Monday, October 13, 2008

Will Military Rule Return to Pakistan—and Afghanistan—in a Year?

A funny thing happened while everybody in the United States, from President Bush to John McCain to Barack Obama swore to muster the will, money, and troops to crush the Taliban in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, wherever, in order to preserve the victories of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Almost everybody else gave up on the war.

From the Pakistan media outlet Dawn:

KABUL: Afghan President Hamid Karzai advised the Taliban leader in Afghanistan, Mullah Omar to return to Afghanistan and guaranteed his safety.

In an exclusive interview to Geo television channel, Karzai said,
ìThrough Pakistan television channel Geo I propose Mullah Omar to get back to Afghanistan as I will be wholly and solely responsible for his security and I shall be answerable to the whole of the world on his behalf.î

Karzai also invited Mullah Omar to join him in the political process of Afghanistan by being hopeful for the next presidential election as Karzai reckoned Omarís return in the best interest of the prosperity and safety of the country.[emph. added]

That’s right. Our guy in Kabul issued an invite to the Taliban’s psychotic cyclops, that Buddha-blowing-up, red-enameled-fingernail-tearing-out, bin-Laden harboring no-goodnik, to come in for a chat. And run for President! What’s Zalmay Khalilzad (who apparently regards the presidency of Afghanistan as his birthright) gonna say?

Is Mullah Omar prepared to make nice? Let’s see:

KABUL: Taliban supremo Mulla Mohammad Omar offered international forces a safe retreat from Afghanistan if they agree to withdraw from the war-torn country, a statement from the militant leader said on Tuesday.

"I say to the invaders: if you leave our country, we will provide you the safe context to do so," Omar, who has a 25-million-dollar US bounty on his head, said in the statement marking the Muslim festival of Eidul Fitr.

"If you insist on your invasion, you will be defeated like the Russians befor
e you."

Yeah, he’s on board.

And, courtesy of Saudi Arabia, which has its doubts about an American strategy that includes killing thousands of Muslims in Afghanistan who also happen to be the favored clients of the Saudi government, Saudi millionaires, and Sunnis everywhere, Karzai has a nice place where he could hold discussions with the Taliban. In fact, he already has:

In an article entitled Source: Saudi hosts peace talks with Afghan, Taliban reps , CNN reported on September 28:

LONDON, England (CNN) -- In a groundbreaking meeting, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia recently hosted talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban militant group, according to a source familiar with the talks.

King Abdullah of Saudia Arabia hosted meetings between the Afghan government and the Taliban, a source says.

The historic four-day meeting took place during the last week of September in the Saudi city of Mecca, according to the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the negotiations.

King Abdullah broke fast during the Eid al-Fitr holiday with the 17-member Afghan delegation -- an act intended to show his commitment to ending the conflict.

The current round of talks is anticipated to be a first step in a long process. According to the source close to the talks, it has taken two years of behind-the-scenes meetings to get to this point.

During the talks, all parties agreed that the only solution to Afghanistan's conflict is through dialogue, not fighting.

No more fighting? For real? Any of the other stakeholders on board with this? How about NATO?

Via Dawn:

LONDON, Oct 5: The UK’s commander in Helmand has dampened Britain’s hopes of a “decisive military victory” in Afghanistan saying that the aim of the mission was to ensure the Afghan army was able to manage the country on its own.

Brig Mark Carleton-Smith told the Sunday Times that this could involve discussing security with the Taliban.

Brig Carleton-Smith is the Commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade which has just completed its second tour of Afghanistan.

He paid tribute to his forces and told the newspaper they had “taken the sting out of the Taliban for 2008”.

But he stated: “We’re not going to win this war.”

He said: “If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of progress that c
oncludes insurgencies like this.”

“That shouldn’t make people uncomfortable.”

Well, it doesn’t make the Financial Times uncomfortable:

LONDON, Oct 11: Britain’s Financial Times newspaper has advised the US and Nato to review their present policies in Afghanistan and come to some kind of a peaceful settlement with the Taliban.

“It may be shocking that the military might of the West cannot defeat the Taliban, but it is true,” said the daily in an editorial: “The unwinnable war in Afghanistan”.

The French did their piece by leaking a cable from France’s top diplomat in Kabul, reporting that the British ambassador, the magnificently yclept Sherard Cowper-Coles, believed that a) Afghanistan was going all to hell b) the Karzai regime was doomed and c) the presence of foreign forces only made things worse.

