul, a part of Afghanistan that was supposedly increasingly secure. Ironically, the attack occurred exactly one day after the New York Times published a cautiously upbeat op-ed by Ian Livingston and Michael O'Hanlon which said "Despite the occasional spectacular attack, Kabul is relatively safe, accounting for less than 1 percent of violent episodes nationwide." Gee, that must make residents of Kabul feel much better.

Of course, it is possible that this assault was an act of desperation by an increasingly beleaguered Taliban/Haqqani network, designed to show they were still a potent force despite our protracted efforts to destroy them. But absent definitive intelligence about the movement's actual strength, there's no way to tell if this attack is a sign of enemy resiliency or a last throw of the dice designed to rescue their failing fortunes.

One could also see this event as a sign of progress in a different way. This version might concede that the Taliban/Haqqanis were able to infiltrate Kabul, but then emphasize that they failed to do as much damage as one might have expected and were eventually rounded up and/or killed by Afghan government units. Instead of killing dozens, as occurred when terrorist struck Mumbai, it was the Taliban/Haqqanis who ended up dying in large numbers. The "half-full" version of this story would trumpet it as a sign that our efforts to create effective Afghan security forces are succeeding, and that is of course precisely how it is being spun by U.S. officials.

I'd like to believe this version story -- really --  and I certainly don't have definitive evidence to impugn it. But I think one has to take the upbeat testimony of U.S. officials with many grains of salt, because one would naturally expect them to do or say whatever they could to sustain public support for the war effort. (By the same logic, I don't accept Taliban claims at face value either). Case in point: U.S. and Afghan officials are emphasizing that the bad guys were rounded up or killed by government forces operating mostly on their own, but the Times also reports that the Afghans were aided by "a small number of embedded training teams" and by "helicopter air support." So we still don't quite know whether the Afghans could have handled this by themselves.

I'm also skeptical because successfully quelling this particular attack doesn't mean all that much by itself. Look at it this way: if an anti-American terrorist group managed to infiltrate dozens of fighters into Washington D.C. and several other cities, took over a bunch of buildings and shot up some others, would we be reassured by the fact that government forces eventually subdued them and only a few people were killed? Especially if we knew that the perpetrating organization was still in existence and still had additional cadres it could send at softer targets? I doubt it. Instead, we'd be wondering how they were able to stage the attack in the first place, and asking why the FBI or other authorities had let us down again. Thus, even a fairly rosy interpretation of the event raises questions about how well the war is ultimately going.

Last but not least, while it's important to think through the different interpretations and implications of these attacks, we should not lose sight of the larger strategic issue. In the end, the question to ask is not whether the U.S. and NATO (and the Karzai government) are "winning" or "losing." Rather, the real question is whether trying to win is worth the cost, including the opportunity costs. Yesterday's events may have some bearing on that larger issue, but do not provide a definitive answer one way or the other. It is good news that the Taliban attacks mostly failed, but by itself, that news does not tell you that "staying the course" is the right thing to do.


Stephen M. Walt

Will the CATO Institute lose its soul?

In one of my earliest posts on this blog, I argued that America's penchant for counterproductive global interventionism was driven by not one but two imbalances of power. The first was the imbalance of power between the United States and the rest of the world, which made it possible for Washington to throw its weight around without worrying very much about the short-term consequences. If you're a lot stronger than anyone else, it's hard to imagine you could lose to anyone and you're more likely to do something stupid like invading Iraq.

The second imbalance was the disproportionate influence of pro-intervention forces within the U.S. foreign policy establishment. As I put it back in 2009:

"America's rise to global primacy was accompanied by the creation of a well-developed set of institutions whose stated purpose was to overcome isolationist sentiments and to promote greater international activism on the part of the United States. American liberal internationalism didn't just arise spontaneously as America's relative power grew, it was actively encouraged by groups like the Council on Foreign Relations (founded in 1921), and a whole array of other groups and organizations. These institutions don't always agree on what specific actions the United States ought to take, and they aren't the sort of clandestine capitalist conspiracy depicted by Lyndon Larouche and other fringe groups. But together they stack the deck in favor doing more rather than less."

I went on to describe the DC think tank world (i.e., groups like AEI, Heritage, Brookings, Carnegie, etc.) and the numerous special interest groups that lobby for their own particular causes. And then I noted that:

"By contrast, there are at most a handful of institutions whose core mission is to get the United States to take a slightly smaller role on the world stage. There is the CATO Institute. . . and maybe a few people at the Center for American Progress and the New America Foundation. And there are plenty of peace groups out there with an anti-interventionist agenda. But these groups are hardly a match for the array of forces on the other side."

I mention all this because there seems to be a concerted effort underway to turn one of those organizations -- the CATO Institute -- into another member of the pro-intervention choir. In particular, right-wing industrialists Charles and David Koch (who are long-time CATO supporters) have recently sought to place several new members on CATO's board of directors, and have filed a lawsuit challenging its current governance structure. You can read about this power struggle here and here.

Why does this matter for foreign policy? Because, as CATO Vice-President for Foreign Policy Studies Christopher Preble lays out in this blog post, the individuals the Kochs are seeking to appoint hold views that are decidedly antithetical to the libertarian, mostly realist, and generally peace-oriented foreign policy perspective that has been CATO's trademark, and which is an increasingly rare perspective in post-Cold War, post 9/11 Washington. Preble also notes that the Koch Foundation helped sponsor an invitation-only seminar series at the American Enterprise Institute last year, whose lineup consisted of a "who's who" of hawkish neo-conservatives (Eliot Cohen, Walter Russell Mead, Eric Edelman, Niall Ferguson, etc.). Each of the speakers was a strong supporter of the Iraq War, which tells you something about where the Kochs are coming from.

It's a free country where just about everything is potentially up for sale, and the Kochs are free to use their money to try to shape public discourse as they see fit. Needless to say, they haven't been exactly shy about doing that, though a commitment to truth doesn't seem to be a high priority of theirs. But if their efforts to transform CATO succeed, we will lose one of the few influential institutions in Washington that consistently calls for a more sensible and restrained foreign and defense policy. I'm not a libertarian and I don't agree with all of CATO's positions on these matters, but a further narrowing of public discourse on foreign policy is not what the country needs right now. So I hope CATO's current management wins this fight, and that the institution remains true to its original vision. We'll be better off as a country if it does.