Swedish diplomat Staffan di Mistura has been offered the job as the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, replacing the recently departed Kai Eide, according to Richard Holbrooke.
Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told The Cable in a brief interview Friday that di Mistura had called him to consult with him as he considers the offer.
"I had a very good talk with him, quite a long talk, we went over every aspect of the relationship," Holbrooke said. "He wanted to discuss how he could relate to us ... I assured him that the U.S. government and the U.S. Embassy look forward to working with him [if he takes the job]."
Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the United Nations, said that no official appointment had been made and that until there was an announcement, nothing was certain.
But Holbrooke seemed confident that di Mistura would soon be named to the post, and said he is "very pleased" with the selection. "Di Mistura has the unanimous support of the U.S. government," said Holbrooke.
From 2007 to 2009, di Mistura was the U.N.'s special representative in Iraq. He left Iraq last July to become deputy executive director of the World Food Programme.
Holbrooke said that during his time in Iraq, di Mistura earned the respect of leading U.S. national security officials including National Security Advisor Jim Jones and Central Command head Gen. David Petraeus. Di Mistura also has experience working with Karl Eikenberry, the current U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Holbrooke remembered.
Di Mistura has served in Afghanistan before, as the director of fundraising and external relations for the U.N.'s office in Afghanistan from 1988 to 1991. He has also worked for the organization in Sudan, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Sarajevo, and several other places, in addition to Iraq. (Interestingly, one of Di Misura's deputies in Iraq was Siddharth Chatterjee, who happens to be U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's son-in-law.)
Di Mistura would face close scrutiny of his ability to work with both U.S. officials in Kabul and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Eide, who was seen as too close to Karzai, left the post after a bitter feud with his former deputy, American diplomat Peter Galbraith. Galbraith was fired at Eide's behest and subsequently accused Eide publicly of ignoring widespread election fraud perpetrated by Karzai.
The New York Times noted in an editorial last week that Ban was also considering Jean-Marie Guéhenno of France and Ian Martin of Britain for the Kabul mission.
Kai Eide, the recently ousted head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, paid a visit to the State Department Thursday morning.
Eide's contract wasn't renewed following a very public fracas with his second in command, Peter Galbraith, over how to handle the widespread fraud in the recent reelection of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Galbraith accused Eide of having him fired for speaking out about the fraud. Eide himself may also been cashiered for being seen as too close to Karzai.
Apparently a little bitter, in his parting words to the U.N. in New York Wednesday, Eide took a broad swipe at the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan, warning of a military-focused strategy and urging international forces in Afghanistan not to expand the surge into new civilian areas.
Via the fine UN Dispatch blog, Eide said:
The military surge must not be allowed to undermine equally important civilian objectives and the development of such a politically driven strategy. It must not lead to an accelerated pressure for quick results in governance and economic development efforts, which could divert resources from a long-term approach to civilian institution building and economic growth. Furthermore, it must not lead the military to expand their engagement into key civilian areas, such as those I just mentioned. That could result in a situation where the international community becomes more entrenched rather than a situation where the Afghans are more empowered.
So what was Eide's message when he met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Special Representative for Af-Pak Richard Holbrooke this morning in Foggy Bottom? Apparently it was about peeling off some of the Taliban through some sort of political engagement.
"There isn't any question that our policy has to include an opportunity for those people fighting with the Taliban to rejoin the political process," Holbrooke told an audience at the Brookings Institution Thursday. "I would estimate that 60 to 70 or more percent of those people fighting with the Taliban are not ideologically supportive of al Qaeda at all and are not necessarily supportive of the Taliban supreme leadership."
Clinton acknowledged the need to start separating the die-hard Taliban from the hangers-on in her July speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, but no real engagement is happening, at least that we know of. Holbrooke said the idea existed on paper but never got any real traction.
The closest thing publicly announced was a conference in Tokyo set up by Japanese parliamentarians last November, in which Afghan government representatives discussed Taliban engagement with a range of international representatives.
Also at Brookings, Holbrooke denied, again, that he is somehow secretly working on the Kashmir issue or dealing with India policy in any way, as is rumored around Washington.
"I am not negotiating issues between India and Pakistan," he said. "It's not my job nor would it be productive if I were to undertake it."
Richard Holbrooke knows how to work a room. Last night, he volleyed with a fairly tough audience during an event on Afghanistan at the Council on Foreign Relations.
One noteworthy part of the event was when Holbrooke, to the clear chagrin of moderator Michael Gordon, drained almost 10 minutes off of the clock by having 17 separate members of his office staff each stand and give personal introductions.
"I've never seen someone eat up time like that. He's the master," said one attendee.
Now, maybe Holbrooke was just trying to get his staffers some much-deserved recognition and demonstrate (at length) the different issues his office has to deal with. We'll give him the benefit of the doubt and help him achieve that goal. Here are the staffers who rose to the occasion, in order of their presentation:
Vikram Singh (DOD) - "I work on the issues of the defense advisor and on the very difficult issue of communications."
Rami Shy (Treasury) - "I'm working on illicit finance issues, both by disrupting illicit finance flows and by creating an environment not conducive to illicit financing in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
Vali Nasr (Tufts) - "I'm a senior advisor to Ambassador Holbrooke on Pakistan issues."
Otto Gonzales (Ag) - "I'm the senior advisor for Agriculture from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We're focusing on working with USAID and the U.S. military on improving agriculture sector jobs and incomes, and improving Afghans' confidence in their government, particularly their ministry of agriculture."
Dan Feldman (NSN) - "I'm one of two deputies to Ambassador Holbrooke. Among other things, I help to coordinate a small team focusing just on international engagement and diplomatic initiatives, in part to help make donor coordination work. I also help to oversee detainee, human rights, and other issues."
Beth Dunford (USAID) - "I work on development and assistance issue in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
Rina Amiri (U.N.) - "I'm senior advisor on Afghanistan and my primary area of focus is the political developments in Afghanistan."
JoAnne Arzt (State) - "I work on deploying the civilians that are going to the increase in Afghanistan."
Ashley Bommer (Perseus) - "I do his trips to the region and I also work on communications issues, as well as our new mobile products that we are introducing, with the mobile banking, mobile payments to the police, telemedicine, and our SMS program in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
Derek Hogan (State) "I focus on governance ... We're trying to help the Afghan government become more visible and more accountable and responsive to the needs particularly of the subnational groups."
(At this point, Gordon tries to cut off the roll call to get to audience questions but Holbrooke insists, "Let them finish."
Tim List (DHS) - "Mainly I work on border management, cross-border, and customs issues."
Rosemarie Pauli (Heinz) - "I'm the chief of staff. I do whatever needs to be done."
Chris Reimann (FBI) - "I'm the police advisor."
Matt Stiglitz (DOJ) - "Working on rule of law, corruption, and other related issues."
Lt. Col. Brian Lamson (JCS) - "I work security issues."
Mary Beth Goodman (State) - "Covering economic and energy issues for Afghanistan and Pakistan."
Paul Jones (State) - "Deputy to Ambassador Holbrooke and deputy assistant secretary of state for Afghanistan and Pakistan."
"I think that was well worth doing," said Gordon. "And now we're going to try to squeeze in a few questions."
It appears that Holbrooke has used this tactic before.
