Israel/Palestine Afterthought

Posted January 29, 2009 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Blogroll, Palestinre/Israel

After my recent rather hopeless posting on a possible Israel/Palestine conflict, I have become aware of an alternative that just might offer hope. This is the suggestion that Israel might be able to keep some of its setrtlements if it were willng to trade for them lands which Arabs live on within Israel proper. Much of the Arab population lives on the edge of the West Bank, including some Bedouin tribes in the northeast Negev. This is part of the solution offered by President Carter in his latest book. Thomas Friedman in a recent NyTimes Op-Ed has made this a part of his solution. And so has the leader of one of the hardline parties in Israel (he is concerned with losing out to the “population bomb” unless something like this is done). If this solution were to include giving East Jerusalem back to the Palestinians, perhaps there could be a deal. The down side is that we do not hear enough about it, particularly from the Arabs.

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Escaping the Afghan Quagmire

Posted January 28, 2009 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Afghanistan War, Iranian Region

In his campaign, Obama pointed out that instead of finishing the job in Afghanistan, the actual origin of 9/11, we had squandered resources, lives, and reputation on an unnecessary war in Iraq. He proposed to remedy this mistake by moving as fast as possible to get out of Iraq while inserting another 30,000 troops into Afghanistan. He seems determined, and his generals seem determined to follow this approach. Some argue that it is essentially the transfer of the successful surge and tribal militia tactics in Iraq to Afghanistan.

Unfortunately over the last year or more, information has been coming in that we are failing to a greater extent in Afghanistan than had been imagined. The trends are negative, and they are not trends that 30,000 or so additional troops are likely to reverse. A good analysis of the situation from an Australian perspective may be found here. On January 22, the NY Times came out with a description of what is happening in the south that is reminiscent of the Russians found themselves in before they left. Our side (U.S., NATO, government forces, etc.) control the major cities and some district capitals most of the time. But the vast majority of the villages are essentially under Taliban control or open to the Taliban whenever they wish to come in. The situation is much the same in the eastern part of the country. In the west and north the situation is better, but even here there have been significant Taliban inroads. Meanwhile, over the border, Pakistan’s army has been making a major effort to reduce the sway of the Taliban in the tribal agencies and the Northwest frontier provinces. Success remains limited. The Taliban have, for example, been able to move beyond the border areas and now control essentially all of the Swat District of NWFP, imposing their fanatical way of life on a formerly moderate people.

On Sunday, the NYTimes “Week in Review” gave the opinion of a number of experts on what was referred to as a developing “quagmire”, with or without the extra troops. The Kabul government is not performing, its agents are widely despised, and its police forces are generally ineffective. We are reminded that with 100,000 troops the Russians were able to do little more than control the cities and maintain logistics routes and provide secure living facilities for their forces. The more effective our forces become, the more they end up killing civilians. For both our forces and the Russians, airpower is regarded as essential for tactical success, and yet after many such successes, we find we have made yet another community turn against us because of the lives and property we have destroyed. In most areas our successes against the insurgents are not followed up with consistent protection of the people. Many Afghans do not like the Taliban, but if they have to exist alongside them, they have to act as though they do. There are too many villages for our forces to do much more.

One solution might be to simply pack up and leave as the British and the Russians did before. However, this would have moral and strategic downsides. In Kabul and other parts of the country we have encouraged people to adopt new values and new hopes and new behaviors that they would have to abandon should we leave. The bravery of school girls in the face of deadly threats suggests how important a new way of life is to these people. People of this kind are still a minority, but yet a vital minority whose protectors the West and the westernized middle classes have become. We should also not lightly abandon the tribal peoples of the west and the north of the country who fought in our cause after 9/11.

Another approach is to rethink our strategy. The first step would be to develop improved relations with Iran and Pakistan. Iran helped us initially. It has many logistics routes we could use. It has historical and ethnic ties to the Hazara and more broadly to the Tajiks (who literature and history is essentially inseparable from that of Iran). Herat was formerly a major Iranian city. Iran continues to provide assistance to Kabul, with which it has close and friendly relations. In the east and south, Pakistan has theoretical control over the longest Afghan border. Historically, it has not controlled many border areas, but it now realizes that it can no longer allow these areas to remain outside its control.

I emphasize improving relations with these states even though they are neither ideal, well-governed, nor reliable. But if they are weak and corrupt, the are still far from being as corrupt and feckless as the Afghan government. Afghanistan has nothing like the well-educated bureaucracies of the civil and military services that Pakistan inherited from the British. If we could develop effective means of dealing with these states, we would have a much more plausible basis for eventual success in Afghanistan.

