Sunday, February 3, 2019
The Senate delivered a rare rebuke to President Donald Trump's foreign policy Thursday, opposing his plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and shrink American forces in Afghanistan.
In a bipartisan voteof 68-to-23, lawmakers advanced a measure sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warning against a "precipitous withdrawal" of American forces from Syria and Afghanistan. It was a particularly notable move coming from McConnell, who has been reluctant to criticize or cross Trump.Forty-three Republicans and 25 Democrats voted in favor of the resolution.
"The United States is engaged in Syria and Afghanistan for one simple reason: because our enemies are engaged there," McConnell said from the Senate on Wednesday. "Dangers to us and to our allies still remain in both these nations, so we must continue to confront them there."
McConnell's resolution is nonbinding, but it showcased a public rift between hawkish congressional Republicans and Trump, who campaigned on a promise to bring American troops home from far-flung conflicts. Trump announced his decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria in December, declaring on Twitter that the Islamic State had been defeated.
GOP critics say Trump has minimized the ongoing threat from the Islamic State in Syria and is plotting a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan that could allow extremist elements to re-emerge in a country that once served as a base for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
"This policy directly undermines one of the two pillars of our strategy in this region, and that is counter-terrorism." Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said during the Senate debate Thursday. Rubio said it would also represent a "win" for Iran's efforts to spread its influence across the Middle East, the second pillar and a top Trump administration priority.
In his speech Wednesday, McConnell invoked the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and suggested a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan could lead to more attacks on U.S. soil.
"It's understandable that as we get farther from Sept. 11, many would grow tired of our military efforts a long way from home," he said, but leaving "too abruptly carries its own grave risk."
Several senators who opposed the measure, including a bevy of liberal Democrats, echoed Trump's argument that the U.S. has been involved in these two conflicts for far too long.
"American troops have been in Afghanistan for nearly 18 years, the longest war in American history. Our troops have been in Syria since 2015 under what I believe are very questionable legal authorities," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent socialist from Vermont. "The American people do not want endless war." McConnell may have gotten fresh fuel for his proposal from a watchdog report on Afghanistan released Thursday. The U.S. inspector general overseeing Afghanistan reconstruction found insurgent forces increased their control over swaths of Afghanistan and the ranks of U.S.-backed government security forces have thinned to a new low.McConnell's provision is an amendment to a broader Middle East foreign policy bill. The legislation would authorize new sanctions against the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and extend a security cooperation agreement between the United States and Jordan, among other things.
The Senate vote on Thursday comes amid increasing tensions among Republicans over the president's foreign policy decisions.
In testimony before Congress earlier this week, Trump's top intelligence officials contradicted the president on a broad range of issues. CIA Director Gina Haspel and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told lawmakers that the Islamic State remains a threat, that North Korea is unlikely to ever give up its nuclear weapons, and that the Iran nuclear deal is working. Republicans in Congress have also sharply split with Trump over his handling of the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabian operatives.
The Senate is expected to pass the underlying Middle East policy bill next week, although its fate in the House remains uncertain. The bill also includes a controversial provision, sponsored by Rubio, that would shield Israel from state and local boycotts that have pressured businesses to divest from Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.
Rubio's bill would allow cities and states to penalize businesses or individuals who participate in such boycotts. The Florida lawmaker has said the boycotts amount to "economic warfare" against America's closest ally.
But some Democrats strongly oppose the measure, saying it would infringe on free speech.
"The First Amendment protects the right of the people to participate in boycotts," said Brian Hauss, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s speech, privacy, and technology project. "The government does not have a First Amendment right to boycott the boycotters," he said.
Afghanistan long ago took from Vietnam the title of America’s longest war, when it passed the 13-year mark in 2014.
Five years later, with the recent possibility of a peace deal that would bring another American withdrawal from an unpopular war, comparisons of the two conflicts are once again rife — even among many of the leaders America has sent to Afghanistan in recent years.
Ryan Crocker, who was twice America’s top diplomat in Kabul, led the chorus of people sensing déjà vu. “It just reminds me of the Paris peace talks on Vietnam,” Mr. Crocker, now diplomat-in-residence at Princeton, said. “By going to the table, we basically were telling the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, ‘We surrender, we’re here just to work out the terms.’”
He was comparing the Paris negotiations that led to America’s withdrawal from Vietnam with six days of talks between the American envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. The talks ended Jan. 26 in a preliminary agreement that American troops would be withdrawn in exchange for Taliban guarantees not to allow terrorists to attack America again. “I just cannot see this getting to any better place,” Mr. Crocker said. “We don’t have a whole lot of leverage here. I can’t see this as anything more than putting lipstick on what will be a U.S. withdrawal.”
A comparison of the two wars has not been fashionable for many years now, with scholars pointing out that superficial similarities were greatly outweighed by the differences. Vietnam took place at the height of the Cold War, with the superpowers on opposite sides. Vietnam and Afghanistan are dramatically different in culture, geography and history. Even the scale of the two wars was vastly different: Half a million American troops went to Vietnam at its height, compared with a maximum of 100,000 to Afghanistan, now whittled down to 14,000; more than 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam, fewer than 3,000 in Afghanistan.
