Friday, November 20, 2009

Liebenthal Gets It

Public diplomacy is primarily about exuding prowess or emanating skill or demonstrating compassion. It's about others observing your virtues without you having to trumpet them, and at some point in the future this turns into a usable reputational asset.

And Brookings' Kenneth Liebenthal clearly gets this in his comment to the Times on President Obama's China trip:

“The United States actually has enormous influence on popular thinking in China, but it is primarily by example,” [Liebenthal] said. “If you go to the next step and say, ‘You guys ought to be like us,’ you lose the impact of who you are.”

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Diem TKOs Abdullah After First Round!


On Monday the Afghan Independent Election Commission certified that Afghan President Ngo Dinh Diem had won reelection against rival Abdullah Abdullah, removing the need to conduct a second round of voting at the onset of winter in an increasingly insecure country.

Oh, sorry—Diem didn't win reelection; he's been dead for decades!

It was Hamid Karzai who was (ahem) reelected.

You can't blame me for making an analogy to the one-time leader of South Vietnam. Vietnam War comparisons are a dime a dozen in the pundit business lately.

Unfortunately, they're usually the wrong Vietnam analogies.

These wrong analogies focus on the Afghan war based on how it impacts the U.S. They focus on U.S. forces, on the war's cost, on its impact on domestic politics, on how it affects presidential legacies. They focus on the problems of exiting a Vietnam-like quagmire, on sustaining Vietnam-like casualties, on how each new insurgent offensive is a potential Tet, on how our men and women train and strain to be capable soldiers, diplomats, medics and engineers, and how some of them die.

All this echoes how the U.S. focused on itself (or on the Cold War contest) during the Vietnam War, rather than on South and North Vietnam themselves.

The Vietnam analogy I rarely hear relates to how the U.S. is making precisely the same mistake with President Karzai as it did with President Diem of the Republic of South Vietnam.

As in the case of Diem, the U.S. wants an Afghan leader who can be effective on behalf of U.S. policy. And certainly, like the former South Vietnamese strongman, Karzai cleans up well (he wears recognizable clothing and speaks excellent English). His corruption, or that of his family and friends, is tolerable (if it's not overly publicized). There are few other Afghan leaders in Karzai's league (who aren't warlords).

Also like Diem, Karzai's writ stops a few kilometers outside the national capital. His military is undisciplined and untrustworthy (although not yet as treacherous as the ARVN, which shot Diem in 1963). Both Diem and Karzai rely/relied on U.S. aid and military force for their positions, and both made themselves appear indispensable to keep these resources flowing.

There are differences. Tribe was relatively unimportant in South Vietnam, although Diem belonged to the Catholic elite that helped the French rule a Buddhist nation; Karzai belongs to Afghanistan's majority tribe and Islamic denomination. Thanks to both royal and French rule, South Vietnam had a functioning civil service that Afghanistan lacks. Vietnam did not suffer through decades of civil war before U.S. intervention, as Afghanistan has.

Importantly, I don't see the Taliban as a primarily nationalist movement in the way the Vietminh and Vietcong are now considered (or at least nationalists first, Communists second). I see the Taliban as Arab-influenced provincials who manipulate Pashtun affiliations to their own ends.

The fact remains, though, that the U.S. is again propping up an ineffective leader and his light-fingered cronies in a nation that rates domino-like deference from U.S. policymakers. It is maddening to watch the U.S. support an election-stealing figurehead who alienates Afghans from the Kabul government as much as the Diem (and Nhu) families did the South Vietnamese.

Petraeus and Nagl's Counterinsurgency Manual (download the PDF from this link) advises that protecting and providing services to the host-country population are the counterinsurgent's primary concerns, and that the host government should be enabled to provide these services. It follows that counterinsurgents should do everything possible to help Afghans create an honest, effective central government—and then stand back.

Senator Kerry and others have inspired President Karzai to at least genuflect toward clean government. Following his election 'victory,' Karzai held a press conference where he vowed to clean the government of corruption:

"My government will be for all Afghans and all those who want to work with me are most welcome," Karzai said in a nationally televised victory speech.

"There will be crucial changes in our future government. Now we are determined to use all our forces, by any means, to remove this stain (of corruption) from our soil," he said.

But while Karzai said he was committed to reform, some analysts felt he did not spell out his plans in sufficient detail, indicating no major changes were planned.

The Communists won in 1940s China because they were seen as incorruptible, as well as competent administrators of the territory they occupied before 1949. The North Vietnamese copied this formula in the 1960s and won over Vietnamese peasants while the U.S. fretted over who ruled Saigon.

The Taliban national government of the 1990s was seen as incorruptible—at first—and provided security to Afghans, but few other services. Similarly, their insurgent heirs are trying to repeat this pattern by hand-picking a parallel government in areas they control, arguing that Kabul is corrupt and home to only a puppet government.

What will it take for the U.S. to stop supporting its 21st-century Diem and recognize that the first requirement for an Afghan leader is that he be honest and serve all of Afghanistan's citizens?

It almost doesn't matter at this point; the window on voting out the Karzai administration closed with a thump when Abdullah dropped out of the runoff. The next opportunity to get a competent, effective leader in office in Kabul won't be until 2013 or 2014.

Until then, I'm going to keep making the only Vietnam analogy that matters, the one that should flow off the lips of every U.S. officer and diplomat when they go to work in Afghanistan each day:

We saw what happened when we backed crooked leaders in Vietnam. What step am I going to take today, next week and next year—no matter how small—to make sure a clean, competent leader for all Afghans has a chance in 2013?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Tout France

Sometime correspondent (and blogger on all things culinary near Puget Sound) Ronald Holden is in New York for French Affairs, a conference put on by the French Government Tourist Office.

Although Ron rightly complains about this agency's overly busy Web site (although I love that it leads to a vlog called Lost in Francelation), he finds much to admire about France's unified national program for attracting tourist dollars:

France was the first country to target a wide variety of niche travel markets: gay & lesbian, Jewish, religious, Hispanic, luxury, first-timers, retirees, French expats. Theme travel, too: culinary, wine, ski, spa, and so on. There's no comparable agency promoting the entire USA; individual companies (airlines, hotel chains, Disneyland destinations) and individual states and cities are expected to do their own marketing campaigns. The Sarkozy government pitched in to help France's embattled hospitality sector by cutting the VAT on restaurant meals by 75 percent, but hotel revenues, in the world's most visited country (77 million foreign tourists a year) are still down 13 percent.

So: Not only does France go out of its way to welcome everyone and tempt them with everything, it's also applying good old-fashioned tax policy to make eating out cheaper across the entire country.

That can only encourage longer stays and accomplishing something I was unable to do last year: tear myself away from Paris proper and see the countryside.

It makes me wonder who could possibly take the reins and promote Brand America with one voice, 'round the world. I mean, besides Disney.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cupping Rwanda


A few years ago I helped a client edit a paper on improving African value chains. The paper looked at out how, say, Ugandan growers who made just a nickel on each pineapple could capture more of the five euros the same pineapple fetched by the time it wound up at a Paris grocery store.

