Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday March 17th, 2013

By Barrie Dunsmore


Asked to sum up his first trip to Afghanistan in his new job, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said, “It’s complicated.” 

When veteran diplomatic trouble shooter James Dobbins was asked about the problem of deciding which Syrian rebels should receive American support, he noted that the State Department and the CIA had had two years, “and if they don’t know by now we’ve got a pretty hopeless intelligence network.” 

I continue to have the greatest respect for the language of diplomacy, with all its nuances and ambiguities, but I find myself applauding the blunt, brevity of those replies. Both responses could qualify as Tweets. Yet for those who choose to know more about American foreign policy than is available on Twitter, let me provide the context of what they said and where American policy may be heading as the conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria grind on. 

As the new secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel appropriately made his first overseas trip to Afghanistan where American troops are still fighting and dying. According to the New York Times, on the morning after his arrival, Hagel “was confronted by bloody insurgent attacks so near that a suicide bombing rattled the windows and ceiling tiles of the military compound where he was attending briefings.” At least ten people were killed. 

Earlier, Hagel had faced a different kind of confrontation - another jaw-dropping speech by America’s most contentious ally, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai. This time Karzai accused the United States of plotting with the Taliban to frighten Afghanis into wanting American combat troops to remain beyond their currently scheduled departure date of December 2014. That makes no sense. While it is believed that Karsai himself may want to see that date extended for his own benefit and safety – staying longer would suit neither America’s nor the Taliban’s goals.  

When asked to respond to Karsai’s comments Hagel was most diplomatic. He explained to reporters that he had told Karsai his accusations were not true, then simply added, “It’s complicated.” The Times reported this was his “mantra” for the rest of the trip. In my view Hagel showed good judgment. At this point, public disputes with the Afghan president serve no useful purpose.  

Two Americans were killed by an Afghan policeman on Hagel’s last day in Kabul. And shortly after he left, five more U.S. troops died in a helicopter crash of undetermined cause. These latest deaths serve as reminders of the highly complicated task that Hagel now faces –namely- overseeing the safe reduction of the current American force of 68,000 to 34,000 by the end of this year – and by the end of 2014, to bring the number down to a few thousand. The final size of that small force and what it will actually do, remain to be negotiated with an increasingly paranoid Afghan president. 

James Dobbins, now of the Rand Corporation, is a career diplomat who worked as a troubleshooter for three U.S. presidents as special envoy for Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia and Somalia. He is definitely no neo-conservative and is considered a realist. In my previous life, I dealt with him on numerous occasions when I found him to be helpful and remarkably frank. This past week Dobbins was interviewed on the PBS News Hour about Afghanistan and on NPR’s Morning Edition on Syria. I found his remarks about the future American role in Syria to be particularly thought provoking.  

As noted above, Dobbins dismissed the idea that the United States still might not know who the good guys and the bad guys were among the Syrian rebels. I took his remark that American intelligence would be “pretty hopeless” if it didn’t know this by now - not as a slap at the spooks but as confirming that America does know which rebels are safe to arm. While Dobbins is no longer in government, as an insider who for decades was a senior user of American intelligence, I’m quite certain he still has useful connections.  

Dobbins told Steve Inskeep of NPR that he welcomed recent hints by new Secretary of State John Kerry that America was considering offering more than just civilian refugee aid and non- lethal weapons to selected rebels. He said he thought this country had been moving “too slowly” and that “the longer this (civil war) takes, the worse the aftermath is going to be.” Dobbins is especially worried about the break up of Syria - and the “transfer of the conflict to neighboring states.” Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Israel are among Syria’s immediate neighbors. The Shiites of Iran and Sunnis of Saudi Arabia are lurking adversaries, each seeking to dominate the neighborhood.  

To hasten an acceptable end to the Syrian civil war, Dobbins made a proposal I can’t recall ever hearing from a serious analyst. Instead of a complicated system of no-fly zones to protect the rebels from Syrian combat aircraft, Dobbins suggests a “simpler idea”- a one night attack by the US and its allies, using stealth bombers and drones to destroy the Syrian Air Force on the ground. He says that this, more than any other plausible action would “change the balance” in the present military stalemate, because “only in the air, is (President Bashar) Assad sovereign in Syria.” When Inskeep pressed him on the downsides of such drastic action, Dobbins conceded there were definitely risks - domestic political and geo-political. Among the latter he said it could cause a “deterioration of relations with Russia” which could have a negative impact on current international efforts to get Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. But even so, Dobbins concluded, “the consequences of not acting and the risks of not acting are even greater.” 

Critics would see such action as a giant leap down the slippery slope to major military engagement. Perhaps. But with 70,000 Syrians killed in two years, it’s the first idea I’ve seen for American intervention that now might actually work. I hope it’s being explored in very high places.

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