Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

Build, Buy, Leave

January 29, 2010

Following the conclusion of the London conference on Afghanistan yesterday, it became clear that the West’s exit strategy for the war-torn country can be summed up in three words: Build, Buy, Leave.

Build–The US and its NATO allies are trying to recruit and train more Afghans security personnel.  The Western coalition wants to increase the size of the Afghan National Army (ANA) from approximately 100,000 troops to 178,000 by October 2011 while adding 14,000 patrol officers to the Afghan National Police (ANP), which currently has 95,000 patrolmen.  Plans call for the security forces to eventually total 400,000, comprised of 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police.

Buy–Britain and Japan have agreed to donate $500 million to help the Afghan government persuade Taliban fighters and their commanders to lay down their arms and engage in peaceful politics.  Officials believe that militants can be bought off with promises of money, protection,  jobs and political appointments.

Leave–America and its European partners have said that they will begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan next year when security conditions are expected to improve.  Western leaders want to reduce casualties and costs at a time when the war is becoming increasingly unpopular at home.  They also fear that an extended foreign presence will alienate Afghans and make them turn against international forces.

The odds that the coalition’s exit strategy will work according to plan are low.  Nearly doubling the size of the Afghan army in less than two years may not be feasible because recruiting and training quality troops takes a lot of time, and the problem is exacerbated by the fact that 90 percent of Afghans are illiterate, which means that training manuals cannot be widely used.  Most Western soldiers are engaged in combat or combat support duties, so there might not be enough military trainers to do the job.  The current police force is considered by many to be corrupt and ineffective, so augmenting the ANP might not make much of a difference in terms of improving security on the local level.

Buying off the Taliban probably will not be as easy as some policymakers think.  Although some lower echelon militants have left the battlefield after being offered incentives by the government, the latter has not lived up to its end of the bargain; safety and employment for former fighters remain elusive.  In addition, many Taliban, especially senior leaders, are ideological fanatics and ardent nationalists who are determined to drive foreign elements out of their country and re-establish an Islamic state, and they seem to believe that their ultimate victory is inevitable if they continue their attacks.

Pullout Western troops out of Afghanistan next year would likely create a security vacuum given the strenth of the insurgency and the high probability that the Afghan security forces will not be much stronger by then.  In that case, the US and NATO will have to choose between maintaining their current operational footprint or letting the situation on the ground deteriorate.  If they go with the second option they will have to scale back their objectives, which now include defeating the Taliban, facilitating economic development, increasing the capacity of the government to deliver basic services to its citizens and protecting human rights.

The Cost of Expanding Afghan Security Forces

January 28, 2010

Today in London, 70 nations are taking part in a conference about the future of Afghanistan.  One of the main focus points is the plan to greatly increase the size of the country’s security forces.  The US and its European allies intend to fund the expansion and help train new recruits.  British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that there will be 134,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army by October of this year, and 171,600 in October 2011; he also said the Afghan National Police force will have 109,000 officers and 134,000 personnel by the same respective dates. 

The Pentagon estimates that it will cost between $10 billion and $20 billion to bankroll the augmentation, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai estimated that it will take five to 10 years to complete the process and as many as 15 years before his government can finance its defense establishment.  According to these figures, the West will have to spend tens of billions of dollars to enlarge the army and police, and several billion dollars annually just to sustain the forces.  There is reason to doubt that Afghanistan will be able to pay for its national security apparatus on its own by the end of Mr. Karzai’s timetable because the country’s yearly tax revenue currently totals a mere $1.1 billion.  Considering the facts that the government will need to spend money on other programs and corruption is a major problem, it is highly unlikely that the state will be able to afford to maintain sufficiently large security organizations without a high level of financial assistance from the international community for decades to come, barring an economic miracle in one of the world’s poorest nations.

However, the American-led war effort is expected to cost more than $100 billion a year as long as the size of the foreign military presence remains the same, so requisite spending on indigenous forces would only be a fraction of current operational expenditures.  NATO members, including the US, have stated that they intend to begin withdrawing their combatants next year, but given the strength of the insurgency and the weakness of the Afghan National Army, it appears that a major drawdown in 2011 will be infeasible if Western leaders are determined to prevent the Taliban from taking over large swathes of Afghanistan.  The attendees at the London conference should recognize these facts before they devise plans for the future.

Kristof on Costa Rica

January 8, 2010

Yesterday, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristof in which he discusses the relative “happiness” of countries around the world, focusing primarily on Costa Rica, which ranks number one according to various indeces.  The World Happiness Index ranks the US 20th, with Togo and Tanzania coming in last; another study ranks America 19th and puts Zimbabwe at the bottom of the list.

