Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The War After Next

Here is an excerpt from Seth G. Jones In the Graveyard of Empires, pg. 257:

[Setting; a military outpost near the Pakistani border; 2005]

At 1 a.m., approximately forty insurgents came over the mountain passes from Pakistan and assaulted the Afghan observation post. Pakistani military observation posts to the east and southeast, at distances of a quarter and half mile, provided supporting fire of heavy machine guns and rocket propelled grenades.  [EMPHASIS MINE]

Jones' book is rife with stories like the one above; stories of Afghan and American forces coming under attack from Pakistani army and Frontier Corps forces along the Af/Pak border. These stories are too common to ignore and are echoed by Amhed Rashid and David Killcullen. I think its time to begin to think about - not the next war, that one is apparently being scheduled with Iran - but the war after next. The war after we fail in Afghanistan and get attacked again. The war that will pit us directly against a nuclear armed south Asian state with 170 million citizens.

Pakistan is not America's ally. The sooner we deal with that reality the less painful the separation will be. 

Book Review: In the Graveyard of Empires by Seth G. Jones


In the Graveyard of Empires, by Georgetown University professor Seth G. Jones, is both a short history of Afghanistan's tendency to destroy imperial invaders and a top-down analysis of American and NATO nation building, state building and counter insurgency techniques since 9/11. Graveyard is tight, well written volume packed with enough background information to be useful to a general audience but also enough in depth reporting - especially interviews with high ranking officials in the U.S., Afghan and Pakistani governments - to be of interest to serious researchers.

In the Graveyard of Cliches 

When I first saw the title of Jone's book I winced at the thought of another armchair Alexander the Great trying to squeeze the tiniest drop of relevant advice about contemporary COIN from Kubla Kahn. Graveyard, however, quickly impressed me with its fast moving and easy narrative history of America's efforts to rebuild Afghan society with only a mercifully short - although mostly useless - side trip into the adventures of Alexander the Great and the Khans. Outside its brief allusions to ancient history, Graveyard is most tightly focused on Afghanistan's history from the mid 20th century to the present day, paying careful attention to the impact of the Soviet invasion, Pakistani intervention, Taliban/al Qaeda administration and Karzai/ISAF administration.

Although packed with information about Afghan and central and south Asian history, Graveyard is not primarily a history book but is instead an in depth analysis of America's post-9/11 Systems Administration efforts in both Afghanistan and south Asia. And Jones, like Rashid, focuses heavily on the opportunities lost during the period from the initial standing up of Karzai's government in 2002 until the legitimacy of the Afghan government began to collapse sometime in mid 2005. Like Rashid, Jones believes that a greater U.S. focus on Afghanistan - including more money and more troops - during this crucial period might have avoided the resurgence of the Taliban. As an aside, I've called that theory into question here, and although Jones lays out a strong case - pointing out, for example, that Afghanistan may be the most under-resourced sys admin effort sense the end of WWII - I'm still not 100% convinced that even more American troops would have helped. After all, absent the lessons learned about COIN in Iraq and the doctoral changes that occurred during Petraeus's and Co. post-OIF, pre-surge sojourn at Fort Leavenworth, American troops were given to (as Jones points out) heavy use of support fire and a 'door kicking' mentality WRT civilians that may have further fueled the insurgency. 

 Jones also pinpoints an American over focus on dealing with the nation-state of Afghanistan and under focus of engaging he Afghans on a tribal or district level. Jones makes a compelling case that the Taliban's horizontal organizational structure allows Talib commanders to exploit situationally specific tribal level grievances against Kabul in their quest to cleave the population away from the central government. Because the Taliban is fighting this war on the tribal level, Jones, argues, it follows that the U.S. must also focus on turning local tribes against the Taliban. Jones is long on strategy but short of specifics on how to do this, although he does endorse the Provincial Reconstruction Teams that were experimented with across 2008 and 09. It should be pointed out that in the Fall 2009 issue of Military Review Johnson and Mason wrote an article that was critical of PRT, arguing that provinces were a fairly modern construct in Afghan society and that the district - nor the province - was the building block of Afghan society and therefore engagement and reconstruction efforts should be aimed at that lower level. I discussed the PRTs in Moral Warfare in Southwest Asia

Ultimately, Jones accurately diagnoses the regional issues at play in Afghanistan, especially WRT to Pakistan. And I fully agree with his read on the situation: there is no solution to Afghanistan that does not involve getting a buy-in from both India and Pakistan.

