U.S. Surrender In Afghanistan

By Paolo von Schirach – 

WASHINGTON – The historic news is buried in short articles inside major newspapers. If you did not pay attention, you probably would not even notice that the American war in Afghanistan –the longest American war– is finally coming to an (unhappy) end. America is negotiating its departure from Afghanistan. A draft deal sketching a timeline for US troops withdrawal and subsequent Afghan Government-Taliban negotiations has been hammered by US Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban.

Good news? Not really. This is a U.S. withdrawal following defeat, not victory. Let’s be clear. America has not come to this point after negotiations from a position of strength with a badly bruised, demoralized Taliban. America negotiated an exit from a war that it could not win against a relentless enemy. Make no mistake, whatever the wording of the final agreement, in essence this is a U.S. surrender.


Indeed, it
is clear to all observers that America is negotiating with the Taliban from a
position of extreme weakness. The other side, the Taliban, is winning on the
ground, and we simply cannot take this nightmare of daily attacks followed by
feeble and ineffective Afghan responses anymore.

Sadly, this is the inglorious end to a terribly ill-advised October 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, followed by an ill-conceived military occupation, and an even worse economic development strategy concocted under the assumption (bordering on lunacy) that America and its NATO Allies had the resources, the will and the skills to transform an extremely backward, war-torn Afghanistan into an at least passable modern, working democracy.  

bad idea

this negotiation with the Taliban is the end of the American poorly planned and
poorly executed adventure in Afghanistan. The occupation of Afghanistan was and
is a bad idea doggedly pursued for almost 20 years by national leaders who
should have known better; or who at least, after a few years of failures, could
have paused and thought the whole thing over again.

policy mistakes unfortunately happen. But Afghanistan is much worse. This is
about hatching a completely unrealistic plan and then clinging to its mistaken
assumptions and failed policies, year after year, in the vain hope that
–maybe—someday things will improve, without any evidence whatsoever that the
situation on the ground was getting any better.

all started after 9/11

Let’s go
back to the beginning of this sad story, and that is 9/11. After it became
clear that this major terror attack against the US homeland had been directed
by Osama bin Laden, the founder of al Qaeda who had found sanctuary in
Afghanistan, the Bush administration decided “to
go get him”.
However, Washington almost immediately decided
also on a much more ambitious agenda. Indeed, the Bush administration decided
that it had to punish not just the al Qaeda leadership, but also its Afghan
willing hosts, that is the Taliban government.

the more narrowly focused “punitive
expedition against Osama and al Qaeda”
almost immediately morphed
into “regime change”
for Afghanistan. This rather grandiose objective was in fact an act of
vainglorious superficiality. In so doing, Washington, while trying to get Osama
who was hiding somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan, (without any success,
by the way!), at the same time declared to the world that it needed to “fix” Afghanistan once
and for all, so that in the future this sorry country would become a
responsible, modern democracy, and no longer the friendly home of terrorists.


principle, this may sound sensible: “Clean
up the place and engage in a bottom up make-over”
so that in the
future Afghanistan will not be used as a base for Islamic terrorists. In practice, anybody
with a brain at the time would have been able to see that this –“fixing Afghanistan”–
was a next to impossible task, at least within any reasonable time frame.

with an even scant knowledge of decades of failure in trying to promote
sustainable development in Africa and other underdeveloped regions of the world
through large amounts of outside assistance could have pointed out that this
was mission impossible.

Indeed, if promoting development in Africa is extremely challenging even under “normal” circumstances, it should have been clear to all top decision-makers in Washington that engaging in a development effort in an extremely poor, and completely ruined post-conflict Afghanistan would take extraordinary resources, and many, many decades.

dauntingly tall agenda, by the way, even assuming peace and a cooperative
society willing to buy into this rapid modernization strategy hatched and
dished out by outside experts.


Again, everybody knew or should have known that at the end of 2001 Afghanistan was an incredibly backward, tribal country that lacked almost all the underpinnings necessary to even start moving on a development agenda. And the basic underpinnings would include: some meaningful productive activities, (no, poppy cultivation and heroin should not be on this list), at least some basic infrastructure, a modicum of electricity generation capacity and transmission lines, at least some reasonably modern health care facilities, some functioning schools, a somewhat educated middle class, and a reasonably competent government and public administration.

Sadly, at the end of 2001 Afghanistan had almost none of these prerequisites. On top of that, the country was exhausted. it had suffered for years under a communist dictatorship, then it had to endure the Soviet invasion which was followed by a bloody war against the Soviets, and then civil strife, followed by the truly medieval Taliban regime.

record of failure

Anyway, in
the end the whole US-led Afghanistan enterprise that began at the end of 2001
failed –miserably. This is well documented. A key feature of this systemic
failure is that, to this day, the US government has no idea of what happened to
billions of dollars targeted for development in Afghanistan. The money simply

The biggest failure was and is in the strong resurgence of the Taliban and the utter inability of the US-trained and equipped Afghan military and police to even hold their ground –let alone go after the Taliban insurgents and defeat them.

Right now, the Kabul government is unable to guarantee even a modicum of security almost anywhere in the country. Up to the signing of the recent preliminary agreement and semi-ceasefire that should lead to the finalization of the final peace agreement, The Taliban could hit almost any city, including well defended targets in Kabul itself.

On top of that, in the last few years, other extremists and terror groups have found fertile ground in Afghanistan. On a daily basis, there are attacks, bombs, suicide missions, and what not. And this is happening after 19 years of American and NATO military assistance to the Afghan Government, combined with gigantic development packages aimed at building a modern government, and eventually new prosperity.

negotiations with the Taliban

I guess this is why the Trump administration FINALLY decided to cut America’s losses and get the residual US troops home. The fig leaf here are the almost concluded bilateral “peace negotiations” with the Taliban. Through this charade hosted by Qatar, Washington would like to convey to the world that this is no “cut and run”. On the contrary, Washington will implement an orderly and careful incremental drawdown of US forces –but only if and when the Taliban will meet certain non-negotiable conditions.