There are lots of ways to pull this off. Growers can band together to demand better prices from middlemen, or form their own middleman organization. Or they can pool funds for a processing plant that creates value-added foods like pineapple chunks or slices. Or get a reputable group to certify the pineapples as organic. Or create a brand around the supposed uniqueness of pineapples from a specific Ugandan region, much like the DOC system does for Italian wines. Even simply building cool-storage facilities that keep a surplus fresh for sale at a more favorable time can improve returns.

If you're Rwanda and you have excellent coffee beans but a slight image problem thanks to the 1994 genocide, rebranding seems to be the way to go. In this morning's Post, "A pick-me-up for Rwanda" details how some entrepreneurs are promoting Rwandan coffee here in D.C., a town that I assure you is in desperate need of better espresso:

Emblazoned on the windows of Bourbon Coffee is the phrase "Murakaza neza," which in the Rwandan language of Kinyarwanda means "We welcome you with blessings."

Rwanda is better known for the 1994 genocide that left more than 800,000 people dead than for its cappuccino. But that doesn't stop Arthur Karuletwa, founder of Bourbon Coffee, from dreaming big.

"If done right, it could be the platform to re-brand the country," says Karuletwa, former chief executive and now a shareholder in the company. Coffee can "create awareness that there's recovery, there's trade, there's investment opportunities, there's tourism. There's life after death."

Rwandan coffee growers experience some typical developing-world problems, including poor infrastructure for getting coffee to market, large numbers of small growers, and corrupt officials. But they've also got a product that raises eyebrows among coffee professionals:

"Rwanda is a very wanted origin," says Susie Spindler, executive director of the Alliance for Coffee Excellence, which runs the Cup of Excellence competition [the Oscars of coffee]. She says coffee traders and roasters visiting Rwanda are discovering unusual flavor profiles they never knew existed.

"It mixes a lot of regular characteristics that you usually only find in one area," agrees Stacey Manley, Bourbon's barista. "Latin American coffees tend to be lighter-bodied and kind of nutty with cocoa. But you almost never find an earthy, really heavy-bodied Latin American coffee. Those are typically Indonesian characteristics. And in Indonesia, coffee is very rarely bright. So the weird thing about Rwandan coffee is it'll have all these different characteristics in one coffee."

In the tradition of European wines, Rwanda has succeeded in establishing five distinct coffee appellations. Altitudes and soils vary among the appellations, creating unique flavors: spicy with hints of tea and cocoa in one, nutty with berry and floral notes in another.

So I'm going to go and try Bourbon Coffee, which is at 2101 L St. NW. Watch for stores in Boston and New York. Socioeconomic competitor: the three Juan Valdez Coffee outlets in D.C., which I tried once. While the decor was beautiful, I could barely gak down the espresso; Juan must have been having an off day because everyone else seems to love the joint.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Clinton, Russia and the Caucasus


Secretary Clinton doesn't spend a lot of time at home lately, and I suspect one big reason is that she's taken on the Russia portfolio at State.

Not only does she have the thankless task of persuading Moscow to tighten the screws on Iran, prodding it gently on human rights, and supporting its WTO bid, she also appeared at the signing of the new Turkish-Armenian agreement that opens the countries' borders for the first time in 16 years and invites the establishment of embassies in each other's capitals.

What's this last task have to do with Russia? A financially exhausted Moscow would love to see a more stable Caucasus whose squabbling nations—Chechnya, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, various "autonomous republics," etc.—didn't soak up quite so much money and attention.

It's no surprise that the first visit by an Armenian president to Turkey is to attend a Turkey-Armenia soccer match. Feelings about the match run high in both countries but at least neither is still in the running for the World Cup. As one Armenian man interviewed by the BBC put it, "Perhaps a draw would be the perfect score as it would be a show of goodwill between the two countries. ..."

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

BJP and the One-Party State

This morning's Times had an interesting piece about the collapse--to near irrelevance--of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu ultra-nationalists whose rise interrupted generations of Congress Party dominance. What's interesting is that Lydia Polgreen explicitly compares the BJP's flameout to the U.S Republican Party's loss of the presidency last year:

NEW DELHI — It is an all-too-familiar political story.

First there was the electoral drubbing at the hands of a center-left juggernaut. Next came the recriminations, with party leaders taking nasty, public swipes at one another in dueling magazine articles, op-ed articles and talk show appearances. Then came the agonizing debate: should the party lurch rightward to consolidate its base, or rush toward the center to attract moderate voters? And finally, the purge: party members who do not make the ideological cut are cast out or pushed aside.

If the script sounds familiar to those who have followed American politics in the last year, this one is playing out in the majestic, colonial-era halls of power in India’s capital ...

Polgreen points out that, virulent though the BJP may have been, its emergence as a viable alternative to Congress drove New Delhi to actually get things done--which Congress, unopposed in the past, didn't excel at. In the U.S., the Republican Party also shook things up with its dozen years' control of Congress following Democrats' 40 years.

At its roots the BJP is a Hindu fundamentalist party that alienated many with its insistence that a Hindu temple should replace a Muslim mosque, a stance that caused rioting and hundreds of deaths over the past decade or so. Now that it's in the wilderness, the BJP will be forced to reexamine its core beliefs and, like the GOP here, has begun that process with a purge of those judged insufficiently zealous.

It remains to be seen whether later generations see the coming years as the point where these parties were reduced to merely regional power, or expanded their influence by beckoning a wider range of followers.

The GOP has experience with reinventing itself in precisely this way, dating back to the rise of Ronald Reagan. Will the BJP make the same choice, or doom itself to ruling Gujarat?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Israel, Hamas, and German Neutrality


Sometimes soft power comes from being seen as neutral.

In Richard Boudreaux's account of Israel's effort to retrieve a soldier captured by Hamas during the 2006 Gaza war, one item stands out: Both sides see a German as an adequately disinterested party.

Israel wants proof that Gilad Shalit is even alive. Hamas wants the release of 20 female Palestinian prisoners. Hamas has made an updated video of Shalit, but Israel doesn't trust that Hamas is providing adequate evidence of Shalit's well-being. Israel needs a way to know that the evidence is good enough without turning over the Palestinian prisoners and without seeing the video, which would generate expectations of a quid pro quo.

It's a classic prisoner's dilemma where Israel can't defect but is extremely reluctant to cooperate.

Here's what happens next:

Israel Radio reported that a German mediator had reviewed the recording in Cairo and would show it to Israeli officials. They would then decide whether it conveys enough information about Shalit's condition to go ahead with the release of the Palestinian prisoners.

It reminds me strongly of Martti Ahtisaari's role in brokering the peace in Northern Ireland. As I recall, Britain wanted proof that the Irish Republican Army's weapons had been destroyed; the IRA wouldn't do that but offered to put them "beyond use," whatever that was supposed to mean. Both sides turned to Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland and a man whose word is considered beyond reproach.