Within Afghanistan, we should build from our strengths. We should bolster our rear by making more sure than we have that Kabul, Herat, Mazar i Sharif and other relatively peaceful cities remain outside the war zone. Qandahar should perhaps be included in the list even though it is very much in the war zone. (Qandahar is particularly important to the Pashtun section of the population, and thereby to President Karzai. It also has a remarkable group of anti-Taliban, pro-women’s education advocates.) We should strengthen those leaders in the north and west who reject the Taliban. By various inducements, we may be able to modify their addictions to drugs and corruption and gradually make certain parts of the country into models for the rest. The Hazarajat, the land of the Hazara shi’a minority, is prepared to defend itself against the hated Taliban. These are the areas in which we should emphasize development projects, the training of police and judges, etc.

In the east and south, we should initially try to reach a stalemate with tactics similar to those we have followed up to now. But our side should strive to rely less on air power, since the potential for error is not going to go away. We should also reduce the number of offensive operations. The goal should be to give whoever we contact a sense that they can rely on us to protect them if they assist us. We might try in a few areas to resurrect CAP units like the Marines used in Vietnam. This meant that a platoon would establish itself in a village (“hamlet” in Vietnam terminology) and stay there as they trained the local self-defense forces and helped local development. The approach worked quite well. (For more on this see the book “Can We Win in Vietnam?”) In areas where this model started to work in Afghanistan, more villages might gradually be included. Note, however, that real progress beyond this stalemate would depend on the effectiveness of an increasing effort by the Pakistanis in border areas — supported indirectly by American military and nonmilitary assistance. This includes education.

Note that we are talking here of a long term strategy. The Australian analysis referenced above was developed on the basis of a fifteen year stay. This will be possible only if we show some progress.

Peace in Palestine-Israel

Posted January 26, 2009 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Blogroll, Palestinre/Israel

Last night, “Sixty Minutes” tore the veil off the discussion of peace in Palestine. It pointed out that there is little or no chance that a peace can be attained. Events have moved too fast, and positions are too entrenched. Specifically, by establishing more and larger colonies in the West Bank, Israelis have foreclosed any opportunity for a resolution. Arabs are never going to agree to the maintenance of these settlements in anything like their present condition and no Israeli government will be strong enough to actually move the bulk of the settlers out.

One hates to admit that this is probably right. The two state solution opportunity has vanished, destroyed by the ambitions of the radical settlers who believe all of Palestime is their god-given inheritance.

In a recent Op-Ed, Qaddafi, the Libyan leader, has argued that the only solution is a one-state solution with an elected government for all people living in Palestine. This seems right, for it would lay the basis for a truly democratic state, something that a state founded on a particular religion can never achieve. However, the fact that the Arabs would soon outnumber the Jews also makes this a nonstarter.

The only hope has to be growth in the strength of moderates on both sides. On the Arab side, the moderates have been seriously weakened by Israeli actions, such as its decimation of Gaza. It is unlikely that Fatah would be able to negotiate anything but the most pro-Arab and thus most unlikely agreement under present conditions. The Israelis have many moderates, one of whom hopes to become their leader in the near future, but the record of their being able to significantly alter what the Arabs see on the ground is not promising. They have not controlled the settlements in the past: how could they destroy the homes of hundreds of thousands of Israelis and move them out after an ageement? Sixty Minutes suggested that the army would simply not carry out such orders.

Afghanistan: More or Less?

Posted January 19, 2009 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Afghanistan War, Blogroll

There has been a great deal of discussion lately of the stated intention of the new administration to significantly increase the number of troops in Afghanistan. When we invaded Afghanistan, I wrote that we should use several hundred thousand troops as part of a major attempt to transform the country. I was thinking of what we did for the people of the Axis powers after World War II. It was also before the Iraq effort had siphoned off our troops and our will as a nation to make such efforts. The reader may also be interested in a 2004 blog discussing the thoughts of the Afghan expert Barnett Rubin on this topic (See Rubin) Rubin had already concluded by that time that the situation was getting more and more difficult and was unsure where to go from here.

It is well to remember that the Russians went through approximately the same effort that we are making, and with about twice the number of troops we have. It was also a high-tech effort. It is also useful to remember that their chief human rights achievement, like ours, was to raise the status of women. They also had their Afghan government and their projects. But in the end, they decided to give it up. Their regime collapsed and the Taliban eventually conquered most of the country.

Some conclude that adding more troop would be repeating the errors of the Russians and the British before them. They argue that we have little need to control Afghanistan, that the Taliban are no threat to us, and that they will not automatically harbor al-Qaeda.