The public message is: “This is no unilateral withdrawal. We are negotiating an honorable and sound peace agreement. We Americans shall make sure that the interests of the Afghan people are protected. We shall also make sure that the new (and still fragile) Afghan democratic institutions will be safeguarded and will continue to define the country long after the last American soldier has departed”.

Of course,
this is pure fiction.

Whatever they may say now, the Taliban leaders deep down do not believe in either democracy or power sharing. The notion of a well-functioning future coalition government featuring the current (extremely fractured, by the way) Afghan leadership and the Taliban –all working together for the benefit of the Afghan people– is ridiculous. Which is to say that these US-Taliban negotiations are only about saving face. Whatever you may want to call this process, in essence this is an American surrender. America failed –in a spectacular way– and now we are finally leaving an impossible situation that cost US taxpayers hundreds of billions, not to mention the dead and the wounded U.S. troops. No more good money after bad.

do we make of all this?

So, what do we make of this absurd tragedy?

Sadly, the only plausible conclusion is that in the highly charged, emotional days after 9/11 our national leaders literally lost their minds. There is no doubt that the terror attack America suffered on September 11, 2001 was unprecedented in scale and loss of American lives.

But 9/11
was not the end of the world. The notion that America, in order to prevent
future attacks and be safe, had to “redo
was megalomaniac, vainglorious and stupid. Going after
the bad guys, the masterminds of 9/11, was absolutely justified. But the notion
that creating a new country in Afghanistan was necessary in order to guarantee
future US security was fatally flawed.

by the way, let’s not forget: even the more focused mission of capturing or
killing the al Qaeda senior leadership responsible for 9/11 FAILED, TOTALLY.
The US forces were there, on the ground in Afghanistan. Osama and his cohorts
were on the run. And still we failed to capture Osama, for more than a decade.

That said,
the Afghanistan operation was the beginning of the “War on Terror”, an ill-defined, grandiose
strategy that created what was ultimately an unreachable goal: identifying,
pursuing and neutralizing all terror organizations around the world.

on Terror” does not mean anything

Terrorism is not“a place” you can attack and conquer or a clearly identifiable enemy located in one place. Terrorism is a modus operandi that can be and is adopted by several small groups, or even isolated individuals all over the world. Terrorism is about dramatic violent actions that will gain a great deal of publicity. It can spring almost anywhere, without any notice.

If you call this fight “a war”, how do you “win” this war? How can you ensure that all the bad guys, and the would-be bad guys, have been apprehended or killed? This is impossible. You can and should do your best to monitor and infiltrate terror cells. You should prevent possible acts of terror, and go after the bad guys when something bad tragically happened.

But this is mostly about doing your best to manage an elusive threat using intelligence services and special forces. You cannot “win” this conflict once and for all; just as police forces, even the best ones, cannot inflict a final defeat on all criminals and all criminal activities.

There are more than 7 and half billion people on this planet. Even if the smallest fraction of this large world population engages in terror plots, you still have a terror problem. And yet this open-ended, grandiose goal –Fighting and Winning the War on Terror— became the fundamental pillar of U.S. foreign policy under President George W. Bush. America was committed to fight this Global War on Terror to the very end, and we would not rest until the last terrorist had been killed or apprehended. This was and is an impractical, in fact fatuous goal.

No doubt,
terrorism is serious business, to be treated seriously. And this is why we have
sophisticated intelligence services and trained Special Forces. But terrorism
is not an existential threat that justifies making it into our number one
national security priority, engaging in a global war in which the entire world,
by the way, had to actively participate in order to show that they are with us.

policies continued under Obama

But here is the thing. The stupidity of this Bush administration policy did not disappear when President Bush left office. What is bizarre and unexplainable is that, even though George W. Bush left the stage in January 2009, and no one talked about his War on Terror anymore, the failed Afghanistan project that was an integral part of the initial War on Terror strategy kept going, and going.

Indeed, President Obama declared that the war in Afghanistan was the “good war” of necessity that had to be fought, as opposed to the “bad war” in Iraq that was discretionary and ill-advised. And so Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, kept going and going in Afghanistan even though, based on years of failures, he and his national security team should have known better.

After all, they were not bound to justify and continue on the basis of a flawed commitment created by the previous Republican administration. And it took Trump, the president elected with the open pledge to end all the stupid “endless wars” started and continued by his predecessors, more than two years to finally come to grips with the need to end this madness.


So, here is the balance sheet. It took more than 18 years to finally recognize a colossal foreign and security policy mistake. How could America be so wrong for such a long time without any serious debate on this record of failure followed by more failure? How could this happen?

I am not entirely sure. Still, as a minimum we need to recognize that there is a nefarious inertia, combined with mental laziness, enveloping the upper layers of the analytical and decision-making centers of this nation.

Alright, we can allow for mistakes. But bad policy judgment and errors could explain only the beginning of the problem. However, after a few years, how can we explain and justify that Washington, despite a solid record of failure in Afghanistan, kept going and going, year after year, without anybody in a position of power and responsibility pausing and asking the most elementary question: “Is this really working as intended?”

American policy-makers lost the ability to reflect

In Afghanistan, America started something big and expensive with all the wrong assumptions regarding the size and scope of the undertaking and without a realistic time frame to achieve the stated goals.

Here is my
conclusion. As a nation, notwithstanding hundreds of billions of dollars spent
every year on intelligence gathering, scenario planning, and war games, not to
mention the largest defense budget in the world, we seem to have lost even a
modicum of self-reflection ability.

An outside observer looking into this mess might find this record of systemic failure by the leaders of the most advanced country on Earth, and the attendant epic waste of resources stemming from totally misguided policies, quite funny.

But it is in fact tragic. In the end, finally getting out of an untenable situation in Afghanistan is a good thing. But I am not sure that America’s leaders learnt any enduring lessons.


