Opinion

David Rohde

Dooming the Syria talks before they begin

David Rohde
Jan 22, 2014 20:55 UTC

The United States won a short-term diplomatic victory over Iran this week. Under intense pressure from American officials, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon withdrew an invitation for Iranian officials to attend the Syria peace conference.

Disinviting Tehran is the latest example of the Obama administration’s continual search for easy, risk-free solutions in Syria. As the conflict destabilizes the region, however, Washington must finally face the hard choice: Either compromise with Iran, or decisively support and arm the rebels.

The lack of an Iranian presence in Switzerland today dooms the talks’ prospects. Whether Tehran’s actions are depraved or not, its comprehensive efforts to supply troops, munitions and funding to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad makes the Iranian government the key foreign player in the conflict.

“Iran is the sine qua non of the solution,” said an American analyst, who closely follows Syria and spoke on condition of anonymity. “They have to feel comfortable with the outcome — if there is going to be a solution.”

As fighting enters its third year, the dynamics in Syria increasingly resemble those of Afghanistan in the 1980s. During the Cold War, the United States, the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan each backed various factions in Afghanistan for its own gain. The result? Thirty years of proxy war that killed an estimated 1 million Afghans and created one of the world’s most impoverished, fragmented and radicalized societies.

From Kiev to Kabul, the promise of prosperity

David Rohde
Dec 5, 2013 15:35 UTC

In Kiev, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have taken to the streets to demand the government join the European Union, in the hopes it will spur economic growth. In Kabul, Afghan leaders overwhelmingly voted to have American troops remain for another decade, in the hopes they will maintain a “war and aid economy” that has brought them unprecedented riches.

As a fiscally constrained and war-weary Washington confronts its foreign policy challenges, events in Ukraine and Afghanistan show that economic incentives can play a major role in addressing them. Younger generations in both countries are eager for prosperity, reduced corruption and a place in a globalized economy. Globalism is challenging cronyism.

In Ukraine, many motives are driving the young demonstrators, who have been protesting since President Viktor Yanukovich abruptly announced that he would not sign an association agreement with the European Union. But a key belief voiced by protesters is that adopting EU-mandated judicial reforms would reduce the country’s staggering levels of corruption.

How covert drone strikes turn murderers into martyrs

David Rohde
Nov 6, 2013 16:02 UTC

Five days after an American drone strike killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Pakistani politicians are accusing the United States of “murder.” And a militant leader responsible for attacks that killed hundreds, if not thousands, of Pakistani civilians is being viewed as a victim.

On one level, the response was nothing new in the warped, post-2001 relationship between Pakistan and the United States. For 12 years, interactions between these purported “allies” have been marked by distrust, recriminations and lies.

American officials should admit that covert U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan are now counterproductive. The strikes cause Pakistanis to vilify the United States, glorify militants and coddle duplicitous elements of the Pakistani military.

For Obama, a contradiction too many

David Rohde
Sep 6, 2013 23:01 UTC

President Barack Obama will have to deliver one of the finest speeches of his presidency next Tuesday if he hopes to win Congressional support for a strike against Syria. Out of nowhere, the Syria vote has emerged as one of the defining moments of Obama’s second term.

With three years remaining in office, the vote will either revive his presidency or leave Obama severely weakened at home and abroad.

There are legitimate criticisms of Obama’s initial response to the Syrian government’s barbaric August 21st gas attack outside Damascus. The president should have demanded that Congress be called back from recess immediately. He should also have immediately made a far more personal and passionate case for strikes.

From Afghanistan to Syria, an anemic U.S. civilian effort

David Rohde
May 2, 2013 22:45 UTC

Rear Admiral Gregory Smith (L), director of the Multi-National Force – Iraq’s Communications Division, and Denise Herbol, deputy director of USAID – Iraq, in Baghdad January 13, 2008. REUTERS/Wathiq Khuzaie/Pool

After helping coordinate the American civilian aid efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya, Mark Ward arrived in Turkey last year to oversee the Obama administration’s effort to provide non-lethal assistance to Syria’s rebels. Unwilling to provide arms, Washington hoped to strengthen the Syrian Opposition Coalition. Led by moderates, the group was seen as a potential counterweight to jihadists.

