2011 October


Devaluing the Concurrency

by Tom Donnelly

“Concurrency” in defense programs-that is, overlapping development and production of weapons systems-has long been a controversial Pentagon practice. Not surprisingly, inventing something while beginning to build it, particularly something as complex as a modern warship, aircraft, or combat vehicle, introduces the risks of schedule delays and cost overruns. At the same time, the rapid fielding of a still-to-be-perfected system can create or preserve an advantage on the battlefield; it’s the technological equivalent of getting there “the fastest with the mostest.”

Now the Obama Pentagon is threatening to rewrite the procurement rules in a way that would make it extremely difficult to have the option of concurrent development and production.

While there’s no way to eliminate the risks, the Defense Department has often felt that the rewards of concurrency outweighed the risks. Back in the 1980s, a Congressional Budget Office study of the issue judged that, of the 31 major systems it surveyed, 13 qualified as “highly concurrent.” The CBO also found that “concurrent development and production of weapons systems has been emphasized during wartime or periods of national emergency, when a consensus readily supported the acceleration of high-priority weapons systems.” Historical examples included depth charges and nuclear weapons in World War II, the Sputnik-era missile programs of the 1950s, and the introduction of “smart” weapons from the 1960s through the 1980s.

There has been a wide range in Pentagon procurement policies over time; they seem to change with the decades. It was under Robert McNamara in the 1960s that the Pentagon went for concurrency in a big way, but the troubles of the C-5 cargo plane program and other rapidly developed and fielded systems swung the pendulum back to a more cautious approach. In the early 1970s, the Pentagon adopted a “fly-before-buy” approach along with a more rigorous effort of operational testing. The fashion changed again when, in the late 1970s, the Defense Science Board noted that development and production of weapons systems was taking longer than ever, and the defense build-up of the Reagan years again embraced systematic concurrency.

Hemlines have risen and fallen several times since, and Congress-which loves to sensationalize procurement scandals-has increasingly imposed testing and other hurdles to concurrent development and production. Yet, when the national or military need is great, everyone turns a blind eye and the normal bureaucratic order is set aside. Nothing reflects this basic common sense more than the rapid purchase of $25 billion in Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles for use in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Time is of the essence,” then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress. “Every month troops go without MRAPs could indeed cost lives.”

In sum, whatever the problems of unpredictability in cost and schedule that inevitably come with concurrent development and production, the Pentagon has always wanted to have the option open. But concurrency is only possible if the Defense Department is willing fairly to share the costs and risks.

This long-time bargain is now under threat from Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and the acquisition officials of the Obama administration. They’re seeking to change the terms of the next production contract for the F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter. Instead of splitting the costs and risks with prime F-35 contractor Lockheed Martin, Carter now wants to move the so-called “share line” substantially in Lockheed’s direction, perhaps to the point where the company runs all the financial risks.

The administration, still hunting $489 billion in overall defense cuts simply to meet targets in the recent Budget Control Act, has already hinted at F-35 program reductions.  It’s also happy to dump the blame on Lockheed for the JSF’s troubled development, counting on conservatives in Congress-led by Senator John McCain, who has advanced essentially the same idea in legislation-to regard the proposed contract changes as “procurement reform” targeting “Pentagon waste, fraud and abuse.” Shay Assad, the Pentagon’s “director of defense pricing,” represents an administration spoiling for a fight.  “We’re going to be breaking some glass here.”

But defense industry analyst Loren Thompson more accurately explained the immediate effect to Reuters: “If the government succeeds in shifting the ultimate risk…then it could easily wipe out any profit on the program and leave the company unprotected against future liability.” Only in the Defense Department can you ask a someone to invent an airplane unlike any previous airplane, change your mind repeatedly about what sort of airplane you’d like, change your mind repeatedly about what it “should cost,” and then hold the inventor liable for all the changes and expenses. Now that’s procurement reform!

While it’s politically expedient to beat up on defense contractors-the “military-industrial complex” commands very few votes these days-it makes for very bad policy.  Even when weapons programs aren’t “highly concurrent,” they rest upon trust that goes beyond the letter of the contract. And as Lockheed, which is pushing back against the proposed shift in cost-sharing, well knows, its ability to attract public capital will be crippled if it’s forced to eat the costs of both its mistakes and the Defense Department’s.  Punishing Lockheed in this way will send a chill throughout the industry. The ultimate result would be to weaken the entire system that has ensured the predominance of Americans on future battlefields. The defense industry is hardly a case of pure capitalism, but it has proved to be far better than any state-run arsenals, particularly when it comes to innovation.