In conclusion, Graveyard of Empires is highly readable, informative and highly recommended to anyone who wants to know more about America's ongoing war in southwest Asia.  

 Read it Alone, or as Part of the Trilogy

Although its historical briefs provide more than enough background for a reader who is otherwise unfamiliar with either Afghan history or south Asian geo-politics, I think the reader would best be served by reading Graveyard as part of a 3 part series, with Steve Coll's Ghost Wars providing in depth background about Pakistan's anti-Soviet campaign and Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower and the Road to 9/11  providing the best narrative history of al Qaeda's rise and the fairly rapid melding of Mullah Omar's Quetta Shura Taliban and Bin Laden's "base" for global jihad.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Planning to Fail in Afghanistan, pt 9: Plan B is All Kinetic All the Time

I'm glad that the CIA analyst are at least as sharp as me.

Case in point, here is the director of the CIA on Iran WRT nukes: 

 Do you think the latest sanctions will dissuade the Iranians from trying to enrich uranium? “I think the sanctions will have some impact… Will it deter them from their ambitions with regards to nuclear capability? Probably not.”
“We think [the Iranians] have enough low-enriched uranium right now for two weapons. They do have to enrich it, fully, in order to get there. And we would estimate that if they made that decision, it would probably take a year to get there, probably another year to develop the kind of weapon delivery system in order to make that viable.”

And here is me, on the same subject:

 Iran will go nuclear, and if they become angry/frightened enough they will shoot, just like other countries in the region have at moments of high tension.

But we're both in agreement - the sanctions are worthless and the Obama administration wasted 18 months on pointless diplomatic wrangling just to produce sanctions that will accomplish nothing. Thanks Mr. President, I'm sure there was no more useful or pressing issue to which you could have devoted time and diplomatic energy.

So, why would Leon Panetta show up on ABC's Sunday show just to tell everybody what any amateur foreign policy analyst from Columbus, Ohio (technically I guess I'm turning pro or at least semi pro in August when I start getting paid to study international relations) already knows? Maybe he was trying to lay the groundwork for the coming war with Iran:

Saudi Arabia has conducted tests to stand down its air defences to enable Israeli jets to make a bombing raid on Iran’s nuclear facilities, The Times can reveal.
In the week that the UN Security Council imposed a new round of sanctions on Tehran, defence sources in the Gulf say that Riyadh has agreed to allow Israel to use a narrow corridor of its airspace in the north of the country to shorten the distance for a bombing run on Iran.
To ensure the Israeli bombers pass unmolested, Riyadh has carried out tests to make certain its own jets are not scrambled and missile defence systems not activated. Once the Israelis are through, the kingdom’s air defences will return to full alert.

Again, what did those sanctions accomplish? Oh, right, they made sure that Obama covered his ass so that he can plan to fail in Afghanistan

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Step 1 in Afghanistan: Avoid the Rerun

One of the first problems Petraeus is going to have when take over Afghanistan is to set conditions which prevent a rerun of the dynamics that ruined Afghanistan across the 1990s.

