Archive for September, 2009

The Upcoming P5+1 Talks

September 30, 2009

Last week, the leaders of the US, France and Britain publicly revealed that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been informed about the existence of a uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qum in Iran.  This revelation came just days before the planned P5+1 talks between the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Iran about the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, which will take place tomorrow in Geneva.  On his ForeignPolicy.com blog, Marc Lynch speculated about why the existence of the site was recently disclosed (http://lynch.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/09/25/the_iran_nuclear_revelation).

Mr. Lynch argues that the revelation strengthens the bargaining position of the P5.  But the disclosure will not likely be a significant game-changer.  The European powers were already convinced of the need to compel Iran to allow intrusive IAEA inspections, and they apparently are still more concerned about the Iranian nuclear program than the US. 

Meanwhile, the new information will merely reinforce Israeli fears that Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons.  This fact gives the Iranians leverage because the US wants to quickly reach a deal with Iran to ward off a threatened Israeli military strike that could have disastrous consequences for the US and the Middle East region.

Despite the disclosure of the Qum facility, the Russians and the Chinese will still likely veto any harsh economic sanctions against Iran because the two countries have strategic relationships with the Islamic Republic, especially when it comes to energy. 

Any deal between Iran and the West will probably entail an Iranian agreement to report the location of all of its nuclear facilities and allow IAEA inspectors to closely monitor them.  In return, other powers will acknowledge Iran’s right to maintain a peaceful nuclear program and give the country economic benefits.  In addition, the US may reestablish diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic for the first time in 30 years.

Whether such an agreement will be reached at the upcoming meeting is uncertain.  And even if a deal is made, the Iranians could still pursue a secret nuclear weapons program, especially if they believe it serves their vital national interests.

The P5+1 negotiations might bear fruit and head off an international crisis.  But the exposure of the Qum site will probably not play a major role in such a development.

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US Strategic Communications

September 29, 2009

In a blog published yesterday on ForeignPolicy.com (http://lynch.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/09/27/the_missed_public_diplomacy_opportunity),  Marc Lynch (aka Abu Aardvark) wrote about the failure of US stategic communications efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Mr. Lynch says “Better public diplomacy and strategic communications could make a real difference in shaping the conditions for foreign policy success.  I don’t know why it has proven so difficult for the US government to mount public diplomacy and strategic communications campaigns in support of key administration policy goals.”

Lynch cites the aftermath of President Obama’s speech in Cairo, the war in Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as examples of US failure to communicate its message to foreign publics.

Communications and public diplomacy (so-called “smart power”) are often lauded by public officials and other foreign policy professionals, but the task of using them to achieve foreign policy goals is difficult, which explains why US efforts in this area have failed.

Perhaps it is true that the US should have been ready to implement grass-roots programs in the Muslim world soon after the president’s well-received speech in June.  But it is difficult to see how the situations in Afghanistan and Israel can be significantly improved by communications and public diplomacy.

Nearly 90 percent of Afghans do not want the Taliban to regain power.  The reason the US is not getting more support from the Afghan people is that coalition forces have not been able to protect them from the Taliban and the Afghan government is corrupt and ineffective.  No amount of strategic communications and public diplomacy will change that situation.

The vast majority of Israelis want peace and recognize the need for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The main reason that America has not been able to sell its Middle East peace plan is that Israeli governments do not trust Palestinian groups like Hamas to abide by any peace agreement, and Palestinian officials are not unified enough to make a deal.  The US cannot say or do anything to alter those views.

In some situations, “smart power” may significantly help the US achieve its foreign policy goals.  But in many cases, foreign officials will have to change their attitudes before their policies can change to satisfy the US.  And the American government will usually have to win public support through actions rather than words.

Complaints About Sweden’s Military Bras

September 28, 2009

Female concripts in Sweden complain that their military bras are unsuitable, according to The Local, an English language newspaper published in Sweden (http://www.thelocal.se/22228/20090922/).  They said that the bras easily come undone during exercises, which forces the affected recruits to strip down and refasten them.  According to reports, the bras are not flame resistant, which means that they could catch fire during combat and melt onto female soldiers’ skin.

