Monday, October 27, 2008

The Full Monty--Full Circle

When the steelworker-stripper movie The Full Monty came out in 1997, there was a lot of bemused headscratching about the origin of the title phrase.

As we know now, "the full monty" means "in its entirety" or, as applied to stripping, "going all the way".

But where did it come from?

The most commonly accepted explanation in the UK, where the phrase originated, is that that "the full monty" originally applied to a complete suit of clothes (including waistcoat) from Sir Montague (Monty) Burton, who took bespoke tailoring from class to mass with a nationwide chain of shops he opened in England in the early 20th century.

This explanation isn't considered definitive, and there have also been attempts to link the phrase to England's most famous Monty, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, hero of El Alamein, goat of Market Garden, and, to the other Allied military commanders he compulsively belittled and second-guessed, all-around ass and egotist.

"The full Monty" was taken either as a reference to the Field Marshal's affectation in wearing all his medals or reflecting his insistence that his troops eat a full English breakfast.

I came across another possible origin for the phrase in Max Hasting's account of the endgame of the Second World War in Europe, Armageddon.

In his character sketch of Montgomery (pg. 27 of the 2004 Alfred A. Knopf hardback), Hastings cites the following incident:

A member of Montgomery's staff told a bizarre story from the north-west Europe campaign. One of the field-marshal's young liaison officers returned to duty after recovering from wounds, and found himself summoned to Montgomery's caravan. he was ordered to remove his clothes. The bemused young man stood naked at attention before his commander, who observed that he wished to ensure that he was fully fit for duty again. "Right!" said Montgomery after a few moments, in his usual clipped bark. "You can dress and go now!". According to one of his staff, that episode caused considerable surprise even at a headquarters well accustomed to "Master's" foibles.
In the footnotes, Hastings writes that he had collected this anecdote directly from the staff member referred to in the passage, one T.E.B. Howarth. Howarth confided that he had omitted the story from his own published reminiscences of his years with Montgomery "because I don't think the world's quite ready for it yet." Hastings adds complaisantly: "I am happy to remedy the omission".

Indeed, for many years Montgomery's repressed homosexuality was the kink that dared not speak its name in British military history.

Montgomery himself inveighed against the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1976, decrying what he called "a charter for buggery" and famously declaring, "This sort of thing may be tolerated by the French, but we're British - thank God."

As Richard Davenport-Hines noted in The Independent, any explorations of the sexual character of Montgomery's overpowering affection and devotion to the young men under his command were taboo in the postwar period:

When Lord Chalfont's biography of Montgomery was published after the Field Marshal's death in 1976, it contained a single sentence, in a book of 150,000 words, noting "suggestions of a homosexual element" in Montgomery's relations with one of his liaison officers. Uproar ensued. Field Marshal Templar, the "Tiger of Malaya", accosted Chalfont with the words: "you're the chap who says Monty was a bugger!" The Sunday Express denounced him as "not fit to lead a pack of pimps down Piccadilly".

Things have changed.

Montgomery's official biographer, Nigel Hamilton, was one of the objects of Montgomery's intense but platonic affection--he was 11 when he met the Field Marshal. Hamilton told Sarah Hall of the Guardian:

"I myself have more than 100 very loving letters from him. My relationship with him wasn't sexual, in the sense that it wasn't acted upon, but I had been through enough years at British boarding schools to know what kind of enormous affection and feeling he had for me...And I wasn't alone, this was a consistent pattern in Monty's life."

Hamilton revisited and reshaped his three-volume biography of Montgomery--which, in its first incarnation, focused on rehabilitating the Field Marshal's tattered military reputation-- to address the issue of Montgomery's sexuality and personality as elements of his command effectiveness. Hamilton's rework, inevitably entitled The Full Monty, has attracted some derisive reviews, apparently for its attempts to relate Montgomery's greatest triumph--the victory at El Alamein--to an electric current of neo-spartan mutual man-love coursing through Monty and his troops.

It is possible that an incident of the sort related by Howarth acquired a life of its own in retelling after the war with Montgomery characterized as the overly-punctilious officer taking his responsibilities to extremes.

It would certainly be ironic if, by 1997, the phrase had come full circle to be identified once again with men stripping to the buff for an appreciative audience.