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There's a lot more to the story of congressional angst over the performance of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) than was told in today's article by the Associated Press.
The AP story mentions a letter from Sens. Tom Coburn, R-OK, Susan Collins, R-ME, and Claire McCaskill, D-MO, sharply criticizing the SIGAR office for failing to recruit competent staff, focusing on the wrong issues (like female participation in the Afghan elections), and an overall lack of auditing and investigative reports since the office was established over a year ago.
But the letter is only the latest in a long series of congressional criticisms of the office. SIGAR was established in 2008 to oversee some $39 billion of U.S. taxpayer funds that have been appropriated for reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. To date, the office has received $23 million for its work.
McCaskill and others have been critical of SIGAR all year, and not just based on the three items found in Tuesday's letter. This October memo being circulated by Hill staffers, and obtained by The Cable, gets at a more fundamental concern: that the quality and content of SIGAR's audits and reports are seen in Congress as shoddy and substandard.
For example, SIGAR's first audit on the Defense Department's Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A), which oversees the development of the Afghan security forces, is only four pages long and makes no mention of whether the $400 million spent on a training contract there was well used.
"It appears to have been written in such a way that SIGAR could say they had at least one audit complete before they were in existence for a year," the congressional memo states.
SIGAR's second audit is only two pages long, not counting appendices and the title page and table of contents, and devoid of any real breakthroughs as well, according to the memo. The criticisms go on and on.
When writing about the Afghanistan presidential elections in SIGAR's sixth audit, SIGAR said that the U.S. should "continue to build the [Independent Election] Commission's capabilities so that democratic principles and the electoral processes are sustained," barely mentioning the widespread fraud in that election and also failing to comment on what happened to the some $500 million of U.S. funds committed to that effort.
In an audit about the Commander's Emergency Response Program, which is a pool of money given to military commanders to address short-term needs with little oversight, auditors "did not visit any CERP sites nor did they cite any examples of wasted taxpayer dollars or funding that could have been better utilized," according to the memo.
SIGAR's assistant inspector general in charge of audits, John Brummet, defended the organization's work in an interview Wednesday with The Cable.
For example, regarding CSTC-A, Brummet said that his office's audit "was high-value work and we were able to get some significant changes in the contract oversight performed by CSTC-A." As for why SIGAR didn't examine the contractor directly, Brummet said he simply didn't have enough auditors to do the job, a problem that both SIGAR and Congress have been working on.
Regarding the Afghanistan elections, Brummet said SIGAR is conducting public-opinion polls in Afghanistan to gauge how much fraud was present in the elections. He again pointed to the lack of personnel needed to do more investigative work.
Overall, Brummet acknowledged that SIGAR's audits and investigations has resulted in zero returned taxpayer dollars, and that zero contractors have been disbarred as a result of SIGAR's audits and investigations.
"Our critics want us to spend more time focused on the performance of contractors and that's what we're trying to do right now, to expand that work," he said.
Brummet also commented on some of the numerous stories circulating about SIGAR's interactions with both the State and Defense Departments. For example, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul won't give SIGAR enough housing space for its employees there, packing four to six employees into a single shipping container-sized unit in some cases.
"Having people that have distinguished professional careers and asking them to go share a hooch with five other people is tough," he said.
He also responded to the concern that SIGAR is too close to the Pentagon, specifically Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn. Lynn is said to be the administration's point man on engaging Congress regarding concerns about SIGAR, and Brummet confirmed that Lynn has written a response to Congress regarding another letter senators sent to SIGAR. He couldn't explain why Lynn and the Pentagon were charged to write on behalf of SIGAR, which Hill sources expressed concerns about considering that SIGAR is supposed to be overseeing the work of the Defense Department.
The SIGAR website also is hosted by the military.
Lastly, Brummet confirmed that SIGAR's chief, Special Inspector General Arnold Fields, was scheduled to travel to Kabul to attend the inauguration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai but then cancelled his trip after discussions with the State Department.
The posture of McCaskill's office in the SIGAR scandal is curious as well. After coming to Congress and joining the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2006 pledging to be an outspoken champion of oversight and reform, McCaskill has been relatively quiet this year, perhaps so as not to openly criticize the administration of the president whose campaign she cochaired.
There will be a hearing on SIGAR's oversight work on Dec. 17, but that's nine months after McCaskill wrote her first letter, which said that 2009 would "be a critical year for the fledgling democracy in Afghanistan."
UPDATE: A SIGAR spokesperson called into The Cable to add some more information to the story. The problem of bad living conditions in Kabul is widespread and doesn't represent a specific embassy action against SIGAR, the spokesman said. Also, the spokesman relayed that the lack of auditors that hampered SIGAR's investigative abilities early on has now been largely corrected.
UPDATE2: Adrianne Marsh, the communications director for McCaskill, called in to vigorously dispute the characterization that the senator has been "relatively quiet this year" in chairing the Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight. "This is a commitment and it doesn't matter who the president is," she said, pointing to numerous press statements
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
Apparently, there will be added civilian presence in Afghanistan to go along with President Obama's surge of 30,000 new troops, although the exact request and how it will be carried off are still unclear.
The State Department is already "surging" civilians into the warzone, increasing their number to 974 civilians in a deployment that has already begun. But administration officials are now saying that more civilians will be requested for helping out Afghanistan's government and private sector. Some will form District Support Teams and Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Others will staff new consulates in Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat.
"This is not a one-way street," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a speech Monday to the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. "Our military creates space for our civilians to do their important work, and our civilians maximize the efforts of our troops in the field to bring stability and security."
Still, there are real concerns throughout the diplomatic and development communities as to where the experts will come from, how they will be trained, and what added resources will be needed for the security to keep them safe.
Spencer Ackerman and Diplopundit caught the news of the need for additional civilians, which came out of Monday's American Enterprise Institute event with Michèle Flournoy, the under secretary of defense for policy, and Paul Jones, the deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The important part of Jones's remarks are below, but you can read the full text of his remarks here.
The President will soon request from Congress the resources needed to implement this focused civilian effort. His request will include not only a sizable increase in civilian assistance, but also funds to support deployment of additional civilian experts beyond the roughly 1,000 U.S. government civilians who will be on the ground by early next year. These civilians will help build Afghan governance and private sector capacity. In the field, they will work from District Support Teams and PRTs, side by side with our military. Some will also extend our permanent diplomatic presence outside of Kabul by staffing new consulates in Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat.
We are now in the midst of the civilian surge. I spoke last Thursday at the Foreign Service Institute with a class of 90 experts from USAID, USDA and State who will be deploying before Christmas; the next such class is in two weeks, so our tempo is quick. On Friday, I met with a packed room of Foreign Service Officers looking to sign-up for tours in 2010 and beyond. Next week, I'll travel to Camp Atterbury, Indiana, where every civilian deploying to the field undergoes a week-long, realistic, intensive field exercise with our military counterparts.
Secretary Clinton is proud of noting that among these civilians are our top experts from 10 different U.S. government departments and agencies. And once deployed, they report to our Embassy in Kabul through a unified civilian chain of command, with senior civilian representatives at every civ-mil platform. In short, our selection, training and leadership is better than ever before. The result is improved civ-mil coordination at all levels of our effort in Afghanistan, and gives us the civilian expertise out in key districts that will allow our locally-focused strategy to succeed. Admiral Mullen attested to the quality of the civilians during his appearance before the Congress last Thursday.
