Afghanistan 30 July 2018.

After toppling the Taliban in 2001-2002, the Americans determined to hold Afghanistan against any return by the Taliban.[1]  To this end, they established a host of outposts in the countryside and began training-up a new Afghan national army.  This policy began under President George W. Bush and continued during the first term of President Barack Obama.

Thus, in 2006, the American created a network of posts in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan.  Offensive operations against the Taliban would launch from these bases.  By 2009 the Americans were re-thinking this plan.[2]  In 2010, their effort shifted toward protecting the major population centers.  Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south became major battlegrounds.

In 2014, the coalition of American, Afghan, and NATO troops fighting the Taliban declared an end to major combat operations.  The Western troops withdrew to a few major urban areas.  Kabul, Kandahar, Kunduz, Jalalabad, and Mazar-i-Sharif have become heavily defended centers.  Everywhere else, on-going defense responsibilities fell to the Afghan army.  In 2015, the American began urging the Afghans to give up trying to garrison or control areas far from the major cities.

For its part, the Taliban has concentrated its efforts at capturing the little outposts in rural areas.  Frequent attacks on isolated posts have inflicted hundreds of casualties on Afghan soldiers every week in recent months.  Afghan government forces have been reduced by about 5 percent since Summer 2017.  Along the way, the Taliban picked up not only momentum, but also a good deal of arms and equipment.

Afghanistan is divided into 407 administrative districts.  By the most recent estimate, the government controls 229 of them, while the Taliban controls only 59.  That leaves 119 districts that are considered “contested.”  The thing is that almost three-quarters of Afghans live in rural areas.  Little more than a quarter live in heavily fortified big cities.  Falling back on the cities abandons most Afghans to the Taliban.

Initially, President Trump followed the advice of Secretary of Defense James Mattis Recently, the United States has pressed the Afghan government to follow the Western lead.  Afghan army troops are falling back on the cities, leaving the country-side districts to the Taliban.  That suggests that the Taliban could soon control almost 180 districts.  This would give them near-parity with the government.

People offer the conventional excuses: we’re just regrouping in the cities in order to counter-attack into the rural districts at some point in the future.  More honestly stated, falling back on the cities “is a rational approach to secure the cities, and provide the Afghanistan government the political opportunity to work with the Taliban.”  That seems to mean that the government has to hold the cities in order to have some valuable chips in negotiations for a “compromise peace.”  The Trump administration is trying to begin talks with the Taliban.  What can the Afghan government get in such negotiations?  What will they have to give?  Will the Taliban be content to negotiate on the emerging balance of forces or will they try to erode the security of the cities by attacks?  Who will be aboard the last helicopter out of Kabul?

[1] Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Helene Cooper, “New U.S. Tactic in Afghanistan Urges Retreat,” NYT, 29 July 2018.

[2] For some sense of why this happened, see Sebastian Junger’s film “Restrepo” (2010) and book War (2010).

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Nationalism and Democracy.

One hundred years ago this year, the First World War ground to an end.  During the peace-making that followed, much attention focused on the American President, Woodrow Wilson.  Wilson was highly intelligent, well educated, and very articulate.[1]  He was also a fool.  Wilson hoped to remake the political system of the world by sponsoring democratic nationalism within the framework of an international organization.  In fact, during the “Twenty Years’ Crisis”[2] that followed the war, democratic nationalism clashed with international organization, and nationalism often got the better of democracy.  While Wilson sponsored democratic nationalism, he did not create it.  That already had been done.  The tension between democracy and nationalism ran through the last century and into our own.  Like the bulls at Pamplona, often trampling everything in its path.

Now people in search of explanations for current upheavals have rediscovered this history.[3]  Take the case of Israel.  It was a mistake from the get-go.  A colony of Europeans set down in the midst of a territory mostly populated by Arabs and at a time when the Arabs were first beginning to stir with nationalist ambitions of their own.  This had tragedy written all over it in John Deere green.  Far better if every Jew in Poland and Rumania and all those other benighted places had emigrated to the United States.[4]  But the United States had adopted immigration restrictions because many voters felt overwhelmed by strangeness.  Democratic nationalism at work.  These restrictions continued after the Second World War, so many Jews had no choice but Israel.  Wars followed (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973).  Israel expanded its territory and captured many Palestinians.  The Palestinians hate Israel, all the more so because Israel has held them captive for half a century[5] and Israel is a modern country that can continually slap-down their efforts.  In any event, Israel now seems to have jolted toward a position where democracy is for Jews, while non-Jews are excluded.  Probably, what has thinking people worried is that the next drawing-of-lines (and there will be one) will be over who is “more Jewish” or “really Jewish” based on ideological purity.