And for dumping all the development costs onto contractors will only exacerbate the government’s worst habits. The majority of cost growth and schedule problems in acquisition programs stem from decisions made by the government-changes in requirements, unstable funding patterns and the like. This “reform” would allow the Pentagon to play exclusively with house money, and incentivize it to play longer odds.

Cross-posted from the Weekly Standard.

(Flickr/U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)

Recycling “Reset”

by Tom Donnelly

One of the core strategic beliefs of the Obama administration has been that their Bush predecessors overreacted to the attacks of 9/11 and became obsessively focused on the greater Middle East at the expense of East Asia or the “Asia-Pacific,” where the rise of China and India presages a new constellation of global great powers. This, perhaps more than Russia policy, has been Obama’s idea of a strategic “reset” for the future.

Now, with the decisions to retreat in full from Iraq and to begin to retreat in Afghanistan, the killings of Osama bin Laden, and the buck about passed on the “Arab Spring” – and let’s not talk about those Iranians – the administration is talking up this supposed shift in American strategy. The campaign will climax, no doubt, with President Obama’s trip to Australia in November.

First to bat was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In a lengthy piece in Foreign Policy magazine, Clinton trumpeted “America’s Pacific Century.” The piece is a sensible attempt to sustain the tradition of American leadership in the region, but suffers from emphasizing processes (all the usual suspects appear: “Smart power,” “engagement,” and so on) over purposes (like defining a desirable balance of power).

Most of all, Clinton plays Polonius on China. Or perhaps more accurately, she’s been infected with the president’s delight in building and burning down rhetorical straw men. Thus: “Some in our country see China’s progress as a threat to the United States; some in China worry that America seeks to constrain China’s growth.” Predictably: “We reject both those views.” Neither a borrower nor a lender be.

Much of the rest of the article is a recitation of what’s up with all the various “dialogues” and “partnerships” that represent what passes for modern statecraft. Secretary Clinton and her lieutenants have been busy. The region is rife with all sorts of organizations, formal and less formal – though, God forbid, no NATO-like alliance! – always preparing for the upcoming meeting.

No doubt those in Asia who have come to rely upon and prosper from the American-imposed international order are pleased to be mentioned in dispatches. But they’ve heard this before, both from this administration and from the Bush administration prior to 9/11. Yet it’s undeniably the case that happy talk of renewed commitment is no substitute for action. Asian geopolitical “markets” have already anticipated China’s rise, well beyond the value of Beijing’s actual power.

The problem is that – as is plain to see – the Obama administration is not planning what Clinton describes as a strategic “pivot” from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific. It’s just retreating from the Middle East and reducing the U.S. military.

This puts the administration’s number two hitter, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in the position of a good-field, no-hit shortstop trying just to move the runner over; Eddie Brinkman is filling the line-up spot that used to be Frank Howard’s. (You Senators fans will get the reference.) Panetta is on his first trip to East Asia as Pentagon chief, and finds himself having to insist that the United States can both substantially reduce defense budgets and “strengthen our presence in the Pacific.”

It sounds, from press reports, however, that the Asians are not buying this logic. “There’s no question that those concerns [about American military power in the region] have been expressed,” Panetta told a press gaggle at the meeting of the defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. “I’ve made it clear that even with the budget constraints we are facing in the United States,” there is “no question that in discussions within the Pentagon, and discussions in the White House, that the Pacific will be a priority for the United States of America.”

Even the New York Times was forced to admit that “Mr. Panetta offered no specifics” beyond that the United States would maintain its “force projection” in the region, which the paper then equated with the small permanent garrisons in South Korea and Japan. It may be that Panetta’s heart is in the right place – he increasingly expresses his concern about China’s military build-up – but it’s not reflected in administration policies; the supposed $350 billion in Pentagon cuts under the Budget Control Act has blossomed, thanks entirely to White House decisions, into a $489 billion reduction.

