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from The Great Debate:

Obama’s first foreign policy blunder

This is an excerpt from The Emergency State: America's Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs, published recently by Penguin Press.

The defining mistake of Obama’s first-term foreign policy was his decision to escalate American military operations in Afghanistan. There were 35,000 American troops in Afghanistan when Obama was inaugurated. By the summer of 2011 there were roughly 100,000. The main national security rationale for their presence was to prevent the Taliban from regaining sufficient strength to invite Al Qaeda back to the Afghan training camps and sanctuaries they had operated from before 9/11. But since early 2002, seven years before Obama became president, Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden himself -- until he was tracked down and killed by U.S. commandos in May 2011 -- had been based in Pakistan, under the protection of a Pakistani army that continues to receive billions of dollars in American military aid.

Long before his presidential bid, Obama had called for an increased American military effort in Afghanistan. He repeated that position frequently during the 2008 campaign. Obama’s strong opposition to the Iraq War led many supporters to imagine that he rejected the idea of defending America against terrorism by waging conventional military conflicts in distant Islamic lands. Some of the more philosophical passages in Obama’s autobiographical books, writings, and speeches elaborating on his opposition to the Iraq War fed that misimpression.

In a widely noted November 2006 speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, he emphasized his belief that the war had been not just a “failure of implementation” but “also a failure of conception,” going on to argue that “the rationale behind the war,” including an excessive faith that “we can impose democracy on a country through military force,” was “misguided.”

from Stories I’d like to see:

Examining the insanity defense, MSNBC’s weekend sleaze, and suing OPEC

1. The Afghan massacre and the insanity defense:

Beginning late last week we began to see the outlines of a possible defense for Robert Bales, the army sergeant who allegedly massacred 16 Afghan civilians earlier this month: insanity or diminished capacity. “When it all comes out, it will be a combination of stress, alcohol and domestic issues -- he just snapped,” a “senior American official” told the New York Times. So, it’s time for a general review of the tough-to-pull-off insanity or diminished capacity defenses, along with a focus on the even higher hurdles involved in using either in a court-martial. (An insanity defense is a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity; diminished capacity means the defendant does not contest guilt but seeks to be convicted of a lesser offense or get a more lenient sentence.) That story should also tell us how much Bales’s defense lawyer might be able to turn the case into a trial over increasingly controversial Pentagon policies related to multiple redeployments, the treatment of traumatic head injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. Good sidebars would tell us whether Afghanistan, whose Parliament is still demanding that Bales be tried in Afghan courts, even allows an insanity defense, and how open the trial is likely to be, including to cameras.

Years ago, I wrote a piece for Psychology Today about the insanity defense that was keyed to the case of John Hinckley, whose lawyers used it successfully after he tried to kill President Reagan. It presents a fascinating legal dilemma, which in its oversimplified version is: The more outrageous your crime, the better your argument that you had to be insane to do it, but the more likely it is that jurors will be so angry that they’ll want to hang you for it anyway.

from David Rohde:

The way out of the Afghan abyss

To a growing number of Americans, Afghanistan is a festering pit where the United States has no vital interests. To a growing number of Afghans, the United States is a self-absorbed and feckless power that is playing games in their country.

Both caricatures are wrong. Yes, American troops should gradually withdraw from Afghanistan. And yes, the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai remains corrupt and largely ineffective. But what is needed is a decisive agreement between the Afghan and American governments on the way forward, not sniping at each other in public and pandering to domestic political audiences.

from Expert Zone:

Afghanistan: Negotiating while withdrawing is poor strategy

(The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not represent those of Reuters)

In the wake of a U.S. Army staff sergeant’s murdering 16 Afghan civilians (mostly women and children), U.S. officials are contemplating the pace and scope of the U.S. troop drawdown from the country. At the same time, they are seeking a negotiated settlement with the Taliban leadership. U.S. and NATO Commander in Afghanistan General John Allen said yesterday that he did not foresee an accelerated drawdown of U.S. troops because of the shooting incident, but it is almost inevitable that this terrible tragedy will lead Americans to question the viability of the U.S. mission there.

from Stories I’d like to see:

Afghan justice, Putin’s palace, and the Edwards trial

1. International, Afghan and American law surrounding the accused soldier-murderer:

With the Afghan Parliament demanding yesterday that the American soldier accused of killing 16 civilians there be put on trial locally rather than be tried by American military courts, I’m betting that the office of State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh and others in Washington are working overtime to frame a response. How will they decide whether our army turns him over? What could their arguments be against that? What are prevailing international law and military law precedents, and how much will they matter? What are the likely ramifications for the presidential election? What position will the Republican candidates take? All parts of an important, urgent story likely to play out this week.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Culture wars: The burning of the Koran

U.S. President Barack Obama has apologised for the inadvertent burning of copies of the Koran at a military base in Afghanistan and the top general in the country has ordered all coalition troops to undergo training in the proper handling of religious materials by March 3.

Quite apart from the question of how can you "inadvertently" burn books, the bigger issue is can soldiers be so blindly ignorant of the consequences of their action ? Is it because these were soldiers in the rear, insulated  in a huge base that  sometimes feels like a little America with its gymns, snack joints and the easy conviviality between men and women, a setting far removed from the hard-scrabble country outside ?

from Tales from the Trail:

Washington Extra – Peace by piece

Not since Vietnam has the United States sat down with an enemy it was fighting on the battlefield and negotiated an exit from war. That long-standing policy might end this year if a carefully choreographed diplomatic dance takes U.S. and Afghan officials to a negotiating table with the Taliban.

As Reuters Washington correspondent Missy Ryan explains, President Obama's peace gambit has the potential to be a significant development for U.S. foreign policy. But it turns out it is a policy borne out of necessity: two years ago, the Pentagon thought the Taliban could be defeated militarily, and today, it's all too clear they aren't going away.

from Tales from the Trail:

Washington Extra – Combat ready?

The Obama administration is known to be methodical when it comes to its messaging. But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's declaration that the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan might end next year seems to have caught people here and overseas by surprise.

Today, everyone from Panetta to White House spokesman Jay Carney to NATO allies tried to tamp down notions that a major policy shift was underway. But many were still scratching their head about whether there is now a new U.S. timetable for winding down a war that is over a decade old.

from Expert Zone:

Gains seen for Taliban as post-ISAF era looms in Afghanistan

(The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not represent those of Reuters)

A fear embedded deep in the Pakistani security establishment’s psyche has always been that of a successful conventional military thrust by India from across its eastern borders. This is aggravated by their assessment that Pakistan lacks the geographical depth to absorb the onslaught; its logistics dumps being especially vulnerable on account of the inability to place them at an adequate depth. The answer, often articulated, is of a pliant regime in its western neighbour Afghanistan providing the strategic geographical depth that Pakistan needs.

from Photographers' Blog:

Afghanistan’s symphony

By Omar Sobhani

Usually when I go to shoot for a story, we are faced with a bomb blast, a suicide attack, or some other type of violence here in Afghanistan. That's why I was pleasantly surprised when I visited Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music. Even though I have lived in Kabul for many years, I had no clue this academy even existed -- it is the only of its kind in the whole country.

Foreigners and Afghans teach young Afghans how to play all sorts of instruments, as well as to sing. What struck me most is the opportunity given to women. There are not many opportunities for women in Afghanistan to play or sing music -- during the Taliban era (from 1996-2001) music was outright banned and women were basically taken away from public life.

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