Mr. Kristof argues that the main reason that Costa Ricans are so happy is that they have low levels of military spending (the country has no armed forces) and they invest a relatively large amount in education per capita, which in turn has led to political stability.  He also credits the nation’s environmental conservation efforts as a contributor to public contentment.  Based on this assumption, he argues that the US should spend less on defense (including foreign military assistance) and more on social programs like education.  He also suggests that America should do more to protect the environment.

I respect Mr. Kristof for his efforts to highlight humanitarian disasters and violations of human rights, particularly in Darfur, but his latest article is highly flawed.  Comparing the US with Costa Rica when it comes to military expenditures is nonsensical.  Costa Rica faces no serious internal or external threats, whereas America is responsible for underwriting international security and protecting the world’s oil supply, on which the global economy is dependent.  Partly as a consequence of America’s foreign policy commitments and interventions, terrorists and insurgents are determined to attack the US and its interests overseas, and policymakers have found it necessary to provide materiel and financial assistance to governments battling anti-American militants in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.  Withholding such aid could have disastrous consequences, and reducing the size and capability of the American military would undermine the liberal international order that Mr. Kristof claims to support.

Another weak point in his argument is his assertion that “happiness” is based on social spending.  He mentions that Mexico and Colombia rank higher than the US on happiness indeces, but both nations spend less on education and medical care than America, and they are also plagued by higher levels of drug-related violence.  He himself acknowledges that a “cultural emphasis on family and friends” might be responsible for the disparity in contentment; although such things are difficult to measure and his claim that Latin Americans value family and friends more than Americans is certainly disputable.  One thing that Mr. Kristof fails to note is that Latin Americans generally work fewer hours per week than Americans do (as do Europeans, who are reportedly “happier” than people in the US), which could be an important factor when it comes to reported personal satisfaction.

I am not suggesting that education and other forms of social spending are not important, or that federal and state governments in the US should not spend more in these areas (I believe they should).  I am merely saying that Mr. Kristof’s prescriptions for increasing “happiness” in America may not have the intended results  in light of geopolitical and social conditions. 

On a separate note, Mr. Kristof’s insistense that the US reduce military spending reinforces public perceptions that liberals are weak on national defense, which inhibits the electoral success of liberal candidates and inhibits their ability to promote the political causes that Mr. Kristof supports.

The Deification of Dead Political Leaders

January 7, 2010

In an op-ed piece published today on nytimes.com titled “Asia’s 70-Percent Gods,” Roger Cohen discusses his recent trip to Asia where he saw the preserved bodies of Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong.  He notes that the Communists leaders who control one-party states have deified their predecessors for nationalist purposes while ignoring the socioeconomic ideas that they assiduously promoted at the cost of millions of lives (Stalin is still a revered figure in Russia, although some Russian elites, including President Dmitry Medvedev, have criticized his repressive actions).  The deceased political titans remain symbols of resistance to foreign oppression and the overthrow of corrupt governments, but current Asian powerbrokers are promoting the capitalist-type economic policies that Ho and Mao decried in an effort to stay in power by improving the living standards of their countries’ citizens.

At times other Asian nations have treated their heads of state like gods, including North Korea (which is still a communist dictatorship), and Japan; although the latter no longer considers the emperor a deity.

Contemporary Chinese leaders have so far succeeded in facilitating rapid economic growth and remaining in power while using authoritarian measures like censorship and the banning of alternative politial parties.  However, China is not as stable as many outsiders believe.  There are thousands of riots each year as well as ethnic conflict, and there is a wide and growing wealth inequality between urban dwellers and rural peasants that could eventually lead to class warfare.  And when the living standards of the middle class reach a certain level those in it may focus more on their lack of civil liberties and demand change; such a development would undermine the primary pillar of the Communist Party’s political strategy and threaten its primacy.

Political instability, as well as the aging of the population due to the one-child policy, may put a halt to China’s impressive economic growth in the coming decades.  The threat of this happening is significant but largely ignored in America where many fear that China will overtake the US economically and geopolitically by mid-century.  While some might welcome attempts to liberalize Chinese society and bring down the communists, people should be aware that the consequences of a revolutionary movement could be disastrous in terms of lives lost and the destabilization of the global economy.  If democracy emerges in China or other Asian countries one hopes that it will be the result of a peaceful process much like the velvet revolutions that occured in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War rather than a bloodbath.