Thus, by the time President Obama steps to the plate in November, one swing of the bat won’t save the game. There’s very little practical difference between “reset” and retreat. Indeed, “pivot” sounds like George McClellan’s “change of base” rationale for withdrawal from Richmond in 1862.

But just as the road to Richmond went through Vicksburg and Atlanta, so the path to an American “Pacific century” may wind indirectly through places like the greater Middle East, Africa, and even Latin America. Beyond the failure to back up a shift in policy focus with sufficient military resources, Obama’s reset misses the essential quality of American strategy making: it’s a global whole, not an aggregation of regional interests. The wise men of the Obama administration most resemble a kids’ soccer team, all following the bouncing ball without regard to overall positioning.

By contrast, it’s the Chinese who appear to be thinking a few moves ahead, looking not only to recover Taiwan or dominate the “first island chain” or engineering a Chinese “Pacific century” but to become a great power in a globalized world. No one would argue that the United States does not need to buttress its position and military presence in the Asia-Pacific. But even if it proves possible to do so within the constraints of a reduced defense establishment – and the cuts in prospect will be most ruinous to the few weapons modernization programs not yet terminated by the Obama administration – it is unlikely to produce a net grand strategic gain.

Cross-posted from the Weekly Standard.

(flickr/White House Photo/Pete Souza)

The Los Angeles Times ran a brief story on Sunday on the death over the weekend of a U.S. Army Ranger in Kandahar, Sergeant Kristoffer Doneij. Since 2001 there have been countless similar obituaries printed in papers across the country, with details on when the servicemember joined the military and the family and loved ones they left behind. On the face of it, then, nothing all that unusual about this particular story—except one thing. Sergeant Doneij was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) on his 14th combat deployment either in Iraq or Afghanistan. 14th! And while such a number is unusual, it nevertheless is a stark reminder of the level of personal sacrifice active duty and reserve members of the Marines and Army have made in fighting those two conflicts.

Because America’s ground forces were too small in 2001 (480,000 Army; 173,000 Marine Corps) and only belatedly increased over the next decade (570,000 Army; 202,000 Marine Corps), Iraq and Afghanistan have required repeated deployments by the ground combat elements of the U.S. military. For much of the past ten years, for example, more than 100,000 National Guard and Reserves a year were called up to participate in those campaigns—a rate no one ever imagined we would see unless there was a major conflict between the United States and another major power. But rather than learn the obvious lesson that the Army and the Marine Corps were too small to handle these two contingencies, Congress and the administration are now talking about cutting the country’s active duty ground combat capability back to pre-9/11 levels—or lower. The only rationale behind such cuts is that, first, we will not be in Afghanistan for much longer, having chosen to leave without finishing the job there, and, second, there will be no other conflict, such as with Iran or North Korea, that requires substantial ground forces. And, indeed, maybe that is the choice and the hope that the United States pins its national strategy to. But, if recent history tells us anything, both are poor bets, with the result that there will likely be even more Sergeant Doneijs in our future.

Cross-posted from the Enterprise Blog.

(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Ryan Crane)

NATO Intervention in Libya: Breach of Contract?

by Richard Cleary

Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi’s killing has resurrected an argument made at the time of NATO’s intervention: that, by removing Gaddafi from power, the United States would send the wrong message to rogue states. Countries considering engagement with the West will be dissuaded from doing so by America’s unseating of Gaddafi. In the words of Clifford May, “It is more dangerous to be America’s ally than its enemy.”

Being an American “ally”—and this term is a stretch for Gaddafi’s regime—does not entitle one to butcher one’s own people, however. We agreed to do business with Gaddafi because of what Condoleezza Rice called a “strategic change of direction”; beginning with Tripoli’s giving up WMD aspirations, renouncing terrorism and compensating the families of victims of the Lockerbie bombing. These acts were never sufficient to absolve Gaddafi of future crimes. Rather, Gaddafi’s improved behavior was understood as the first steps of a new Libyan foreign policy.

Even more, Gaddafi understood the importance of politics within Libya to the United States. Saif al-Islam’s calls for democracy and human rights were part and parcel of Tripoli’s engagement strategy. Still, in its 2011 issue of Freedom in the World, Freedom House wrote “(Libyan) diplomatic and economic shifts were not accompanied by noticeable improvements in political rights or civil liberties.” Gaddafi was less than remorseful on the Lockerbie issue, as well, giving a hero’s welcome to convicted bomber Abdelbaset al-Meghrahi in 2009. Meanwhile, Gaddafi’s repression of internal dissent continued through the Arab Spring, when public uprising was met with public crackdown.