In his landmark strategy speech Tuesday, President Obama stressed the importance of Pakistan to the success of the fight against terrorism and extremism in South Asia, but he didn't offer many details. One reason could be that there are no new concrete deliverables or changes in approach related to Pakistan to announce, and all of the ideas Obama has for advancing the relationship are waiting for Pakistani buy-in.
Conventional wisdom in Washington is that that Obama didn't want to trigger Pakistani sensitivities by talking too much about the U.S. military operations there. In reality, the substance of any new items of cooperation Obama is proposing to Pakistan are a long way from being finalized.
At West Point, Obama talked about the need to help Pakistan economically, build Pakistani civic institutions, and even work on some sort of rapprochement between Pakistan and India, all while pressing Pakistani leaders to do more to confront extremists in their midst.
"Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interests, mutual respect, and mutual trust," Obama said. "We will strengthen Pakistan's capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries, and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe-haven for terrorists whose location is known, and whose intentions are clear."
But everything Obama said regarding Pakistan was already administration policy, so what's new as of Tuesday's announcement? Nothing yet.
"Beyond what the president said in his speech in terms of a roadmap for building U.S.-Pakistan relations, I do not believe there is anything else [planned or agreed at this point]," a State Department official involved in the issue said in an interview with The Cable.
Last week, The Washington Post reported that Obama sent Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari a letter, delivered by National Security Advisor James L. Jones, offering Pakistan a new strategic relationship with the U.S. in exchange for really tackling the extremist problem once and for all, in what some insiders are calling a "grand bargain."
But the State Department official downplayed the significance of the letter (which he had not personally seen), describing the administration's outreach to Pakistan as a "methodic, long run policy."
"We're not pivoting this relationship on any big transaction," the State Department official said. "I do not believe the new Pakistan strategy is based on suddenly introducing a big offer on the table to get the Pakistanis to carry out a specific act. It's trying to really build a long-term partnership that hasn't existed in a long time."
Then on Wednesday, the New York Times came out with a story about how Obama had secretly authorized a significant expansion of U.S. military and intelligence operations inside Pakistan, including expanded drone strikes targeting Afghan Taliban in addition to those insurgents attacking the Pakistani government.
But even the Times piece acknowledged, regarding Obama's Pakistan expansion, that "the Pakistanis, suspicious of Mr. Obama's intentions and his staying power, have not yet agreed."
Pakistani sources told The Cable that Zardari has not responded to Obama's letter and while the Zadari government was generally open to greater cooperation, negotiations could take months.
That didn't stop Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from testifying today to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "We will significantly expand support intended for Pakistan to develop the potential of their people." Of course, that's true based on the Kerry-Lugar Pakistan aid bill, which passed in September, and other initiatives, but that's not new.
Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar, R-IN, honed in on the gaps in the administration's announced strategy.
"It is not clear how any expanded military effort in Afghanistan addresses the problem of Taliban and al Qaeda safe havens across the border in Pakistan," he said. "If these safe havens persist, any strategy in Afghanistan will be substantially incomplete."
Underlying the dynamic is the open question of whether the Pakistani military, which has been getting attacked ruthlessly and repeatedly by extremists lately, has either the capacity or the will to expand its fight to militants who are only interested in creating havoc on the other side of the Afghan-Pakistan border.
"[The Pakistani military] feels that they're stretched; they feel that they need to maintain [their ties to the Afghan Taliban] due to potential hostilities with India and uncertainty about the long-term American presence," said J Alexander Thier, director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the United States Institute of Peace.
He said getting Pakistan's government to give up supporting the Afghan Taliban, "out of all of this stuff, is the hardest sell."
Shuja Nawaz, director for South Asia at the Atlantic Council, said that until the Pakistanis respond to Obama's overtures, there is no "grand bargain."
"Basically I think it's a reaffirmation of the commitment to Pakistan," he said, "which is probably all the president can do in letter form."
President Obama is likely to get all the money he needs to carry out his "surge" of U.S. forces to Afghanistan, despite widespread skepticism among the Democratic congressional leadership, the top House defense appropriator said Wednesday.
John Murtha, D-PA, who chairs the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, said he was not convinced that an increased American commitment to Afghanistan was wise -- he referred to the options facing the president as "a real son-of-a-gun" and "horrendous" -- but predicted that the Democrat-led Congress would give Obama the money anyway.
"I don't see any circumstances under which the president would lose the battle over the money this year," said Murtha, who traveled to Afghanistan at the end of last month. "If we're going to stop the deployment ... we'd have to not only vote against the funding but also have a resolution and that's not likely."
President Obama promised to work with Congress to figure out a way to pay for the troop increase, but Murtha stands at the crux of that process and he isn't sure that will be as easy as the president seems to think.
Contradicting House leadership, Murtha said there would need to be a supplemental war-spending bill of at least $40 billion just to account for war operations in fiscal 2010. "Believe me, there will be a supplemental," he said, noting that even without the added troops there would have a need for war funding above what the administration has already asked for.
And even though the administration is planning to request new war funds in the coming weeks, the supplemental bill will probably come in the May-June timeframe, Murtha said, well after most of the new troops are already deployed. The Appropriations Committee chairmen, Rep. David Obey, D-WI, and Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-HI, have agreed not to fund the extra troops in the regular defense bill for 2010, which has also not been passed yet, he added.
On a more fundamental level, Murtha doesn't believe that that Obama's Afghanistan surge strategy will necessarily work and he pushed back against Obama's basic premise that the international mission in Afghanistan is vital to American interests.
"I'm not sure there's a threat to our national security," Murtha said, arguing that al Qaeda can train from anywhere and adding that there is no precedent for successful military campaigns by foreign forces in Afghanistan. "I'm not sure there's a goal here that can be achieved."
"Historically this is a tough call," Murtha continued, referencing failed occupations in Afghanistan from the Russians to Alexander the Great. "This is a real son-of-a-gun. This is horrendous."
Murtha will chair two hearings next week on the issue, one early next week with Adm. Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, and one Dec. 10 with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry.
He acknowledged once again that Obey's idea to pass a war surtax bill was unlikely to happen.
Overall, despite a good speech from the president, Murtha said several of his subcommittee members remain ambiguous or opposed to the new strategy.
"Obama says 'You've got to be with us,' and maybe we will be with him, but I'm still not convinced."
Murtha gave a Obama a book by historian Paul Kennedy entitled The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which he said was a relevant warning about how great powers decline after overextending themselves due to war expenditures.
"The more I look at it, the more I see how it fits in exactly with what's happening today."
Several lawmakers from both sides of the aisle told President Obama directly Tuesday afternoon they are concerned about his July 2011 time frame for beginning the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, according to Sen. Kit Bond.
Bond briefed The Cable exclusively upon exiting Tuesday afternoon's meeting between several senior lawmakers and the president ahead of tonight's strategy announcement. Obama called on the legislators to support his new strategy both rhetorically and financially, Bond said, but lawmakers pushed back on Obama's plan to announce that he intends to begin handing off security responsibility to the Afghan government in only 18 months' time.
"I was concerned about beginning the exit in July 2011 because we need a success strategy and not an exit strategy," Bond said, adding that "several others from both sides raised that as well."