Ward, a 57-year-old senior official in the U.S. Agency for International Development, had seen the successes and failures of similar post- September 11 programs. He was determined to get it right in Syria

Why intervening in Mali was the right thing to do

David Rohde
Jan 17, 2013 22:37 UTC

The question from a colleague – one whose work I admire – could have come from anyone in the United States.

“So the French,” he asked, “now have their own Afghanistan?”

The answer is yes and no. Western military interventions should be carried out only as a last resort. But Mali today is a legitimate place to act.

Several thousand jihadists threaten to destabilize Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Algeria. Beyond the human rights abuses, their attacks will discourage foreign investment, paralyze local economies and produce vast numbers of refugees. Skeptics play down the threat, but the instability these extremists create will spread over time.

Little America: An Afghan town, an American dream and the folly of for-profit war

David Rohde
Jun 1, 2012 00:59 UTC

American officials inspect a field in Helmand, 1960s

Eight years ago, a 72-year-old American aid worker named Charles Grader told me a seemingly fantastical story. In a bleak stretch of Afghan desert that resembled the surface of Mars, several dozen families from states like Montana, Wisconsin and California had lived in suburban tract homes with backyard barbecues. For 30 years during the Cold War, the settlement served as the headquarters of a massive American project designed to wean Afghans from Soviet influence.

American engineers oversaw the largest development program in Afghanistan’s history, constructing two huge earthen dams, 300 miles of irrigation canals and 1,200 miles of gravel roads. All told, the project made 250,000 acres of desert bloom. The town, officially known as “Lashkar Gah,” was the new capital of Helmand province and an ultra-modern world of workshops and offices. Afghans called it “Little America.”

Intrigued, I hitched a ride to the town with Grader a few weeks later. A weathered New England blue blood, Grader was the last American to head the Kabul office of the U.S. Agency for International Development before the 1979 Soviet invasion. In 2004, he was back in Afghanistan working as a contractor, refusing to retire just yet and trying, it seemed, to do good.

An American intervention gone partly right

David Rohde
Apr 27, 2012 12:27 UTC

SARAJEVO – Seventeen years and $17 billion later, Bosnia is at peace today, but it is stillborn.

After an international intervention nearly two decades long, Bosnia offers lessons for American officials as they wrestle with continuing violence in Syria, volatile post-Arab Spring transitions and leaving behind a relatively stable Afghanistan. Stopping the killing here proved easier than expected. But halting corruption, sparking economic growth and curbing poisonous local political dynamics has proved vastly more difficult.

Today, the economy is stalled, with half of business activity generated by state-owned companies and unemployment hovering at 25 percent. The country is divided between a Serb entity whose leader talks openly of secession and a Muslim-Croat federation with worrying rifts of its own. And corruption is endemic among senior government officials on all sides.

The way out of the Afghan abyss

David Rohde
Mar 16, 2012 00:05 UTC

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.

First, let’s discard some myths:

Afghanistan is strategically unimportant to the United States: For even the most cynical Americans, a stable Afghanistan is important because of the roughly 100 nuclear warheads sitting in neighboring Pakistan. If hardline Taliban regain control of southern Afghanistan, it will be a safe haven for Pakistani Taliban and foreign militants. Attacks against Pakistan will definitely be plotted, and attacks on the United States could be planned from there as well.

Talk to the Taliban

David Rohde
Jan 12, 2012 22:28 UTC

WASHINGTON — As American officials scramble to contain the fallout from an appalling video showing Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters, news that the Obama administration is carrying out secret negotiations with the Taliban has barely registered on the American political landscape. The lack of interest in the talks – and public outrage at the video – reflects how little Americans apparently care about the conflict, despite its staggering human and fiscal cost.

Since 2001, the war in Afghanistan has killed at least 8,000 Afghan civilians, 5,500 Afghan police and soldiers, 1,800 American soldiers and 900 soldiers from other nations.

Thousands of Taliban fighters have died as well, according to American military estimates, but no reliable figure exists. While suffering heavy casualties in set-piece battles, the Taliban have excelled at suicide attacks, roadside bombs and propaganda that portrays American forces as abusive occupiers. The video showing Marines urinating on Taliban corpses – a hugely offensive act to Muslims and a potential war crime – will only reinforce that image.

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