North Korea Will Never Give Up Its Nuclear Weapons


WASHINGTON – The sudden White House announcement about a May Summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has taken Washington and the world by surprise. It is not clear what the American game plan is. Until not too long ago the U.S. policy regarding North Korea seemed to be sanctions, and more sanctions. No talks. In fact, Trump himself, a while ago publicly declared that negotiations would lead nowhere.

Trump “forced” Kim to negotiate? 

Now, the improvised White House narrative is that Mr. Trump’s tough actions –the new round of sanctions, plus threats to destroy North Korea– have “forced” Kim to ask for direct talks which could entail “denuclearization”. If you believe all this, then it follows that Trump managed to bend North Korea.

Do not count on denuclearization 

Still, beyond the surprise announcement of this May Summit, my assessment is that this opening, however startling and significant it may be, (it would be the very first such encounter between the leaders of these two nations, technically still at war with each other), it cannot possibly mean that the North Koreans are truly willing to negotiate the end of their nuclear program.

And for a very simple reason. North Korea is a semi-failed state in which most people are close to starvation. It has no real economy, and no prospect of creating a viable one under this medieval, cruel and bizarre dictatorship.

Korea has nuclear weapons –and nothing else 

The only real asset that North Korea has is its nuclear weapons, now combined with an increasingly more modern panoply of ballistic missiles which may be capable within a short period of time to enable the rogue state to deliver nuclear weapons as far as the East Coast of the United States. America must take notice of North Korea for this very reason. Because it represents a potentially serious national security threat.

Well, precisely for this very reason, nuclear weapons being all that North Korea has to be taken seriously by the rest of the world, I cannot see any scenario under which Kim will give this huge –in fact only– real asset away. He will not, even if promised in return American technologies, food aid, substantial financial aid and all sorts of political reassurances that the US will sign a peace treaty, that America will never attack them, and what not.

Simply stated, North Korea’s standing in the world, such as it is, is due only to its ability to threaten other countries with incredible destruction, including the United States. Without nuclear weapons, North Korea is like Sudan, or the Central African Republic: an inconsequential, impoverished state with no real future and no prospects.

What is the point of this May Summit? 

I have no idea as to what Kim may have in mind by offering these talks with President Trump. Of course, if we just focus on the optics, to be face to face with the leader of the U.S. will be a huge public relations coup for Kim. He will be able to say that finally he is a recognized as the supreme leader of a world power. However, when it comes to what a bilateral negotiation may bring, I am not too optimistic.

Kim will not give up his nuclear arsenal 

America (and the world) wants North Korea to ultimately give up its nuclear weapons, its missiles and all its nuclear facilities. But this is all they got. Even if promised a lot, the North Koreans will not give up their membership in the nuclear club.

Afghanistan Among The Most Corrupt Countries In The World

WASHINGTON – Remember Afghanistan? Yes, that sorry nation in Asia, sandwiched between Iran and Pakistan. Presidential candidate Barack Obama, back in 2008, described it as the country where America should have concentrated all its military efforts, instead of starting a new “bad war” in Iraq.

War of necessity? 

Well, now Afghanistan enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International. Billions of foreign aid money, (most of it from the US), combined with poorly targeted military and security assistance funds, (sometimes untraceable), certainly contributed to this.

After he got elected, Obama called Afghanistan a “war of necessity”, as opposed to a “war of choice” like Iraq. We “had” to fight there, because, according to him, that was a just cause. Al Qaeda had its bases there. That’s where they plotted the 9/11 attacks.

Anyway, fast forward to today and Afghanistan, “just war” or nor, is essentially a disaster area. Sure, the US and its tired NATO allies have cut back their military forces deployed there. But only after having created strong and self-sustaining institutions, we are told.

Leaving the country in good hands?

The idea is that the well-trained Afghan soldiers, (yes there is irony here), will soon be able to take care of Afghanistan’s security entirely on their own. Indeed, after billions and billions of dollars spent in Afghanistan, America can leave the country (although not entirely) with a high degree of confidence that there is a democratically elected government in Kabul that can rely on (US and NATO trained) loyal and efficient armed forces in its continuing fight against the ever resilient Taliban.

One of the most corrupt countries in the world  

Yes, if it only were so. Afghanistan is an unmitigated disaster. No real economy, except for opium production. The Afghan forces fight, sometimes well, sometimes not so well. But the Taliban threat has not receded. And, guess what, there are astronomic levels of corruption that, for sure, involve the NATO trained military and the police, among others.

At least some Afghans are aghast. According to Tolo, an Afghan news site,”A new annual study of Transparency International illustrates Afghanistan, Somalia and North Korea as the most corrupt countries among 176 in the world”. 

“Afghanistan is the second most corrupt country in the list of 176 countries ranked in the report” Tolo continues. “Meanwhile, Executive Director for Integrity Watch Afghanistan (IWA) Mohammad Ikram Afzali is concerned over the Afghan government’s anti-corruption campaign and recommended a number of changes to this drive”. 

“The fight against corruption should be the top priority of the National Unity Government [NUG]. There should be a political will for this purpose,” he said.

“The NUG has not implemented its promises it has made for overcoming the endemic corruption in the country,” said Nasir Temori, a researcher at the IWA.

The Chief Executive of the NUG, Abdullah Abdullah, in a session with UN and other humanitarian organizations said they are committed to fighting endemic corruption.

“There is no doubt in the NUG’s mind it is serious about the fight against corruption in public offices,” he said.

The NUG leaders in the first day in their office vowed to overcome corruption in government offices and bring transparency in government contracts and other processes that pave the way for this problem. [Bold added]

“Not only government but the people, the civil society and the private sector are responsible to join hands and fight corruption in the country,” said the president’s deputy spokesman Sayed Zafar Hashemi.”

It did not happen 

Well, whatever the National Unity Government pledged about fighting corruption, it simply did not happen. Trying to help, the US and other countries poured literally billions and billions of dollars into Afghanistan in an effort to modernize its institutions and its economy, and there are only negligible results. And this is in part because a massive amount of foreign aid money was stolen through corruption, embezzlement, and other illegal means.