Whatever “alliance” existed with Gaddafi’s Libya was shattered by the “mad dog” himself when he dispatched troops to crush protestors. When American administrations have allowed human rights violations by allies, they have done so out of strategic calculus: not out of an “alliance contract.” For an immoral contract cannot be binding.

(wikipedia/U.S. Navy photo/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt)

Quds and Zetas

by Tom Donnelly

The revelation that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Quds Force had plotted to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States – by blowing him up as he dined at a Washington restaurant – is a stark reminder of the nature of the Tehran regime and its ambitions. But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the story is that Iran’s thugs are developing a strategic partnership with Mexico’s most violent thugs: Los Zetas may only be the second-largest drug cartel in the Drug Enforcement Administration’s rankings, but they’re probably the most lethal. The gang is said to have formed around a platoon’s worth of deserters from Mexico’s special operations forces, and became the elite troops of another Mexican drug organization, the Gulf Cartel. The leader of that cartel got himself arrested, and the Zetas moved out on their own.

The Zetas have shot their way to prominence ever since, in turf wars with other gangs and in a number of spectacular massacres. This past August, the Zetas conducted a mounted raid on the Casino Royale – yes, the Casino Royale – in Monterrey in Nuevo Leon. After gunning down a few gamblers and guards at the entrance, they then doused the premises with gasoline and set the entrance ablaze. New reports indicate that more than 60 were killed, and another 35 trapped inside the building. The purpose of the attack appears to be simple retaliation for the Calderon government’s crackdown on the cartels, to demonstrate vividly that Mexican security forces – 3,000 were sent to restore order in Monterey – could not control what amounts to an insurgent group. The attack was mostly an act of political symbolism.

The alliance with the Zetas is only the tip of the Iranian iceberg in Latin America. As Roger Noriega and Jose Cardenas have recently written, “Iran has made the Western Hemisphere a priority….The real game changer has been the alliance developed between Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.” In addition to the Quds Force, Iran often operates through Hezbollah, which has established networks in the Lebanese communities that have long-standing enclaves in the trading and port cities of South America. In addition to Chavez, Iran has established closer ties to the Bolivian government of Evo Morales’s and Rafael Correa’s regime in Ecuador.

No one has tracked the increasing strategic cooperation between Iran, other anti-America states, international criminal, and narco-gangs than Douglas Farah of the International Assessment and Strategy Center. Recently, he testified to the House Homeland Security Committee that:

We see the further empowerment, training and technological support [to] the oppressive security apparatuses in the increasingly undemocratic Bolivarian states provided by the Iran-Hezbollah-IRGC/Quds Force combine….[They] are the sharpest edge of the sword at present, and the one most openly aimed at the United States, and the one least tractable to diplomacy.

To many long-time Iran watchers, the bungled bomb plot “reeks of desperation,” as Mathew Levitt, a former Treasury Department terrorism official put it. The ubiquitous Robert Baer sniffed: “Maybe things have really fallen apart in Tehran….[T]he Quds are better than this. If they wanted to come after you, you’d be dead already.” But there’s also the sloppiness that comes from overconfidence, miscalculating not only your adversary’s abilities but your own. Tactical sloppiness often goes hand in hand – and sometimes results from – strategic design.

We underestimate the Quds-Zeta partnership at our peril. The distinction between law enforcement and warfare is increasingly blurred; the Mexican government claims it had a hand in exposing the plot and it was a DEA agent who foiled the attack. While the Obama administration was right to bring charges against the operatives who plotted to kill the Saudi ambassador, this is a response to symptoms, not the disease. The larger problem is the maturing anti-America coalition governments and extremely rich, powerful, and violent groups; thinking of these organizations simply as criminals obscures their political interests – in keeping governments like Mexico’s or Colombia’s weak, in securing sanctuary, in access to the “international commons,” and the like. An appropriate response demands an integrated strategy. The biggest danger is not “militarizing” U.S. policy but in failing to address the fundamental security issues at stake.