Then, what if Israel is not a circus-freak among the nations, but the wave of the future?  At least in the choice that people will have to make.  In Israel, that means “Is Israel a Jewish state or is it a non-sectarian democracy?”  What if the cosmopolitanism that appeals to many highly-educated, highly successful people collides with the nationalism of many less-qualified people?  Does the American left really want to adopt a politics that will lead them toward both anti-capitalism[6] and the authoritarian enforcement of their views?  I think not.

JMO, but Harris, Warren, Booker, and Biden are all losers in 2020.  Start looking.

[1] There are obvious parallels to Barack Obama.

[2] E. H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis: 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations (1939).

[3] Max Fisher, “Israel, Riding Nationalist Tide, Puts Identity First.  It Isn’t Alone.” NYT, 23 July 2018.  Is it just me, or have the headlines of the NYT become more “literary”?

[4] What if there were twice as many Jews in the United States today?  Think what we might be as a country.

[5] Well, OK, that’s only partially true.  The Arab countries refused to absorb the Palestinian refugees after 1948-1949, and kept them penned-up in squalid refugee camps paid for by Western (i.e. American) generosity.  The territories that the Palestinians now claim for their own state—the West Bank and Gaza and East Jerusalem—were in the possession of Jordan and Egypt from 1948 to 1967.  If the Arabs had wanted to create a Palestinian state, they had every opportunity to do so.

[6] See; Venezuela under Hugo Chavez and Nicholas Maduro, or Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega.

Iran–and we all should run.

Iranian-American relations haven’t been good since the revolution of 1979 overthrew Shah Reza Pahlevi.[1]  Sometimes they are less-bad.  Right at the moment, they are more-bad.  During the Obama administration, Iran pushed on many fronts that menaced not the United States, but its allies and clients.  All of this put both Israel and Saudi Arabia on edge.  They saw—and still see—Iran as determined to make itself the dominant state in a re-ordered Middle East.  The twin pillars of this dominance would be a series of client states in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon; and nuclear weapons with the ballistic missiles to deliver them.  The re-ordering might include the annihilation of Israel and the limitation of America’s role in the region.  In the wake of the disastrous Iraq war, the American people clearly didn’t want another big war in the Middle East.  Sensibly, the Obama administration’s diplomacy focused on a successful effort to constrain Iran’s nuclear program.

That left many other issues unresolved.  In May 2018, President Trump chose to leave the nuclear agreement.  He has re-imposed economic sanctions and has sought to coerce other countries to impose an effective embargo on Iranian oil.

On the left, there is a suspicion that the president believes that regime-change in Iran offers the only reasonable solution.[2]  President Trump’s rhetoric both attacks the Iranian ruling elite as corrupt and illegitimate, and celebrates Iranians who protest against that government.  However, the Iranian regime wields powerful tools against dissent.

On the right, there is a hope that confrontation will force the Iranians to make concessions in other areas as well.  Many experts doubt that Iran’s leaders will bend.

Will Iran’s leaders do something stupid?  For its part, Iran has raised the possibility of closing the Straits of Hormuz at the outer end of the Persian Gulf in retaliation for American actions.  Some 40 percent of the world’s oil passes through the Straits in tankers.  They tried this during the long Iran-Iraq War in the Eighties.  The US Navy began convoying tankers.  On 22 July 2018, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that President Trump was running the risk of “the mother of all wars.”[3]  Trump responded in kind.  If Iran actually did try to close the Straits of Hormuz, then the possibility of military conflict would become very real.  It seems unlikely that American air and naval forces operating from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and the Arabian Sea would stop at suppressing Iranian forces around the Straits.  Very heavy air attacks could follow on Iran’s nuclear facilities and key regime assets like the Revolutionary Guard.  So, Iran probably will not close the Straits.

It seems equally unlikely that American leaders will do something stupid.  Americans still don’t want a big war in the Middle East.  Iran’s nuclear program can only be constrained voluntarily.  Nuclear weapons are a matter of science, engineering, and money.  Iran has all three.  An attack would not necessarily do more than postpone the Iranian program.  An attack would sent Iran in pursuit of other, indirect ways of striking back at American interests in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Maybe Vladimir Putin will quietly mediate a settlement.