Bad aid policies 

To make things worse, corruption aside, US official aid was often spent on stupid or insane projects. Recently the news came up of a compressed natural gas (CNG) refueling station, funded by the Pentagon, that ended up costing in excess of $ 40 million. Yes that $ 40 million for a refueling station, when comparable projects in neighboring Pakistan would cost no more than $ 500,000.

Did this 140 times cost overrun happen just because of an extravagant level of stupidity and incompetence? May be we shall never know. The US run Task Force in charge of this insanely wasteful project cannot provide proper documentation.

And this an American project. This was not run by the Afghans. While this example is truly egregious, if this level of mismanagement is even remotely indicative of how things were planned and organized under the “just war” umbrella, you can understand why Afghanistan is an utter US foreign and security policies failure.

Interestingly enough, nobody says anything about any of this in Washington. It is true that President Obama inherited the Afghan conflict from George W. Bush who started it in 2001. However, after almost 8 years in the White House, he owns it. And yet it seems that he is not held accountable.

A disaster  

Sadly, the Afghan “just war” turned into a chronically ill patient completely unable to get better and take care of himself. In the meantime, everybody, from the ruling elites to the policemen in the villages, is busy stealing and extorting.

Is there a “Plan B” for Afghanistan? I doubt it.



Obama’s “Power Africa” Initiative Never Took Off

WASHINGTON – Anybody who knows sub-Saharan Africa will tell you that the main obstacle to additional economic growth is lack of electricity. More than 600 million Africans are not connected to the grid. And the impact of this is devastating. Just look at any satellite picture of Africa at night. What you see is a huge dark continent. No lights means no electricity; and this means no economic activities, at night and during the day.

Little generation

A relatively small number of mostly urban African citizens (around 25 or 30%)  have electricity. But supply is unreliable. Most factories, workshops, hotels, hospitals and other businesses must have back up generators that kick in during the frequent power failures. Reliance on generators, while essential, is horribly expensive. Imagine any US small factory having to run diesel generators almost every day in order to keep its machines running and meet its production targets because the local utility would send power to customers only a few hours a day.

“Power Africa”?

Because of all this, when President Obama launched his $ 14 billion “Power Africa” initiative during a trip to South Africa, (Capetown, June 30, 2013), everybody paid attention. At the time it seemed that the US administration had finally decided to concentrate limited foreign assistance funds for Africa on one big ticket issue that, when properly addressed, would have enormous “force multiplier” effects.

It was also of great interest that the US government would work in close partnership with major US corporations. So, this was not just foreign aid. This was presented as an American public and private effort aimed at boosting Africa’s economic growth potential.

Electricity is of course essential. The difference between having it and not having it is huge. Access to reliable and affordable energy would allow immense economic progress for hundreds of millions in Africa, while improving everything: manufacturing, business, education, health care, financial services, you name it.

A bad plan

Upon review, however, Power Africa had enormous structural weakness. Its big budget would result from the consolidation of the grants, loans and investment activities of a variety of US federal agencies, while setting up –from scratch– cooperation mechanisms with major private sector companies (including General Electric and Symbion Power) that were expected to fork about $ 7 billion in new power generation investments.

And this is only half the story. The multiple US partners in this huge and untested arrangement would have had to interface with a variety of African stakeholders, (central and local governments, public utilities, private companies, chambers of commerce, financial institutions, and various NGOs), in several countries.

At some point, all this would have resulted in the creation and approval of an agenda, with feasibility studies, budgets, financial arrangements, and finally allocation of resources and construction of new power plants and distribution lines.

The complexity of all this is mind-boggling. The notion that US federal bureaucracies would be able to pull this off within a reasonable time frame was a dream.

A dream

And a dream it was. So far, two years later, not much has been done. Sure enough, there have been interventions here and there. Technical assistance has been provided for this or that project.

However, almost nothing when it comes to large “greenfield” projects. Critics argue that many of the projects that Power Africa would like to list as its own in fact were already in the making when this new initiative came about, therefore Power Africa cannot take any credit for them.


Are we talking about failure? May be not total failure. But, if there are any achievements, they are not even remotely on the scale of what was announced by President Obama back in June 2013.

Additional proof of this is that Power Africa is seldom mentioned. A recent story in The Economist (The leapfrog continent, June 6th, 2015), is entirely devoted to Africa’s electricity needs. The article describes in some detail Africa’s power generation projects, while analyzing large plans being worked on, from South Africa to Ethiopia, with a special focus on the role of renewable energy.


Well, guess what, The Obama administration Power Africa initiative and its projected $ 14 billion dollars of new investments in electrical power generation is not even mentioned in this long piece entirely devoted to Africa’s energy needs. Not even mentioned. Talk about irrelevance.

And this was supposed to be the new grand plan for Africa coming from America. Some plan.


Does Obama Mean Business Against ISIL?

WASHINGTON – A few days ago, after President Obama via a prime time TV address had announced America’s goal to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, I expressed the wish that the President’s political opponents would refrain from attacking the announced plan just for the fun of it.

No partisan attacks, please

I expressed the hope that those who have something to contribute should do so discreetly, and not in the form of very public, politicized partisan attacks.

I did write all that assuming that the President had a robust strategy, even though others might have different ideas about the best wat to conduct this fight.

Well, now I have to reconsider what I wrote. And this is because the President has failed to present a plan that has an even remote chance of producing the objective he stated –degrade and destroy ISIL– within a reasonable length of time.

Here is the plan

Simply stated, based on what has been announced, the President wants to destroy ISIL, a motivated, reasonably strong and well equipped enemy now controlling a territory the size of Indiana through a campaign that is not a war, and without the use of any US troops.

Success seems to hinge largely on the hope that Arab forces, after having received training by US military advisors, will be able to fight and ultimately defeat ISIL, while America will support them through its significant air power.

This strategy would make some sense if there were large numbers of Arab fighters, especially in Syria where ISIL has its strongest power base, and if US experts who are familiar with this type of training would be confident that a mix of well-trained Arab fighters and US air power will be enough to do the job.

