Opinion

The Great Debate

Nine interviews that will make you smarter

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Imagine a place where retired-four-star General Stanley McChrystal, warmly shakes your hand and insists you call him Stan. He means it, too, joking when the word general pops out of your mouth while you position him properly in front of the cameras for a brief interview. He wants to talk about getting young people involved in public service through a program where they would dedicate a year of their lives to improving the country. But he’s game to talk about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, too. He served in both — becoming the man in charge in Afghanistan before comments he made to Rolling Stone that were critical of the Obama administration ended up costing him his job.

McChrystal makes a strong impression, and a positive one. And he’s not the only one who wants to talk with at least the appearance of frankness. In Aspen, Colorado, for the 10 days of the annual Ideas Festival, we’re all equals — of a sort. In my five days there, I met no one who wanted to be called mister, senator or any other title. It was first names all around, with the good and great wearing khakis, or even shorts. If people were trying to impress, it was mostly through trying hard to not impress at all.

The people I, Andy Sullivan, Lily Jamali and Zach Goelman interviewed work in the fields of art, science, international affairs, politics and romance. We’re all Reuters journalists with more than 50 years of experience among us. We’ve all interviewed interesting and powerful people before, but never such a diverse group in such a beautiful setting, nor in such quick succession.

Below are some of the things we took away:

Frank Underwood isn’t evil — at least not according the man writing House of Cards, Beau Willimon

How are things going in Colorado six months after marijuana became legal? It’s no a-pot-calypse

Post Iraq, U.S. must rely on covert action

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Covert actions are now crucial to U.S. foreign policy. After the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington should rely more on CIA-driven covert operations and less on military force in the world’s hotspots.

Ukraine could be a case in point. For covert action means not just collecting information (espionage), but also political or paramilitary efforts that help support political organizations, local media and on occasion, insurgents. Under the CIA’s charter, the government maintains plausible deniability for all these actions.

I’ve long advocated for greater use of this tool of statecraft — and not only because I ran the CIA’s Afghanistan Task Force during the successful effort to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan in 1986-87, along with many other covert operations during my 32 years at the intelligence agency.

Bergdahl reveals the impossible choices faced by hostages’ families

U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl waits in a pick-up truck before he is freed at the Afghan border

The furor surrounding the exchange of five Taliban prisoners for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl this week has exposed the murky world — and impossible choices — of the families of Americans taken captive by militants.

Demands for vast ransoms or for prisoner releases put these families in the excruciating position of seeming to be able to save a loved one’s life. Meet demands and your beloved lives. Hesitate and carry responsibility for their death to your grave.

Yet few families have access to the sums of money that militants demand. Nor can they free prisoners held by the United States or a local government. Despite the fact that the families feel primary responsibility, they have no real control.

Afghan elections redefine U.S. role

On Saturday, Afghans will go to the polls to elect a new president, marking a critical turning point in Afghanistan’s history and our role in the country.

This election comes at an important time in U.S.-Afghan relations, which have been hindered by the erratic and often insulting behavior of President Hamid Karzai. The outcome will present an opportunity for the United States to redefine our relationship with Afghanistan in a way that addresses our shared security concerns and the long-term stability and viability of the country.

Make no mistake, the democratic transition to a new president would not be possible without the last 12 years of sacrifices made by the United States. The Afghan people and Americans owe a profound debt of gratitude to our armed forces, diplomats and U.S. Agency for International Development workers who helped transform Afghanistan from a failed state to fledgling democracy.

Afghanistan votes on its future

The coverage on the impending Afghan presidential elections has been filled with death and chaos — the tragic shooting at the Serena hotel where an international election monitor was killed, the shocking attack on the Afghan Election Commission’s headquarters, the killing of a provincial council candidate and the news that several international monitoring groups are pulling out.