[1] Rick Gladstone, “A War of Words With Iran Risks Spiraling Beyond Control,” NYT, 24 July 2018.

[2] It worked OK from 1954 to 1979.  We’ve had forty years of hostility in return for twenty-five years of cooperation.

[3] Saddam Hussein used the same phrase when faced with an American invasion in 2003.

The Lafarge Affair.

If you read the papers, it is easy to get the idea that the post-WWII order is breaking down.[1]  However, elements of one era can live on, for a time at least, in a new era.[2]  One part of the post-war order took the form of multi-national corporations operating in the developing world.

What happens when civil war or terrorism breaks out in those countries?  Do companies abandon their often-substantial investments and call the insurance company?  Do they pull out their Western leadership staff and abandon their local employees to their fates?  Alternatively, should they stay and try to continue operating?  In many developing countries, both the regime in power and the opponents willing to take up arms against it are unsavory.  In peacetime, the government can hide a lot of its brutality and oppression.  Once war breaks out, both sides come out into the open with unchecked violence.  If the companies remain, what kind of adaptations might they have to make as war drags on?

As anyone who has read Nevil Shute’s Most Secret (1945) or just walked around Paris knows, the French have long been pioneers in the use of reinforced concrete for construction.  (They call it “beton.”)  Cement is a major component of concrete.[3]  Currently, Lafarge SA is a major force in the business.[4]   It made large investments in Syria before the civil war began in 2011.[5]

The initial stage of the war raised the troubling questions of “should I stay or should I go.”[6]  Lafarge decided to stay.  Then the initial war, the basis of the company’s calculations, went sideways.  In eastern Syria from 2013 to 2015, the Islamic State (ISIS) seized control of territory and proclaimed a caliphate.  (They also videotaped and posted to the internet the burning to death of a captured Jordanian pilot, among other indications of their mind-set.)  ISIS exploited all the economic resources available within its domain.  This included extorting Western companies, as well as selling oil and trafficking in non-iconic antiquities.

Mired in this situation, Lafarge may have made some questionable choices.  Lafarge allegedly paid ISIS and other groups $5 million to insure the safe passage of employees and goods through territory controlled by the caliphate.  Local managers pressed local employees to keep working while the security situation deteriorated.  Critics also cite “lax security” at the Lafarge properties.[7]

Confusing the effect with the cause, a French court has “indicted” Lafarge SA.

[1] And not just because Donald Trump got elected president.  Doesn’t matter what the daily edition of the New Republic (i.e. the New York Times) thinks.

[2] See, for a highly readable example, R. F. Arragon, The Transition from the Ancient to the Medieval World (1936).

[3] On the deeply fascinating subject of Portland cement, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portland_cement

[4] Liz Alderman, “France Indicts Cement Giant on Charge of Aiding Terror Groups in Syria,” NYT, 29 June 2018.

[5] If you look at news photographs of Syrian cities during the war, you will see that a huge market existed for concrete and cement before the war.  Commonly, one sees that artillery fire and aerial bombing blow out the front walls of apartment buildings.  The poured-concrete floors then fall downward like the pages of a book, rather than disintegrating or collapsing straight down.  The back walls and staircases serve as the hinge or binding.  So, the concrete appears to be generally of high quality to the eye of a non-expert.

[6] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMaE6toi4mk

[7] Without seeking to exculpate the company, it is fair to ask just how Lafarge could have provided adequate security against ISIS when the governments of Syria and Iraq could not defend themselves without foreign military aid.

Indonesian Islam.