Not enough Arab fighters

Well, the experts have little or no confidence that any of this could work. To start with, the number of Syrians eligible for training is very small. May be not even 5,000. Beyond that, according to most estimates, training this small number of moderate, (pro-Western, anti-Assad and anti-ISIL) Syrian fighters will take at least a year. Since they are the only ground troops we could rely on to fight ISIL in Syria, forget about that part of the operation, at least for the time being.

Enlisting Sunnis in Iraq

Fighting ISIL in Iraq looks more promising, but only a little bit. Indeed, we know that any success in driving ISIL out of Iraq is predicated on enlisting the support of Sunni tribal leaders who for the time being decided to team up with ISIL because they believe that being ruled by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad is a worse option.

Which is to say that, in order to gain real Sunni support for an anti-ISIL military effort, the Iraqi Sunni tribes need a credible reassurance that the Shia majority in power in Baghdad will really change its attitude towards Sunnis, not just as a tactical adjustment, but because they truly believe in the wisdom of an inclusive, democratic government. Well, considering that Iraq now has a new, supposedly more moderate, Shia Prime Minister, this may be possible. But achieving and sustaining this complicated political balance is going to be very difficult in a country now torn apart by sectarian fighting.

Who else is willing to help?

And who else is there to fight ISIL? Well, we do have the Kurds in the North East of Iraq. They mean business. But they are mostly interested in protecting their own Kurdish territories. And then? Anybody else? Well no. So far, that’s it. So far, no Arab state has committed itself to provide regular armed forces to fight against ISIL.

That’s it, no more help

Got that? No additional Arab ground troops against a vicious enemy that threatens the stability of their Region. And, remember, no US ground troops. Well, even though we recognize that the situation is fluid and that there may be a positive breakthrough, so far, not so good.

War with no soldiers

So, here is the picture. America declared that it will defeat a well entrenched, vicious enemy in a conflict that is not a war, with no American troops engaged, and preciously few others who will do the actual fighting, (after they have been trained, of course).

So, here is a novelty for you: “a conflict with no real army to fight in it”.

Obama wants to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL counting on a small number of yet to be trained Syrian fighters and on a mix of a mostly Shia Iraqi army coordinating with Sunni tribesmen whose committment to the fight is largely contingent on the expectation that the Shia government in Baghdad will treat all Iraqi Sunnis in  a fair manner.

This is the coalition

Even assuming American diplomatic brilliance in bringing all these parties to the table, while keeping them focused on the common anti-ISIL objective, let me say that this is really a tall order.

Putting together such a coalition will be extremely complicated. And do keep in mind that President Obama, given his past record of passivity and lack of interest in this festering Syria-Iraq crisis, cannot lead on the basis of his prestige as a determined and resolute US Commander in Chief.

The fact is that few Arabs really believe that Obama means to get fully engaged in order to win this conflict. And if America does not lead, no other country is willing to take the responsibility to do this.

Gap between goals and means to achieve them

Given all this, we see once again Obama’s tendency to declare sweeping objectives (remember “Assad has to go“?) with no intention to provide the means to achieve them within a reasonable length of time.

In truth, the plan announced by the President seems to be more in line with the more limited objective stated earlier on by Obama about “containing” ISIL, rather than a plan aimed at destroying it.

In fact, I am not even sure that these modest means will be enough to contain this terror group, let alone finish it off.


Clinton Is Reinventing Herself As A Hawk – Yet America Is Broke

WASHINGTON – Hillary Clinton is doing her best to distance herself from the hesitant and timid foreign policy pursued by President Barack Obama, her former employer.


In this world in which prominent people have almost unlimited licence to constantly reinvent themselves, we are supposed to believe that there is no contradiction between the old Clinton, for four years the loyal Secretary of State of Barack Obama, (and therefore the chief implementor of his foreign policy), and the new, “rebranded” Clinton now espousing views that directly or indirectly condemn Obama’s current foreign and security policies as weak and ineffective.

I guess all politicians, as much as other people, have the right to change views and opinions. The only question is: “At what point this latitude becomes pure opportunistic posturing, something that is guided only by the desire to get elected, as opposed to  honest expression of a new belief?”  You figure this out.

Tough Lady?

Be that as it may, the emerging picture is that the strongest, (so far), 2016 Democratic presidential contender is reintroducing herself to America as a “Tough Lady” who would deal with international crises and “Bad Guys” (watch out, Mr. Putin) in a more forceful manner. So, all of you independents and hawkish Democrats, rest assured. When Clinton is in charge, the music will change.

In the real world, words do not matter

This may be good politics. However, in the real world, most of this is just empty posturing. Whatever the ripple effects of this new muscular posture now embraced by would-be president Hillary Clinton, the sad truth is that whatever she says means very little, in the real world.

Simply put: America has no more money. As a result, there is no more latitude to do this or that in foreign affairs.

There is no money

Indeed, let’s look at America’s long-term ability to influence, (let alone shape) global developments, that is beyond short-term, tactical reactions to what Putin is doing in Ukraine, or what to do about ISIL in Iraq. The stark reality is that America is essentially broke and therefore unable to play a dominant role in world affairs as it used to.

As an old Florentine proverb says: “Senza lilleri e’ un si lallera”, which means, “If you have no money, you cannot do anything”.

Federal spending keeps growing

Sadly, this old home-spun wisdom now applies to America. Mind you, we are not literally broke, but we are getting there. This is no secret. While the Federal Budget deficit is getting a bit smaller, we still run huge deficits, year after year. And this means a growing, now colossal, national debt, (now close to 17 trillion dollars).  And there is no respite, no “bending of the curve” , ahead.

In fact, the opposite. The fiscal picture is bound to get worse. Indeed, anybody who is willing to look at the well established trajectory of US federal spending knows where we are headed.