Apparently the IRA took Ahtisaari (and a South African counterpart) for blindfolded rides somewhere, and they indeed saw that the IRA's guns were permanently unusable—without ever specifying how. They reported back that the IRA was true its word, which cleared the way for today's largely peaceful Northern Ireland.

The idea that a mediator from Germany—with its Nazi past (however distant) and its troops in Afghanistan (however reluctant)—is acceptable to both Hamas and Israel is an impressive if unheralded part of German soft power. If the parties cannot trust each other, they have at least found a neutral who they can trust.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Brazil Steps In


On the whole, Brazil has kept a pretty low profile on the international stage in the past few years, letting Venezuela's President Chavez bang his shoe on the table of the Americas. Brazil has seemed content to let Chavez preen and posture, especially in the case of the ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.

Chavez has wanted Zelaya, a fellow constitutionally elected rabble-rouser, returned to power, presumably so that he can count another leftist-turned-autocrat in his corner. The Obama administration has straight-facedly insisted it also wants Zelaya back in power, remembering the soft-power carnage wrought by the Bush administration's quick embrace of a coup that briefly ejected Chavez in 2002.

Now, after being repeatedly denied reentry to Honduras, Zelaya has popped up at Brazil's embassy in the Honduran capital, causing near-apoplexy in the de facto Micheletti government.

Brazil has already protested Honduran security forces' actions against its mission--but the question remains: Why would Brazil take the dramatic step of using its embassy as Zelaya's staging ground in the first place?

(Readers who served at State in the 1960s and '70s can stop laughing at the idea of Brazil, then perennially under military dictatorship, upholding any constitution. Stop it. Right now.)

I'm tempted to say the answer is profile, profile, profile.

Brazil, South America's biggest country and largest economy, has surely chafed at Chavez's hijinks--particularly since President da Silva is also mildly lefty but has tried to run his country somewhere besides into the ground. Brazil has called for a prompt meeting of the UN Security Council to consider the Honduran crisis. And Brasilia has the political capital and all-around muscle to weather a lengthy disruption to its diplomatic activities in Honduras.

In short, Brazil takes a welcome turn on the side of law and order; asserts regional leadership while stealing Hugo Chavez's spotlight; gets to make that dramatic call to the UN; and is now owed a favor by the Obama administration which, despite efforts to broker a deal in Honduras, has been unable to pull it off.

Maybe there's some quid pro quo on Brazilian ethanol in our future. ...

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

James Fallows at Gov 2.0

John Podesta and The Atlantic's James Fallows did a nice let's-interview-each-other at Gov 2.0 today and Fallows provided a few scraps of wisdom, based largely on his past three years' residence in China.

He noted that Chinese impressions of the U.S. are not yet created by social media, but said that it's "still American movies and TV iving impressions of the U.S. ... Old media still tell more of America's story internationally than new media do."

Podesta said that "The role of English overseas is a marvel ... you see Poles speaking to Koreans [in English] and all the rest," meaning that English is now a true lingua franca in his experience; he sees an opportunity to engage ESL foreign audiences with English-language broadcasting across platforms.

He was hopeful about the idea of having conversations with foreign publics as opposed to issuing statements to them, noting that "this sweeping empowering steps may be one that the U.S. is better equipped to take than other countries."

On Chinese search-engine freedom, Fallows thinks Google remains a big improvement, in terms of sheer numbers of results returned, than Baidu or other Chinese-language search sites.

And not to end on a down note, but Fallows feels the "sense of American renewal" he says foreign audiences had immediately after President Obama's election has "evaporated completely."

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Heading to Gov 2.0

I'll be at Gov 2.0 to be among the twitterati for the next couple days, starting with tonight's reception at Google HQ. Please call rather than e-mailing if you're in town and would like to meet up: 818.749.2420.

Germany's Reputation

During the time I was in Afghanistan last year, it would have been a mistake to say that German forces kept a low profile in northern Afghanistan. They kept zero profile, by report of everyone I worked with at Bagram: no active patrolling outside their base, some daytime reconstruction activity, all in all pretty hunkered down.

Whether the German soldiers themselves wanted it this way was beside the point since civilian leadership back home told them to stay put. That's because Chancellor Merkel wanted a twofer: to get Germany credit for being a pillar of NATO, but ideally to sustain zero casualties in the process by playing it safe with a minimal mission in the safest part of Afghanistan.

Shh--the German electorate is sleeping.

And this scheme worked for years, as Germans generally seemed unaware that their soldiers were fighting, or fighting to stay out of, a war thousands of miles from home.

Now, Merkel has gotten the worst possible outcome: German commanders decided to destroy two hijacked fuel trucks; they ordered an air attack based on single-source intelligence; many civilians died; and through some near-mystical lack of cojones, German soldiers weren't ordered to secure the site of the attack until the next day. In a singular episode of what my boss at Bagram used to call the "self-cleaning battlefield," there wasn't a single body left.

U.S. commanders will see a familiar pattern here: We bomb, good and bad guys die, everyone gets buried before even a rudimentary investigation gets under way. It's a universal problem of this type of war, and not a big deal for electorates in the U.S. and Britain which have no problem referring to an "Afghan war."

The real problem is back home in Germany, where some members of Parliament are going bonkers and "prosecutors in Potsdam said Monday that they were considering whether to open a homicide investigation into the decision by a German military commander to order the airstrike. ..."

In other words, a Germany that's unaware it's involved in a war, or refuses to call it that or certify its military actions as such, may have to decide what it really thinks. On the fly. Right before German national elections on September 27. Anyone want to ask former Spanish President Jose Maria Aznar whether any of this sounds familiar?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Only Thing Worse


I'd been on the fence about whether someone needed to go after the folks who disobediently destroyed videos of some CIA interrogations. I'm still on the fence--but I personally am glad that those videos will never surface.

That's because the videos are the only thing that could be worse for the image of the United States than the interrogation protocols this morning's Post lays out in black and white. The first three grafs alone are stomach-churning:

As the session begins, the detainee stands naked, except for a hood covering his head. Guards shackle his arms and legs, then slip a small collar around his neck. The collar will be used later; according to CIA guidelines for interrogations, it will serve as a handle for slamming the detainee's head against a wall.

After removing the hood, the interrogator opens with a slap across the face -- to get the detainee's attention -- followed by other slaps, the guidelines state. Next comes the head-slamming, or "walling," which can be tried once "to make a point," or repeated again and again.

"Twenty or thirty times consecutively" is permissible, the guidelines say, "if the interrogator requires a more significant response to a question." And if that fails, there are far harsher techniques to be tried.

The article goes on and on and on--so just imagine the uproar that would have resulted if videos of some of these interrogations still existed.

I still don't think the administration should go after any of the CIA interrogators, particularly since, as the Post article points out, CIA continually asked for guidance as to what was legal and what was illegal. It's just terrible that the previous administration's first resort was apparently thuggery.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Game = Iran?

