Kabul

On a balmy summer’s day in the village of Hiratian in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, locals found the body of eight-year-old Dilawar hanging from a tree of a small fruit farm. Taliban fighters had accused the boy of spying for the American forces and had kidnapped him, strung him up and left his body to sway in the wind for hours for all to see. The murder was horrifying, yet few villagers would come to the defense of anyone charged with spying for the hated foreign forces. But slowly, the details of the story emerged.

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For those of us who can remember how lonely it was to be in favor of the Iraq war and the hoped-for surge in 2006, reflecting on America’s current travails in Afghanistan—a “fool’s errand” (George F. Will) administered by “well-meaning infidels” (Andrew J. Bacevich)—isn’t nearly so depressing.

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“When you go to protect people, the people have to want you to protect them,” General Stanley McChrystal recently told reporters. “It’s a deliberate process. It takes time to convince people.” The remark, notable for its defensive tone, provides a small but telling indication that things are not going well in Afghanistan. If there were any doubts on that score, Rolling Stone’s profile of the “Runaway General” and his eminently quotable staff have quashed them. The wheels are starting to come off the Afghan Victory Express.

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Sometimes Michael Kazin’s reasonableness disguises an apologetic lack of argument. His little reflection on my piece is a small anthology of the president’s foreign policy shibboleths. Let us begin with Iran. “They hail the democratic insurgents in Iran but do not propose an intervention that would destroy their movement and many of their lives.” Who, precisely, is proposing such an intervention? Certainly not I.

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Are the basic premises of our current policy in Afghanistan fatally flawed? The fact that I feel compelled to pose this question so soon after the completion of President Obama’s painstaking review reflects the mounting evidence that the results of that policy have fallen far short of expectations. Let’s begin at the beginning, with Marja. The holy trinity of modern counterinsurgency is clear, hold, and build. Coalition forces are stalled at step one.

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Shura to Fail?

Shamalzai District, Zabul Province, Afghanistan—The village of Sher Khan Khel sits at 7,221 feet, a few miles from where Zabul Province borders Pakistan. Stone and mudbrick houses dot the barren slopes (there is little that will grow at this altitude). Women wear dresses trimmed with coins and ink tribal tattoos on their faces, while the men are clad in traditional shalwar kameez and turbans. There is no electricity, no cell phone reception, no TV service. When I visited this spring, I asked a few men how far a nearby village was from another. "Two to three hours walking," was the answer.

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Imagine a national leader dependent on American support, but who knows that the U.S. Ambassador has threatened that it will be withdrawn; who has heard Senators, and the French foreign minister, call for his removal; and who is referred to throughout the Western press as “weak and unreliable.” That man is not Hamid Karzai, who visits Washington this week. It was Nouri al-Maliki, Prime Minister of Iraq, three years ago. Yet Maliki has since transformed himself from reputed weakling to overbearing strong-man, even while being dependent on U.S. support.

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I know that a lot of people in my crowd don't like Frank Rich. But I happen to find even some of his excesses entertaining. Yes, he is of the somewhat ritualized left.

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They are not unconnected. They are not unconnected at all. Now, presumably the president didn't want to provoke the rage of the Palestinians. (Although, then again, he might just have anticipated it.) But Palestinian rage is very easy to provoke. Snap your fingers and, there, you have it. You don't even have to rent a mob. It comes free will, so to speak. The fact is that Obama did more than snap his fingers. He sent out very top members of his administration to beat up on Israel and they did.

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On his way to Kabul, Secretary Gates accused Dr. A’jad and Iran of “playing a double game” in Afghanistan. And surely they are. Nonetheless, the administration which the secretary of defense serves has, if anything, encouraged this behavior. Most especially by not following through on any of its (in any case, namby-pamby) threats as Tehran carries on its relentless march to nuclear possession. But what, in fact, Iran has been doing is not surprising.

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