Simply stated, unless Washington will engage in serious reforms,  federal entitlement spending (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid), now in excess of 60% of all spending, will keep growing, this way crowding out almost everything else. And that inevitably includes defense spending, (currently about 20% of federal spending).

We are already cutting defense

By the way, if you missed it, we are already cutting defense spending –quite significantly, with more to come. Sure enough, America stills spends by far more than most other rich countries. But the fact that the US can be more credible militarily than an essentially disarmed Europe does not mean a lot.

We are quickly losing the capability to quickly dispatch fully equipped expeditionary forces around the world, while keeping them supplied for long periods of time. Whatever you may think about the wisdom of major wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we have lost the ability to do this again. Likewise, the US Navy has fewer and fewer vessels, and this means shrinking force projection capabilities.

Without getting into the details, it is obvious that when you have less you can do much less.

Rhetoric meets reality

And here is where muscular rhetoric and fiscal reality meet. And, guess what, fiscal reality eventually wins. It always does.

Whatever we may want to opine about Clinton v. Obama and Democrats v. Republicans, a heavily indebted America, trying its best to keep paying Social Security checks while the national debt keeps growing, must lower its global ambitions.

No help from Europe

And forget about better synergies through closer cooperation with our traditional NATO Allies. For a variety of reasons, (mainly   political decisions made long ago to spend even more money than we do on social programs), equally if not more indebted Europeans stopped spending on defense years ago. While we allocate about 4% of GDP to defense, they spend on average 2%, with many countries down to 1%. This is laughable.

As Europe’s economies are weaker than ours, forget about any changes in this dismal picture. If you add virtually no defense spending to a dominant pacifist sentiment, Europe is a non entity when it comes to staging sustained military operations.

Can we change all this?

So, we are on our own. And we have no money. Sure enough, all this can change. But it would take a brand new political consensus and an engaged national leadership to have a real, as opposed to cosmetic, federal spending reform coupled with tax reform.

Of course, America can be re-energized and its economy can move once again into high gear. But all this would require many changes in Washington. No chance of any of this happening during the Obama presidency.

Can Clinton lead America to greatness?

Could (reinvented) President Hillary Clinton manage all this? Could she lead on serious entitlement and tax reform, provide more funds for defense and then re-establish America’s credibility in world affairs? This is an extremely tall order.

She is certainly smart enough to understand what needs to be done. Should she (or a potential Republican President) fail, then we are back to square one. An impoverished ex-super power has to lower its ambitions.

If you have any doubt, scroll back and re-read from the top: “Senza lilleri e’ un si lallera”. “If you have no money, you cannot do anything”. 

Power Africa? Great Idea, Poor Execution

WASHINGTON – The same Obama administration that produced the messy Affordable Care Act, (Obamacare), and the totally mismanaged Department of Veterans Affairs declared in 2013 that it would try to do something even more complicated in Africa.

Power generation is a great force multiplier

At the beginning it seemed like a good idea. Instead of spreading US development assistance to Africa among too many small impact programs, let’s concentrate our focus on one big initiative that can work as a real “force multiplier”. Indeed, let’s concentrate on electric power generation and distribution, Africa’s true Achilles heel.

Not enough electricity

Great idea. Yes, we know that Sub Saharan Africa is finally on the move. There are impressive rates of growth (up to 7%) in many countries. Still, there is only so much you can do without adequate electric power and related distribution systems. How bad is it? Bad enough: 80% of rural Africa has no electricity!

And so the Obama administration in 2013 launched “Power Africa”, a mega power generation investment plan that would lead to  dramatic improvements in a few targeted African countries. In principle, this is a great idea. And I could not think of a better sector to focus on. Electricity is indispensable.

Bad design

The problem here is poor program design. For Power Africa to work as planned, the Obama administration assumed effective, close coordination among several US Government agencies, including USAID, (foreign aid), The Overseas Private Investment Corporation , (assistance to the private sector investing abroad), The Millennium Challenge Corporation, (another form of foreign assistance) and the US Trade and Development Agency, (another channel for development assistance).

All these Washington-based government agencies would work with the US private sector and pertinent African institutions, (heads of government, line ministries, local jurisdictions, utilities, local companies and more), in order to facilitate and expedite major US investments in power generation in selected countries.


Well, good luck with that. I do not know who had the idea to design a multi-billion, multi-year project, in such a fashion. This is a recipe for failure.

Simply stated: far too many cooks in this kitchen. Who is in charge? Are there real milestones? How do you coordinate any project with so many different actors with different agendas?

I know from direct experience that obtaining any type of real coordination among so many different institutions involving governments, local jurisdictions, donors and the private sector is very difficult even on relatively small, manageable development projects.

Not much will be accomplished

With a program this size it is virtually impossible. And, in fact, it turned out to be impossible. One year after the launching of Power Africa there is very little action on the ground. And I do not expect much more to follow. Sure, in the end “something” will be done. But nothing comparable with the ambitious goals originally envisaged.

We do not hear much about this

The difference between the Power Africa dud and Obamacare is that Obamacare inconvenienced directly millions of American voters. And so we hear a lot about implementation malfunctions and related complaints.

Power Africa is yet another development idea for Africa that is not working as planned. But the Africans do not vote in US elections, and so we do not hear much about this failure.

The Iraq Crisis Proves That America Needs Better Intelligence and A Truly Bipartisan Foreign Policy

WASHINGTON – Beyond the severity of the crisis, there are at least two things emerging out of the Iraq debacle that worry me.

Caught by surprise

The first one is that America’s leadership did not see any of this coming. Mind you, this is Iraq, a country where we had a major military campaign that lasted for several years. A country where we invested blood and treasure for almost a decade.  A country where, despite the unfortunately cool relations with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, America still has an enormous US Embassy, and countless other assets on the ground.

And yet we are left with the distinct impression that our key policy makers were not aware of ISIS’ –a Sunni radical Islamist organization once affiliated with al Qaeda– real strength and of the inability/unwillingness of Iraqi soldiers to fight them.

A vast intelligence apparatus did not see any of this coming?