Always entertaining, Marc ("Abu Aardvark") Lynch spends an amazing amount of Foreign Policy's time comparing rapper Jay-Z's hegemonic power with the potentially rising power of his near (but not near-peer) competitor, The Game.

You don't even have to know anything about rap to appreciate this piece (my own knowledge of rap stops abruptly with Straight Outta Compton). Lynch lays out the hegemon's options as well as the challenger's, and you can just read along and enjoy the ride.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The War at Home

Much as I'd rather not beat the Mexico-is-the-new-Colombia meme into the ground, it's worth looking at Ken Ellingwood and Tracy Wilkinson's "Calderon's Drug Offensive Stirs 'Wasp Nest.'" This L.A. Times story portrays a northern Mexico that is now fully militarized and occuped by the federal army.

The force's highly visible presence has caused the local assassins to change tactics, substituting pistols for AKs and beat-up cars for SUVs. In other words, the bad guys now have to get much closer to their targets to kill them, an undoubted benefit--but it remains to be seen how well the army treats Mexican civilians and thus, whether the civilians see the federals as liberators or occupiers.

The signs in the Ellingwood/Wilkinson story aren't encouraging, but then the Mexican army may just be experiencing the same (occasionally lethal) growing pains that U.S. forces met when they faced occupation duties post 9/11:

Activists say soldiers trained for combat, not police work, have run amok at times.

Margarita Rosales, a laundry worker in Juarez, said her son, Javier, 21, was found dead in April after he and a friend were seized by soldiers and federal police after a night of drinking. His body bore marks of a severe beating, she said. Rosales said the friend told her that Javier, an X-ray technician, was singled out because he was heavily tattooed.

"He didn't sell drugs. He wasn't involved in that kind of thing," she said. "If they had found kilos of drugs, kilos of cocaine -- but why? There is no reason why."

Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, human rights ombudsman for the state of Chihuahua, said his office has received 200 complaints of abuse by the military, including allegations of suspects being tortured to extract information, wrongful detention and seven killings. Nationwide, complaints against the army tripled between 2007 and 2009.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Robert Kaplan Interview by Michael Totten

Well worth the read. Totten caught up with Kaplan a few weeks ago, immediately after the end of the Sri Lanka insurgency, and their conversation ranges from the Horn of Africa to the Russian Arctic, with stops in between for how India, China, Russia and Iran will all affect U.S. interests.

Note that both Kaplan and Totten agree that Persian soft power is a strong and possibly decisive factor in places like Turkmenistan.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Twitter Silliness


With advance apologies to my colleagues whose job it is to spread the Good Word about social networking services to yet-benighted duchies and baronies within the federal government:

A strange-bedfellows combination of public diplomats, bloggers and assorted techies has been frothing since Iran-election protesters apparently used Twitter to both organize gatherings and appeal to the outside world for help. For a few days it appeared (in Western media accounts) that all Iran was tweeting when it wasn’t being kicked and beaten.

And yet, Twitter has really changed nothing except to lightly augment accounts of election-related disputes and rioting—and it enjoys that prominent role only because there have been few alternatives, what with Iran’s idled Internet and cell-phone networks and its lack of Western reporters.

As Noam Cohen pointed out in last Sunday’s Times, only a relatively small number of Iranians apparently used Twitter to organize protests; Iran is still primarily a word-of-mouth country rather than a texting or an Internet country.

And Twitter has other problems, among them that it’s so easy to use that pro-government forces use it themselves to spoof protest organizers and disseminate propaganda. Not to mention that those tweeting almost always lack training as observers or journalists; they’re just people who are frightened or angry and liable to write whatever they’re thinking at the moment—which is precisely what Twitter was designed for.

If anything, YouTube should be given credit for getting Iranian civilian videos of thug violence out of Iran, rallying world opinion in a visceral fashion that 140 dry characters cannot. In fact YouTube is choked with videos of baseej violence, and nothing has changed because of them, either.

Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei continue to move all the levers of power, speculation about Moussavi’s and Rafsanjani’s whereabouts and intentions notwithstanding. After some initial restraint, the Tehran government has deployed its knee-breakers in earnest to lock down both the capital and the provinces, and they appear to be succeeding.

As someone pointed out in the quaint, analog world of radio here in D.C. today, the first street protests against the Shah started in 1977 but didn’t reach critical mass until 1979.

My advice to Twitterers: Wait a couple of years to see whether #Revolution occurs, then a decade or so after that for everyone to write their books, before anyone proclaims that Twitter has come of age.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Slope Steepens


I remember Mexico's economic crisis in 1994, with its abrupt devaluation of the peso and the deep recession that followed. The country recovered brilliantly then, but I continue to have a bad feeling that Mexico is heading to where Colombia was in the 1990s.

The recession has already hammered both domestic industry and workers' remittances from overseas. The swine-flu outbreak is about to crush the third pillar of Mexico's economy, foreign tourism, with Mexico City hotel bookings suddenly off by 30-50 percent, according to NPR this morning.

Most worryingly, drug-gang violence continues to expand from the area around Ciudad Juarez to yesterday's city-wide ambushes of police in Tijuana.

From a reputational standpoint, things can't get much worse for Mexico--or can they?

Currently the Mexican government, corrupt and slow to act though it may be, does function; as others have noted, the trash gets picked up, kids go to school each morning, the food supply is safe, mail is delivered, certain commodities are kept relatively inexpensive. As a result, citizens have at least a minimal level of confidence that the federal government is legitimate.

However, that feeling could easily be shaken if either of two plausible events occurs: a) swine-flu deaths increase sharply and the government fails to intervene successfully or in time, or b) drug gangs stage a stand-up, set-piece battle with Mexico's military, signaling the emergence of an alternative power center in the country.

Either of these events would also cripple much-needed foreign direct investment.

In all, it looks a lot like Colombia circa 1990: potential and actual breakdown of public services and safety with an attendant erosion of faith in the central government, while the narcotraficantes provide an alternative source of jobs and infrastructure.

I'll really start worrying if I read newspaper stories about the narcos setting up their own courts to try criminals and settle civil disputes, aping the authority and legitimacy of the legitimate government just like the FARC.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Up with USIA


I spent part of last Friday afternoon at the semi-annual meeting of the Public Diplomacy Council, a group of retired State Department and U.S. Information Agency employees whose primary goal seems to be to revive USIA through any means necessary. (I'm a member primarily because I write about PD and soft power, not from any past affiliation with these agencies.)

Not having been involved in foreign policy the Cold War, I've always wondered at some advocates' messianic zeal about reviving USIA. Luckily I ran into WhirledView's Patricia Kushlis, with whom I'd corresponded over the past few years but never met.

Pat boiled it down to unity of effort: When USIA was around, you had a specific group of people who had one mission, who had their own budget, and who had institutional knowledge and memory of how to communicate with overseas publics. Contrast that with today, where budgeting and control of USIA's functions is fractured among State, the BBG and even the Defense Department.

She implied that getting everything back under one roof would lead to smarter, more focused PD. I'm also sure that a reconstituted, independent USIA would be able to persist and carry out its work even in periods of parent-agency neglect, as the empty chair of the Undersecretary for PA and PD demonstrates today at State.