From the IHT:

"The presence of the coalition, in particular its military presence, is part of the problem, not part of its solution," Cowper-Coles was quoted as saying. "Foreign forces are the lifeline of a regime that would rapidly collapse without them. As such, they slow down and complicate a possible emergence from the crisis."

And more from the Danes—who have 700 troops in Afghanistan--complete with cultural and diplomatic tin ear, via AFP:

Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said in an interview published Wednesday he supported the idea of the Afghan government holding talks with the Taliban, albeit with some conditions.

The rights women have regained since the Taliban were driven from power in 2001 should also not be negotiable, he said.

"We should civilise the Taliban so Afghanistan is not 'Talibanised' again, otherwise we'll have to leave the country," said the Danish foreign minister.

Huh? Anyway, count the Scands on board for talks.

It seems pretty plain that, faced with the choice of pumping more troops and money into Afghanistan or negotiating, our friends are more interested in the jaw-jaw than the war-war, as Winston Churchill would put it. Key allies Germany, Australia, and Canada are under intense domestic pressure not to expand their military involvement in the Afghan war.

Via GreenLeft, the UN’s envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, pitched in with:

“We all know that we cannot win it militarily. It has to be won through political means.”

On the UN website, Mr. Eide also gave a cringing shout-out to the Taliban to help the UN deliver humanitarian aid in significant swaths of the country in which the Karzai writ apparently runs not:

“I will take this opportunity to appeal to the Taliban and to appeal to its leaders to ensure access for food distribution and to expand the humanitarian agenda that we should share,” he said. “There are disagreements on so many things – but let us demonstrate that we can share this humanitarian agenda.”

Seems the world’s reality-based community has decided that a negotiated settlement between the Karzai regime and the Taliban mediated by the Saudis should be one of the first milestones of the post-Bush era.

Good times, huh?

Not so fast. It takes more than the joint determination of the defeatocrats running Afghanistan and their sympathizers—apparently most of the rest of the world--to overcome America’s love of a good fist-pumping, flag-waving, extremist-stomping war in somebody else’s country.

I think it’s more likely that a year from now Afghanistan and Pakistan will abandon their democracies, return to military rule, and continue in their doomed roles as hapless US clients, destroying their own societies as they pursue a bloody, expensive, and futile campaign to suppress powerful domestic insurgencies at Washington’s behest.

Sad fact is, no political force in the United States wants to wimp out on Afghanistan, regardless of what the locals think, want, or do.

And American dreams still trump global realities, let alone the needs of two South Asian regimes tottering on the brink of collapse, the Saudis, or Europe.

Even SecDef Robert Gates, the designated voice of reason in the Bush administration—who gingerly tried to keep in step with our allies by endorsing talks in the long-term never-ever land,--had to cover his right flank by criticizing “defeatists”.

And negotiations with that Mullah Omar guy? Which, by the way, are already going on, courtesy of Mr. Karzai? No way! As Bloomberg reports:

Gates said he drew the line at talks with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. ``I, in my wildest imagination, would not consider Mullah Omar a reconcilable,'' he said.

American prestige is invested in Afghanistan. The Republicans are determined to prove that US money and might can reliably crush a third-world insurgency. And the Democrats and portions of the American left have adopted Afghanistan as their “Good War” (in contrast to the “Bad War” in Iraq) to show that liberals have the intestinal fortitude to wield America’ s military might in the service of goodness.

General David McKiernan’s recent remarks did nothing to dispel the gloom about Afghanistan, but also did nothing to indicate the United States is prepared to change course:

KABUL — The top NATO general in Afghanistan Sunday rejected the idea that NATO is losing the Afghan war to an increasingly bloody Taliban insurgency.

But U.S. General David McKiernan also said he needs more military forces to tamp down the militants, and he depicted a chaotic Afghan countryside where insurgents hold more power than the Afghan government seven years after the U.S.-led invasion. He said better governance and economic progress were vital.

“It is true that in many places of this country we don't have an acceptable level of security. We don't have good governance. We don't have socio-economic progress. We don't have people that are able to grow their produce and get it to market. We don't have freedom of movement,” he told a news conference in Kabul.

“We don't have progress as evenly or as fast as many of us would like, but we are not losing Afghanistan,” he said.

Echoing calls that other U.S. and NATO leaders have made for months, Gen. McKiernan said he needs more military forces but also more helicopters, transport planes and civil affairs teams.