Back in the day, Seymour Martin Lipset wrote The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective (1963).  Like most of Lipset’s work, it was about several things at once.  For one thing, it was about the United States as the first colonial territory to gain its independence from a colonial overlord.  Therefore, American could serve as a model for all the Asian and African countries recently or about-to-be liberated from European empires.  For another thing, it was about the related issue of how to create a stable democracy.  (That’s what most of the leaders of new nations said that they wanted, although the historical record now suggests other ambitions.[1])  According to Lipset democracy is intimately connected with economic growth: “[t]he more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy.”  This idea lay behind both the Marshall Plan to aid Western European economic recovery after the Second World War and the First Gulf War (1990-1991).[2]

Time hasn’t fully born out Lipset’s ideas–so far.  China, for example, is an increasingly prosperous autocracy.  In many Muslim countries, oligarchies have gobbled up national wealth, while the vast majority of people have little opportunity.  More importantly, religious belief can outweigh political theory.  It isn’t clear that the beliefs of Islam are compatible with Western conceptions of democracy.  Traditional Islam rejects any separation of church and state, it rejects law derived from legislatures rather than the Word of Allah, and it rejects the very idea of nation-states in favor of the “umma” of all Believers.[3]  Moreover, Islam is socially conservative in ways that Western liberals find repugnant.  Women’s rights and gay rights antagonize social conservatives.

Indonesia provides an interesting case.  It is the most populous Muslim country in the world.[4]  Piled on top of religious conservatism are hostilities related to ethnic or religious minorities.[5]  The very small share of people with Chinese ancestry play an out-sized role in the economy and have long been the target of Muslim hostility.  Women’s rights and gay rights have a salience in Muslim concerns because of Indonesia’s popularity with Western tourists.

Like Turkey, Indonesia has a democratic system.  Can democratic politics can be used to impose an Islamist agenda?  In 2002, Jemaah Islamiya—an Islamist group linked to Al Qaeda—killed 200 people in bomb attacks on the Indonesian island of Bali.  Repression followed.  Recently, however, there have been both a mass mobilization of Muslims against the Christian governor of Jakarta and renewed terrorist attacks.  There is also legislation pending to criminalize public display of affection by gay people.

Will Southeast Asia become the next front in the war against radical Islamism?

[1] A friend insists that there is a scene from one of Ionesco’s plays in which a character says “We will drink wine under the willow trees.  AND YOU WILL BE MY SLAVES!”  I haven’t been able to run it down.

[2] It was a war for oil prices and oil markets, not a war for oil companies.  The historically-minded men and women behind the war were aware that the 1970s “oil shocks” had pitched the world close to the edge of depression and that the Great Depression of the Thirties had been the principal cause of the Second World War.  They didn’t want that to happen again.

[3] We’ll probably hear complaints that the University of Michigan Museum of Art is a sign of creeping Islamization.

[4] Indonesia’s population is 270 million.   87.2 percent Muslim, 9.9 percent Christian, 1.7 percent Hindu, and 0.7 percent Buddhist and 0.2 percent Confucian.

[5] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Islamist Shift Unsettles Indonesia’s Democracy,” WSJ, 29 June 2018.

Ground Up in Iraq.

Iraq is a weak country that is being ground up in the struggles of other, stronger countries.  In 1979, the Iranian Revolution created an anti-American Shi’ite republic that soon was at daggers drawn with both the United States and with the Sunni monarchies on the Arabian peninsula.  Saddam Hussein attacked Iran.  His regime survived this misjudgment in large part because Saudi Arabia and Kuwait bankrolled Iraq’s war effort with loans.  When Saudi Arabia and Kuwait refused to forgive the debt—“they hired the money didn’t they?”—Hussein sent his army into Kuwait to exert pressure on the Saudis.  Much to Hussein’s discomfort, the Americans pounded his army to bits in the “Hundred Hours War.”  However, the George H. W. Bush administration pulled itself up short of invading the country, but Iran remained implacably hostile.  In 2003, the George W. Bush administration abandoned prudence.  The Americans invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein.

Whatever—tyrannical—system for maintaining social cohesion created by Saddam Hussein fell with him after the American invasion in 2003.  Shi’te fell out with Sunni, and both fell out with the Americans.  Eventually, a kind of peace returned, the American left, and Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated government went to oppressing the Sunni minority while stealing everything officials could get their hands on, from oil earnings to soldiers’ pay.

Meanwhile, civil war fractured Syria.  Iran offered its support to the Assad regime against the Sunni rebels.  Then ISIS invaded Iraq from its base in eastern Syria.  Many Iraqi Shi’ites turned to Iran for support, while the American shouldered their way back in, mostly by supporting Kurdish fighters in both Iraq and Syria.  The government of Haider al-Abadi leaned rather more away from Iran and toward the Saudis and the Americans.  The Obama administration—sensibly determined to slow Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and recognizing that the American people didn’t want to participate in another large war in the Middle East—refused to choose sides in the Sunni-Shi’ite split.  The Russians had no such obstacles: forged an alliance of convenience with Iran in order to aid their Syrian client, Assad.