To that end, he'll have to put a leash on Pakistan by hook or by crook:

Pakistan is presenting itself as the new viable partner for Afghanistan to President Hamid Karzai, who has soured on the Americans. Pakistani officials say they can deliver the network of Sirajuddin Haqqani, an ally of Al Qaeda who runs a major part of the insurgency in Afghanistan, into a power-sharing arrangement.
In addition, Afghan officials say, the Pakistanis are pushing various other proxies, with General Kayani personally offering to broker a deal with the Taliban leadership.
Washington has watched with some nervousness as General Kayani and Pakistan’s spy chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, shuttle between Islamabad and Kabul, telling Mr. Karzai that they agree with his assessment that the United States cannot win in Afghanistan, and that a postwar Afghanistan should incorporate the Haqqani network, a longtime Pakistani asset. In a sign of the shift in momentum, the two Pakistani officials were next scheduled to visit Kabul on Monday, according to Afghan TV.
Despite General McChrystal’s 11 visits to General Kayani in Islamabad in the past year, the Pakistanis have not been altogether forthcoming on details of the conversations in the last two months, making the Pakistani moves even more worrisome for the United States, said an American official involved in the administration’s Afghanistan and Pakistan deliberations.

Translation: Hey Karzai, nice country you got there, be ashamed if something should exploit long standing ethic tensions happen to it.  And Pakistan's support of the Pashtun insurgency (Taliban) is causing a lot of bad blood between ethnic groups, setting up a similar situation to the one the Soviets left behind in 1989:

The leaders of the country’s Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara communities, which make up close to half of Afghanistan’s population, are vowing to resist — and if necessary, fight — any deal that involves bringing members of the Taliban insurgency into a power-sharing arrangement with the government.
Alienated by discussions between President Karzai and the Pakistani military and intelligence officials, minority leaders are taking their first steps toward organizing against what they fear is Mr. Karzai’s long-held desire to restore the dominance of ethnic Pashtuns, who ruled the country for generations.

About a month ago, I predicted that Afghanistan was headed down the same path as South Vietnam:

After the U.S. withdraws - and between the president's commitment to a July 2011 time-line and mounting U.S. casualties our withdraw is a near certainty - Afghanistan will suffer a similar fate to that of South Vietnam. Pakistan will play the role of both the Soviet Union and China as they fund, train and run logistics for whatever rough coalition of Taliban forces has the best chance of taking Kabul whole. Meanwhile, I expect the Karzai administration to continue to flounder through one scandal after another while they burn through whatever cash and equipment we leave when we go and ultimately share the fate of Dr. Najibullah at the hands of the Neo-Taliban.

So what can be done to avoid this outcome? How can Afghanistan be saved at this point? Here are a list of three possible options the Obama administration has right now:

1. Acquiesce to Pakistani control of Afghanistan, call it a victory and go home.
2. Acquiesce to Pakistani control of Afghanistan, announce that Pakistan has gotten what it wants and is now in control of Afghanistan and that any terrorist attacks from either Pakistani or Afghan territory will be considered a direct attack by the Pakistani military and will earn a nuclear response on Islamabad.

3. Work with Russia and India to rebuild the Northern Alliance, overthrow Karzai and hope that we can find an Uzbek or Tajik who will rule the Pashtuns with an iron fist.

4. Normalize relations with Iran.

My pick is options 3 and 4. One of the core advantages Pakistan has over the U.S. is that they are our primary route for getting supplies and troops into the country. This is because Pakistan has the best deep water port in the region. If we were to normalize relations with Iran, that would open up an entirely new route into Afghanistan would allow us to make life a lot harder on Pakistan, by declaring them a state sponsor of terror and assassinating every ISI or Pakistani Army agent we find in Afghanistan. We could also sponsor a U.N. security resolution demanding Pakistan acknowledge the Durand line as the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, thus making Pakistani incursions across the border an act of war.     

The challenge at that point would be to find someone to rule Afghanistan. I would imagine we should be able to find a Tajik general who would be willing to ruthlessly rule over the Pashtuns - maybe to the point of cleansing a large percentage of them - with an iron fist. While this may sound like a cruel solution to a westerner, its probably the only way Afghanistan will ever be brought under control. And, not for nothing, but what's at stake is the safety and security of a large percentage of Afghans, because the Taliban is the worst outcome, especially for females living in Afghanistan. But the Taliban is a Pashtun insurgency, so if the Pashtuns aren't ready to turn against them they might have to share in their fate.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Planning to Fail Win in Afghanistan, pt 8: Independence Day Redux

In this picture, president Bill Pullman is having a good Independence Day.