Yet a significant number of the American ambassadors and military leaders who served in Afghanistan are worried about the similarities. Karl Eikenberry, the American military commander in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, and then the American ambassador from 2009 to 2011, said that in both countries it was a challenge to develop a national force committed to protecting the weak and corrupt central government. And in both places, the host country’s forces, many of them trained by the United States, “were further undermined because they constantly doubted the long-term support of the U.S.,” said Mr. Eikenberry, who is now a professor at Stanford.
Mr. Crocker is among those who worry that the Trump administration just wants out of Afghanistan and is willing to sacrifice gains that have been made, particularly on behalf of women. A rushed deal could put the Taliban in a position to eventually take over, as happened in Vietnam when the United States withdrew its troops even though the North Vietnamese did not keep their promise to do the same.
“I imagine we and the Afghans have killed most of the slow and stupid” Taliban fighters, Mr. Crocker said. “The ones who are still in the Taliban after 18 years are now tough, committed, and I can’t imagine them signing on to any meaningful compromise. They’ll just talk compromise.”
Not all recent ambassadors are prone to drawing parallels to Vietnam. James Cunningham, who was ambassador from 2012 through 2014 and is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said fear that the United States will cut and run is “definitely a concern for a lot of people back here, and for the Afghans I know. And there may be some people who want that to happen.” But he said the analogy wasn’t accurate. In America, he said, “there’s a lot of sympathy for the Afghans and what they’re trying to do. This doesn’t have to be a recipe for rushing to the exits and I hope it won’t be.” Mr. Cunningham is not convinced that the Trump administration will pull out, even though many of the president’s supporters in Washington want it to. “It’s no secret the president would like to leave, as did his predecessor and presumably his predecessor, but reality and conditions have a way of intruding,” he said.
Many experts also see lessons from Vietnam for the American experience in Afghanistan, often in terms of “you’ve learned so well from your mistakes that you can repeat them exactly,” as a diplomat in Afghanistan put it.
Anthony Cordesman, an official in the Defense Department during the final years of the Vietnam War, recently wrote a paper detailing the parallels between the two wars. In an interview, Mr. Cordesman, now a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recalled how late in the Vietnam War “we concealed the casualty rates, the absentee rates, the ghost soldier rates,” just as the American military and the government of President Ashraf Ghani are doing now.
“Just as in Vietnam, under the shell of top leadership there were many deep divisions,” Mr. Cordesman said. In Afghanistan, “you have a country of power brokers. A lot of the underlying economy is extremely weak, buoyed up by war and aid. And as that’s reduced, you find less and less reason for the economy and political structure to hold together.”
In some ways, Afghanistan is actually in worse shape than South Vietnam was when the American military left in 1973; the country fell to the Communists in 1975. In Afghanistan, “the only major hard currency earner is the narcotics sector, other than war and aid,” Mr. Cordesman said. Vietnam, in contrast, had a more diverse economy. Even the Afghan military units are weaker. “There were some very good units in Vietnam,” he said.
The British historian Max Hastings, author of the recent book “Vietnam, an Epic Tragedy 1945-1975,” said he sees many similarities between Vietnam and Afghanistan. “Western governments and commanders still don’t seem to have got the message that winning firefights is meaningless unless we can also achieve a real cultural, social and political engagement with local societies,” he said.“For most people in Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, daily life represents an endless series of accommodations, compromises and judgments about who is likely to win,” Mr. Hastings said. “Most of them today put their money on the Taliban not necessarily because they like them, but because they seem likely to be around longer than us.”Mr. Eikenberry said that an even better comparison than Vietnam might be to the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. Like the United States, the Soviets no longer wanted to shoulder the responsibility and expense of Afghanistan at a time of declining power and prestige. “Both Vietnam and Afghanistan were, ultimately, wars of choice,” Mr. Eikenberry said. “And because of the incredible wealth and power of the U.S., we were able to make the choices — which both proved bad ones.”
Barring the exception of the Pakistan Peoples Party, the country’s political leadership has remained silent over the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of Ibrahim Arman Loni, a rights activist.
This is condemnable, particularly on the part of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
Loni was a senior leader of civil rights group Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement. He and others had staged a sit-in in Loralai against unabated incidents of violence in the region as well as alleged attempts by the authorities to force locals to vacate their homes and leave the area in the wake of the January 29 attack on the office complex of the Zhob Range DIG that claimed nine lives, including that of three policemen.
The protest had just ended when, according to MNA Mohsin Dawar, a police team raided the site and tried to arrest Loni and others. In the ensuing confrontation, the police party allegedly resorted to violence, leading to Loni’s death.
