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Afghanistan’s Vicious Patronage Network

Just about any American who’s spent much time in Afghanistan will tell you that the biggest challenge we faced there wasn’t the insurgency, but the culture, specifically the “old boy” patronage networks and expectations of bribery that have wasted untold millions of American taxpayers’ money. This will take a very long time to change. And as we leave Afghanistan—the turnover of security responsibilities to the Afghan National Army and Police passed almost unheralded last week—we leave behind a generation of young Afghans who have the education to serve their country, but not the opportunities they deserve. I’m referring to the many recent college graduates who are unemployed or under-employed.

When I was visiting Afghanistan often, I used to get a lot of e-mails like the ones below:

June 24 2013

Dear Ann Marlowe

Hi, I hope you are fine and be successful in your business.

Libya and Washington’s Iraq Syndrome

Like any American who was in Iraq in 2003, I was anxious about Libya’s future when Parliament passed a law barring former Qaddafi officials from office for ten years. This law, called the “purge” or “isolation” law, seemed a recipe for division and disaster, much as the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and purges of Baath party officials had been in the early days of our invasion of Iraq. I wondered if indignant officials might resist violently, or sabotage their offices. The fact that the law was passed while militias surrounded Parliament didn’t inspire confidence, either.

I was surprised that my Libyan friends all supported the law, even friends who are resolute pessimists about Libya and life in general. One young woman told me that even though her father, a former Libyan ambassador, would be hurt by the law, he and the rest of the family were in favor. “It’s necessary for the good of the country.” I was reminded of something the Benghazi activist Iman Bughaighis told me back in April 2011, that the real struggle for Libyans would be not getting rid of Qaddafi, but getting rid of the little Qaddafi inside of every Libyan.

Legacy of Qaddafi's 'Organized Chaos' Keeps Libya Back

This past two weeks, North Africa has been in an uproar. In Egypt, two million citizens demand that their democratically elected government step down. In Libya, Parliament passes a law prohibiting officials who served under Qaddafi from holding senior offices. If the law passes legal challenges, it will mean that the president, prime minister, much of Parliament, and most of the diplomatic corps, judges, and prosecutors will have to go.

Many in the West are quick to leap upon turmoil in Egypt and Libya as proof that Arabs, or Muslims, or North Africans aren’t ready for democracy. (Never mind that democracy began much closer to Tripoli than to London, and that Libyans probably have nearly as much genetic relationship with the ancient Greeks as today’s Greeks do.)

The Iraq Invasion's Anniversary

I remember the start of the invasion of Iraq well. As it happened I was at a long-scheduled celebratory dinner at Le Cirque, though it didn’t feel that celebratory because the restaurant was nearly deserted. Everyone was home glued to their TVs. Everyone was worried, as I was, that there might be a chemical weapons attack on our troops or some undreamt-of atrocity committed by Saddam. This wasn’t a right-wing plot; it was something that seriously worried journalists who had scored embeds with the invading forces. Jokes about the chemical-protection suits they’d been issued scarcely concealed their fear.

Like so many people I knew, I supported the war, not so much to disarm Saddam Hussein or to stop him from developing WMD, but to free his long-suffering people and promote democracy in the Middle East. We imagined something like the Arab Spring, as it turned out, but we thought we could bestow it on the Iraqis as—in Fouad Ajami’s apt phrase—“the foreigners’ gift.”

Winning Hearts and Minds

As I watched the new Chilean film “No,” I kept thinking about how its lessons seem obvious in retrospect, but how illusive common sense often seems in the present. The insight seized upon by director Pablo Larraín is that people are more likely to exert the minimal effort necessary to vote when they have an attractive ideal in mind rather than when they are merely protesting an evil. Of course, this has something to do with voter behavior and the outcome of the last American presidential election. But it also bears a great deal on American foreign policy.

Too often, American pundits and policymakers have expected that a foreign populace will rebel against a regime we cannot but see as evil—the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, Iran’s mullahs, or Bashar Assad. And some people do choose to resist, to fight the Taliban or Saddam or the mullocracy, or, now, to sacrifice their lives to oust Assad. But others do not, which often makes any US military effort far bloodier and more costly than it otherwise would be.

The movie “No” suggests a better way.

The Correlation the US Military Won’t Trumpet

Yes, it’s that time of year again—time for the annual UN report on Afghan civilian casualties. Since the compilations were first released in 2007, they’ve been the occasion for ridiculous mea culpas from peaceniks horrified that any civilians actually get killed by accident in a war, for jeremiads from hard lefties charging that our troops go around whacking Afghans civilians willy nilly, and for ridiculous bombast from conservatives arguing that if we just increased the number of troops in Afghanistan we would be better able to “protect” civilians.

Women in Combat

I’ve done eight embeds with the American Army in Afghanistan, and met women soldiers of every rank and capability. But it’s my experience as a journalist trailing Libyan freedom fighters in 2011 that makes me applaud Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s decision to allow American women to apply for combat military occupational specialties.

While the United States is a hundred years ahead of Libya in gender equality, the fading rhetoric of protectionism that was a good part of the combat ban in the US for decades is alive and well in Libya.