So I'm now fully on board with the new-USIA program. Extract the former USIA's functions from their current agency homes, and pour them into a new agency. Give nouveau USIA the authority to ask for its own budget. And let it start the quiet, decades-long business of rebuilding the U.S.'s reputation abroad.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Horns of Africa


I think Somali-coast piracy is self-limiting because Somalis have essentially zero blue-water capacity, with "blue water" being defined as the ability to stay afloat out of sight of land for weeks at a time.

In trying to knock over that Maersk ship a couple weeks ago, the pirates verified that their effectiveness diminishes directly with distance from the nearest friendly port--and at 200 miles out, that effectiveness clearly drops to zero. They can't run back to shore fast enough, they can't be resupplied, and they can't outgun even the smallest nation-state naval vessel.

For the U.S. and other shipping nations, the trick becomes a simple matter of containment and a shrinking of the containment zone, not one of having to aggressively, endlessly patrol all the "millions" of square miles of water off Somalia's coast. (However, I'll paraphrase Robert Kaplan's recent point and accept that the Indian Ocean is, essentially, the new Atlantic in terms of being a potential great-power arena.)

Unfortunately, there are secondary consequences of the U.S. and French navies' recent killing and capturing of Somali pirates: They have relatives in places like the U.S.

Thanks to Tom Barnett for making the lightbulb go off in my head that Somali-heavy Minneapolis could potentially be a Hamburg for the plotters of some future domestic terrorist attack.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Sports Ambassadors


Players and fans of ultimate Frisbee know that it puts an extraordinary premium on sportsmanship, particularly for an highly competitive sport that involves cleats, running for hours on end, leagues, and the drive to win national championships.

Sportsmanship, and ultimate players' equally strong commitment to teaching new players, are particularly important when you're trying to coach and teach the game to Palestinian and Israeli youths.

That's what the top-level American ultimate players in this Al-Jazeera English story are doing under the auspices of the Peres Center for Peace.

Let's hear it for amateur-sports ambassadors who don't care about what American public-diplomacy policy should look like; they're just going out and being what we'd all like American ambassadors to be.

(Thanks to Tom Coffin and others in DC for the tip-off.)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Everyone Is Someone Else’s Pakistan


The infuriating thing about Pakistan’s federal government is that it never really owns up to any of the things it does or fails to do that might be helping insurgents in Afghanistan.

While Islamabad makes sporadic attempts to suppress insurgents on its side of the border, it doesn’t publicly own up to the fact that flows of narcotics and al-Qa’ida operatives from Afghanistan into Pakistani territory, and opposing flows of money, gunmen and materiel through its territory into Afghanistan, fuel warlordism and insurgency.

How refreshing then that Secretary Clinton has owned up to the idea that U.S. money and weapons are similarly destabilizing northern Mexico, and probably the Mexican national government as a whole.

This is partly caused by U.S. citizens’ drug use and partly by lax U.S. firearms policies—but it's still events occurring on U.S. territory that are causing the harm, regardless of whether U.S. nationals are directly responsible.

It’s refreshing to hear a sitting Secretary of State acknowledge U.S. responsibility for something, especially when that something inadvertently destabilizes a friendly neighboring state and important trading partner.

If we want the Pakistans of the world to take responsibility for events on their territory, it only helps American soft power for the U.S. to do the same.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Brief Updates

A few quick notes:

--Last night I attended the kick-off bash for the USC Center on Public Diplomacy's new magazine, PD. The first issue's theme is "New President: New Public Diplomacy?" and hopefully it will help kick-start discussion on what directions U.S. PD should take.

(Especially since, as John Brown noted to me, there's no new Undersecretary for PD and not even detectable chatter about one.)

--President Chavez's entirely predictable spiral toward dictatorship continues as he continues to bully restive regions, muzzle the press, snuggle with the Russians, and even threaten to nationalize Polar, the country's tastiest non-narcotic export.

--NATO's brand got a boost as French President Nicolas Sarkozy handily won a parliamentary vote of confidence inspired by his decision to rejoin the European defense organization.

Sarkozy has been moving NATO-ward for months now; I remember being impressed by his and defense minister Herve Morin's lightning decision to fly to Afghanistan immediately after a deadly ambush of French paratroopers there last summer. It appears that Sarkozy has hitched his wagon even more firmly to NATO now, and hopefully European NATO members will welcome the volume that France adds to Europe's military voice.

Monday, March 09, 2009

You Could Always Just Hire a Professional


Ex-FSO and PD gadfly John Brown argues for nominating Ambassador William Rugh to be the Undersecretary for PD and Public Affairs, hoping for a clean break with the recent string of hucksters, mouthpieces and so on that have held the position. (I know, I know--James Glassman is smart, he said the right things--but did he actually accomplish much during his time in office?)

Rugh's CV is voluminous, his reputation stellar, his knowledge of the Arab world apparently broad--and make no mistake, the PD secretary's primary if not sole task is to make the Arab world not "hate us" quite so much.

The only objection to confirmation that others might raise is Rugh's involvement with AMIDEAST, which the folks at AIPAC tend to see as an Arab fifth column. But you can't have everything.

Much more ominous is Brown's crippling ethical lapse in recommending Rugh--who once bought him lunch when Brown had "forgotten" his wallet at home!

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Wired for War Follow-Up

Joshua Fouts tends to be a bit ahead of whatever curve I'm currently on, and yesterday's Wired for War review is no exception: Josh notifies me that he and co-conspirator Rita J. King have a brief YouTube clip of their recent interview with Singer in Second Life.

Singer makes an interesting remark about the Three Laws of Robotics as impractical in the real world: Even if you could code the First Law, which specifies that robots shall not harm or through inaction allow humans to be harmed, how would a robot deal with a human building an armed robot? Definitely worth 2:17 of your time.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

P.W. Singer's Wired for War


P.W. Singer’s Wired for War takes a lengthy look at current and future uses of robotic technology in war. Subtitled “The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century,” it ranges from today’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and bomb-squad robots to tomorrow’s fully fledged synthetic warfighters.

Although this blog is primarily about soft power, I’ll first comment on some hard-power aspects of robotic warfighting before considering soft-power issues.

While Singer could have written Wired for War as a Popular Mechanics-style summary of technological capabilities—Rifle-Armed Robot Makes 70 of 70 Bullseyes!—he knows better than to stop there. Since the ultimate robotic task is to replace human warriors, Singer tries to address the wider spectrum of issues that accompany robot-aided warfare, starting with the current use of unmanned vehicles and proceeding into a future that includes robots which make judgments about what to do and whom to kill. Some highlights:

Military culture clashes. Lightly trained UAV pilots currently fly lethal missions from the safety of their Stateside chairs at higher rates than pilots of manned aircraft. The manned pilots resent the chair jockeys, which wouldn’t be a problem except that it’s the manned pilots who tend to become generals and dominate policymaking.