Among the other senior senators Bond identified as speaking about their concerns over the withdrawal timeline were Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain, R-AZ and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-CA. Bond is the top Republican on the intel panel.
Obama acknowledged the senators' concerns but explained the time-frame decision as reflecting the administration's desire to "make sure that [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai knew he had to get the security forces built up quickly," according to Bond.
The president also reiterated that the pace and endpoint for the drawdown would be determined by the conditions on the ground, to which Bond said senators asked Obama whether he or the commanders on the ground would make that call. Obama indicated such details were still tentative, according to Bond.
Regardless, Obama asked the lawmakers to get behind the new strategy despite their reservations and "said he expected support from everybody," Bond said. Obama's argument was that the United States spends so much for national security that there was no good reason to short-change this important effort now.The meeting lasted for about an hour and some but not all of the lawmakers present had opportunities to speak for a couple minutes only. Shortly after, Obama boarded Air Force One on the way to West Point, where he will announce his new strategy to the world at 8 p.m. tonight.
The White House has now confirmed that President Obama will announce the addition deployment of 30,000 new U.S. troops to Afghanistan, as well as a plan to start withdrawing troops in July of 2011.
Two administration officials briefed reporters on a conference call Tuesday afternoon ahead of Obama's Tuesday evening speech at the West Point military academy. The officials called the increase a "surge" and said that while the withdrawal would begin in July 2011, the pace and end point of the withdrawal would be determined by Obama at a later time.
"This surge will be for a defined period of time," one of the officials said, "What the president will talk about tonight is a date ... by which he will begin to transfer the leadership role to our Afghan partners."
"He will not tonight specify the end of that process or the pace at which he will proceed. That date and process will be determined by conditions on the ground."
The idea of a time frame for withdrawal of U.S. forces is a controversial one, especially among lawmakers, who reacted strongly to reports of a three-year time frame Tuesday morning. The White House later denied those reports to The Cable.
One of the administration officials sought to preempt criticisms of a set date for withdrawal by saying that leaving the withdrawal endpoint flexible would prevent Afghans from simply stalling until American troops leave.
"If the Taliban thinks they can wait us out, they are misjudging the president's approach," the official said, while adding, "It does put everyone under pressure to do more, sooner."
Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, has already come out against the White House plan to begin withdrawal in 2011.
The 30,000 figure includes two or three full combat brigades plus one full brigade-sized element focused exclusively on training Afghan security forces. All new combat troops will be partnered with Afghan forces in some fashion.
The new strategy will also include a beefed-up commitment to Pakistan, although the administration officials declined to give specifics. More on that later....
President Obama will not announce a three-year time frame for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, despite a CNN report to the contrary.
"That's wrong. The time frame of three years is nowhere in the speech," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable. He added that spokesman Robert Gibbs's statement on this issue earlier Tuesday was accurate but did not elaborate.
Gibbs told CNN's John King this morning that "the president will discuss tonight the time frame in which he believes we can transition our forces out of Afghanistan."
CNN then reported that time frame will be three years, according to multiple administration officials.
This sparked a firestorm of reaction on Capitol Hill, with hawks and dovs alike reacting to the idea.
"I hope it's not true," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-CT, who added that he supported Obama expected announcement of 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan as "enough."
"I hope it's not an explicit deadline to get our troops out because that undermines the mission, but some mention of a time line or a goal is OK," Lieberman said.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-WI, said that he was "very happy" about the idea of "having a timeline or some sense that this is not open-ended."
He is simultaneously opposed to the basic idea of increasing troops there in the first place.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he expected Obama to announce "milestones" but not a hard timeline.
Senior administration officials are set to brief reporters on the Afghanistan strategy momentarily.
As President Obama gets ready to roll out his new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, some leading Democrats are focusing on the cost of the pending troop escalation. But they are unlikely to apply actual legislative pressure on the White House to find the money.
The debate was heightened by the introduction of a bill by House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-WI, and John Larson, D-CT, a member of the House leadership, that would impose a 1 percent surtax on most Americans to pay for the wars.
But as with most bill introductions in Congress, House leadership has no plans to actually move the bill and most insiders recognize it as a way for those Democrats who oppose escalation to stake out a semi-critical posture while also seeming to be fiscally responsible.
"That's a message bill, not one we will pass," one very well placed Democratic source told The Cable.
Congressional Quarterly has also reported that defense appropriations subcommittee Chairman John Murtha, D-PA, acknowledged that "he knew the bill would not be enacted and that advocates of a surtax were simply trying to send a message about the moral obligation to pay for the wars."
Rough estimates put the cost of any escalation at about $1 million per added troop, per year. Obama is expected to announce Tuesday the deployment of 30,000 new soldiers and Marines, which would make the price tag at least $30 billion in 2010, in addition to the ongoing costs of fighting the wars with currently deployed resources.
The Obama administration pledged upon taking office to move to "honest budgeting" for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and did include war costs as part of its formal fiscal 2010 budget request. But that request, around $130 billion, will be insufficient to pay for war operations this fiscal year and a supplemental spending bill is expected in early Spring.
The White House also placed a $50 billion "placeholder" in its budget projections for fiscal 2011 and beyond, a figure nobody believes is enough to keep the war machine humming, no matter what new strategies are announced. So the Obama administration's promise to pay for the wars was doomed to be broken even before a troop escalation was contemplated.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Monday that there would not be a "lengthy discourse" on how Obama intends to pay for his new strategy in his speech Tuesday at West Point.
"I think the president will... elude to the cost. I don't know if it gets down to the granularity of the exact dollar amount for each and every thing," Gibbs said, "Some of that's going to depend on logistical decisions that are ultimately made."
More broadly, Obey has not been shy about his skepticism about a continued U.S. commitment to Afghanistan. When giving the money for fiscal 2010, he went out on a limb and warned that he might not be willing to support funding for the wars if progress wasn't shown in one years' time. Those comments were widely criticized.
As the White House briefs interested parties in anticipation of Tuesday's Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy rollout, more and more details of the new strategy and President Obama's announcement are leaking out.
One high-level diplomatic source familiar with the details of new strategy confirmed to The Cable that Obama will announce the addition of 30,000 new U.S. soldiers and marines for Afghanistan and up to 6,000 more troops from international partners
The elements of the new strategy and the general outlines of the troop requests were being briefed to various interested parties both inside and outside the U.S. government as early as Friday.
In his speech Tuesday at the West Point military academy, Obama will outline a mix of a new counterinsurgency-heavy approach for Afghanistan and a new counterterrorism-heavy approach toward Pakistan. The strategy will seek to retake space now controlled by the Taliban and engage more with the local population, while speeding the buildup of the Afghan National Security Forces.
The strategy will specify the premier goal of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan as dismantling al Qaeda's international capabilities, but the administration will not include any hard timelines for when success might be achieved or when U.S. troops might withdraw.
"We're not going to be in Afghanistan forever, but we will stay long enough to do the job," is how the source described the president's message. The new strategy will include new military, political, and intelligence-focused elements. While benchmarks will be included generally in the new strategy, the specifics of those benchmarks will remain largely private in the near term.