We know that America has a massive and super-expensive intelligence system. Yes, we do have the National Security Agency, (this is the NSA made famous by Edward Snowden’s revelations), that allegedly listens to every phone conversation, while it reads every mail of any potential bad guy, (and may be yours too).

We have spy satellites whose ultra potent, high-resolution cameras can read the newspaper you are holding while sitting at a cafe in Paris or Damascus. And yet, apparently we could not see –let alone prevent– the successful march of ISIS into Northern Iraq.

This is astonishing. What do all the Arab speaking experts and analysts at the NSA, CIA, DIA and countless other US intelligence agencies do all day?

Foreign policy is all about scoring points in domestic politics

The second worrisome observation is about how US foreign policy is now totally politicized. Which is to say that the foreign policy positions of the current administration are used by the other side to discredit the President’s party politically, every time the opportunity presents itself.

This may be clever politics. But it has disastrous effects on our democracy. America should have a bipartisan foreign policy sustained by basic assumptions and principles that both parties openly support, without fears of any political backlash.

The national interest

I believe it was former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who said many years ago that the national interest of the United States of America does not change every four years, with a new electoral cycle, the inauguration of a new President and a new national security team put in place.

Indeed, during the Cold War, politics did stop “at the water’s edge”. There was a basic consensus shared by both Republicans and Democrats that the US was engaged in an all out effort to contain the Soviet Union. That included supporting multilateral security arrangements, such as NATO, and a lot more.

Of course, this consensus was not perfect. It fell apart with the open opposition to the War in Vietnam. There were also misgivings about “Detente”, as pursued by the Nixon-Kissinger duo. But overall there was basic understanding about who the bad guys were (the Soviets) and that we –as a nation– should be on the look out for any mischief they might have been concocting.

Foreign policy is about scoring points at home

Now we are in a different era. George W. Bush was called “delusional” and a lot worse by commentators on account of the War in Iraq. Senator Harry Reid, Democrat and Majority Leader, openly declared at some point that “the war in Iraq is lost”, a totally irresponsible statement, as tens of thousands of American soldierswhere still fighting there.

Partisan attacks

And now that Obama is in charge, the sniping continues. Here we are, confronted with a major international crisis enveloping Iraq, a country where we invested so much, a country with some of the largest oil reserves in the world, a country bordering Iran and Syria, and what we see is mostly name calling, or predigested policy positions based only on ideological bias.

John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, rather unkindly said that as the Middle East is on fire, President Obama was taking a nap. Senator John McCain, (Obama’s Republican opponent in 2008), speaking on the floor of the US Senate, called for the wholesale firing of the entire Obama National Security Team, (including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the National Security Advisor, among others), as all these people have proven to be incompetent.

Does America have anything at stake in Iraq?

Last but not least, an otherwise intelligent political commentator said that she was against the war in Iraq from the beginning. And now that the US is no longer there with a military presence, it is no surprise to her that the country is falling apart. And there is nothing we can do about this –she added– because all polls indicate that most Americans are against sending more troops there. Really? Just like that? Foreign policy directed by opinion polls?

And what about a definition of the US national interest in Iraq? Are we agreed, as a nation, that whatever happens to Iraq, including the establishment of an Islamist, radical Sunni quasi-state on part of its territory is of no consequence to us? Are we really that stupid?

Obama now prisoner of his own politics

And President Obama is also caught in this web. “Getting out of Iraq” was sold to America as a political triumph back in 2011. Something like: “Irresponsible George W. Bush started wars. I end them. Our boys are coming home”. As the end of the US engagment in Iraq was officially a “success”, not much was said about the progressive deterioration of Iraq’s security, with terror attacks becoming more and more numerous and deadly in recent months.

Indeed, any notion of re-engaging in Iraq was out of the question, as it might have been viewed as a major admission of failed policies by this “peace President”. And, even now, with Iraq literally falling apart, the President hesitates. And the reasons have to do mostly with domestic politics.

Indeed, any US re-engagement would allow more Obama critics to come forward and argue that the decision to stop negotiating with the al-Maliki government back in 2011 was hasty and wrong. Because of that unwise choice, we left Iraq in a hurry and now….well, now look what happened.

Wanted: a new bipartisan consensus

There has to be a good middle ground between unwise interventionism and equally bad wholesale retreat. As I said, no sane person can argue that America has no vital interests in the Middle East, and in Iraq in particular. The problem is that nobody seems capable of articulating what they are and how we, as a nation, can go about protecting them.

As America Was Distracted, Iraq Descended Into Chaos

WASHINGTON – With the benefit of hindsight we are all geniuses. Still, it would not have been too difficult to imagine the present scenario in which militant forces belonging to ISIS, an al Qaeda offshoot fighting in the Syrian civil war, have now taken over the Northern part of Iraq. 

Festering conflict

By allowing the Syrian conflict to fester, Washington created the opportunity for a spill over into Iraq. And this is exactly what happened.

The Obama “hands off” approach regarding Syria’s civil war is in large part responsible for this “domino effect”. Of course, it was and still easy to say that it is prudent for America to stay out of the Syrian mess that started in 2011, simply “because there are no good options over there”. Sure enough, Assad is the bad guy; but so are the jihadists and other assorted religious militants who have flocked into Syria with the intent of replacing Assad’s dictatorship with their own Islamic kind.

Better do nothing

As for the pro-Western insurgents, not enough of them, claims the Obama administration. Besides, they are deeply divided and they do not like us Americans that much, anyway. Therefore we would have taken a big chance by helping them. The risk was and is that weapons supplied to them may end up in the hands of the jihadists. So, better to stay out of this conflict and do nothing. Besides, Obama argued that he had been elected and re-elected with the promise of ending wars. Therefore, starting yet another conflict in the Middle East would have been politically inappropriate.

ISIS expanded its reach

Indeed. Great strategy for winning elections. Except that the Syrian conflict, as we were not paying much attention, has become a powerful magnet for all sorts of foreign fighters. And Iraq, until recently just a transit point for militants headed to Syria, has now become part of the conflict. ISIS got a firm foothold in Northern Iraq and it can now claim that it controls territories and cities in Eastern Syria and Northern Iraq.