Fatally, the Afghan issue is also bound up in bin Laden and presidential politics.

In the presidential debates we were treated to the unlikely spectacle of Obama not only championing escalation in Afghanistan; he acted as the fire-breathing military adventurer vowing to send our troops charging into Pakistan in pursuit of bin Laden, while McCain was the unaccustomed voice of moderation.

McCain has problems of his own, as typified by his oft-derided claim that he knows how to get bin Laden—that for some reason he appears unwilling to share with the White House.

That’s rather sad, because it seems that the White House is doing everything it can to help McCain on the bin Laden front in Pakistan, hopelessly muddling the Afghan and GWOT agenda as a result.

One of the many unreported stories on Afghanistan and Pakistan is the massive military operation in Pakistan’s border region of Bajaur.

Veteran South Asia watcher Sayed Saleem Shazad reports in Asia Times the suspicion that Pakistan conducted this massive sweep at America’s behest in order to yield an “October surprise”—the capture of bin Laden, a triumph that would boost the fortunes of McCain’s presidential bid and salve President Bush’s ego by demonstrating both to America and his party that he is still relevant and master of events.

Supposedly, the frenzied US military preparations have an aspect of "October Surprise" - a longstanding term for unexpected twists that can help or hinder candidates in the month before US presidential elections.

For example, there is now an increased focus on attacks in areas where al-Qaeda leaders could potentially be spotted, arrested or killed. Rather than destroying Taliban sanctuaries or attacking the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Taliban center in South Waziristan, all focus has been on Bajaur - where a huge battle continues, causing the displacement of 500,000 residents.

Although the Pakistani military has failed to control the ground in Bajaur, preparations are now being made to assault North Waziristan, where most high-profile al-Qaeda leaders are believed to have shifted. Any al-Qaeda "successes" by US or Western forces would likely be used to the advantage of Republican candidate McCain.

Now, with American elections scheduled next month, the Pakistan Army will go to North Waziristan for the battle of "October Surprise". Fresh contingents of the army have been mobilized and action appears to be expected next week.

Sources said that the main target of the operation is Dr Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

It’s a rather amazing comment on American affairs that our electoral necessities can not only move armies across continents—they can also evict 500,000 people in the mountains of west Pakistan from their homes.

I’m sure the Pakistanis are shaking their heads ruefully and thinking the same thing.

McCain’s actual plans for Pakistan—and, by extension, Afghanistan—can be divined by a look at the Pakistan Policy Working Group paper.

Jim Lobe of INS is to be thanked for bringing this report to public attention. He described it as “the latest in a growing avalanche of "bipartisan" reports being churned out by Washington-based think-tanks that are designed to influence the policies of the administration that takes power on January 20”.

Indeed, a key feature is the rather gauche-looking endorsement that’s meant to highlight the report’s both side of the aisle wisemen credentials but makes it look like a clumsily autographed high school yearbook instead.

The page reads This report has was reviewed and endorsed by Richard Armitage and Lee Hamilton, followed by the enlarged signatures of the two worthies.

Lee Hamilton is, of course, one of the organizers of the Iraq Study Group report that debuted to hopeful hosannas only to be Bushed and Petraeused into irrelevancy.

Richard Armitage is ex Deputy Secretary of State, can-do realist hardhead from the Colin Powell quadrant, reviled by neocons, distrusted by liberals--and a key foreign policy advisor to John McCain.

The report, available at the Council on Foreign Relations website, makes it clear why John McCain refrained from promising high-profile insults to Pakistani sovereignty in the pursuit of al Qaeda and Taliban targets.

The general drift of the report is that Pakistan’s fragile democracy must be coddled, spared the embarrassment of appearing as America’s lap dog, and showered with financial goodies to get Pakistan hearts, minds, and other useful organs on board the democracy-loving anti-extremist express. Add public diplomacy, NGOs, textile exports etc. etc.

In general, one must say that joint operations are better than unilateral incursions.

And it’s possible that McCain is trying to telegraph a reasonable message to the Pakistanis: that their sovereignty will be safe if they deliver bin Laden but, since the logical corollary of that position is that the Taliban would be allowed to keep their safe havens inside Pakistan and Afghanistan would go to hell in a handbasket, we’re unlikely to see an explicit statement to that effect.