Image of Montgomery from Wikipedia

Friday, October 24, 2008

Betancourt Update--Beer and Helicopters

In an amusing punctuation point to the Ingrid Betancourt rescue in July of this year, on October 19 a television station in Colombia aired shaky footage of the event purportedly shot by a FARC grunt with a digital camera. It concludes with the helicopter containing the precious hostages whizzing off into the clouds while the oblivious gunmen on the ground celebrate a case of beer the rescuers thoughtfully left behind.


The generally calm and matter of fact deportment of the large team of rescuers supports the picture of an operation planned well in advance, and not a last-minute hijacking by the Uribe government of a Europe-negotiated release.

It is also clear that many of the rescuers were impersonating representatives of the International Red Cross—an embarrassing violation of international law that the Colombian government had attempted to obscure in its earlier video release—and that some of the rescuers were pretending to be members of Colombian TV station Telesur—eliciting umbrage from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The operation also aped equipment and arrangements used in two previous hostage releases midwifed by Venezuela.

It is also undeniable that the Colombian government piggybacked its rescue on extensive and recent negotiations with FARC by European representatives, who were in the jungle meeting with FARC representatives a scant five days before the rescue.

According to an AFP report, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos acknowledged that he was responsible for stories in the Colombian press noting the presence in Colombia of retired French diplomat Noel Saez and Swiss hostage negotiator Jean Pierre Gontard, in order to lull FARC into a false sense of security.

Sources close to French President Sarkozy claim he instructed Saez on the request of Santos to remain in Bogota on the eve of the rescue and delay his return to the jungle.

The Colombian government is extremely keen to present the rescue as a free-standing operation that took months of planning and infiltration of high levels of FARC, completely separate from the European efforts.

In fact, there has been a concerted effort to disparage the European initiatives, as recorded on the blog of journalist Jacques Thomet, an ex-AFP heavyweight in Latin America with Uribe sympathies who has a forthcoming book on the rescue (French babelfished into Frenglish but still comprehensible).

A news report quoted on Thomet’s blog:

On July 7, the Colombian government announced that it now sought a "direct contact" with the guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to secure the release of the hostages because he had "lost confidence" in the European mediators.

"President (Alvaro Uribe of Colombia) made it clear to Mr. Jean-Pierre Gontard and Noel Saez (the Swiss and French mediators for an agreement with the guerrillas), who were in Bogota, the Colombian government 's has no confidence in their work ", had affirmed the Colombian High Commissioner for Peace Luis Carlos Restrepo.

"I think the work for many years the two facilitators did, beyond their goodwill, produced no results, and in addition they were manipulated by the FARC," he added.

And, in an August 7 post by Thomet (mile-high type in the original):

This revelation is contained in a lengthy account just send me a high source in Colombia. I do not give details, and you will understand, because I reserve the book I write about Operation Jaque and the Colombian context.

With three agreements occurring between the FARC and the Colombian power between 2000 and 2001, 440 hostages, the vast majority of soldiers or police, were released. "Jean-Pierre Gontard had no role," insists this high source.

Mr Gontard, emissary of Switzerland since 1999, had said on July 6 last year, TSR (Télévision Suisse Romande) that (its) negotiations had resulted in the release of 360 Colombian soldiers in 2001.

Another item from M. Thomet's brief against Mr.Gontard:

On 16 July, [Colombian prosecutor] Mario Iguaran announced an investigation against the Swiss mediator in the case of the hostages. Jean-Pierre Gontard is accused of having given 500,000 dollars to the FARC guerrillas in Costa Rica. This information was contained in computers of Raul Reyes, the No. 2 FARC removed on March 1.

Finally, Thomet approvingly quotes a comment on a message purportedly extracted from the notorious FARC laptop:

Chávez has spoken Ingrid, but we have said that if we made it [the release] , We would be without cards in their hands. "Proof Alvaro Uribe that the FARC would never release Ingrid Betancourt, his posture was the only valid and that his" friends ", including Nicolas Sarkozy, have greatly mistaken.

One can see a trend here. The Colombian government is anxious to remove any impression that it pushed aside the work of patient, professional negotiators working successfully toward a release.

However, it should be pointed out that all the circumstances surrounding Betancourt’s captivity in recent months—especially the concerted effort to improve her health and appearance and including FARC’s susceptibility to being gulled by a faux helicopter transfer—all point to an impending negotiated release.