Law of armed conflict (LOAC). Geneva Convention-style chains of command may be unclear in cases where an unmanned vehicle is in theater while its pilot is in an air-conditioned trailer near Las Vegas, its designers and programmers in Massachusetts, and its in-theater commanders in Qatar. Singer points out that under current international law, a Nevada-based pilot who attacks Iraqi targets via a deployed UAV is a legitimate target of war as he walks the streets of Las Vegas.

Liability for autonomous devices. LOAC problems will grow enormously in the context of the semi- or fully autonomous killing machines of the future. Singer believes these devices are much closer to deployment than most realize, perhaps as soon as a decade from now. If and when they are, responsibility for their actions becomes even murkier, particularly since certain rules of engagement become absurd: How does a robot return lethal fire in “self defense” when legally, it has no self?

Singularities and science fiction. Although he briefly detours into Ray Kurzweil-style Moore’s-Law-applies-to-everything! froth, Singer is on firmer ground when he illustrates the strong linkages between science fiction and science, which he says have driven robotics development to a greater extent than non-roboticists realize.

For example, even if roboticists agree it is impossible to express Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics in a programming language, Asimov’s stories of robotic moral dilemmas have deeply influenced what little thought has so far been put into the ethics of artificial intelligences. Similarly, the outright prohibition on thinking machines following the Dune universe’s Butlerian Jihad and fears of the Terminator movies’ Austrian assassins have also given roboticists pause.

(Speaking of science fiction: It’s outside Singer’s scope to cover the trickle-down of military devices to police forces across the U.S., but I'd like to note that Ray Bradbury addressed this concern beautifully many decades ago in his short story "The Pedestrian.")

Soft Power Implications
As this blog is about nations’ reputation and branding, the sections of Wired for War that most interested me cover how foreign publics perceive the U.S. and other countries’ forays into robotic warfare. It’s to Singer’s credit that he treats this question at some length—although the short answer is that foreign publics are likely to react badly to robotic warfighters.

Take the jihadi example. Jihadis are already prone to thinking Americans cowardly for bombing from afar, for not duking it out on the ground, for not showing the kind of commitment it takes to pilot an aircraft into a building or a truck into a checkpoint.

Unfortunately, the use of UAVs and (someday soon) armed ground robots plays right into this narrative: The Americans have become too cowardly to send even heavily protected soldiers into our territory. Instead they send satanic machines to do their killing.

Nothing could be calculated to further get a jihadi’s back up and make them resistant to surrendering. You can almost hear one saying to another, Dude, you got shot at by a toaster and ran? You’re a disgrace to the cause!

Robotic warfighters could also be bad news in the counterinsurgency wars the U.S. currently wages, which depend mightily on face-to-face contact and relationship-building of the sort that mechanized, autonomous infantry and air forces may only impede.

The second impact of robotic warfighters on U.S. reputation is less direct but also depends on understanding insurgents’ psychology. Despite its enormously precise war machines, the U.S. still occasionally kills innocents. However, many seem to think that only malice or some unannounced sinister purpose is at play when some gee-whiz technology goes astray.

Ever-more-advanced machines such as fighting robots will have to be ever-more precise lest any accidental killing or destruction be seen as intentional, giving rise to the colorful conspiracy theories that seem endemic to certain parts of the globe. As Singer reminds us, those shiny, wraparound, relief-pitcher sunglasses U.S. soldiers favored at the start of the Iraq war caused riots, thanks to rumors that they allowed GIs to see beneath Iraqi women’s clothing.

Third: Does the U.S. really want to take the damage to its reputation that will come from fielding a T100?

Wired for War has its tics. Its writing veers from brilliant to repetitive, never settling on a steady pace or grade level. Singer doesn’t think much of the revolution in military affairs (RMA) attempted by Donald Rumsfeld et al., which involved changing the U.S. military over to weapons and tactics that relied more heavily on high technology to achieve victory.

He also seems to conflate the RMA strategy with network-centric warfare tactics, and often holds military theorist Art Cebrowski and his “crowd” responsible for whatever has gone wrong with U.S. strategy and warfighting in the past decade.

However, I’d urge readers to just ignore these factors since on balance, Wired for War is an excellent primer for an era that has already arrived, unbeknownst to most diplomats and policymakers.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thank Goodness for Pakistan


I've spent a lot of breath and a certain number of electrons lately objecting to media portrayals of the Taliban as resurgent, of the Kabul government as corrupt or in chaos, of insurgents as somehow surrounding Kabul.

While Coalition casualties in Afghanistan do seem to be rising, with a record two dozen dying so far in February, the country overall seems relatively stable, with few civilians dying. (I'm not saying they're not intimidated or fearful, just that mortality is down.)

Perhaps this is the calm before the storm--eventually spring will come and the mountain passes will reopen, allowing Pakistan's besandaled warriors easy access to Afghanistan once again. And there's sure to be a spike in violence before the Afghan elections in August.

But all the media's fears about Afghanistan's future have already sprung to ghastly life across the border. The federal government caved to the Taliban on Swat, as noted in last week's rant.

On Wednesday, the Musharraf-picked Supreme Court not only denied Nawaz Sharif the ability to run for office, it banned his brother, the chief minister of Punjab, from holding office. This compelled Shahbaz Sharif to step down and led to direct rule from Islamabad, which is sure to please Punjabis everywhere considering the Sharif family's wide popularity.

Meanwhile, the ISI's power-projection-on-the-cheap fantasies seem to have collapsed as the Indian government has linked it ever more tightly with the Mumbai attacks. (Note to ISI leadership: Next time you send mooks to India, consider issuing them non-Pakistani identification and make sure they're not carrying Pakistan-made goods, such as pickles and Mountain Dew.)

The Mumbai attacks also apparently scotched peace talks between Pakistan and India that were making real progress, and you have to admire ISI's thinking that a war on its western front with insurgents wasn't enough that they had to ratchet up tensions on their east, raising the possibility of a two-front conflict. How well did that work the last time it was tried?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Swat Side Effects


The Times has a heartbreaker this morning in "From Pakistan, Taliban Threats Reach New York," which discusses how Pakistani Taliban in Swat target families with relatives in New York.

Speak out against the Taliban, or just demonstrate you have a steady income, and Taliban sympathizers in New York drop a dime on your family back home. Now you're on the hook for a handsome ransom to be sent or carried back to the old country on your next visit.

Bad enough that the Taliban, having discovered that operating on the Afghan-Pakistan border (within Predator range) is a bad idea, have taken their show into the next set of valleys east. Worse that Taliban mischief has already wrecked domestic and international tourism to Swat, formerly known as the Switzerland of Pakistan, reducing incomes and reducing contact with the larger world. And worse still that Islamabad is caving to the Swat Taliban in precisely the same way that it did with NWFP and FATA Taliban last year:

You fellas go ahead and enforce shari'a law, we take no interest unless you attack government forces.

All that's missing from this depressing script are the attacks on government forces, which should start around this time tomorrow. And then Islamabad will come in and messily kick the Taliban in the teeth, after which the bad guys will simply start over again in another set of valleys.