Barack Obama is also going to have a good Independence Day, this year.

As critical as I've been of president Obama's policies in Afghanistan recently, appointing General Petraeus to take command in Afghanistan could be just the policy shake up - assuming that's not the only change that's being made - to change course and secure, if not a win, at least a "loose good" scenario that minimizes the chances that we'll have to rerun this particular episode of Pashtunwalli and Co.

If two changes follow in the coming days; publicly backing away from July 2011 and letting Petraeus hand pick the diplomatic team (better yet, bring in Ryan Crocker); then this move could really pay off in a longer term.

Let's see, however, how Petraeus deals with Pakistan. The good general has a reputation of being a amiable guy and with a great sense for PR - I found him to be both a great public speaker and legitimately funny guy when I saw him speak last year - but he's also a stone cold soldier, and his surge in Iraq included both "soft" elements of population security and hard core kinetics, like tracking down and killing AQI and Iranian special groups operating inside Iraq. So it'll be interesting to see how Petraeus might handle Pakistani or Iranian assets he catches in country - I'd not want to cross the border if I were a soldier in either of those countries armies right now, BTW.

As for Obama's handling of the situation, well, let's just say that this is why I don't (yet) regret my vote. Today, if only for a few minutes, Obama was the commander and chief. He took care of the McChrystal situation as quickly, gracefully and decisively as possible and he managed to do it all while avoiding asking any questions to which he should have already known the answer.

All and all, this was a good day for Obama's presidency and for the future of America's military operations in Afghanistan. I'm more optimistic about the situation then I've been in a while.  

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Planning to Fail in Afghanistan, pt 7: Why We Fail

Reading through the Rolling Stone  piece on McChrystal's comments I was struck by one passage - it was something so prophane and shocking that I could scarcely believe what I was seeing, but it was right there, in black and white:

The assembled men may look and sound like a bunch of combat veterans letting off steam, but in fact this tight-knit group represents the most powerful force shaping U.S. policy in Afghanistan. While McChrystal and his men are in indisputable command of all military aspects of the war, there is no equivalent position on the diplomatic or political side. Instead, an assortment of administration players compete over the Afghan portfolio: U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Special Representative to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, National Security Advisor Jim Jones and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not to mention 40 or so other coalition ambassadors and a host of talking heads who try to insert themselves into the mess, from John Kerry to John McCain. This diplomatic incoherence has effectively allowed McChrystal's team to call the shots and hampered efforts to build a stable and credible government in Afghanistan. "It jeopardizes the mission," says Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who supports McChrystal. "The military cannot by itself create governance reform." [ITALICS ADDED BY ME]

I lied before when I said this was shocking. Its not. But its a god damn shame none-the-less. And it answers every question that every historian is going to ask about Afghanistan someday, and every question some future president is going to ask as he goes to survey some smoking crater somewhere in the U.S. and ponder his response. 

It's too bad we can't get Tea Parties organized to give a damn about Afghanistan or America's neglect when it comes to assembling a coalition to win in Afghanistan, but I just don't see it happening. Whomever said that war was just natures way of teaching Americans about geography really hadn't spent much time with "Americans"(outside politics and academia, perhaps).

If McChrystal resigns tomorrow - and I think he has to - he should do so with his head held high. Better to walk out the front door of the White House then get thrown under the proverbial bus when Obama starts sinking in 2012. I think this Rolling Stone interview was a bone headed move but I also think General Stanley McChrystal has served his country honorably for over 30 years and has more than earned both his retirement and the nation's gratitude.

Our military did not fail us. Our civilian leaders failed them.  