On the political front, the source said that Obama has decided to put increased pressure on the Afghan government to address issues of corruption and mismanagement by promising to hold Afghan President Hamid Karzai to new and higher standards of governance and the delivery of services, the source said.
The president is also expected to mention a new international conference on Afghanistan to be held in London on Jan. 28, with either Secretary of Defense Robert Gates or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to attend. (The conference was announced by British Prime Minister Gordon Brow this weekend.)
"The Conference will be an opportunity for the international community and the Afghan government to discuss security transition, governance, economic development, reintegration and reconciliation, and civilian leadership issues, including the endorsement of a civilian counterpart to the Commander of ISAF," National Security Council spokesman Michael Hammer said in a statement e-mailed to several reporters. "The conference is evidence of the sustained international commitment to Afghanistan and will build on the work that we expect the Foreign Ministers of ISAF countries to do together on 4 December at NATO in Brussels."
The number of 30,000 new U.S. troops represents four full combat brigades and an unspecified number of trainers for the Afghan Security Forces. This is less than the 40,000 identified as a medium risk option by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, earlier this year.
"Additional resources are required, but focusing on force or
resource requirements misses the point entirely," McChrystal wrote in a
classified assessment that was leaked to the Washington Post. "The key takeaway form
this assessment is the urgent need for a significant change in our strategy and
the way we think and operate."
The final troop decision is seen as a victory for Gates and National Security Advisor James L. Jones, who advocated a troop increase smaller than that sought by the uniformed military but larger than the idea pushed by others in the administration such as Vice President Joseph Biden.
On the Pakistani side, the U.S. and the Pakistani government have worked out a deal that would commit Washington to additional military aid, economic assistance, and intelligence cooperation as part of an expanded effort to combat extremists elements residing in Pakistan, according to the source.
What's not settled is exactly what the Pakistanis would have to do in return for the added support. The two sides are in negotiations over what the source called a "grand bargain" that would involve Obama administration support for any of a number of Pakistani asks in exchange for the Pakistani government actually going after all extremist groups in Pakistan -- including those focused on creating havoc in Afghanistan.
The outlines of this offer were communicated in a letter from Obama to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in a letter delivered personally by Jones. Zardari has yet to formally respond, according to the source.
"Obama is saying to the Pakistanis, if you commit 100 percent we will commit 100 percent," the source explained, adding that the details of exactly what will go on between the Obama administration and the Pakistani government will take weeks or more to iron out.
For that reason and because the White House is extremely aware of Pakistani sensitivities in the wake of the botched rollout of the Kerry-Lugar Pakistani aid bill, Obama is likely to "soft pedal" the Pakistani side of the new strategy during the new strategy announcement, the source said.
Also, the administration is expected to drop the use of the abbreviated term "Af-Pak," which angered many in both countries, while still maintaining the linkage of the U.S. approach to both nations as part of one comprehensive issue.
Top administration officials are already scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill beginning Wednesday.
The White House declined to comment on the details of the strategy as outlined by the diplomatic source.
As far as we know, the U.S. government isn't focused on engaging the Taliban or other militants waging war on the Afghan government and international forces, but there is one country actively working on a plan to reconcile the warring factions in Afghanistan: Japan.
A conference held behind closed doors in Tokyo finished the last of its three days of meetings Wednesday, bringing together representatives of the governments of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and others to discuss how a peace within Afghanistan might be negotiated. Among the participants was Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, an advisor on reconciliation to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Stanekzai has often advocated for internal Afghan reconciliation and in his capacity as a visiting fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace last year, he wrote that "A multitude of factors suggest that the time is ripe for a reconciliatory process," and "A comprehensive and coordinated political reconciliation process must be started."
The conference ended with a list of recommendations, obtained by The Cable, that will now be sent to Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada as he charts out Japan's future policy on Afghanistan.
The Japanese government, now led by the Democratic Party of Japan, has been searching for a new role in Afghanistan after announcing it would end its military refueling mission there but also increase its aid contribution by $5 billion.
Leading an international effort to negotiate a détente between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government could be how the DPJ forges a new identity for Japan's foreign policy, which has long been tethered to U.S. foreign policy. The DPJ has called for a more independent position in the Japanese alliance with Washington.
"Since Japan enjoys an excellent reputation with Afghanistan and the immediate neighbors of Afghanistan, it is highly desirable that Japan play a key role within the international community in supporting the peace and reintegration program led by the Afghan government," the recommendations state.
Earlier this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton set out the conditions under which she believes reconciliation with certain members of the Taliban could be achieved.
"We understand that not all those who fight with the Taliban support al-Qaida, or believe in the extremist policies the Taliban pursued when in power," she said at the Council of Foreign Relations on July 15, "And today we and our Afghan allies stand ready to welcome anyone supporting the Taliban who renounces al-Qaida, lays down their arms, and is willing to participate in the free and open society that is enshrined in the Afghan Constitution."
But Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke said Nov. 23 that "there has been no direct meetings between American officials and Taliban officials ... we are not having direct contacts with the Taliban."
The conference was organized by World Conference of Religions for Peace Japan committee and was arranged with help of the group Japanese Parliamentarians for Shared Security and with cooperation of the Japanese foreign ministry.
When Peter Galbraith testified on Capitol Hill Monday, the former U.S. ambassador and U.N. envoy answered questions on the credibility of Hamid Karzai, the elections in Afghanistan, the U.S. mission there, troop levels, and a host of other issues.
What lawmakers failed to bring up were the allegations that Galbraith, an advisor to Kurdish Regional Government in the aftermath of the invasion, abused his position to advocate for policies that would benefit companies in which he had a huge financial interest.
Perhaps the cozy atmosphere was to be expected, for the globe-trotting diplomat was returning to friendly territory: Galbraith is a consummate Capitol Hill veteran and insider. He was a professional staff member for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1979 to 1993.
Galbraith reportedly stands to make upwards of $100 million from stakes in Kurdish oil fields he secured while he was an advisor to the Kurdish regional government. Galbraith has admitted he helped secure contracts for the Norwegian company DNO at the same time he was advising the Kurds on the formation of the Iraqi constitution, which granted significant control of new oil fields to the Kurdish government.
When one of those fields, named Tawke, struck riches in 2005, Galbraith's stake became hugely valuable. His push for more Kurdish autonomy had contributed to a massive personal financial windfall. During the same time period, Galbraith was also an advisor senior U.S. lawmakers such as then-Sen. Joseph Biden, D-DE, who also advocated for increased federalism and regional autonomy in Iraq.
"What is true is that I undertook business activities that were entirely consistent with my long-held policy views," Galbraith told The New York Times. "I believe my work with DNO (and other companies) helped create the Kurdistan oil industry which helps provide Kurdistan an economic base for the autonomy its people almost unanimously desire."
"So, while I may have had interests, I see no conflict."
But none of that came up in Galbraith's testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee, chaired by John Tierney, D-MA. That subcommittee has a reputation for taking on thorny oversight issues the House Armed Services Committee shies away from, and Tierney is not known to pull his punches.
But Tierney stuck to the hearing's title, which focused on the Afghan elections, and Galbraith wasted no time in repeating his harsh criticisms of Karzai, the Afghan government, the U.N. mission in Kabul, and his former boss at the U.N. mission, Kai Eide.
Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon fired Galbraith from his post as the number two U.N. official in Afghanistan after he had a falling out with Eide, formerly a close personal friend, over the U.N.'s role in the disputed August presidential election.
The blame for the current situation in Afghanistan falls to both Karzai and Eide, Galbraith explained. He warned against sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, as Obama is expected to announce next week.
"It's clear that a fraud-tainted Karzai government, considered illegitimate by a large part of the country, cannot fulfill the role of a reliable partner. And thus, we're in the situation that although the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated in 2009, as it has every year since 2004, in my view sending additional troops is no answer," Galbraith testified. "Without a credible Afghan partner, they cannot accomplish their mission and sending them is, therefore, a poor use of a valuable resource."
Galbraith also called Eide "a terrible manager" and said that Western staff is now fleeing the office of the U.N. mission in Kabul after being demoralized by the U.N.'s lack of action related to monitoring and dealing with the election fraud.
"Kai Eide, the head of the mission, knew [the Independent Electoral Commission] wasn't independent; nonetheless, he chose not to act and as a result, more than 200 million of American taxpayer dollars were wasted, and of course, it has cost lives because the military mission has become much more complicated," Galbraith said.
UPDATE: Galbraith disputed the reporting in the New York Times article in a letter to the editors of Vermont's Rutland Herald, which in part reads:
At the time the Iraqi Constitution was negotiated in 2005, I was a private citizen with no connection whatsoever with the U.S. government. In short, I was in no position to push through anything. At the request of Kurdistan's leaders, I did offer them advice on how to negotiate best to achieve their goals. But I never participated in any negotiations and was never in the room when they took place.
The Kurds put forward their proposals for the Iraqi Constitution on Feb. 11, 2004, proposals that included Kurdistan control over oil on its own territory. At that time, I had no relationship with DNO, and DNO had no involvement in Iraq. When Kurdistan's leaders asked for my advice 18 months later (which I provided informally and on an unpaid basis), they knew I was being paid by DNO. They saw no conflict of interest for obvious reason that Kurdistan's goal of controlling its own oil was completely congruent with the economic interests of companies that the Kurds brought into the region.
Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter said Thursday he would not support any troop increase to Afghanistan and predicted a troop increase announcement would meet a cold reception on Capitol Hill.
"We ought not to add troops to Afghanistan, I even question staying there, unless it is indispensable to our fight against al Qaeda," said Specter on a conference call. "Staying in Afghanistan really requires a reliable ally in the government, which we do not have in [Afghan president Hamid] Karzai."
He said he could be persuaded to devote resources to fighting al Qaeda, but remains "unconvinced" that adding U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan was the answer.
The administration should offer an exit strategy with clearly defined goals and milestones, though not necessarily a timeline, Specter said. He denied that his position was meant to counter his 2010 primary challenger Rep. Joe Sestak, D-PA, who has called for a "measured increase."
"If they talk about 40,000 troops, as the generals there want, I think [the reception in Congress] will be pretty cold," he said, pointing the oft-repeated estimate that each added troop would cost American $1 million per year.
Specter predicted senators would line up behind the idea of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-MI, who has repeatedly called for faster increases in the Afghan security forces before more U.S. combat troops are added.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged those concerns today in his press conference.
"Clearly, a very important part of the strategy in Afghanistan has to be the increase in the size of the Afghan national security forces and their training, and partnering with us," Gates said. "And central to the strategy is the ability to transfer responsibility for security, as soon as conditions warrant, to the Afghans themselves."
The Obama administration won't announce its new comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan until after Thanksgiving, a White House official confirms to The Cable, and observers and experts close to the discussions see it as the White House's attempt to stage a full and controlled rollout over the week beginning November 30.
By waiting until Congress returns from its Thanksgiving vacation, the White House can have the time to directly consult with key lawmakers and then have senior officials testify soon after the announcement is made. In that way, the argument goes, the administration can build more support for the policy, deal quickly with any opposition on Capitol Hill, and then have a more active role in how the story plays out in the media.
"They're going to have to come out with both guns blazing and they're going to have to have their stuff together with consultations and everything," said one senior GOP foreign policy staffer close to the issue.
The administration isn't going to want to make the announcement and then wait a long time before holding the hearings, because that would make it more difficult to keep the message consistent after the news breaks.
Plus, congressional attention will be diverted that week to the health-care debate in the Senate, distracting some attention from the Afghanistan debate, which may be part of the administration's calculations.
"You basically own the space, but you fold it under the debate over health care," the staffer speculated about the administration's thinking, "That way you can't be accused of burying it."
Meanwhile, the staffs of key principals have already begun crafting the rollout and testimony speeches, leaving holes in the text to fill in whatever the President's specific troop and resource decisions might turn out to be.
The reports about the substance of the president's pending decision have been all over the map, with many stating that Obama simply hasn't reached a final conclusion on how to move forward. But there is increasing chatter that one scheme, known as the "Gates option" after Defense Secretary Robert Gates, may be gaining momentum.
That option would deploy three brigades to Afghanistan, short of the four envisioned by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, but with the option to deploy the fourth later should the need be demonstrated.
The president and key national security team members return from their trip to Asia today.
Spencer Ackerman gets the details of an apparently uncomfortable conference call this morning between National Security Council staffers and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. Ambassador to Kabul, whose confidential cables calling for caution in increasing troop levels in Afghanistan were leaked to the Washington Post.
It was a tense videoconference this morning at the White House, as Ambassador Karl Eikenberry addressed the National Security Council from Kabul just hours after the media got hold of his dissent on the crucial question of sending more troops to Afghanistan. "He is very unpopular here," said a National Security Council staffer.
No one was happy to read in The Washington Post that Eikenberry, who commanded the war himself from 2005 to 2007, thinks that the Karzai government needs to demonstrate its commitment to anti-corruption measures before the administration can responsibly authorize another troop increase. The prevailing theory is that "he leaked his own cables" because "he has a beef with McChrystal," the staffer said. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Eikenberry's successor as NATO commander in Afghanistan, has requested an increase in troops to support a counterinsurgency strategy with a substantial counterterrorism component.
But Eikenberry - who also briefed the White House by teleconference yesterday - reiterated his concerns. The ambassador told the NSC not to send additional troops to Afghanistan "without an exit strategy" and urged that the president to adopt a "purely civilian approach" with the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the lead, not the military...
Despite the dissatisfaction with Eikenberry's apparent leak, according to the staffer, Obama "demanded" an exit strategy for the war "after Eikenberry's cables." Certain members of the NSC dialed into the conference from the Fort Bragg, N.C. headquarters of the Joint Special Operations Command, which is playing a large if underreported role in shaping Afghanistan strategy. It would appear that much remains fluid in the administration's strategy debates.
Update: Ackerman retracts:
I am retracting this post, published yesterday, titled “Inside This Morning’s White House Afghanistan Meeting: Anger With Eikenberry, ‘Beef’ With McChrystal.”
My original source for the post stands by the account provided. The individual, a National Security Council staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity, has provided truthful and verified information on past stories, and so I trusted the source for this one. Elements of the account have been subsequently borne out: yesterday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that President Obama will ask his Afghanistan-Pakistan advisers to provide him with an exit strategy for the eight-year war, which is congruent with but not identical to my source’s information that Obama has asked the team to derive timetables for troop withdrawal.