Cross-posted from the Weekly Standard.


Qods Force Terrorist Plot in US

by Maseh Zarif

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force—the organization overseeing Iran’s global terrorist activities and reporting directly to Iran’s leader Ali Khamenei—has been plotting a mass-casualty attack on American soil targeting Saudi Arabian interests. The Iranian officials involved in planning the attack include the commander of the Qods Force Qassem Soleimani and two deputies Hamed Abdollahi and Abdul Reza Shahlai.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced today that authorities recently arrested one of the two perpetrators in the plot, U.S.-based dual Iranian-American citizen Manssor Arbabsiar, and that Arbabsiar admitted to receiving direction and funding from senior Qods Force officials in Iran. Following trips to Iran where he met Qods Force officials, Arbabsiar hired and paid an undercover Drug Enforcement Agency informant he thought was a Mexican drug cartel member to assassinate Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the U.S. Adel al Jubair. The initial target of the foiled plot was the ambassador, but the investigation indicates that the Qods Force-directed assassination attempt was one in a series of future planned attacks. U.S. officials involved in the case have cited the Israeli and Saudi Arabian embassies in Washington, D.C. and Buenos Aires, Argentina as future targets of the terror network.

The network behind the plot included: Arbabsiar; Arbabsiar’s Iran-based cousin who is an unnamed “high-ranking member” of the Qods Force; an Iran-based member of the Qods Force named Gholam Shakuri who served as the cousin’s deputy and one of Arbabsiar’s interlocutors in Iran; and a third unnamed high-ranking member of the Qods Force. The DOJ also noted that Shakuri told Arbabsiar “that an individual whom Arbabsiar understood to be the leader of the Qods Force…was aware of what Arbabsiar was doing.” Designations from the U.S. Treasury Department indicate that the unnamed officials cited in the criminal complaint include the head of the Qods Force, Qassem Soleimani, who reports directly to Iran’s leader Ali Khamenei.

The Qods Force has repeatedly engaged in terrorist activities against American and allied officials, service members, and civilians. The significance of this plot cannot be overstated: the Iranian government is now attempting to carry out terrorist attacks on American soil. The initial target of the assassination plot was the Saudi ambassador, but the guidance given to the operatives would have resulted in a mass-casualty attack in a public restaurant in the nation’s capital with subsequent attacks in the future. Iran has been at war with the U.S. for decades; the regime, advancing on a path toward nuclear weapons, is now bringing that war to the American homeland.

For a timeline of the Qods Force plot, go here.

Cross-posted from AEI’s Iran Tracker.

(Getty images)

The Taliban Mark Ten Years of War with the US

by Ahmad Majidyar

To mark the tenth anniversary of the Afghanistan war, President Obama said on Friday that the United States was “responsibly ending” the war in Afghanistan. “We’ve pushed the Taliban out of its key strongholds, Afghan security forces are growing stronger, and the Afghan people have a new chance to forge their own future.”

In Afghanistan, however, the Taliban marked the anniversary differently. In a statement, they claimed to be defeating and driving out the U.S. and its allies. “The mujahedeen gradually strengthened jihad operations and used different war tactics against the enemy, which resulted in a number of casualties that led the invader enemy to think about withdrawing from this country.”

The insurgents also launched coordinated attacks on several U.S. military outposts near the Pakistani border, which seemed to be timed to mark the anniversary and were the latest in a series of suicide bombings and assassinations by the insurgents that have wreaked havoc on the Afghan population and have renewed the fears of a civil war after the departure of foreign troops by 2014.

Leaders of Northern Alliance, the group that helped the U.S. overthrow the Taliban ten years ago, have already begun mobilizing forces in fear of a Taliban comeback as foreign troops withdraw. Last month’s assassination of their leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, who also chaired Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, has increased their fear and urgency to rearm.

“If the majority of American troops withdraw … the ground will be suitable for the Taliban to return and another civil war will erupt in Afghanistan,” said Ahmad Zia Massoud, Karzai’s former vice president and brother of anti-Soviet resistance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. Ismail Khan, another key Northern Alliance leader and former governor of Herat province, said he warned Karzai of a “new crisis” if political assassinations continue.

