Crisis

I met Taymor  Kamrany in 2003, just over a year after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan had ousted the Taliban. We were both in Kabul, working on a USAID program to improve the environment for business and help government institutions rebuild their capacity to support a market economy. It was not an easy task. I was working with the management and staff of the Export Department of the Ministry of Commerce. Apart from the Head, a man in his fifties who had worked in the ministry throughout all the upheavals of the previous 30 years, no one in the Department could speak any foreign language. Though Afghanistan had once a thriving export economy – until the civil war of the 1990s, it was the world’s largest exporter of raisins, which were the most delicious I have ever eaten – its productive capacity was largely destroyed, its fields strewn with landmines, its best and brightest long ago departed. I was there for just a month, but in spite of these daunting challenges facing the country,  I sensed a lot of optimism among both Afghans and foreigners.

Taymor, an Afghan-American, born in Afghanistan and relocated with his family to the U.S. when he was a small child, was bright, ambitious, idealistic, and very American in demeanor and outlook. Apart from speaking Dari, the main language of Kabul and the northern part of the country, and having some relatives he visited from time to time, he seemed to be little more at home there than I did. After we had each left Afghanistan, I learned that he had entered an MBA program at the University of Southern California, and still later that he was working for one of the Big 4 consulting firms. Then we more or less lost touch. But most people never prune their e-mail address books, so a while ago I received  a broadcast e-mail from Taymor, linking to an article he wrote, which is published on the web site of the Middle East Institute, entitled Afghanistan 2002-2012: A Decade of Progress and Hope. No question mark. [click to continue…]

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About 10 days ago I sat at breakfast  in Lomé, the capital of Togo, a sliver of a country in West Africa, watching French TV news of the capture, and what turned out to be false reports of the liberation, of seven French tourists in northern Cameroon by the Nigerian radical Islamist group Boko Haram. It was hard not to feel concerned about the future of this part of the world. Lomé is a good 800 miles as the crow flies from where this most recent drama occurred – and a similar distance from northern Mali, where fierce fighting continues for control of the city of Gao – and I was in far more danger there from motorcycles going the wrong way down one-way streets than from terrorist kidnappers. But the fairly recent emergence of economic dynamism in much of Africa after decades of stagnation due to poor governance and political and ethnic strife remains fragile, and these developments highlight the risk. [click to continue…]

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I am not a great fan of Jeffrey Sachs, the former Harvard development economist now Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, whose main claim to fame is having administered shock liberalization to the Bolivian and Russian economies in the 1980s and 1990s, respectively. Though his prescriptions did put an end to Bolivia’s hyperinflation, neither Bolivia nor Russia is a paragon of economic dynamism, and the main beneficiaries of his Russian experiment were the soon-to-be oligarchs who snapped up state-owned companies at a fraction of their real value. Nevertheless, Sachs, writing in yesterday’s Financial Times, has neatly identified the culprit in the U.S. fiscal sequester, which went into effect at noon today. It is not the Tea Party, nor even the House Republican leadership, but Obama himself, counterintuitive as that may appear. [click to continue…]

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After watching from the sidelines for nearly two years, many of the world’s political and opinion leaders are now calling for the West to supply arms to the Syrian rebels. British Prime Minister David Cameron has spoken  of a “strategic imperative” to act, at least in part to prevent extreme jihadist groups from eclipsing more moderate factions. Foreign Affairs  has published an article by Michael Bröning with the Orwellian subtitle  “Arms for Peace,” which similarly argues that the moderate rebel contingent is the only party to the conflict that does not have a reliable supply of arms and money from the outside, since the Russians continue to supply the Assad regime and most of the Qatari and Saudi funds go to more radical groups.

Although no Western power has yet – officially, at least – supplied arms to the rebels, the idea seems to be gaining currency in both Western and Arab capitals, especially in the wake of the December conference in Marrakech, which declared the Syrian National Coalition “the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” For those who remember the U.N. declaration declaring the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, this too has an Orwellian tint. With the death toll in the conflict standing at an estimated 60,000 it is tempting to conclude that it is time for some kind of intervention: supplying arms at a minimum, but potentially declaring a no-fly zone over portions of the country to protect rebel-held territory from aerial attacks. But it would be a terrible mistake.   [click to continue…]

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If existing parallels between the U.S. experience in Indochina and our current entanglement in Afghanistan weren’t already enough, the Afghanistan war (Operation Enduring Freedom) now has its own version of the My Lai massacre. The only surprise is that nothing like the Sunday murder of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. Army Staff Sergeant had previously occurred in 10 years of fighting.

For all his campaign promises to close the Guantanamo Bay prison and end our military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, Barack Obama has pursued a course almost indistinguishable from that of George W. Bush. But of late, he has started to sound more like Richard Nixon. In a speech he gave yesterday in the Rose Garden, the President said, “So make no mistake, we have a strategy that will allow us to responsibly wind down this war.  We’re steadily transitioning to the Afghans who are moving into the lead, and that’s going to allow us to bring our troops home…And meanwhile, we will continue the work of devastating Al Qaeda’s leadership and denying them a safe haven…I am confident that we can continue the work of meeting our objectives, protecting our country and responsibly bringing this war to a close.” This sounds eerily like Nixon’s “peace with honor” and “Vietnamization of the war.”

It can’t be long before we are treated to images of American diplomats being helicoptered out of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul as the Taliban move into the city. In 1972 we brought our troops home from Vietnam, under the pretext that the Vietnamese – and the Cambodians as well – could now shoulder the responsibility for their own defense. It took another three years before the Khmer Rouge and the North Vietnamese Army seized Phnom Penh and Saigon, respectively during which corrupt governments in both countries, rather than trying to defend their people, engaged in an unseemly scramble to amass as much loot as they could before the party ended.

The Karzai government is easily the equal of Lon Nol’s Cambodian regime when it comes to incompetence and corruption, while the Afghan Army is, if anything, less capable than its historic Southeast Asian counterparts, and also infested with Taliban sympathizers. Once NATO forces withdraw, I suspect it will take far less than three years for the Taliban to take over. Tragically, that might be the best possible outcome, the worst being a return to all-out civil war between north and south.

It is time for us to leave. Now.

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