But their arguments are too facile. The Taliban represent the worst of Islam. We have developed oases in the country in which a more humane life style is widely accepted. Were we to leave, we would be abandoning millions of the country’s most promising citizens to severe repression. We cannot easily avoid this responsibility.

This leaves the observer in a quandary. We appear to be losing ground. The more we fight, the more civilians we kill, the more enemies we have. I have many different suggestions, as do others, but how to make the most fundamental decision, more troops or less, escapes me.

Iranian Access Routes into Afghanistan

Posted January 5, 2009 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Afghanistan War, Blogroll, Iranian Region, western ideology


In a recent item in the NYT (December 31), there was extensive discussion of the need for alternative supply routes into Afghanistan for both military and development assistance. The Khyber pass may simply become too exposed to use successfully.


Although a quick look at the map would suggest that transit through Iran is the obvious alternative, Iran was notably absent from the discussion. Compared to the use of Central Asia, which was emphasized in the article, it would be much more cost effective to land supplies at the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf and use its rail and road connections to Mashhad in northeast Iran. From Mashhad, there are well developed roads and may soon be railroads to Herat in Afghanistan.


We may not like the Iranian regime, but we did not let such considerations bar us from using Iran as a conduit for supplies for Stalin’s USSR in World War II.


Iran helped us in the beginning of our Afghan adventure, has maintained good relations with Kabul, and its Shiite adherents are mortal enemies of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Let us build on our common interests so that we might forge a more effective and less costly Middle Eastern Strategy. This should be high on the agenda when President Obama “sits down” with the Iranians.

Balancing Military and Nonmilitary Actions in Afghanistan

Posted January 5, 2009 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Afghanistan War, Blogroll


We certainly need a rethinking of foreign and military policy that places more emphasis on the nonmilitary tools of policy (“A Handpicked Obama Team for a Sweeping Foreign Policy Shift” [NYT, Dec 1]. But the changes need to be carefully calibrated in terms of the facts on the ground in each situation rather than thoughtlessly replacing one ideologically driven policy by another.


For this reason I was discouraged to read the quotation from Secretary Gates that our recent emphasis on force alone “[was] almost like weorgot everything we learned in Vietnam”. For what we learned in Vietnam was certainly not that we should have provided more nonmilitary assistance or exercized more “soft power”. What we learned in Vietnam was that we could never win a conflict in which the opponent was continuously resupplied in men and materiel from territory into which Washington had decided not to enter. (In the end we lost Vietnam because of a conventional military offensive by the North that was led by tanks.) This lesson is particularly important as we consider how we might balance military and nonmilitary options in Afghanistan under a new administration.

We cannot hope to win in Afghanistan as long as we or our allies do not control the tribal areas in Pakistan. I would suggest that as we develop future policy only after we carefully reflect on “The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost” (the official story written by the Russian General Staff). The Soviets tried everything and yet they lost.

Leaving Iraq: What to Do?

Posted July 12, 2007 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Blogroll, Iraq War


On July 8, the editors of the New York Times joined the chorus of Iraq leavers in a very long editorial. It was a reasonable job, yet it left many things to be desired. First, it ignored the growing evidence from Anbar and neighboring provinces that we can work with local Sunni militia in our efforts to defeat the extremists. This is the most promising opening in several years. It would surely close were these Sunnis to learn that American withdrawal were imminent.


I assume part of the reason for this omission is the general assumption that success in Iraq rides of the shoulders of the Shi’a majority. This ignores the very real probability that the Sunni will once again lead the country, a hope that the Sunni resistance certainly clings to. As I have pointed out before in these blogs, minorities frequent lead countries, often for centuries. The role of the Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi is a well-known example. This suggests that developing alliances with Sunni movements in the west and north of the country may be more fruitful than it appears at first.


Of course, one of the problems with getting out of any situation, is that if one stayed just a little longer, it might turn around. There are always indications that “things are about to change”. Yet it is always possible that in this instance, they are.


Second, although the editorial advocates negotiations with neighboring states, it does this in a decidedly American-centered, imperialist manner. The editors write that we should negotiate with neighboring states “to avoid excessive meddling in Iraq”. The editors seem to forget that we do not own Iraq. We are not the people who will have to live alongside the results of America’s “excessive meddling” for the next generation. We would lay a much firmer basis for our withdrawal, were we to include neighbors more positively in our plans, eliciting their ideas as to how we should withdraw and what they could do to help.


Iraq should have taught us the “doing things our way” can be disastrous. Let us try a new approach.