Over the past ten years, there has been tremendous progress in Afghanistan in the spheres of education, economic development, democracy, human rights, and women’s participation in socio-political affairs. Al-Qaeda’s operations have been severely degraded in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and many of its leaders, including Osama bin Laden, have been killed. The Taliban regime, which provided sanctuary to al-Qaeda, was ousted from power and the group’s influence today is limited to only small parts of Afghanistan. Despite the Karzai government’s failures, a majority of Afghans continue to support democracy and the current system over the insurgent groups.

But these achievements are fragile and reversible. A premature withdrawal from Afghanistan is a recipe for failure with disastrous consequences for the United States and world security. The endgame in Afghanistan should not be disengagement from the country; it should be to leave behind sufficient, sustainable stability that would prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for terrorists yet again.

Cross-posted from the National Review Online.

(Pajhwok News/Pajhwok reporter)

Win This War

by Richard Cleary and Thomas Donnelly

Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s rejection of talks with the Taliban has, it seems, tossed water on the prospects of a “political solution” between Kabul and the insurgents. Karzai’s decision, coupled with the recent statement of Admiral Mike Mullen about the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence’s enabling of the Taliban, has created an opening and a need for a political success of another kind: a renewal, within the United States, of support for the ISAF effort in Afghanistan.

For Americans, the double rejection of the Taliban and their Pakistani sponsors should put in perspective the slim prospect of reaching some well crafted diplomatic solution—a “peace with honor”—in the war against the Taliban. It’s also a reminder of the broader geopolitical context of the “war on terror.”

Mullen has it right: Reaching a secure Afghanistan is not just the product of disrupting and degrading the Taliban, it involves finding the right balance with Pakistan. This last order may be the tallest, not least because it involves a willingness to reconsider unsuccessful diplomatic practices.

With the pathway to a political agreement with the Taliban closed, victory in Afghanistan lies with leaving a viable government in Kabul. At the center of any effort to build an independent Afghan state is Hamid Karzai, who is much maligned for a realpolitik approach to statecraft, ties to corruption, and a changeable personality. But however correct these critiques may be, it is also true that Karzai is the product of a particular political system, a man with clear interests and largely predictable behavior and, crucially, whose political objects largely align with our own in the region.

The most important aspect of any lasting “political solution” is security.  That remains foremost in the minds of Afghans—and also Iraqis.  We cannot “kill our way to peace,” but neither can we expect peace when our enemies would rather kill than talk. Americans do seem ready to talk—about what we should do in Afghanistan. The Republican primary has returned the war to a prominent place in the national debate, and has given an opportunity to candidates to voice their differences with the president on more than just domestic policy.  The Republicans have a chance to offer a choice—win this war, don’t just end it.

Cross-posted from the Weekly Standard.

(U.S. Army photo/Spc. Phil Kernisan)

Afghan President Karzai Suspends Taliban Talks

by Ahmad Majidyar

Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Monday announced a major review of his government’s peace strategy, saying that he would no longer talk to the Taliban and instead would negotiate directly with Pakistan.[i] The real authority to negotiate with is “governments, not their proxies,” he said, adding that he would soon convene a Loya Jirga, a traditional assembly, to decide on how to bring about peace in the country.[ii]

The policy shift comes after last month’s assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president who chaired the High Peace Council, and reflects Karzai’s frustration at not being able to persuade the Taliban to join the peace process. The council has made little headway since its creation a year ago as the Taliban leadership has rejected talks and responded with violence to Kabul’s “one-sided” concessions, such as releasing prisoners and offering senior positions in the government. Last fall, a purported senior Taliban leader in talks with NATO and Karzai turned out to be an imposter,[iii] and earlier this year, U.S. talks with a Taliban representative stalled when the latter went missing after his name was leaked to the media.

Rabbani’s death has also strained ties between Kabul and Islamabad. Afghan officials say the assassin was a Pakistani national[iv] and accuses Pakistan’s intelligence agency—the ISI—of complicity.  Afghan and U.S. officials have also accused the ISI of aiding last month’s attack against the U.S. embassy in Kabul—allegations Pakistan denies. On Tuesday, Afghanistan’s acting intelligence chief told the parliament that fifteen ISI-supported insurgent groups were operating against the Afghan government.[v] To step up pressure on Islamabad and in a sign of a shift in regional realignments, Karzai on Tuesday inked a strategic pact with New Delhi, which involves training and equipping Afghanistan’s security forces and will arouse more ire of Pakistani leaders who see increasing Indian role in their backyard with suspicion.