The North Africa Blame Game

There’s a dangerous blame game being played now among the pundits, laying the responsibility for the conflict in northern Mali and the recent terror attack on the In Amenas gas field in Algeria on the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. In the words of this recent New York Times story, “Qaddafi had mostly kept in check his country’s various ethnic and tribal factions … He acted as a lid … Once that lid was removed, … there was greater freedom for various groups—whether rebels, jihadists, or criminals—to join up and make common cause.”

Debating Assault Rifles—in Libya

As the US debates the wisdom of various types of gun sales control and bans on assault rifles or high capacity magazines, it’s worth thinking about the impact of assault rifles on a very different society—Libya’s.

“How are they going to get all these weapons off the street?” was the first political comment that I heard from the first Libyan I ever met, Mohamed Hilal El Senussi, on our first day in Benghazi, April 8, 2011. We’d agreed that he would take me into eastern Libya with him and I would write about our trip and his reactions; El Senussi is a great-nephew of Libya’s deposed King Idris, and until 2011 he hadn’t been in Libya since his family were overthrown in the late 1960s. While he was an unequivocal supporter of the revolution, he was also deeply troubled by the omnipresent assault rifles.

Mohamed proved to be right. To this day, the number one problem in Libya is the uncontrollable, heavily armed militias that have failed to cohere into a national army or police force.

US Withdrawal from Afghanistan Is the Right Choice

As President Obama and Afghan President Karzai moved closer to agreeing on a faster American troop withdrawal in Afghanistan last Friday, it’s looking more likely that the outcome after 2014 will be what’s now called the “zero option.” This would mean no American troop presence in Afghanistan after the end of 2014’s scheduled drawdown. And if the US and Afghanistan can’t agree on immunity from prosecution for American troops after 2014, the zero option appears to be a certainty.

To my way of thinking, conservatives ought to be supporting the zero option for any number of good reasons. First of all, conserving American lives and money. We’ve seen that the correlation between American troops in Afghanistan and violence in Afghanistan seems to be the opposite of what the generals have told us—i.e., that more troops means more violence. On the contrary, Afghanistan was far safer in 2003 and 2004 than it is today. So there’s a compelling argument that zero American troops would be likely to lead to zero violence.

Rethinking Failed States

“Happy New Year from Mexico, speaking of failed states.” So I wrote to a friend at the State Department regarding an upcoming conference in Libya.  I had been teased by several people already for vacationing in Mexico, supposedly the world’s most dangerous country by some amorphous criteria, as a “break” from covering Libya and, before that, Afghanistan. But my friend, who of course must remain anonymous, wrote back, “Happy New Year from Washington, DC, that semi-failed state.” 

Banks, Dictators, and Their Dirty Money

This week’s big financial news story was that HSBC agreed to pay a $1.92 billion fine for allowing drug dealers and others, including Libyan banks, to use the bank to launder money. On Monday, another UK bank, Standard Chartered, agreed to pay $327 million to settle sanctions-violations charges—after paying $340 million for similar crimes in August.

Another story this week—a version of which has been in the papers every few days since September 11, 2012—noted that Libya’s fragile new government isn’t moving against the powerful Islamic extremist militia implicated in the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stephens and three other Americans on September 11th of this year.

Unconnected stories, right? No.

Petraeus Scandal and Honor Codes

The fall of General Petraeus, like that of his onetime protégé Stanley McChrystal, is an example of how the behavior of people in leadership positions hasn’t changed in thousands of years—but the penalty for it has. In a word, people are led by their emotions and make stupid mistakes, and now it’s easier to catch them. We have become better at catching evidence of stupidity—but we haven’t become less stupid. 

This lag is responsible for what seems like the increasing volume of scandals reported by the media. Even as we were digesting the Petraeus details, it came out that a four-star Army general, William Ward, has been demoted for lavish spending. Yesterday, it came out that the current US commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, is now being investigated for sending a large number of e-mails to Jill Kelley, the woman whose reporting of threatening e-mails from Paula Broadwell to the FBI set in motion the investigation of Broadwell.

A Foreign Policy Debate Fumble

The fascinating thing about last night’s debate is how different President Obama’s responses seem when read in transcript as opposed to watched on television. Obama has mastered the art of looking as if he’s tough on terrorists and for a robust America, but his words say otherwise. He got away with evasive and downright false statements—while Governor Romney spent too much time making sure that he wasn’t seen as an advocate of costly American interventions in the Muslim world. Compared to the higher quality of debate on economic topics in recent weeks, the candidates’ discussion of Libya and Syria was a disappointment.

It’s Time for Republicans to Get Real about Afghanistan

Last week's vice-presidential debate left me admiring Paul Ryan on many counts, but his understanding of the Afghan war wasn’t one of them. He seemed a bit confused explaining what the Afghan “fighting season” was and how the drawdown of troops had been timed to account for the fact that the winter is a slow time for the insurgents. OK, he’s a congressman used to dealing with domestic economic issues, and he’s not running for the Commander in Chief post. But from a larger perspective, Ryan shares a lamentable Republican unwillingness to admit that the game is up in Afghanistan.

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