Planning to Fail in Afghanistan, pt 6: Independence Day

Barack Obama is about to have either the best or worst Independence Day of any president since Bill Pullman.

Fortunately for the people of Earth, this bad (could it be good?) day will not be brought about by a genocidal war against extraterrestrials, but instead by a general giving way too much access to a Rolling Stone reporter:

The profile in Rolling Stone magazine, titled the "Runaway General," is certain to increase tension between the White House and Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
It also raises fresh questions about the judgment and leadership style of the commander Obama appointed last year in an effort to turn around a worsening conflict.
McChrystal and some of his senior advisors are quoted criticizing top administration officials, at times in starkly derisive terms. An anonymous McChrystal aide is quoted calling national security adviser James Jones a "clown."
Referring to Richard Holbrooke, Obama's senior envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, one McChrystal aide is quoted saying: "The Boss says he's like a wounded animal. Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he's going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous."
On one occasion, McChrystal appears to react with exasperation when he receives an e-mail from Holbrooke, saying, "Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke. I don't even want to read it."
U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, a retired three-star general, isn't spared. Referring to a leaked cable from Eikenberry that expressed concerns about the trustworthiness of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, McChrystal is quoted as having said: "Here's one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, 'I told you so.'"
So, dose this mean that McChrystal feels corruption in the Afghan government has no impact on his counter insurgency efforts?

In any case, this could lead to Obama having either the best or worst 4th of July of his life. If he turns this into another White House versus the military battle, and if he gives McChrystal and Co. time to ramp up their P.R. efforts this will be Obama's worst 4th of July ever. It will be one more nail in the coffin of the Obama presidency and possibly even set up some general to run for president in 2012.

If, on the other hand, Obama steps up and promptly takes control - i.e., asks McChrystal for his resignation - this could be a positive development. This could allow Obama the opportunity to reassess (again, but I digress) his commitment to Afghanistan and, as I've argued, what we need now is not a series of "re commitments", but instead a Mad Man who demonstrates that everything everyone knows about American foreign policy is wrong.

A re-re-assessment at this point will lead to the Pakistanis stepping up their game and may tilt Karzai even closer to the Pakistanis, but those events are feit accomplis at this point anyway. Republicans will scream bloody murder at Obama but they too will do that no matter what the president does in Afghanistan, so why not give them something to crow about.

Update: McChrystal has been recalled to D.C. per the BBC.

Update 2: My idea; fire McChrystal, then fire Eikeberry, then fire Biden and make Clinton VP.

Update 3: CNN reports that McChrystal has offered his resignation.

Good, now Obama can get back to planning to fail in Afghanistan.

Mission Accomplished? Rethinking the strategic assumptions of the Bush Administration


Tom Barnett had a post last week that contrasted America's apparent post-surge success in Iraq with the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.  Looking at the two situations begs an interesting question: was George W. Bush's "gut" instinct about the differences between Iraq and Afghanistan in 2002-03 correct?

Taking Our Eye off the Ball?

In his book Descent Into Chaos Pakistani-born journalist Ahmed Rashid lays out a pretty strong case that president Bush took his eyes off Afghanistan at a crucial point - mid 2002 - a point when, according to Rashid's sources in various NGOs, the United States had real opportunity to bring lasting peace to Afghanistan if only we had injected more troops/money/attention.

But the Bush administration had other ideas. By the middle of 2002 the U.S. was ramping up pressure on Saddam Hussein and plans were in place to take Hussein and his regime out. Critics of the Bush administration are fond of suggesting that this shift in focus, from south-central Asia to the Middle East was a major error, brought about by an irrational obsession with Hussein and "weapons of mass destruction".  This strategic blunder - so the story goes - wasted American lives in both Iraq and Afghanistan and directly contributed to the resurgence of the Taliban.

