More questions than answers about Afghan future
October 14th, 2013
08:41 AM ET

More questions than answers about Afghan future

By Ellen Laipson, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Ellen Laipson is president and CEO of the Stimson Center, a nonprofit and nonpartisan international security think tank. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

In the beautifully restored third century B.C. citadel of the ancient western Afghan city of Herat, scholars and diplomats from Afghanistan's neighbors and international partners spent the first weekend in October at a security conference exploring prospects for the country to emerge as a stable and independent state after NATO military forces leave in 2014.

The conference, which I attended along with more than 130 other participants representing 30 countries and organizations, was filled with more questions than answers about what awaits Afghanistan.

Who will be chosen to be the nation’s new leader in the April 5 election to replace President Hamid Karzai? Will the elections meet international standards? Will the Taliban be integrated as a legitimate political force or remain spoilers or worse in Afghanistan’s political future? Will Afghanistan maintain the new freedoms for the media and in the status of women or slip backward once international attention is reduced?

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Topics: Afghanistan
Should U.S. be talking with the Taliban?
August 23rd, 2013
11:28 AM ET

Should U.S. be talking with the Taliban?

By Howard Cohen

Editor’s note: Howard Cohen is a Global Public Square intern. The views expressed are his own.

No one relishes the idea of sitting down with the enemy, looking them in the eye and talking – especially when you have spent some $650 billion fighting that war, losing more than 2,000 servicemen in the process. Yet in June, that was exactly what the United States was preparing to do – negotiate with the Taliban. Talks were derailed when the Taliban decided to hang a white flag from their office in Qatar, the same flag used during the group’s rule in Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai was furious, and halted talks.

But despite a senior Afghan negotiator last week suggesting that talks were unlikely to resume in Qatar, the fact remains that as U.S. forces withdraw from the country, some sort of negotiations seem inevitable. And that raises a troubling question: After a dozen years of fighting, is the U.S. actually negotiating from a position of weakness? And if so, can it hope to extract any meaningful gains?

“You can’t win at the negotiating table what you can’t defend on the battlefield,” says Mitchell B. Reiss, president of Washington College and former director of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department, who argues that the United States has little leverage because everyone knows that their troops are withdrawing.

“Never [have I] come across a single instance where a government was able to expedite the negotiations to suit its political calendar rather than that of the insurgent or terrorist group,” he says, adding that the Obama administration is trying to rush to the negotiation table without having laid the proper groundwork.

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Topics: Afghanistan • Taliban • United States
'Zero Option' the right one in Afghanistan
July 10th, 2013
03:35 PM ET

'Zero Option' the right one in Afghanistan

By Michael Kugelman, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can follow him @michaelkugelman. The views expressed are his own.

U.S. President Barack Obama is seriously considering the possibility of removing every U.S. soldier from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. This news is significant, but hardly surprising.

After all, ever since he took office, Obama has appeared uncomfortable about long-term troop commitments. He has frequently sparred with military commanders who want more troops and time than he’s willing to provide. Obama’s reluctance was crystallized by, ironically, the troop surge of 2009. Even as he authorized the dispatch of 30,000 more troops, he ordered that they begin to withdraw just 18 months later.

Given this unease, Obama will need strong assurances that leaving a residual force in Afghanistan after 2014 would serve a necessary purpose. Increasingly, it appears this wouldn’t be the case. This suggests Obama could well choose the zero troop option. It would be the right decision.

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Topics: Afghanistan • Military • Taliban • United States
July 10th, 2013
09:54 AM ET

Afghanistan: Boulevard of downsized goals

By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow and deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program with the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed are her own.

Then presidential candidate Barack Obama once called Afghanistan the war “we have to win.”  Now it is the fight America wants only to end.

And as Afghans take the security helm  in their country and international forces move to a supporting role, one of the central unanswered questions remains: just how many Americans will stay come 2014 and the long-announced end to the war? The answer to that question says much about the state of U.S.-Afghan relations, the durability of whatever Bilateral Security Agreement the United States and Afghan officials can forge, and America’s sense of its own strategic interests in the region, which have become inextricably interwoven with the fate of President Hamid Karzai (though the two are not the same).

Right now, though, the question is one of simple numbers.

Recent reports revived the idea of the “zero option,” a scenario in which all American troops will leave Afghanistan come next year’s end. That idea, raised in a White House conference call early this year, emerged once more Tuesday amid a sustained outbreak of political irritation from the Obama administration with their Kabul counterpart.  Noted the New York Times: “the idea of a complete military exit similar to the American military pullout from Iraq has gone from being considered the worst-case scenario — and a useful negotiating tool with Mr. Karzai — to an alternative under serious consideration in Washington and Kabul.”