But the Pakistan Policy Working Group explicitly links all these feel-good initiatives to a much broader and dangerously unrealistic goal: Pakistan’s enthusiastic participation in a massive, counter-insurgency-based anti-Taliban/anti al-Qaeda strategy in its west when this same strategy excites a visceral anger throughout Pakistan.

As the report states in its Executive Summary, the US must:

…emphasize to the Pakistan government that U.S. patience is not unlimited, and that the U.S. government is prepared to be patient only so long as the Pakistan government is achieving visible results in its efforts against the extremists in the tribal areas.

There are several problems with single-mindedly twisting Pakistan’s arm and lining its pockets to escalate its border headache into a civil war.

The first is Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower, leader of the governing PPP and now president of Pakistan.

Zardari is—unfortunately, there is no nice way to say this—a sleazy, scheming creep unsure of his power and standing and therefore terminally addicted to non-stop political manipulation in order to weaken Pakistan’s democracy and divide and diminish the forces that might combine to remove him.

He is also America’s chosen client in Pakistan.

Zardari eagerly inherited Bhutto’s deal with the United States, by which she would become Pakistan’s civilian leader and take the burden of supporting anti-Taliban and anti-al Qaeda operations off the unpopular Musharraf’s shoulders and in return obtain America’s active financial and military backing.

And, for the time being, America is playing along with Zardari as Bhutto’s heir.

But for how long?

That brings us the second problem.

Pakistan is on the verge of political and economic free-fall. Zardari is unpopular, he’s lost the support of the second-most powerful political grouping in Pakistan, the PML-N, suicide bombers have moved out of the border areas and are ripping the heartland to pieces, and the economy is in tatters.

Bangladesh used to set the standard for South Asian dysfunction and a common insult in Pakistan used to be “not worth a takka”, the takka being the Bengalis’ hangdog currency.

Now the Karachi stock market has crashed, the currency has lost one third of its value, Pakistan is mentioned in the same breath as Iceland as a potential bankrupt state, the US is now of all times holding back on aid and demanding transparency and accountability, and All Things Pakistan tells us the Pakistani rupee has dropped below one takka, just as our proud eagle-dollar now lies supine beneath the webbed talons of the much-mocked Canadian loon.

Viewed through one lens, of course, Zardari’s dilemma is not a bug—it’s a feature. An impoverished, unpopular ruler who needs a billion dollars a month to keep his country going makes for an abjectly eager client disproportionately reliant on US support.

But memories of Musharraf’s fall are still fresh enough in the United States to make US policymakers leery of Zardari—who doesn’t even measure up to Musharraf levels of intellect and fortitude—as the vessel for American hopes in Pakistan.

And Zardari may have signed his political death warrant by temporarily closing the Torkham border crossing in September into Afghanistan to NATO fuel truck traffic, reportedly as a protest to placate Pakistani military and popular opinion infuriated by the flagrant and repeated US ground and drone incursions into Pakistan.

The Torkham border crossing is at the Khyber Pass and, for you Kipling fans, the terminus of the fabled Grand Trunk Road, the immense and ancient artery of travel and trade that crossed British India all the way from Calcutta to the border of Afghanistan.

Torkham's on the only road to Kabul from Pakistan (the only other high volume border crossing, at Chaman, far south in Baluchistan, feeds into the Taliban heartland of Kandahar) and serves as the conduit for fully 70% of NATO’s supplies, which travel by ship to Karachi, are trucked up the Indus Valley, climb a long, winding, and perilous route through the frontier territories to Torkham, and then roll down a heavily protected corridor to Kabul.

Closing Torkham is a big deal. I don’t think Musharraf ever did it, because he understood that America’s massive financial subvention to Pakistan wasn’t meant to buy the mobilization of his indifferent army or his equivocal intelligence services—it was to obtain a reliable, protected conduit for NATO materiel through Pakistan.

When, after 9/11, Richard Armitage—yes, that Richard Armitage—allegedly threatened to bomb Pakistan back into the Stone Age if it didn’t cooperate in the GWOT and help destroy its clients in Kabul—he was probably thinking about getting Pakistan to facilitate the massive flow of fuel and equipment through Torkham.

I’m sure that when the Zardari closed the border crossing, calculators rattled in officers throughout the Pentagon as spooks and logistics officers ran the numbers to decide if the immense cost of airlifting NATO supplies to Afghanistan would be a better deal than pumping $1.2 billion per year in subsidies into the pockets of a feckless and unreliable client like Zardari.