The Uribe government simply protests too much, not only disparaging the negotiators to the point of naming Jean Pierre Gontard as a terrorist asset, but also by trying to make the case that Betancourt could never have been released through negotiation.

Paradoxically, the Colombian government’s overly energetic pushback strengthens the case that a genuine and effective release negotiation was short-circuited.

The kiss of death for the Colombian version of events would be if the reports of a $20 million ransom broadcast on Swiss radio shortly after the rescue —a rumor that the Colombian government gave instant credibility by furiously accusing Gontard of the leak-- ever gain currency.

The whole issue of whether or not Colombia’s President Uribe exploited the prolonged negotiation process as a blind for his rescue operation is a sore point in Europe, and it has poisoned Colombia’s relations with France and Switzerland to a remarkable extent.

According to Le Point, Sarkozy, in particular, was especially humiliated as Uribe, turning to the United States and Israel for logistical support (the United States dedicated a spy satellite to tracking the hostages; Israel supplied eavesdropping and jamming gear, ostensibly to befuddle FARC but, since the rebels had apparently been reduced to the donkey-and-scribbled-note era of communications, the target of the surveillance may have been the hostage negotiators) while giving the back of his hand to France’s high profile effort to free Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen.

Clearly Uribe, whose father died at the hands of FARC, has no use for hostage negotiators, especially when they have recourse to his detested neighbor, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

It is also difficult to escape the inference that the Colombian government’s motives for the rescue went beyond humanitarian motives, and included a desire to sideline and discredit other actors that might complicate the Uribe government’s quest for a unilateral military and political solution to the FARC problem.

What better way to poison the well for future hostage negotiators than grabbing some captives in the middle of a bona fide negotiation effort, impersonating journalists and representatives of the International Red Cross, and antagonizing France and Switzerland?

The question may be asked, So What?

Ingrid Betancourt was rescued from captivity. Who cares if the Uribe government shaded the truth?

The answer depends on whether FARC is truly shattered.

If FARC survives, with its hundreds of miserable hostages in the jungle, and Colombia lurches toward another dirty war instead of reconciliation, the price of Betancourt’s bloodless rescue may, in retrospect, seem high indeed.

Bonus for American readers

John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman happened to be in Bogota the night the deal went down. Coincidence? If this was a different year, Senator McCain’s presence at this anti-terrorist triumph might have been a factor in the U.S. presidential election.

McCain confidant Lindsey Graham provided the color commentary for his hometown paper, South Carolina’s Greenville News:

"(Colombian Defense MinisterSantos) told us the whole plan," Graham said. "We were just stunned. We're at the dinner. We're sitting there thinking about this because there are three Americans involved. Right before we leave, President Uribe says it's a go for tonight.

"I found out later that the defense minister, Santos, called the bishop, the head of the Catholic church in Colombia, about 11:30 and said, 'In about 90 minutes, we want you to pray for the heart and soul of Columbia [presumably, the padre was instructed to pray for the heart and soul of Colombia, the country in South America, not Columbia, the capital of South Carolina. An understandable flub by the otherwise reliable Greenville News—ed.].' He didn't tell him what it was about, just start praying at one o'clock.

With a thumbs-up for faith-based counter-terrorism, albeit of the Papish sort, or at least a salute to an obliging church’s unquestioning provision of prayer services to the nation's rulers on-demand, and, it occurs to me, a lack of curiousity about the interesting question of why the Almighty couldn't heed the invocation at a reasonable hour and instead made the bishop stay up another hour and a half in the middle of the night to make his plea, Graham concludes:

"Apparently, the guy did."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Afghan Shuffle

Barack Obama is acting presidential.

Via Steve Benen at the Washington Monthly blog Calpundit, we learn that Mr. Obama said this in a portion of an interview with Time’s Joe Klein entitled On negotiating with the Taliban:

"This is one useful lesson that is applicable from Iraq. The Sunni awakening changed the dynamic in Iraq fundamentally. It could not have occurred unless there were some contacts and intermediaries to peel off those who are tribal leaders, regional leaders, Sunni nationalists, from a more radical, messianic brand of insurgency. Whether there are those same opportunities in Afghanistan I think should be explored."

By “presidential”, I mean addressing issues as if he were president, as opposed to regurgitating campaign-ready talking points.