But there are greater problems with the post. For one, the source was not actually present for the video teleconference that is the post’s central scene, and passed information to me second-hand. Furthermore, not only has the White House’s Tommy Vietor denied, on the record, that Ambassador Karl Eikenberry participated in a video teleconference yesterday morning, but the other two individuals I named as being present for the meeting — the inspector generals for Iraq and Afghanistan — have, through representatives, denied being present. I cannot subsequently stand by this account.
Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is headed to Russia soon, just as a U.S. government team is also on its way there to deal with problems surrounding a new U.S.-Russian agreement to transit lethal materials through Russian space to supply U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The controversial Holbrooke has had an ever-growing portfolio since taking on the Afghanistan/Pakistan mission, not to mention a staff that's grown from an initial 15 to more than 30 people. There are conflicting accounts of whether Holbrooke would deal with the Russians on the problems implementing the transit agreement. An interagency technical team is also on the way to Moscow to deal with the same issue, two administration officials confirmed.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told The Cable that Holbrooke is going to Russia "for meetings with his special representative counterpart and to discuss U.S.-Russia cooperation regarding Afghanistan," but said he couldn't be more specific.
"He doesn't do Russia," said one administration official who was surprised to hear Holbrooke was on the way there. Several sources said that Holbrooke's famously aggressive style and lack of history in dealing with the complicated and difficult Russians made him a particularly surprising choice to send there. "He's probably the worst personality that could be picked for something like this," said another experienced Russia hand.
The State Department could not confirm the specific date, but the trip is expected soon; a senior official described Holbrooke's mission in veiled terms only as discussing "political issues at a high level."
Speculating on Holbrooke's international standing throughout the region is somewhat of a parlor game for the diplomatic community. Despite his AfPak job, Holbrooke has not been to Afghanistan since before the disputed presidential elections in August; his lack of appearances there recently prompted many to think he was not welcome, in light of a reported feud with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The Indians have also made it clear they are not interested in being included in Holbrooke's sphere of policy influence. Holbrooke maintains he has just been hard at work in Washington dealing with the administration's Afghanistan strategy review.
Nevertheless, there are increasing signs Holbrooke's reach is widening. A team from Holbrooke's office is currently in Beijing for discussions with Chinese officials on both Pakistan and Afghanistan, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tuesday.
Meanwhile, multiple sources tell The Cable that there are problems with the U.S.-Russian agreement to allow lethal military materials pass through Russian space on the way to Afghanistan. The deal, agreed to in July during Obama's trip there, is the one tangible example of progress in the administration's effort to "reset' U.S.-Russian relations.
"We're trying to build a more constructive relationship with Russia," said Kelly. "Two of the best examples of our cooperation are the lethal transit agreement and cooperative counternarcotics training."
But the Russians are now attempting to place new conditions on the supply routes, the sources said. For example, Russia is demanding to know exactly what items are in each shipment before allowing them to go through, a condition the U.S. military is not about to meet.
The U.S. government is receiving different messages from different segments of the Russian government, the sources said, complicating the matters. Another part of the Russian government demanded a tariff be paid on U.S. shipments entering Russia on their way to Afghanistan, a complete surprise to the U.S. side.
Update: Holbrooke is also headed back to Afghanistan, his first trip there since August, at the end of his whirlwind trip around Europe, his spokesman said.
Holbrooke is currently en route to Berlin, after which he will travel to Paris, then Munich, then Moscow, before heading to Kabul. The trip is part of his regular diplomacy to consult with allies and partners on the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy review currently ongoing, the spokesman said.
Holbrooke’s trip to Russia is not primarily to deal with the lethal transit agreement between the U.S. and Russia, the spokesman explained. An interagency task force is in Moscow to iron out implementation issues with that agreement, but that is a coincidence, the spokesman said.
Holbrooke has a long history of dealing with the Russians, including a personal relationship with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the spokesman explained.
The spokesman could not give details about who exactly Holbrooke would meet with either in Moscow or Kabul.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
As the announcement of the Obama administration's Afghanistan strategy review gets closer and closer, more details are coming out about who inside the room when the discussions are held and who has the president's ear.
The White House still maintains that there is no set date for the roll out of the new policy, although White House officials have acknowledged that the announcement is unlikely to be before the President's trip to Asia later this week. The White House team returns Thursday Nov., 19, and a typical Washington public relations move would be to hold the rollout on a Friday.
There is some doubt that the rollout could be logistically accomplished in one day, what with the need to consult allies, interested parties, lawmakers, and then set up press conferences and briefings. The White House staff would be exhausted after flying around the world for a week, the argument goes, making a rollout on Friday, Nov. 20 unlikely.
"We don't have a rollout date set, because the President has yet to make the decision," said Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.
But multiple sources have indicated that Thanksgiving is a tentative deadline for the rollout, meaning that the last day the announcement would come out is Wednesday, Nov. 25.
A rollout the day before Thanksgiving would be sure to roil the Washington policy crowd, whose proportionally large contingent of Northeast-born members would then have to fight the gruesome traffic up the notorious Interstate 95 on the worst traffic day of the year to make it home to their extended families.
A Nov. 25 rollout could also invite speculation that the administration was trying to downplay the news, because as anyone who has been in Washington the day before Thanksgiving can attest to, the town is eerily empty on that day each year.
Regardless, with increasing consultations with allies and interested parties alike, the administration seems just about ready to come to a decision. There are multiple reports that Obama is planning to give Afghanistan commander General Stanley McChrystal most, if not all of the 40,000 troops he identified as a "medium-risk option."
Spencer Ackerman reveals that McChrystal had two very close allies inside the White House discussions the whole time, Navy Vice Adm. William H. McRaven, the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) at Ft. Bragg, N.C., and Vice Adm. Robert S. Harward, the deputy commander of Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va.
"Both men have deep ties to Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in the war. They are said to favor large infusions of U.S. troops to Afghanistan for performing counterinsurgency operations in select population centers, but they also advocate marshalling forces to pursue terrorists across Afghanistan's rugged, mountainous terrain," Ackerman reports.
There are increasing signs the administration is wrapping up its Afghanistan strategy review and planning a rollout toward the end of the week beginning November 16, immediately after President Obama and other top officials return from Asia.
Reliable sources tell The Cable that the review has entered its final stages, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Advisor Jim Jones now taking the lead and putting on the final touches.
Today, Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke cancelled a planned speaking event scheduled for Wednesday, November 18, at the Women's Foreign Policy Group, "due to unforeseen changes in the speaker's schedule," a group representative said.
And the rest of the President's team is back in town on Thursday, November 19.
The administration sent a team to Brussels this week to consult with all 43 member nations of the International Security Assistance Force, including all 28 NATO nations.
"Their trip will serve to both brief allies on where our efforts stand and to hear their comments and questions about the review," said Michael Hammer, spokesman for the National Security Council.
Meanwhile, certain embassy representatives in Washington have started to receive notice that they will be "consulted" about the Afghan strategy review soon, which some took as a signal that the review was pretty much done and the process of briefing it to stakeholders was beginning.
Hammer said that consultations have been ongoing since the start of the review and cautioned not to read too much into any particular set of meetings. But sources both inside the government and in the larger diplomatic community in Washington are now standing on high alert, preparing for a rollout many feel is imminent.