Charging the Mound

What I describe above is more or less conventional wisdom and there is every indication that even president Obama subscribes to this strategic analysis. But what if it is wrong? What if the Bush administration began to suspect the futility of dealing with Afghanistan sometime around the so-called "Airlift of Evil", that, assuming the U.S. had been ignorant of Pakistan's complicity with the Taliban, would have removed all doubt. So even in 2001 the U.S. was forced to deal with the fact that we were fighting an enemy - aka the Taliban - who had been functioning as a wholly owned subsidiary of our new best friend - Pakistan. Further, events between India and Pakistan across 2002 would have been a wake up call to anyone paying attention: this fight is not about the Taliban. This fight is about two nuclear armed South Asian states that house about 1/5th of humanity and over a quarter of a billion Muslims between them.

Once the Bush administration realized just how touchy the situation in Afghanistan was, and just how unlikely it was that anything resembling victory was even possible in Afghanistan, the administration began casting about for another project; something far less intractable, preferably in the Middle East proper (as the hijackers had been Sunni Arabs, not Pashtuns or Pakistanis). Iraq, which had been playing its cat and mouse games with the U.N. weapons inspectors for years provided as good a candidate for an experiment in "democratic peace theory" as anywhere else.

From that perspective then, Bush didn't "take his eye off the ball" - to continue the baseball analogy - he charged the mound. He changed the rules. "We can't win in Afghanistan because Pakistan won't let us? Fine, we'll go win somewhere else and Pakistan can reap what they sewed in Afghanistan."

The Lasting After Effects of Bush's Cynicism 

To say that the invasion of Iraq - and, by extension - the elevation of Iraq to a priority versus Afghanistan dose not excuse the Bush administration's behavior in the years that followed. There was absolutely no excuse for going into Iraq under staffed and under resourced or for telling the American people that Iraq would be a cake walk. In retrospect, I do regret my vote in 2004, because the gross incompetence of the first Bush administration should have earned him a one term presidency.

But both things can be true: Bush was a bad president; he was also right about Iraq versus Afghanistan in 2002. He was right that Afghanistan would turn out to be un-winnable. But the Rovian cynicism and political calculations required him to maintain a troop presence in Afghanistan and even as he was fighting a good fight to get the resources for the surge in Iraq he continued to add more troops to the Af-Pak theater and expand the war - via drones - into Pakistani territory. Bombing Pakistan makes sense. In fact, clearing the tubes on a couple of boomers into Islamabad probably would have been the best strategy on 9/12 2001, rather than getting ourselves sucked into the regional grudge match that is Afghanistan. But bombing Pakistan makes a lot more sense when we don't depend on them to get supplies to our troops and when we don't have troopers stationed close to the areas we are bombing - thus putting Americans within rifle range of pissed off villagers.

What Would George Bush (circa 2002) Do? 

The George Bush of 2002 felt that Afghanistan was best left to special forces, air strikes and former Northern Alliance warlords turned "governors". Before he was overtaken by event; overwhelmed by political opponents calling Afghanistan "the good war" versus Iraq as "the dumb war", before all of that happened George Bush had solid instincts about what was possible in south-central Asia versus what was possible in the heart of Sunni Arab world. Looking at the Middle East today we see economic growth in Jordon and Dubai; we see peace in Iraq and social reforms in Saudi Arabia. We see that the Bush of 2002 was more right than wrong.  

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Failed Presidency of Barack Obama

I don't regret my vote.


But it's becoming increasingly apparent that Barack Obama is racking up a record fit to be mocked by both Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson. If Obama has decided that he will be a failed foreign policy president with a domestic "win" on his record - ala LBJ - well, so be it, but the least he could do would be to adopt a "first do no harm" approach to foreign policy by essentially doing nothing at all. Instead, Obama is actually making things worse.

On Iran 

Congratulations, 18+ months of begging cajoling diplomacy have earned a sanctions regime that is set up to become just as big a joke as the current sanctions regime which has been in place for many years.

Well, at least this new sanctions regime will stop Iran from acquiring modern anti-aircraft missiles from Russia, right?