As I pointed out in The Coming Change of Course in Afghanistan, opening a negotiation track with the Afghan Taliban is pretty much a done deal. The facts on the ground don’t support a solely military solution, everybody else in NATO wants to open talks with the Taliban, General Petraeus is mobilizing opinion inside the U.S. to support negotiations, and the primary purpose of any surge of “two to three” brigades into Afghanistan (Senator Obama’s formula for success) would be to strengthen the West’s negotiating hand in power-sharing talks.

So, Senator Obama is not out of step with elite, in-the-know U.S. foreign policy and military opinion on Afghanistan.

However, this conciliatory consensus hasn’t filtered down to the American electorate yet.

Pne would think that, with less than two weeks to go in a presidential campaign with an increasingly desperate challenger, one might think that Senator Obama would stick with better-strong-than-wrong soundbites about how he wants bomb the mountains of eastern Afghanistan into a flat sheet of glass so he can go bowling for Taliban with Osama bin Laden’s skull.

But he didn’t. Interesting.

In another sign of the converging views and interests between the politician who is likely to become America’s next president and the powerful general who is in a position to provide him with vital national-security political cover, Senator Obama made a point of praising General Petraeus:

On General David Petraeus, with whom he has disagreed over Iraq policy:
I'm glad Petraeus is in CENTCOM ... I think he's ... not just an astute soldier, but I think he's somebody who cares about facts and cares about the reality on the ground. I don't think he comes at this with an ideological predisposition. That's one of the reasons I think he's been successful in moving the ball forward in Iraq. And I hope that he's applying that same perspective to what's happening in Afghanistan.

As to what’s actually happening on the ground, U.S. General McKiernan, commander of the NATO forces in Afghanistan, endorsed negotiations and was then forced to do an awkward tap dance around the question of Taliban Numero Uno and bin Laden buddy Mullah Omar:

Asked whether dealing with the man who harbored Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was beyond the pale, McKiernan said, "I think that's a political decision that will ultimately be made by political leadership."

Although General McKiernan is a U.S. general who certainly follows U.S.-agreed policy in his remarks, the news report was entitled NATO does not rule out Afghan talks with Taliban, avoiding the dread capitulationism of putting “United States” and “talks with Taliban” in the same headline.

The unspoken wild card here, of course, is that General McKiernan does not speak for the 20,000 or so U.S. and other troops operating in eastern Pakistan under U.S. Central Command—which will be headed by General Petraeus come October 31.

Even if U.S. and NATO political initiatives are coordinated and the West acquires a more relaxed attitude toward Islamic fundamentalism regaining political legitimacy within Afghanistan, it is difficult to imagine welcoming Mullah Omar back into the fold unless he gives up bin Laden.

Mullah Omar’s not likely to do that and, if he’s in firm control of the Taliban insurgency—which seems to be doing rather well—it will be difficult for the Karzai regime or the United States to make much headway with a political settlement.

If it turns out that the idea that the Taliban onion can be peeled away from Mullah Omar is a piece of reality-denying wishful thinking that does not reflect the facts on the ground, the United States will be in for continued difficult times.

More to the point, the people of Afghanistan and western Pakistan will be in for continued difficult times as the United States tries to gain the upper hand militarily in order to achieve a more favorable negotiating position.

Long War Journal, a website of embedded and sympathetic journalists that does a very good job of covering U.S. operations in Afghanistan, provided some interesting details on the October 22 U.S. drone attack inside Pakistan that killed quite a few people at a madrassa run by a key pro-al Qaeda tribal militant group:

"We want the Haqqanis to know we will hit them anywhere," a senior US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal after the Sept. 8 strike on the Haqqani madrassa. The Haqqanis work closely with al Qaeda as well as conduct strikes against Afghan and Coalition forces in Afghanistan.

The Manba Ulom madrassa was established by Jalaluddin Haqqani, the family patriarch who has close ties with Osama bin Laden. The madrassa was used in the 1980s to train mujahideen to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The Haqqani family used the Manba Ulom madrassa as a training center and meeting place for senior al Qaeda leaders after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Considering that the madrassa was a Western asset in the mujahideen war against the Soviets in the 1980s, CIA probably knows everything there is to know about this madrassa down to the number and size of latrines—heck, the CIA probably paid for and built the latrines--and the U.S. military had already attacked it before, in September of this year, it would seem unlikely that the madrassa is still used as a training center and meeting place for “high value assets”.