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Topics: Afghanistan • United States
The danger of talking with the Taliban
June 28th, 2013
08:39 AM ET

The danger of talking with the Taliban

By Ahmad Majidyar, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Ahmad Majidyar is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute, focusing on South Asia and the Middle East. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

The opening of a Taliban office in Qatar prompted fresh optimism over the prospect of a political settlement being reached that could end the 12-year conflict in Afghanistan. The U.S. and Afghan governments hoped that the insurgent group would agree to renounce violence, cut ties with al Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution. The Taliban, however, clearly had a different agenda, using the occasion as a publicity stunt to present itself as an alternative government and gain international credibility. And its approach sent shockwaves across Afghanistan.

At the inauguration ceremony in Doha, Taliban representatives reportedly played their official anthem, hoisted their white flag and placed an “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” nameplate outside their embassy-like building. Feeling betrayed by the U.S. and Qatari governments, Afghan President Hamid Karzai almost immediately announced he was boycotting the talks and suspended planned negotiations with Washington over a bilateral security agreement that lays out the legal framework for post-2014 American military presence in Afghanistan. Since then, the peace talks have been placed on hold.

As a result, despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s conciliatory phone conversations with President Karzai, and Presidents Obama and Karzai on Tuesday “reaffirming” their support for talks with the Taliban, any negotiations are unlikely to produce something tangible.

More from GPS: Are Afghans ready to take over security?

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Topics: Afghanistan • Taliban • Terrorism
Are Afghans really ready to take over security?
June 20th, 2013
12:30 PM ET

Are Afghans really ready to take over security?

By Javid Ahmad, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Javid Ahmad is a Program Coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.  Follow him on Twitter @ahmadjavid. The views expressed are the author’s own.

On Tuesday, the U.S.-led coalition completed a five-stage security transition process in Afghanistan that began two years ago at the NATO summit in Lisbon, allowing the Afghan forces to take the security lead across the country for the first time in more than a decade. Yet despite NATO’s insistence that it will not abandon Afghanistan, the allies are seemingly struggling to agree on just what that engagement might look like.

At the recent NATO defense ministerial meeting, the allies endorsed a new Afghan National Security Forces training mission called “Resolute Support” that will involve a multi-national international force after 2014. While Washington wants the allies involved in the new training mission to supply a smaller force to sustain the ANSF, none want to see that engagement turn into a reduced version of the currently huge Afghan campaign.

But although the alliance’s timely agreement on these issues is critical, there are at least three other important challenges – and lingering doubts – that could disrupt the security transition and undermine Afghanistan’s broader democratic transition in 2014.

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Obama nails it on drones
May 23rd, 2013
07:23 PM ET

Obama nails it on drones

By Michael O’Hanlon, Special to CNN

Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow at Brookings and author of The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity. The views expressed are his own.

President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism speech Thursday did not deliver any radical policy changes or huge revelations, but it was well done nonetheless. It explained his reasoning behind the use of certain techniques of warfare including drone strikes and Guantanamo detentions, even as he also promised to minimize the use of these methods in the future and try to move towards a world in which the 2001 authorization for war against al Qaeda and affiliates would no longer be needed.  It was an intelligent blend of the tone of his more idealistic speeches, such as the Cairo address of June 2009, with his more muscular messages like the December 2009 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

But one section of his speech is worth particular focus – the use of armed unmanned combat vehicles or drones. Even though President Obama did not specify exactly how drone strikes would change in the future, and did not provide a great deal of new information about them, the modest amount of detail he did provide was welcome. That is because U.S. drone strikes are badly misunderstood around the world, a point underscored by a New York Times op-ed today contained the following statements:

“...the C.I.A. has no idea who is actually being killed in most of the strikes. Despite this acknowledgment, the drone program in Pakistan still continues without any Congressional oversight or accountability.”

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Topics: Afghanistan • Barack Obama • CIA • Pakistan • Terrorism
May 22nd, 2013
09:36 AM ET

History repeating itself in Afghan conflict?

"Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN

Fareed speaks with William Dalrymple, author of the new book ‘Return of A King:  The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42,’ about what history can teach us about the current conflict in Afghanistan.

What do you think retreat is going to look like, based on history?

Well, the British retreat from Kabul really couldn't have gone worse. There’s every reason to hope this one would go a bit better, not least because you've got air transport. In 1841, there was a huge uprising against the British. It began in the south, in Helmand. It spread north. And, very soon, the British were surrounded in the same cities in the sense in which American troops are surrounded today, in Kandahar and Jalalabad and many in Kabul, a small area of Kabul, a fortress against a largely hostile, rural hinterland.