Now ISIS is beaten.  People are looking around at the aftermath of the storm.  It is an ugly sight.  Recent elections toppled Abadi’s party from first place to third.[1]  The anti-Iranian and anti-American party of Moqtada al-Sadr came first, followed by an anti-American, pro-Iranian party.  Sadr quickly began plastering over these cracks by issuing emollient statements and forging a coalition with the anti-American, pro-Iranian second place finishers.  “We believe in setting up an Iraqi government in the way that protects Iraq from all regional and international conflicts, making it immune from the hostility between the U.S. and Iran, or between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” announced one Iraqi politician.  More than that, they profess to want to end the sharing-out of government ministries on a party basis.  This played a role in the patronage and corruption that undermined both public support for the government and economic progress.

This sounds like a good plan, if a very ambitious one.  It also would have sounded like a good plan in 2003 or 2012.  Have the minds of Iraqis changed enough to make it possible?  Beyond that, will Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States be content to stand down from their own rivalries in Iraq?

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Iraq Faces Diplomatic Balancing Act,” WSJ, 15 June 2018.

Turkey and the Kurds.

Turkey’s stance on the Syrian civil war has grown complicated.[1]  There are Kurds in Syria, in Iraq, and in Turkey.  Kurdish nationalism has threatened the territorial integrity of all three countries.[2]  If the Kurds can establish a Kurdish state in Syria and/or Iraq, then they will have a base for supporting rebellion by Kurds in Turkey.[3]  The civil war in Syria caused a collapse of authority by the Assad regime in many parts of the country.  Since 2012, in the northern part of the country, along the border with Turkey, Syrian Kurds established their power in a number of enclaves.  The first Kurdish troops joined up, at least in part, to oppose ISIS on its own demerits.

Then, in 2015, ISIS reared its ugly head as a threat to Iraq.  The army of Iraq collapsed.  Shi’ite militias, armed by Iran and led by Iranian generals, rose up to resist ISIS.  The United States sought to counter two enemies—ISIS and Iran, which were themselves enemies—by mobilizing Kurdish troops against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.  The Americans tried to put a veneer of we’re-not-only-Kurds on this by recruiting some Arab fighters for what is called the Syrian Democratic Forces.  This hasn’t fooled anyone.

By mid-2016, Kurdish forces seemed intent on linking-up several of their enclaves along the border with Turkey.  In August 2016, the Turks launched a major attack on ISIS forces across the border to pre-empt a Kurdish conquest.  As the ISIS caliphate began to crumble, it became a matter of time until the Turks, Kurds, and Americans would have to decide on next steps.  In late January 2018, Turkey—an American ally in NATO—attacked Kurdish troops—American allies in Syria.

Meanwhile, Turkish-American relations have continued to sour.  Recep Tayyip Erdogan has led Turkey since 2003.  In July 2016, opponents of Erdogan tried to overthrow him in a coup.  They missed their punch.  Erdogan blames Fethullah Gulen for organizing the coup.  Gulen lives in the United States and the U.S. refuses to extradite him to Turkey.  In 2016, Erdogan began building links to Iran and Russia.

Sometimes, there aren’t good solutions to problems.  If you wanted someone to fight ISIS and if you didn’t want it to be only Iran and its Iraqi clients, then either the Kurds or the Turks were going to have to do it.  The Turks showed no interest in a major intervention.  That left the Kurds, with all the baggage that choice would carry.  Similarly, should the United States now choose Turkey or the Kurds?  Erdogan seems bound away from a Western orientation.  The Kurds have proved themselves valuable allies at a time when the Syrian civil war continues down an uncertain path.  Perhaps there is a way to compose the differences between Turkey and the Kurds, at least over the longer term.  Or perhaps not.  Won’t know until we try.

[1] Sewell Chan, “What’s Behind Turkey’s Attack on American-Allied Kurds in Syria,” NYT, 23 January 2018.

[2] The Assad family allowed one Turkish Kurdish leader to operate from Syria for a long time.

[3] This is the same reason that Israel will never accept the creation of a Palestinian state.  Doesn’t matter what commitments they may have made in earlier and different times.  For that matter, this is the same reason that there isn’t a Confederate States of America.  Before we start preaching to others.