Conflicting statements from Russian officials on whether or not it will scrap the pending S-300 surface-to-air missile system sale to Iran because of new United Nations sanctions over Tehran’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons. First, an “industry source” said the S-300 deal was off. Now, Russia’s Foreign Ministry says the sale is still on. Israel has stated publicly that the sale of S-300s to Iran is a red line that would prompt an Israeli military attack.

So, let's review. Obama has:

Not stopped Iran from getting the bomb.

Not stopped Iran from getting advanced Russian anti-aircraft missiles.

And probably not stopped Israel from wanting to attack Iran.

Great, mister president, that was an awesome use of 18 months and god knows how many face-to-face pathetic groveling sessions meetings with world leaders who have more important things to do.

But hey, at least Obama didn't alienate any allies in the process or anything:

Now, even as the U.N. Security Council prepares to impose its fourth round of sanctions on Iran with a vote slated for Wednesday, Tehran is demonstrating remarkable resilience, insulating some of its most crucial industries from U.S.-backed financial restrictions and building a formidable diplomatic network that should help it withstand some of the pressure from the West.
Iranian leaders are meeting politicians in world capitals from Tokyo to Brussels. They are also signing game-changing energy deals, increasing their economic self-sufficiency and even gaining seats on international bodies.
Iran's ability to navigate such a perilous diplomatic course, analysts say, reflects both Iranian savvy and U.S. shortcomings as up-and-coming global players attempt to challenge U.S. supremacy, and look to Iran as a useful instrument.
"We are very proud of our diplomacy, although we are mainly benefiting from mistakes made by the United States and its allies," said Kazem Jalali, a key member of the Iranian parliament's commission on national security and foreign policy. "We are using all our resources to exploit these weaknesses."

Ok, screw them anyway. It's not like the U.S. is committed to any sort of ongoing military operation where we might need allies or anything.

Except Afghanistan.

And Iraq.

And North Korea.. 

On Afghanistan

The COIN strategy appears to be faltering:

Government assassinations are nothing new as a Taliban tactic, but now the Taliban are taking aim at officials who are much more low-level, who often do not have the sort of bodyguards or other protection that top leaders do. Some of the victims have only the slimmest connections to the authorities. The most egregious example came Wednesday in Helmand Province, where according to Afghan officials the insurgents executed a 7-year-old boy as an informant.

Man, if we can't even protect friendly village and local leaders, what the hell are we still doing in Afghanistan?

Now, to be fair, Afghanistan is very complex situation and the Bush administration took its eye off the ball in Afghanistan before Barack Obama was even a senator. Still, Obama's plan to fail in Afghanistan remains overly Afghan centric, and at least some of that diplomatic energy wasted on those absolutely pointless Iran sanctions could have been used to find more partners to either help in Afghanistan or at least contain the worst exports from Pakistan's tribal regions.

A Set of Strategically Tone Deaf Priorities 

I've written that Obama has a nasty tendency to ask questions to which he should already know the answer. So far, his whole foreign policy has been based on asking for things that he should have known he was never going to get. For example, while he was considering how many more troops to send to Afghanistan, he was also haranguing China's president Hu about economic growth ManBearPig global warming rather than asking Hu to cooperate with U.S. efforts on Afghanistan. Because the Chinese are already nibbling around the edges of both peace building and investment in Afghanistan there was far more room for agreement on that issue as opposed to hoping they would sign on for "binding" limits on CO2 emissions.

You can take everything said above about China and replace China with India and its just as true.

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to take a schizo-frantic approach to distinguishing between friends and enemies in the region. We bomb our "friends" while they support our enemies and while we continue to ramp up the tension with possible allies (see: Iran).

Then the KFR provokes and we are left dumbstruck, because Obama has been arguing with China and Russia about Iran (oh China, will you please poke your largest energy supplier with a large stick so we can stop a feit accompli in Iran's acquisition of a nuclear capacity?) rather than negotiating an end to the world's single greatest criminal enterprise - a country that actually has nuclear weapons and has shown no compunction what-so-ever about exporting to other rouge states.