The British lost their supplies very early in this.  They had stupidly kept both their ammunition and their food in outlying forts…The retreat from Kabul that followed began on January 6, 1842, and is one of the great imperial disasters – 18,500 men, women and children, of whom only about 5,000 were British. The rest were Sepoys from North India, from Bihar, from Uttar Pradesh.  They marched out into the snow.  They had no idea how to cope in winter warfare. They weren’t equipped or clad or trained for it. And six days later, one man made it through to Jalalabad.  Everyone else was either killed, enslaved or taken hostage.

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Why we should be optimistic about Afghanistan
April 25th, 2013
01:35 PM ET

Why we should be optimistic about Afghanistan

By Erlan Idrissov, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Erlan Idrissov is minister of foreign affairs in Kazakhstan. The views expressed are his own.

The view that chaos and violence inevitably await Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force in 2014 is misguided.  Indeed, this sort of prognosis is a potentially dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy.

The fact is that there is actually cause for some optimism that with the right level of assistance from its friends and neighbors, and through the creation of a peaceful environment in its immediate neighborhood, Afghanistan can overcome its historical isolation and take its rightful place in the heart of Asia.

This week, Almaty – Kazakhstan’s second city – will host foreign ministers participating in the Istanbul Process in support of Afghanistan. The meeting, building on a process launched in November 2011, will provide important opportunities to increase the level of regional cooperation and coordination ahead of the transfer of security control in Afghanistan from international to Afghan security forces in 2014.

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Topics: Afghanistan • Central Asia
Don’t let Pakistan marginalize Afghan government
April 4th, 2013
12:45 PM ET

Don’t let Pakistan marginalize Afghan government

By Sher Jan Ahmadzai and Thomas Gouttierre, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Sher Jan Ahmadzai is a research associate, and Thomas Gouttierre is director, of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The views expressed are their own.

The Afghan peace process and talks with the Taliban were high on the agenda during Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting with Pakistani military chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in Amman last month. But the key question is whether the Afghan government is gradually being cut out of its own country’s development.

The U.S.-Pakistan relationship – and the flow of billions dollars of aid money to Islamabad – already leaves many Afghans suspicious. This is not surprising considering al Qaeda and Taliban leaders including Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed have been found in Pakistani cities and tribal areas. Such assistance has left many Afghans with the feeling that the U.S. is closer to Pakistan than its real ally in the war against terrorists, namely Afghanistan.

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Why U.S. can’t deliver women’s rights to Afghanistan
April 2nd, 2013
01:42 PM ET

Why U.S. can’t deliver women’s rights to Afghanistan

By Malou Innocent, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute and can be followed @malouinnocent. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

During his recent unannounced visit to Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with prominent female entrepreneurs and the captain of the women’s soccer team to discuss the hard-won progress of Afghan women and their uncertain future. Like his predecessor, Secretary Kerry has admirably pledged to prioritize women’s rights in his foreign policy agenda. But the underpinnings of this pledge – the entrenchment of women’s rights across Afghanistan – are beyond the ability of the United States to uphold. It is time to stop making promises we cannot keep.

If the past 12 years in Afghanistan (and Iraq) has taught us anything, it’s that we are not very good at spreading Western-style, Jeffersonian democracy – and all the attendant rights – to foreign cultures. In the end, our military and diplomacy cannot transform deep-rooted societal norms. The future of Afghan women deserves U.S. support, but not a false promise tied to the open-ended presence of U.S. troops.

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Topics: Afghanistan • Women
5 lessons of the Iraq war
March 16th, 2013
06:46 PM ET

5 lessons of the Iraq war

By Fareed Zakaria

The American public has lost interest in the Iraq war. A topic that was at the center of the national political debate is now barely mentioned in passing. The country has decided to move on, rather than debate whether the war was worth it - though for the vast majority of Americans, the answer to that question would be a decided, “no”.

Yet, it was the most significant military conflict that the United States has been in since the Vietnam War, and so it is worth asking – ten years after it began - what lessons might be learned from the war, aftermath, and occupation. Here is my list:

Bring enough troops. The Bush administration chose to go to war with Iraq in a manner that would make it relatively easy politically. It drew up plans for a small invading army and insisted that the costs would be minimal – silencing those within and without the Pentagon who suggested otherwise. In the first phase of the war, toppling Saddam’s army, the plan worked fine. But as the mission turned from invasion to occupation, the military’s “light footprint” proved to be a deadly problem. Iraq moved quickly towards chaos and civil war, under the eyes of American troops who could do little to prevent it. The lesson of the Balkans’ conflicts in the 1990s had been to have a much larger force, by some calculations four times larger than the United States had in Iraq. But that lesson was not learned in 2003. The next time, if it’s worth going to war, it’s worth staffing it properly.

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Topics: Afghanistan • Arab Spring • Conflict • Iraq
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