Which brings us to the third problem.

As one can see from the quotes at the beginning of this article, the regional and international consensus that we should slug it out with the Taliban is evaporating.

It seems the only interest groups eager to continue the military campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan are the United States and its client, Asif Zardari.

Inside Pakistan, unfairly or not, a majority of Pakistanis believe all the troubles they are experiencing are blowback from NATO’s aggressive, excessively militarized campaign to subjugate the Taliban’s Pashtun tribal homelands on both the Afghan and Pakistani side of the border in order to secure the Karzai regime.

Apparently that outlook has been reinforced, not undermined, by the series of devastating suicide blasts that have shaken Pakistan’s heartland.

Syed Saleem Shazad reported on the message that the Taliban sent the Pakistani elites with its latest outrage, a bomb hidden in a basket of sweets that destroyed the headquarters of Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorist Force in the capital of Islamabad:

A letter recovered from gift basket read, "If Pakistan does not separate itself from the American crusade on Muslims, these sort of attacks shall continue."

Yes, I think the message got through.

To put it bluntly, there are very few if any people in Pakistan’s military, government, press, or general population who are willing to die for Hamid Karzai.

Within Pakistan, public opinion is firmly behind Nawaz Sharif, the canny politician at the head of the PML-N.

Sharif has staked his political fortunes on serving as the voice of Pakistan civil society, calling for decoupling from US security goals in Afghanistan and negotiation with the Pakistani Taliban.

His patron is Saudi Arabia, which injected him back into Pakistani politics last November (Sharif had been deposed by Musharraf and sent into exile) with the idea that he would offer an alternative to the GWOT Muslim-on-Muslim bloodbath promoted by the United States.

And, according to his favored English-language outlet, Pakistan’s The News, Sharif showed up at the Taliban-Karzai talks in Saudi Arabia (though one might take the “key role” boasting with a fist-sized grain of salt):

PML-N Quaid Nawaz Sharif is playing a key role in conjunction with Saudi Arabia in bringing about a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and the Karzai regime to pave the way for withdrawal of the US and Nato forces from Afghanistan.

“It was for this precise reason that the PML-N chief has put off his departure from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan for another two days,” an informed source told The News. According to his new programme, the PML-N chief will return home on Tuesday.

“Nawaz Sharif was invited by Saudi King Abdullah and he undertook the present visit to stay in Saudi Arabia for nearly two weeks to talk about the nitty-gritty of the peace process,” the source said.

The News’ report continues:

While PML-N leaders, closely working with Nawaz Sharif, were aware of Nawaz Sharif’s objective behind his extended stay in Saudi Arabia, sources close to President Asif Zardari were oblivious of the PML-N chief’s “role” and “efforts” in bringing the warring sides on the negotiating table.

It’s hard to decide which fact was more remarkable: the fact that Sharif, an opposition politician, was invited, or the fact that Zardari found it necessary to assert that it didn’t know about the talks, let alone the fact that Sharif was there.

Nawaz Sharif—despite being the most popular politician in Pakistan, the former prime minister who presided over Pakistan’s emergence as a nuclear power, the man who controls Pakistan’s most important province of Punjab, the man who leads the democratic party, the PML-N, which is poised to rout Zaradari’s PPP if fresh parliamentary elections are held soon, and is the trusted interlocutor of the Saudis, who could make a real difference in Afghanistan--is the invisible man in US reporting on Pakistan.

I think that’s because Sharif represents an anti-US consensus that is so democratic, broad-based, and politically and strategically viable that reporting on him would provide an embarrassing contrast to the Zardari train wreck that we pretend will somehow save our adventure in Afghanistan, pacify the Pashtuns, and bring civil peace in Pakistan.

So let’s review the problems with taking the military fight to the Taliban in Afghanistan and western Pakistan:

First, the consensus outside the United States is that our military policy is a failure.

Second, the consensus inside the democratic but terminally ineffectual Afghan government is that our military policy is a failure.

Third, the only significant political force in South Asia that supports our policy is an unpopular and incapable client, Asif Zardari.

Fourth, our policy is wildly unpopular inside Pakistan and Zardari faces a powerful political challenge from a viable democratic alternative: the experienced, popular, and savvy Nawaz Sharif, whose patron is Saudi Arabia and not the United States, and whose policies favor negotiation and accommodation over military support for US and NATO operations.