Monday, February 09, 2009

"Media as Global Diplomat"


House-hunting has kept me from commenting sooner on last Tuesday's "Media as Global Diplomat" session, put on by USIP on the breathtaking seventh floor of the Newseum. A few brief notes:

Ted Koppel moderated and told a story I'd heard him use before: A BBC documentary heightened U.S. policymakers' concern about Somali starvation in the early 1990s. The U.S. sent troops there, with an outcome we all remember (1x U.S. troops died, roughly 50x Somalis died, Pres. Clinton pulled everyone out). As a result, the U.S. and other nations refused to intervene during the Rwandan genocide. Koppel tells this story to illustrate the power of unintended consequences.

Amb. Edward Djerejian was the first to state what it had been unwise to say during the Bush administration: Policy makes up 80 percent of other publics' perceptions of U.S., while our explanations of that policy make up just 20 percent.

Amb. James Glassman, the former Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, was so in command of his facts and such a realist that I'm sorry he, like Robert Gates, wasn't just kept on at State. Start with our goals, Glassman urged: What are we trying to do? He also noted that the U.S. "can achieve a lot even without people liking us"; respect, he seemed to be saying, should precede affection.

But it was James Zogby who really impressed me: I'm paraphrasing here, but he felt free to say that repeating the word "water" slowly enough in Mexico so that the poor, dumb foreigners will understand is unlikely to get you a glass of agua. He also took poor, abused Charlotte Beers to task by saying, "You don't need to 'brand' America, it's already branded."

But because of that brand--what other people think of American values--expectations of U.S. behavior are very high. "People want to like us, they want to believe in us, and we continue to hurt them," Zogby said.

Google director of global public policy and government Andrew McLaughlin provided some unintended comic relief by trying to convince the group that he was from the future, where apparently there are no radio or television, only the Internet. U.S. efforts that revolve around an "authoritative speaker and unwashed masses will fail," he intoned, adding that he found the whole conversation about what to do with U.S. radio and TV broadcasting "stale." I won't go further into McLaughlin except to say the jeans they wear in the future look very sturdy.

A videoconference with Oscar Morales, credited with the Facebook campaign that brought millions into Colombia's streets to protest the FARC, had some technical glitches but Morales still managed the audience a hit of the possibilities of grassroots, self-organizing civic action.

In the audience was Amb. Cynthia Schneider (former envoy to the Netherlands), who noted that the mere idea of merit-based competition such as American Idol--duplicated several times already in the Middle East--was radical. Another speaker noted that Beijing attempted to suppress mobile-phone voting on a Chinese Idol-type program for a couple years before giving up and allowing it to happen.

Edward Borgerding, CEO of Abu Dhabi Media Co., outlined the problem traditional media face: Not only are non-traditional media taking share from traditional broadcasters, the total number of dollars in the media system overall may be shrinking.

I was surprised by Smita Singh, director of the Global Development Program at the Hewlett Foundation, and MTV's president of global digital media Mika Salmi. The two of them convinced me that large philanthropic NGOs are much bigger do-gooders on the world stage than I'd thought, and focus on amplifying their impacts through partnerships with for-profit media. (Salmi's company partners with the Kaiser foundation, for example, on an anti-AIDS program in Africa.)

Finally, I had to leave before the screening of the 1982 Lebanon War-focused Waltz with Bashir, but my colleague Cady Susswein seemed to find it worthwhile, a "beautifully constructed cultural piece dealing with lingering emotions from war memories and Israeli guilt."

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Persians in Space


I once horrified an Iranian colleague by suggesting that Iran and the U.S. were natural allies: ethnically diverse nations that were wealthier and better-educated than their regional peers, and both with whopping superiority complexes based on past successes.

Iran has always felt that it, not Egypt and especially not those nuts over in Saudi Arabia, should be seen as the rightful leader of the Muslim world, as it was during the Safavid period centuries ago.

Yesterday Tehran gave a big boost to its muttered claims of superiority by launching its first-ever satellite, a feat that no other Muslim country is even close to duplicating.

Like China's launching of men into space over the past few years, the satellite launch demonstrates technological leadership and discipline that's head and shoulders above any regional competitor.

Although the satellite is small, from a soft-power standpoint it wouldn't matter whether Tehran had launched a Nerf football into orbit. It's a clear win for Iran, and on the 30th anniversary of the Revolution to boot.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Understanding Islam, Digitally


Comes word from Joshua Fouts* at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs that he and fellow fellow Rita J. King have some long-awaited work products from their "Understanding Islam Through Virtual Worlds" project.

They've either created or toured various Muslim-centric worlds within Second Life, made friends, conducted interviews, and concluded that virtual-reality worlds like this can be excellent venues for low-risk communication and collaboration between East and West.

Plus they've got the YouTube video, policy recommendations (PDF), and even comic book (PDF) to prove it.

There's a lot of potential to be mined here, particularly since the new U.S. administration is clearly more tech-savvy than its predecessors.

At this point I would make the same points I usually do whenever I hear anyone trumpeting the Internet as a key to international citizen-to-citizen communication: On a global scale, almost no one is on the Internet--barely one person in six, if you believe Wikipedia. There are especially few online in the Muslim world, and those tend to be disproportionately wealthy and well-educated.

Then I would normally ask, What's the point of trying to use Second Life to reach and communicate people who already have access to the Internet's massive buffet of information and opinion?

But then I remember that Cold War public diplomacy was not just focused on radio and other mass media as tools to reach foreign publics; there were also the U.S. cultural centers, touring jazz bands, speaking tours by prominent Americans and so on, all of which were almost unavoidably aimed at wealthy elites in other countries.

Seen through that light, virtual projects like "Understanding Islam..." should get serious examination by policy-makers as an additional arrow in the PD quiver, not to mention funding. Particularly since Dave Brubeck is now a bit too old to travel.

*Full disclosure: I worked for Josh and his former employer, the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, at a public-diplomacy conference in early 2006.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Media as Global Diplomat" February 3

I'll be attending the above-captioned, USIP-sponsored conference at the Newseum next Tuesday, featuring Amb. James Glassman (late of Karen Hughes's old job at State) and Amb. Edward Djerejian of the James Baker Institute for Public Policy. Ted Koppel moderates panels such as "Public Diplomacy 2.0: Rethinking Official Media" and "Independent Documentary and Participatory Media."

Beacon readers and assorted other characters: Feel free to e-mail my address at right if you're attending and want to chat over coffee or lunch.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How Goes the War?


The question I get asked most since I got back from Afghanistan usually goes like this:

“So, since you got a first-hand look at things over there”—

and here the questioner’s volume usually drops to a loud hush, one better suited for shared confidences about whether the U.S. government may be pulling the wool over our collective eyes—

“How do you think it’s going? It’s sounding a lot worse.”