Now, this is serious business. Whatever your opinion about the costly Iraq War launched by then President George W. Bush in March 2003, I think we would all agree that it was and still is in America’s interest that the country left behind after all US troops left at the end of 2011 should be stable and at peace.

But now Iraq is a huge mess. This can have vast repercussions. Iran may get involved. Other Sunni Arab states may also get involved in order to reassert control and prevent Iran from expanding its sphere of influence.

What will Washington do?

And what is America prepared to do? As of today, not much; except from expediting delivery of assorted hardware to the Iraqi military.

But any observer can see that this is no solution to the crisis at hand. Iraq’s main problem is not lack of assets. Iraq’s problem is a poorly trained and poorly motivated military. The most discomforting reports describe Iraqi soldiers who simply threw their uniforms away, put on civilian clothes and fled, as the jihadists were approaching Mosul.

US-trained Iraqi forces

And here we go back to the way in which the Obama administration ended the US military presence in Iraq in 2011.

We know that there were thorny political issues. Washington and Baghdad could not agree on a new Status of Forces Agreement, (SOFA). America wanted US forces in Iraq to be under US jurisdiction. Iraq resisted this. There being no compromise, Obama decided to have no deal and to withdraw all US forces.

In so doing, the administration took a big chance. But it declared to everybody that it had full confidence in the vastly expanded and –mind you– US-trained  Iraqi armed forces and police.

Indeed. Now we see how good the training really was. These Iraqi troops were not defeated in combat. Challenged by a brutal enemy, they abandoned their posts, discarded their uniforms and fled.

Caught off guard

Sadly, the worst part of the story is that the US did not see any of this coming. (“Iraqi Drama Catches US Off Guard”, says a WSJ June 12 headline). Indeed while Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was spending hours on Capitol Hill on June 11, defending a questionable deal involving the swap of 5 Taliban leaders for 1 US soldier, Iraq was exploding.

New National Security Team?

Senator John McCain summed up this strategic debacle by calling for a brand new National Security team made out of serious professionals who know what they are doing. The current team is composed of people who look more at focus groups and polls than at America’s national security interests. They are not up to the task.

America needs a plan to save Iraq. And we need it now.


Putin’s “Isolation” Ended – President Poroshenko Should Realize That Eastern Ukraine Is Lost

WASHINGTON – National Security Advisor Susan Rice said a few days ago in a TV interview that the goal of Western sanctions against Russia is to force Putin to stop his meddling in Eastern Ukraine and to give Crimea back to Ukraine.

Punishing Russia?

She added that Russia is isolated because Europe and the US stand together in condemning Moscow’s aggression.

Isolated. Indeed. As a result of these truly “heavy sanctions” , (yes, I say this in jest), signalling Europe’s displeasure, CEOs of major European companies (Siemens, for instance) felt an obligation to go and visit Putin.

Business as usual with Putin

And Putin, while excluded from the traditional annual G 8 summit, was still invited to France to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Normandy Landing. And he was also invited to have dinner with French President Francois Hollande. Such is the heavy punishment for aggression against weaker countries!

Europe is trying to help

Of course, one might argue that all this is for a good cause. You see, thanks to Europe’s good will, Putin had a chance to meet with Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s new President, in the context of the gathering of world leaders to celebrate D-Day’s 70th Anniversary. And, hey, it looks as if Putin was nice enough to talk to Poroshenko. And —can you believe this— the Russian President is embracing a softer approach on relations with Ukraine. Isn’t this great?

Ukraine is all alone

No, it is not great at all. Poroshenko should understand that Putin won while he and the West lost. In fact the West did not lose. It did not even engage.

The West, while willing to support sorry-looking Ukraine economically, will do nothing serious to stop Russia’s support for the insurrection in Eastern Ukraine, let alone force Putin to give Crimea back. (Susan Rice may say it and repeat it. But, in so doing, she will only look silly).

Eastern Ukraine is lost

I said it before: Eastern Ukraine is a festering wound that cannot be healed. It would be wise for Poroshenko to proceed with a painful but in the long run healing amputation. There is no way that Russia will stop supporting the separatists in the East. And these separatists, emboldened by Putin’s help and aware of Western passivity, have no incentive to stop demanding independence.

Realistically, unless it wants to create something like Syria’s hell with thousands of civilian casualties and tens of thousands of refugees, plus the guarantee of Russia’s direct intervention, the Kiev government should know by now that it has no chance to prevail militarily.

And Putin of course has even more leverage. In order to survive, Ukraine needs Russian gas. It has no other option.

Accept territorial losses and focus on the economy

Aware of all this, Poroshenko should be realistic. By now he should have understood that he will get no real help from the West where it would really matter: reconstituting Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

Therefore he should come to terms with the simple fact that the East is lost, just as Crimea is lost. Accept the loss and focus on fixing the rest of the county.

If Poroshenko really believes that the mild sanction imposed by the West will force Putin to “be nice” and give back what he has taken without suffering any real consequences, then he is a fool.

Europe and America have accepted the results of Russian aggression

As for America and Europe, it is clear that implicitly they treat Putin’s misbehavior as a case of “bad manners” on an almost “domestic” issue that does not affect them that much.

In fact, they privately recognize that Russia had a case regarding the “unjust” way the borders were drawn after the collapse of the old Soviet Union. They only object to the inelegant way Putin went about reclaiming land, (that they privately agree really belongs to Russia).

However, as long as Putin’s appetites go only as far as claiming a few pieces of old Russia, beyond symbolic gestures aimed at affirming displeasure with “bad manners”, nobody is going to care, let alone act.

End of America’s leadership

So much for a new world order in which the unilateral use of force to settle disputes would not be allowed. So much for America as the guardian of this new world order.

And so much for Pax Americana, in this age of penury, crushing debt, myopic leadership and retreat.