Conclusion:Mad-Man Diplomacy, Dangerous Nations and Obama's Only Term

The problems that president Obama have are exasperated by several factors. He's backed himself into several rhetorical holes, on Iran and Afghanistan, for example, and so it will be hard for him to walk these situations back. Afghanistan will, unfortunately, end the same way Vietnam did, but with drones playing the role of off-shore balancer. Pakistan will be getting their backyard playground back and they will return to planning for their regularly scheduled war with India. Iran will go nuclear, and if they become angry/frightened enough they will shoot, just like other countries in the region have at moments of high tension.

And Obama will be returning to Chicago in 2013, despondent over his wasted potential. He won't be alone in his disappointment,  but he made his choices.   

With this in mind, the next president should adhere to a variant of Richard Nixon's Mad-Man Theory,except instead of trying to convince the world the U.S. would attack anybody at any time he or she should set out to convince the powers that be that the U.S. might normalize or break relations with various countries at any time. Specifically, the next president should find as many excuses to insinuate that he's prepared to break relations with Pakistan as possible. In a similar vein, he should be prepared to insinuate - and then follow through immediately - with normalization with Iran. Right now Russia Turkey and Pakistan enjoy all the fruits of both our strategic limitations and Iran's situation as an international pariah. Russia, Turkey and Pakistan want nothing more than an Iranian client state, stripped of all international connectivity and forced to conduct business through Russian/Turkish and Pakistani smugglers. These guys will be popping popcorn and laughing with glee as Israel destroys Iran's nuclear capacity - I'd not rule out Turkish, Pakistani and Russian complicity in such an attack, by the way - because it ensures an even weaker Iran position and greater levels of dependency upon its patrons.

But think of the alternative. Imagine a world where Turkey, Russia and Pakistan watch in horror as James Baker, Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton step off a plane in Tehran and shake hands with A-Jad and his merry men. Yes, the Iranian leader (ship) is a thugocracy, but so was Mao and that didn't stop Nixon from securing a relationship with China, for similar strategic reasons. And the only thing that happened when Nixon went to China was that the Russians rushed to negotiate a series of arms control treaties, because they didn't want to be outbid by the Chinese. Oh, and a few things changes in China after that as well, or so I've heard.

Now, its important to realize that Iran is highly unlikely to negotiate away their nuclear stockpile, and we shouldn't ask that of them. It will be a lot more fun watching Russia and Pakistan figure out how to live with a nuclear Iran, and Turkey wants an excuse to get the bomb anyway, so we might as well embrace the future. Normalization between Iran and the U.S. will happen. It can happen now or it can happen after the next 9/11 or Mumbai when the the world comes together to dissolve Pakistan. Let's get proactive and maybe, just maybe, we can prevent the next 9/11.

In any case, the next president should make it a goal to come into office with as few international promises as possible. Leave global warming completely off the table and whatever you do don't wade into the morass that is Gaza and the West Bank. Stick to throwing strategic elbows - so to speak- by slapping down useless and dangerous allies like Pakistan and suddenly getting chummy with formerly blood enemies like Iran. And the day after the trip to Tehran, call China and let them know you'd love to talk to Kim. Tell him it will be two party talks. See if the possibility of the U.S. throwing the chess board into the air and openly negotiating with the KFR doesn't make China decide to hasten Kim's exit from this mortal coil (handle Iran first because negotiating with the KFR will bear no fruit, rack up a win before you go for something truly crazy).

America's fundamental strategic issue right now is stagnation and predictability. When GWB was president he tried to remind people that the U.S. can occasionally bob and weave with the best of them (see: Operation Iraqi Freedom) but his decisions have left his successor tied down in Afghanistan and Iraq. To make America again relevant is to make America again unpredictable, make us again Robert Kagan's Dangerous Nation.