The shift is also a move by the embattled Afghan president to mollify former Northern Alliance leaders who resent Karzai’s one-sided peace efforts with the Taliban, especially after Rabbani’s killing. Atta Muhammad Noor, the influential governor of northern Balkh Province, said peace with the Taliban was “meaningless”[vi] and called on supporters to “stay united and take revenge.”[vii] If the government fails to change its Taliban policy, he warned, “we will use the mujahedeen who have experience of war against the Soviets and the Taliban.”[viii] Other Northern Alliance leaders issued similar ultimatums.

Newspapers in Kabul welcomed cancelation of peace talks with the Taliban. Afghanistan Daily wrote that the government wasted a lot of energy and time in trying to talk to the Taliban although the insurgents’ response has been increasing violence and murder. Sarnawesht Daily predicted that Karzai’s “brotherly policy” toward Pakistan would change. Mandagar, another Afghan daily, argued that Karzai’s policy shift was meant to avert the formation of a strong anti-government opposition alliance.[ix]

Rabbani’s killing, the latest in a series of high-profile assassinations this year, and souring relations between Kabul and Islamabad mean that a political solution to end the decade-long conflict is not in the offing.  As the U.S. and NATO forces are rushing for an exit, regional countries have stepped up jockeying to fill the vacuum, and inside Afghanistan, there is an increasing fear of a return to the 1990s civil war and a Taliban comeback—prompting many former Northern Alliance commanders to rearm militias and stockpile weapons.

Only a long-term commitment by the U.S. and NATO allies would help sustain gains of the past decade and guarantee the country’s stability in the future. A premature abandonment of Afghanistan will turn the country into a battlefield for proxy wars by competing neighbors, which would further destabilize the region and benefit the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Cross-posted from the Critical Threats Project.

[i] “Karzai addresses the nation,” Tolo News, October 3, 2011. Available: http://tolonews.com/en/miscellaneous-videos/4094-karzai-addresses-the-nation [ii] “Karzai: ba zoodi loya Jirga sunati raa faraa mekhwanam [Karzai: I will soon convene a traditional Loya Jirga],” BBC Farsi, October 3, 2011. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/persian/afghanistan/2011/10/111003_l09_karzai_gerga_peace_talks.shtml [iii] Dexter Filkins and Carlotta Gall, “Taliban Leader in Secret Talks Was an Impostor,” New York Times, November 22, 2010. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/23/world/asia/23kabul.html?pagewanted=all [iv] Mir Agha Samimi, “Islamabad asked to extradite Rabbani’s killers,” Pajhwok News Agency, October 2, 2011. Available: http://www.pajhwok.com/en/2011/10/02/islamabad-asked-extradite-rabbanis-killers [v]ISI-backed groups active against Afghan govt: Nabil,” Pajhwok, News Agency, October 4, 2011. Available: http://www.pajhwok.com/en/subscription-required?destination=node%2F158252 [vi] “Aks ul amal hai gostarda dakheli dar mawrod-e shahadat-e Ustad Burhanuddin Rabbani [Extensive domestic reactions to martyrdom of Burhanuddin Rabbani],” Payam-e Mojahed. Available: http://www.payamemojahed.com/index.php/site/more/3900/ [vii] “Wali Balkh khwasta-e barasee rahbord hokomat dar barabar Taliban shod [Balkh governor demands review of government’s policy toward the Taliban],” Tolo News, September 26, 2011. Available: http://tolonews.com/fa/afghanistan/4015-balkh-governor-noor-demands-government-reviews-its-taliban-policy- [viii] “Baa salah yaa be salah; dar sorat pasokh manfee dawlat ba mojahedin rejo mekonem [With or without arms, we will refer to the mujahedeen if the government’s response is negative],” Afghan Paper, September 25, 2011. Available: http://www.afghanpaper.com/nbody.php?id=27336 [ix] Round up of Kabul newspapers in BBC Farsi, October 3, 2011 http://www.bbc.co.uk/persian/afghanistan/2011/10/111003_k02-kabul-press.shtml

(flickr/user nznationalparty)
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