More likely, the U.S. military decided to plaster the madrassa once again regardless of its tactical value, either out of frustration (at that dangerous point where “hearts and minds” goes out the window and “these colors don’t run” bloody-mindedness becomes the order of the day), or because we need to increase the human and material cost of resistance to the most painful level possible as a bargaining chip when negotiations start.

This canny strategy, I believe, did not serve us particularly well when President Nixon ramped up the bombing campaign against North Vietnam in order to give the U.S. additional leverage at the Paris peace talks—and demonstrate to President Thieu America’s undying commitment to South Vietnam’s defense.

However, it did provide President Nixon with the political cover to extricate us from Vietnam.

Readers with a taste for irony will enjoy the Wikipedia account of Operation Linebacker II (over 700 B52s, 20,000 tons of bombs in eleven days; the biggest U.S. heavy bomber operation since the Second World War).

In the words of John Negroponte (!), a Kissinger aide at the time: "We bombed the North Vietnamese into accepting our concessions."

It will be interesting to see how Senator Obama will play the Afghanistan endgame if he becomes president.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Coming Change of Course in Afghanistan

I have a piece up at Japan Focus, The Coming Change of Course in Afghanistan, concerning the broad expert and international consensus concerning the need to engage with Afghanistan’s Taliban politically and negotiate some kind of settlement to end the fighting.

The American public will apparently be the last to know, since the Afghan war is our “Good War” and is inextricably linked in our minds with the hunt for bin Laden. Presumptive president Obama has already loudly proclaimed his determination to man up with two or three more brigades over there to reverse the slide in the military situation.

However, General Petraeus is already rallying his Powerpoint warriors to convince the incoming administration and U.S. public opinion that negotiation with [some of] the Taliban [while the battle to destroy al Qaeda continues] will be necessary.

Indeed, negotiations with the Taliban are already going on.

Not just in clandestine meetings in Saudi Arabia between the Karzai regime and the Taliban.

Also inside Afghanistan, with participation by NATO and international NGOs.

International Peace Day, September 21, was marked in Afghanistan by a truce between Taliban, international, and Afghan government forces to permit the delivery of polio vaccinations to Afghan children:

Medics with polio vaccinations pushed into some of Afghanistan's most volatile provinces on the United Nations' Peace Day Sunday with a Taliban pledge they should not be harmed during the three-day drive.

The Taliban had also agreed to not carry out any attacks on Peace Day following a call from President Hamid Karzai that resulted in the Afghan and international military forces agreeing to refrain from offensive operations. . . .

The Taliban said Saturday it had ordered its followers to allow the vaccinators safe access to their areas. They had copies of a letter from the group's leadership asking for them to be unharmed, [WHO representative Peter] Graaff said.

In a further sign that the international community sees Taliban political and military strength as signs of a significant domestic insurgency that can and must be negotiated with, and no longer through the lens of the American Global War on Terror (GWOT) as a target for utter annihilation, the UN’s envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide also gave a cringing shout-out on the UN website 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.”

The piece also includes a discussion of the continuing deterioration of Pakistan’s strategic position in South Asia, including the remarkable inroads that India--with the support of the United States and the Karzai regime—have been able to make in 99% Muslim Afghanistan.

Geo-wonks will find much of interest in my discussion (with maps!) of determined attempts by India and Iran to wean Afghanistan from its reliance on the overland route to Kabul through the Khyber Pass controlled by Pakistan.

Afghanistan now has an alternate route to the sea, via the recently completed Delaram-Zaranj highway to the Iranian border, built and paid for by the Indian government (and protected against relentless Taliban attacks by Indian troops!), linking the major Afghan cities to the Iranian port of Chabahar.

The ability of Pakistan’s fractured civilian government to make a positive contribution to the U.S./NATO effort in Afghanistan is doubtful.

When one looks at the marked unwillingness of the so-called “Friends of Pakistan” assistance group to provide meaningful aid to Islamabad during its current financial crisis, one has to wonder if the U.S. strategy isn’t to let the civilian government fall to pieces and cultivate a new military strongman to assume direction of the country and the effort against the Pakistan and Afghanistan Taliban.

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.