These tragedies, however, shift the focus from the major news in Afghanistan this week: Election fever has gripped the nation. I hear from Afghans as well as many foreigners now working in Afghanistan that the excitement about the coming April 5 presidential election is palpable and encouraging.

If this election goes relatively smoothly, it will mark the first democratic handover of power in Afghan history. Potential large-scale fraud and violence will be substantial obstacles to overcome, but there are also some positive signs. Voters, observers and security personnel are gearing up with a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation.

How to fix foreign aid

All war-torn countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan, share a common characteristic — the absence or destruction of economic infrastructure. The lack of opportunity fuels frustration and unrest, giving violent actors an opening to destabilize fragile institutions.

The frustration in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in other fragile states, exists despite Washington having spent billions of dollars in military and non-military aid to boost their economic development during the past decade. The lack of progress has fed a growing sense that U.S. foreign aid programs cannot establish economically viable systems.

I know this firsthand. As Deputy Under Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011, I led a team of private-sector business leaders, agriculture experts, geologists and engineers in an effort to restore or create economic opportunity in war-torn communities. Our work focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, but it later expanded to Pakistan, Sudan and Rwanda.

Is there a ‘right’ path for the U.S. in Syria?

Key parties to the conflict in Syria are meeting in Switzerland on Wednesday. The participants have been downplaying expectations that the “Geneva II” peace conference — which will bring together for the first time representatives from the Assad government and various rebel groups along with major international players — will resolve the conflict, or even bring about a ceasefire.

For the U.S. government, the crucial issue at this meeting and beyond is determining if and how to intervene and provide support in a conflict where there may no longer be real “good guys,” or supporters of U.S. national interests, to back. This is particularly important given Washington’s interwoven interests throughout the region — not only in Syria, but in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond.

U.S. support of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union during the Cold War teaches two valuable lessons for the current Syrian conflict. First, understand who we are helping, what their goals are and how these goals may differ from those of the United States. Second, think in advance about the endgame.

Can Obama ever close Guantanamo?

Twelve years ago this month, President George W. Bush issued an order authorizing the U.S. military to detain non-U.S. citizen “international terrorists” indefinitely, and try some of them in military commissions. Within two months, those seized in the “war on terror” following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan were being sent to Guantanamo Bay.

A dozen years later, the United States is preparing to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, ending “the longest war in American history,” as President Barack Obama observed on Veteran’s Day. Yet the Guantanamo prison — now notorious as the site of torture and other abuses — remains open.

Obama pledged to close Guantanamo as one of his first official acts in office. Yet nearly six years into his presidency, the prison continues to hold 164 foreign captives. Only three have been convicted of a crime.

How Blackwater fought two wars — and State Department red tape

This is an excerpt from Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror, by Erik Prince, published this month by Portfolio.

On March 27, 2009, President Obama stood at a podium in Room 450 of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington. Over his right shoulder was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; over his left, Defense Secretary Robert Gates. “Today, I am announcing a comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the president said.

In the eight years since the United States had invaded Afghanistan, stability there had moved at a glacial pace, to the extent it moved forward at all. Taliban suicide bombings continued seemingly at will in the fledgling democracy. Insurgent aggression had prevented enough voter registration that the country’s landmark presidential elections, scheduled for May 2009, had to be pushed back three months. The United States had just come off its deadliest year of the war there, with 155 service members killed in 2008. In 2009, it only got worse.

Fighting for democracy in South Asia

For the first time in post-colonial history, all of the countries of South Asia are democracies.

From Bhutan to Bangladesh, Kabul to Kathmandu, democratic institutions are taking hold and giving people a voice in how they are governed. But these historic gains could be short-lived if troubling trends in some impending political transitions go unchecked.

Over the next six months, more than one billion voters across South Asia will choose leaders of some of the most diverse and vibrant countries in the world. Coming elections in India and Afghanistan and successful recent elections in Pakistan and Bhutan illustrate the depth of passion voters across the region have shown for electoral democracy.

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