David Petraeus

Time for a Reset

President Obama is in a tight spot. The 2010 elections have sharply contracted his ability to achieve legislative victories, while his room to maneuver on other issues will be limited by the intrusive investigations which are almost certainly coming his way. Progress will be harder to attain than ever.

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When a story about survival and life wipes another story about disaster and death off the news channels and front pages, it should be a cause for joy. The fate of the Chilean miners terrified, excited, and finally exhilarated billions of people like nothing else I can remember for years. It was the ultimate human-interest story, the happy ending beyond Hollywood’s most frantic dreams. No one planned that this should eclipse the death of Linda Norgrove, the 36-year-old British—more exactly Scottish, from the beautiful Hebridean island of Lewis—aid worker.

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Compounding things, the international community has moved ponderously, even lethargically, to aid the survivors. According to Pakistan's National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), Saudi Arabia has led all countries in providing aid, with about $112 million, followed by the United States with nearly $76 million, and then the United Kingdom's nearly $65 million. Pakistan's neighbor and regional rival, India, has offered very little, while Pakistan's all-weather friend, China, has ponied up a paltry $9 million thus far. The total sum, according to the NDMA, amounts to only $524.93 million.

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The principle of civilian control forms the foundation of the American system of civil-military relations, offering assurance that the nation’s very powerful armed forces and its very influential officer corps pose no danger to our democracy. That’s the theory at least, the one that gets printed in civics books and peddled to the plain folk out in Peoria.     Reality turns out to be considerably more complicated.

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There is an old Washington adage that the ultimate “man bites dog” story is one in which a politician tells the truth in public. Chris Matthews pointed out on his show recently that there was something almost uplifting about the response of the new senator from Massachusetts, Scott Brown, who, when asked whether he was demanding changes in the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill to protect the interest of the Boston-based State Street investment firm, replied that, no, it wasn’t just for them.

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Keeping Promises

One truism of counterinsurgency is that securing and winning over the population are the keys to success. So, what do the people of Afghanistan want? In December, ABC and the BBC conducted nationwide polling and discovered that one-third of Afghans said that poverty and unemployment were the biggest challenges confronting them. Another third named rising insecurity and violence. Meanwhile, relatively few Afghans were preoccupied by those issues that many Americans deem to be Afghanistan’s greatest problems.

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In September 1991, the president of Afghanistan, Muhammad Najibullah, a former communist secret police chief turned Islamic nationalist, delivered an emotional speech to the Afghan parliament. Najibullah knew the era of foreign intervention in Afghanistan over which he had presided was ending. The Soviet Union had pulled back from direct combat. Radical Islamist rebels covertly backed by Pakistan controlled much of the countryside. Before parliament, Najibullah begged for national unity.

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Awaken the Pashtuns

The war in Afghanistan is the revenge of the Iraq war. It was amid the great debate about Iraq that there was born the myth of Afghanistan as the good war of “necessity”—the September 11 war. We had erred, American liberals insisted; we had opted for the wrong war in Mesopotamia when we should have stayed the course in Afghanistan.

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Many good people who have never fought in a war find something appealing in America’s willingness to take more casualties in order to spare innocent civilian lives. For those, like me, who have been in combat, the choices at hand look somewhat different. Consider the following likely scenario. A platoon of Marines is patrolling an area in Afghanistan. To avoid IEDs, the Marines stay off the roads and advance through a field. At the edge of the field is a row of huts. Suddenly, two Marines are hit. The Marines take cover, although there is little to protect them in the open field.

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The fact is that the war in Afghanistan is a war without support. Or such support as it now has is a gesture of gratitude to David Petraeus for taking it on. The never-fading dead seem to have died for an abstraction, and the maimed--now a regular feature in the news--are the essence of the story. Can anyone argue a thesis for this war? Or a strategy? Well, I think I could.

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