The logical inference one can draw from these circumstances is that democracy, regardless of its popularity inside Afghanistan and Pakistan, has not delivered the right leaders or the necessary resolve, and is not a friend to US policy.

And, even under the best of circumstances, the exigencies of a war policy in Afghanistan and western Pakistan demand clients who are responsive, effective, and in control of their military and intelligence apparatus.

Pakistan’s army, despite its apparent inability to win a war anywhere against anyone, is still recognized as occupying its traditional place at the heart of Pakistan’s society and power structure.

Therefore, I would not be surprised if the United States is currently assiduously cultivating a clique of generals and colonels (since our optimistic attempts to co-opt Musharraf’s heir, Chief of Staff Kiyani have apparently failed) ready to frame Pakistan’s Taliban problem as a national emergency beyond the capability of the feckless civilian government, and steer the country back into the rut of military rule.

As the Pakistan Policy Working Group report noted with gloomy relish, if the Pakistan government can’t get its act together “political parties may be doomed to repeat the familiar cycle of de-legitimization, incomplete terms of office, and prolonged military intervention.”

An indication that some people in the Anglo-Saxon world are ready to grease the skids for Zardari is the re-emergence of reports about his mental stability.

I’m a Zardari basher from way back, but even I don’t give credence to these rumors. In a successful effort to squirm out of a corruption trial in the UK, it looks like Zardari obtained a bespoke medical opinion stating that his years of imprisonment had left him prone to fits of depression and dementia and unable to stand trial.

Same for Afghanistan, by the way.

I cannot believe that Karzai’s attempts to wriggle out of his predicament through negotiations with the Taliban mediated by Saudi Arabia were appreciated by the United States.

And I don’t think it is any coincidence that Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who rules Kandahar province, was promptly smeared as an opium-trafficking dirtbag thanks to a leak from the White House to the New York Times.

Just a friendly warning to a couple wayward clients that they better toe the line..

If our peripatetic viceroy, Zalmay Khalizad, decides the time is not ripe to assume his throne as the democratically-elected ruler of Afghanistan in the next presidential election, it would not be surprising if the United States decided that our desire for a favorable order of battle would be better served is a genuine Taliban-killing warlord with a real army—perhaps even the notorious Gulbuddin Hekmatayr of death by shipping container fame—took over Kabul.

Indeed, Karzai himself is already in negotiations to bring Hekmatyar out of the cold, according to The Independent:

According to diplomatic sources the Karzai government opened channels to Hekmatyar through members of his family who visited Kabul. Three months ago the warlord's son-in-law, Dr Ghairat Baheer, was released after spending six years in an Afghan prison and is said to be playing a part in ongoing negotiations.

Although his forces are engaged in fighting inside Afghanistan, Hekmatyar has remained independent from the Taliban and is said to be at odds with its religious leader Mullah Omar. Some of President Karzai's advisors believe that a truce, in which he will be rewarded by being given a government post, may encourage other militant leaders to consider negotiations.

If I were the lamblike Karzai, I would think twice about inviting that particular wolf into my sheepfold.

I’d like to see the Afghan war and the Pakistan insurgency descend into a less bloody muddle of negotiation, coalition, and serial betrayal financed by the United States and the Saudis. But, given the considerations that bin Laden is still out there and the general US need to protect its prestige, I doubt that the new president can resist the calls to meddle aggressively and militarily in the Afghan mess instead.

So, here’s my hypothetical timeline.

Four months for a new US administration to take power.

Three months for the foreign policy planners and war wonks to convince the president that NATO fortunes in Afghanistan and Pakistan need something other than two or three brigades (Obama) or adept insider nut-twisting (McCain) to succeed--a change in governments is needed.

Three months to pull the strings, remit the money, neutralize targets, and yank the most yankable chains of the western press. Frederick Kagan, call your office. Hamid Karzai, Asif Zardari, and Nawaz Sharif—watch your backs.

Then two months for the endgame, the announcements from the presidential palaces, and expressions of US government support, more in sorrow than in anger, with hope that this marks a turning point in the struggle.

Britain’s acerbic ambassador to Kabul, Sherard Cowper-Coles, is apparently thinking along the same lines, according to the leaked French cable reported in the IHT:

Within 5 to 10 years, the only "realistic" way to unite [Afghanistan] is for it to be "governed by an acceptable dictator," the cable said, adding that "we should think of preparing our public opinion" about such an outcome.

It should take the United States about a year to kill two democracies. That’s my guess.

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