Early last year, PTM had emerged as a movement of young Pashtun activists, including Loni, after the extrajudicial killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud. These youngsters have since organised multiple gatherings, where they have put forth their grievances, some of which concern alleged excesses committed by state personnel. It is unfortunate for this country that even after the passage of a year, the elected leadership has made no serious efforts to engage these youngsters in a dialogue. Two PTM leaders who have made it to the National Assembly are frequently seen as raising their voice on extrajudicial killings and alleged highhandedness of security and law enforcement personnel during raids among other issues. However, neither the ruling party nor the mainstream opposition is ever seen making a concerted effort to engage with them. The policeman accused of extra judicially killing Naqeebullah has yet to be indicted of charges.
In these circumstances, the death of a senior member of the civil rights group was not an occasion that should have been treated lightly by the elected leadership. By Sunday evening, Pakistan Peoples Party chairman Bilalwal Bhutto Zardari was the only mainstream politician to have expressed his condolences to the aggrieved family and to condemn the suspicious circumstances surrounding Loni’s death. No one from the central leadership of the PTI or the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) came forward with a similar statement.
This has rightly enraged many on social media platforms, including Pashtun youngsters who have complained that alleged excesses of law enforcement agencies are noticed when they take place in cities of the Punjab or urban Sindh, but not when committed in Baloch or Pashtun populated remote areas of Balochistan and Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa. The elected leadership must understand that the burden to prove this perception as incorrect lies on them. They have expressed extreme insensitivity and lack of empathy by not having noticed the incident. They must not waste any more time, and order an inquiry which must be to the satisfaction of the aggrieved party. The policemen accused of the crime must be suspended until the inquiry has been completed. Notice must also be taken of attempts by state personnel to prevent PTM leaders from attending Loni’s funeral prayer on Sunday. These are the bare minimum efforts the elected leadership needs to undertake to restore its trust in the eyes of all those who are grieving the loss of the activist’s life.
The absolute lack of coverage of events surrounding Loni’s death by the electronic media is also highly condemnable. It has once again raised serious question marks over the integrity of TV journalism as well as the claims of a free press by Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry. How can a free press ignore the death of an activist allegedly from police assault?
The authorities in Islamabad must not forget that they have been able to return Asia Bibi her freedom, after an unjust incarceration of nine years, at the cost of her security. She got back her freedom on the condition that she would have to leave her homeland, and live in exile for the rest of her life. That’s a failure of state institutions designated with the task of providing security to the citizens.
Meanwhile, the flawed set of laws under which Bibi was denied her freedom, and that have been responsible for the plight of many other Pakistani citizens remain unreformed. Alongside, the extremist mindset that dehumanizes others who may have different opinions and beliefs, leading to perpetuation of violence against marginalised social groups also continues to flourish. Despite the fact that state institutions have managed to crack down on the top leadership of the Barelvi extremist outfit Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), the popularity of the group and the organisational capabilities of its middle-tier leadership remain intact. This was on display last week in protests in Karachi following the Supreme Court’s dismissal of the review petition. Several arrests were made after the participants turned to violence, damaging private as well as public property.
The Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) government has yet to come up with a plan to deal with barelvi strand of extremism, and the worrying aspect of its popularity among a segment of the country’s population. Perhaps, the problem is that the leadership of the ruling party, like other mainstream parties, has yet to fully recognise extremism as a problem. This was evident in PTI leaders posturing during the election campaign. Taking a leaf from other mainstream parties’ books, PTI chairman Imran Khan, who now holds the office of Prime Minister, had attended a gathering organised by barelvi extremists in the hope of wooing votes. In the past few months, even the top leadership of unelected state institutions was seen photographed with extremists in private gatherings.
This raises serious question marks over the presence of political will to tackle the challenge posed by extremism. Ostensibly, it seems that the state has come to terms with the social support of the far-right religious lobby, whose political narrative revolves entirely around the country’s blasphemy laws. Even though it should have no bearing on the state’s duty to prevent the law’s abuse, but it must be reiterated that this law dates back to the days of the colonial administration, and has no grounding in classical Islamic jurisprudence. Thus, the state concerns itself with the barelvi far-right, it seems, only in moments when the group/s pose a threat to its sovereignty. This is a deeply flawed approach because it ignores the fact that those momentarily challenges become possible only because the group/s has free rein to spread its extremist ideology in the society. An effective approach will be to regulate activities of religious groups, including those of the barelvis, and not letting them indulge in hate speech against minority communities, or glorify terrorists like Mumtaz Qadri. Alongside, blasphemy law will have to be reformed to prevent its abuse.
The state also needs to rethink its strategy in dealing with the top TLP leadership. Instead of keeping them on remand, it would be more effective to bring charges against them and to get them punished for incitement to sedition and violence. This will send a clear message to the extremists, and set a precedent to be followed if the need arises in future.
Asia Bibi’s lawyer Saif-ul-Mulook fears for his life and is seeking European passport to escape Islamist protesters
The Pakistani lawyer who secured the acquittal of a Christian woman facing the death sentence for blasphemy is himself seeking protection from European governments, his French lawyer said on Friday.Saif-ul-Mulook has been targeted by death threats since his the spectacular acquittal of his client Asia Bibi, a labourer from central Punjab province on death row since 2010.