The Swedish Conscription Council, a conscripts’ rights group, is pressing Swedish officials to procure better underwear for servicewomen.  The male-dominated military has been ignoring the unfastening problem for more than 20 years…

Questions and Comments About Afghanistan

September 25, 2009

The commitment of America’s NATO allies to the conflict in Afghanistan has been much discussed on this blog and elsewhere.  There is a significant possibility that European governments will soon begin withdrawing troops in response to growing public opposition to the war effort, which is partly a reaction to increasing casualties, at a time when the US is dispatching more soldiers and Marines to join the fight.

The blog At War: Notes from the Front Lines, which can be linked to from this website and nytimes.com, is excellent.  In a recent post, war correspondent John Burns answers questions from readers about Afghanistan and America’s coalition partners. (http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/02/john-burns-answers-your-questions-on-wobbly-us-allies/.  Many of the readers’ comments are also interesting and worth reading.

The Kagan Plan for Afghanistan

September 24, 2009

On Monday, military analysts Frederick Kagan and Kimberley Kagan published a presentation on the force requirements necessary for the US to succeed in Afghanistan (http://www.understandingwar.org/files/Afghanistan_Force_Requirements.pdf).  Mr. Kagan was the brain behind the troop surge in Iraq, and he and Ms. Kagan propose a similar course of action in Afghanistan.  They recommend adding seven-and-a-half combat brigades (45,000 total troops) to the current force and rapidly accelerating the training of Afghan soldiers.

The Kagans’ make some strong points regarding the consequences of a major withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan.  Their analysis of the problems inherent in relying solely on special operations forces (including drone aircraft) alone to combat Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in the border regions of Afghanistan-Pakistan is the most insightful part of the report.

However, there are several weaknesses in the Kagans’ proposal. One is that it minimizes the importance of the national police.  They write off the police as “ineffective and acclerants of the insurgency through corruption and penetration by militants,” and argue that the police should not be considered counterinsurgents.  They focus on building up the Afghan army, an important aspect of the US counterinsurgency strategy, but fail to recognize the importance of the police when it comes to gathering intelligence and establishing order.  The Afghan police force definitely has serious problems, but making it much larger and more effective should be a major priority of the coalition.

The Kagans’ also dismiss concerns shared by many senior American officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, that the US will be seen as an unwelcome occupier by the Afghan population if force levels increase significantly.

In the report, they say that “The issue of ‘foreign occupation’ is a propaganda theme, not a finely-calibrated reality.”

Perhaps the reason that the coalition is not currently perceived as an occupying force is that most Afghans have never seen a coalition soldier, a fact that the Kagans mention in their argument that more troops are needed but fail to connect to a lack of widespread anti-coalition sentiment.  If thousands of US troops pour into urban areas like Kandahar City and engage in firefights, popular opinion could turn against them.

The most nonsensical part of the report is the claim that sending more troops to Afghanistan will help the coalition curb the amount of corruption there.  The Kagans argue that the US will have more leverage over Afghan officials, but American threats to cease supporting the Afghan government will not be credible, especially in the wake of a larger troop commitment.

Finally, it is doubtful that the proposed increase in forces levels will be sufficient to achieve the desired results of the surge, which is to pacify the country sufficiently to allow Afghan security forces to takeover responsibility for securing their country in a reasonable amount of time.  The Kagans claim that in two or three years the US will be able to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. But European governments, under intense public pressure, will likely begin withdrawing their soldiers soon, and the US will have to fill the void. The Kagans project that 80,000 new Afghan fighters can be effectively added to the counterinsurgency effort each year, but is highly uncertain that so many new Afghan troops will be ready to conduct counterinsurgency operations on their own anytime in the next few years.

Ultimately, if the US wants to prevent the Taliban and their Al Qaeda affiliates from retaking control of Afghanistan it will have to maintain a sizeable force in that country for many years.  A temporary surge could easily become a long-term endeavor if the promised improvements of such a deployment do not come to fruition as quickly as its advocates predict.  Policymakers must therefore decide if the risks and costs of massively increasing the size of the American footprint in Afghanistan are acceptable, keeping in mind that the American people may not be willing to support the long-term deployment of a force that could potentially equal or exceed the size of the US military presence in Iraq during its apex.