I always start to answer by saying that I spent little time outside the wire and interacted with essentially no Afghan civilians who were not press. I also note that I’m a partisan and think that this is the war the U.S. should be fighting, I admire the job U.S. forces have been doing, and that it’s going to take one to two decades to accomplish anything that looks like a win.

With those caveats out of the way, I continue that from what I’ve read since returning and what I hear from those still deployed, the war sounds like it’s going pretty well.

The pace of Afghan civilian deaths, whether from insurgent action or U.S. mistakes, seems to have dropped off, although there are still times when U.S. forces are accused of killing or actually do kill civilians. (This most recent episode is still up in the air.) The pace of U.S. military deaths, which was a worry last fall when I left, has dropped as it does every winter. Western-sponsored infrastructure projects continue to progress, at least in low-lying areas that aren’t snowed in. While insurgents may threaten much, they control little.

But it still looks bad through the lens of the Western media. According to many reports, the Taliban insurgency is growing, is spreading, is surrounding Kabul, and is winning through whatever means. The Kabul government is ineffectual, the Western forces clumsy and ill-informed, Afghan villagers terrified, at least when you read the papers. What explains this?

The thing I ask people to remember about the Afghan war is that it is a counterinsurgency conflict, not a stand-up fight. The goal of Western forces is to suppress the insurgents long enough for the Kabul government to start winning its people’s loyalty and trust by helping and protecting them. In short: Anything that strengthens Afghans’ bond with their government is good, anything that weakens it is bad.

The insurgents are well aware of this. These groups, whether Taliban, HIG, al-Qa’ida, or the notorious al-Three Guys with a Grenade Launcher, are extremely media-savvy, and Afghan civilians are no shrinking violets either when confronted with Western cameras and microphones.

Here’s the sequence of events that seems to happen when U.S. or, occasionally, ISAF forces conduct a raid or drop a bomb that kills Afghans, civilian or otherwise.

First, the insurgent groups work the phones. When their fingerprints are on some new act, they are quick to call the media and glorify their latest suicide bombing, crow about the latest Western casualty, or fume (correctly, in most cases) about corrupt officials in Kabul. In this case, they fulminate about the latest Western misstep, painting U.S. and ISAF forces as bloodthirsty.* These assertions plug in nicely to the insurgents’ broader narrative of a Crusader force propping up a feeble government whose writ doesn’t even extend to Kabul’s city limits.

In the ensuing days, Afghan civilians and survivors of the raid pile on. They talk to the media about the loss of their innocent relatives and demand cash reparations. Payment of such blood money is the accepted norm in South and Central Asia, and Western forces are generally quick to pay it. This fact, and the lack of a paper trail to prove conclusively that a named person did or did not exist, creates a broad incentive to inflate the numbers of people—especially women and children—who were killed.

Third, Afghan government officials express outrage at the killings of their constituents for days or weeks on end, just as the governor of Oklahoma would at tornado damage or the governor of California would following an earthquake or mass shooting. The Afghan officials demand an end to unilateral bombings or raids by Western forces and generally grandstand to the limits of their ability, again according to South/Central Asian regional norms.

The combined effect of these actions—insurgent PR savvy, civilian demands for reparations and apologies, and elected officials’ professed outrage—is to produce a constant stream of stories about Western mistakes. This, I tell people, is one reason why it might seem the West is losing the Afghan war.

I’m leaving out a lot of details for the sake of brevity, but this model is broadly valid for occasions when Western forces kill or are accused of killing civilians. There are several other templates for how the media cover or are forced to cover this conflict—Suicide Bomber in Marketplace was popular last summer, Kabul Government Linked to Opium Trade is a spring/summer perennial, School Opens in Tiny Village works year-round, as does Insurgents Are Surrounding Kabul.

But the model I’ve just discussed, Western Forces Kill Civilians, is the one that seems to get the most play lately in this hemisphere. Knowing that it and other models exist, and that they are entirely predictable and repeating, goes a long way toward understanding how the war goes in Afghanistan.

*Secretary Gates testified yesterday that the U.S. actually does need to apologize faster for causing civilian casualties:

Civilian casualties resulting from U.S. combat and airstrikes have been particularly harmful to progress in Afghanistan and must be avoided, Gates stressed. "My worry is that the Afghans come to see us as part of their problem rather than part of their solution, and then we are lost," he said.

Moreover, the U.S. military must immediately voice regret for any civilian casualties, rather than waiting to investigate the details, Gates said in separate testimony before the House Armed Services Committee yesterday afternoon.

Gates said this is necessary to counter Taliban insurgents, who he said hide among the population and then report civilian deaths in coalition military operations quickly and widely on the Internet. "The instant we believe there may have been civilian casualties, we have to be out there" expressing condolences, rather than arguing over the numbers, he said.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Foreign Desk's Foreign Policy Awards


A brief plug: Today at The Foreign Desk, my colleague Andy Valvur has unveiled this year's nominations for foreign-policy Oscars. Highly recommended for indoor-pale policy wonks like us who delight in those obscure, page-A17 stories on the inner workings of Bangladeshi and Iranian politics. ...

Friday, January 23, 2009

The State of Smart Power


In Wednesday's Los Angeles Times, Joseph Nye penned a post-Inaugural summary of smart power that describes the State of Things as They Are in U.S. foreign policy and reputation. It's the sort of piece Nye has written--or has been forced to write--many times in the past several years while foreign-policy pragmatists were shoved into the back seat by ideologues.

Now Dr. Nye has both a platform and listeners in the new presidential administration; as he notes, President Obama, Defense Secretary Gates and incoming Secretary of State Clinton are making all the right noises about restoring America's reputation, particularly with Obama ignoring the naysayers and going ahead with a Guantanamo closure post haste.

One Obama move is particularly impressive to those who remember Northern Ireland's seemingly endless civil war: He has recalled former Maine Sen. George Mitchell, who helped broker the Good Friday peace agreements in 1998, to his country's service as a special envoy for the Middle East.

I can't think of a better choice as Mitchell is one of those figures who seems beyond party and nearly beyond country, which is something the Middle East peace-brokering business sorely needs.

Friday, January 09, 2009

It's Morning in Amriika

Strange stirrings in the East: Senator Obama is about to be sworn in. Senator Clinton is about to become Secretary of State, replacing a justifiably exhausted Secretary Rice (and whatever happened to her? and President Bush?).

Secretary Gates, who I was sure would bolt Washington at the first opportunity, is not only staying on, but lobbying for more money for State, perhaps helping to end State's decades-long starvation diet. The war in Afghanistan is coming into ever-sharper focus as Iraq remains eerily quiet.

It's morning in Amriika, as Arabic speakers would pronounce it, and we'll see how well President-elect Obama's team tackles foreign policy even as domestic policy seems to overshadow everything outside the U.S.: Russia's stranglehold on natural gas, Israel's war with Hamas, China's deteriorating economy.

Someone should go to Washington to investigate how the Obama-Clinton-Gates team picks up President Bush's ball ... and that would be me. Next week I'll be heading to DC to live and work, reporting, for a change, from the belly of the beast. Stay tuned.
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