"We've all been waiting for that call," one Western European diplomat said.
Lawmakers are actively but secretively trying to get to the bottom of the CIA's relationship with Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in light of the stunning New York Times article which cited unnamed sources stating he has been on the CIA's payroll for years while simultaneously facilitating massive drug trade in his region.
CIA Director Leon Panetta met with several Senators on both sides of the aisle Thursday behind closed doors and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-MA, has submitted a formal request for information detailing the Agency's relationship with Karzai the brother.
Following his meeting with Panetta, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-MI, said that he would not disclose what Panetta told him but that on the question of Ahmed Wali Karzai's relationship with the CIA, he had gotten some clarity.
"I think we know [about his relationship with the CIA] but I can't share that with you," Levin said, adding mysteriously, "I don't know that Karzai's brother is on the CIA payroll."
On the issue of whether or not the President's brother is facilitating the drug trade near Kandahar, lawmakers who are in the loop seem more confident and willing to publicly express their concerns.
"According to credible people, the President's brother is involved in various illicit activities," said Armed Services ranking Republican John McCain, R-AZ, "We can't have that."
McCain reiterated his call that Ahmed Wali Karzai should leave the country immediately.
Kerry was the only senior lawmaker to issue a statement expressing his frustration about not being aware of the relationship.
In an interview with The Cable, Kerry said although the CIA relationship with Karzai might not necessarily be nefarious, Congress had a right to know the details.
"If the CIA has a deal, I want to know what the realities are," he said, "I want to examine the relationships and know what the terms are and understand what's the impacts of that might or might not be."
"It may not be something you want to deal with publicly, but we have to be absolutely certain that nothing we are trying to do is being compromised," said Kerry.
The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee have been notably mum on the subject, presumably working behind the scenes.
Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, refused to comment and a spokesperson for ranking Republican Kit Bond, R-MO, said that Bond would only say the news shouldn't result in any delay in President Obama's decision on how to move forward in Afghanistan.
Senator Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, the immediate past chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said that he was not aware of the CIA's relationship with Karzai during his tenure but should have been.
"You know what the problem is? We on the committee own no intelligence," he said, "We only get what they choose to give us. That's why we are always fighting."
As Barack Obama met with his principals to review their Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy Monday for the sixth time, administration sources told The Cable that the White House hopes to announce a decision on whether to send more troops before the president departs for Asia on Nov. 11 - Veterans' Day -- but cautioned that the date is by no means set in stone.
As for whether Sen. John Kerry is taking over Afghanistan policy, according to the White House, he's just helping out. After months of the administration delivering tough messages to Kabul through envoys such as Richard Holbrooke and Joe Biden, a fresh voice isn't such a bad thing, the narrative goes.
"It's a good cop, bad cop routine," one administration official said, acknowledging the strained personal relationships some other Obama officials have with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai following the marred presidential elections from August and the subsequent dispute over how to deal with the massive vote fraud there.
Regardless, after personally mediating a constructive way forward by working personally with Karzai last week, Kerry's views on Afghanistan, which haven't always been in line with the administration's, are now getting much more attention.
For example, he said upon returning that no announcement on troop decisions should come before the Nov. 7 runoff elections in Afghanistan.
And today at the Council on Foreign Relations, Kerry got out ahead of the administration's ongoing strategy review, arguing clearly for a limited counterinsurgency strategy focusing on population centers and resourced below the levels that Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal is calling for.
"We cannot and we should not undertake a manpower-intensive counterinsurgency operation on a national scale in Afghanistan," said Kerry, D-MA, sounding a lot like his Senate cohort Carl Levin, D-MI, who has also advocated for a strategy centered around building up Afghan forces, not adding U.S. combat soldiers.
"I am convinced, from my conversations with General Stanley McChrystal ... he understands the necessity of conducting a smart counterinsurgency in a limited geographic area," Kerry went on, "But I believe his current plan reaches too far too fast."
Kerry said that the key questions were whether or not there was a credible Afghan force to partner with, whether local leaders who were on board, and whether the U.S. would follow a troop increase with increased development assistance.
Overall, his speech very much expressed an interest in narrowing the goals in Afghanistan and separating "hardcore" Taliban from those that could be convinced to lay down arms.
"Absent any truly good choices, we have to ask ourselves the question, what is doable, what is possible, and not set some impossible, far out of reach, or hole-digging strategy," Kerry went on, eschewing the idea of defeating all the Taliban or building a "flawless democracy."
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Don't look for a huge "civilian surge" of State Department personnel to Afghanistan, no matter what the pending strategy review says, according to Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew.
The State Department is increasing its presence in Afghanistan and is responding to some increased requests from Amb. Karl Eikenberry, but other than that, State is not planning currently to match any escalation of troops with a huge increase in its presence there.
"I would not expect radical changes," Lew told reporters at a briefing Monday, "To the extent that there's a thickening of presence in an area, that doesn't necessarily mean that you would increase the civilian presence in the area. To the extent that there are new areas that are being covered by the military, that could raise either a redeployment of civilians or a need for additional civilians."
The current plan is to have 974 civilians in Afghanistan, 423 of those would be from State and 333 from USAID, a number that stands in stark contrast to the approximately 68,000 military personnel there, not to mention the tens of thousands of more that could be on the way.
There are 603 civilians currently on the ground in Afghanistan, Lew said, up from 320 in January. Another 282 are in processing to go there and 89 positions are currently being recruited, both from government and outside experts.
"We are going to have, when we're fully deployed, 388 civilians outside of Kabul," Lew said, noting that right now, there are exactly 157 civilians not stationed in the capital city.
He also responded to the question of how hard it might be to get civilians to go to Afghanistan, in light of protests in 2007 when talk of forcing Foreign Service officers to go to Baghdad caused an open revolt.
"It's not for everyone," Lew said. "Some people sign up and by the time they get through training, don't decide it's for them. Some people go out and come back. But that's really very few, compared to the total. And there's no compulsion in this."
The budget for such programs rose from $2.2 billion in fiscal 2009 to $2.8 billion for fiscal 2010, as a result of the strategic review completed in March. Since fiscal 2009 supplemental funding was dispersed so late, there could be a windfall in storewhen the fiscal 2010 money comes through, although there is no telling when that bill will be completed.
The programs in Afghanistan are all managed at the top by Assistant Amb. Tony Wayne, Coordinating Director for Development and Economic Affairs, who was appointed only in June.
Lew also talked about the ongoing effort to transfer nongovernmental aid programs in Pakistan away from Western organizations and toward Pakistani groups.
"The idea of getting our foreign assistance as directly to the people who are going to use it as efficiently as possible is central to the way we're thinking about foreign assistance and development generally," Lew said, adding that since many of the contracts were up for renewal at the beginning of October, it gave the impression this transfer was more immediate and widespread than it necessarily was.
Robin Raphel, the former Ambassador now a part of Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke's staff, is in Pakistan right now leading a case by case review of all of these projects, Lew said.
Washington has been abuzz with stories speculating about the role of special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, the gregarious U.S. diplomat who has been somewhat absent from public appearances recently.
Salacious headlines such as "Holbrooke missing from Afghan talks" and "Where's Dick?" have led off articles citing unnamed sources to speculate that the White House had sought to diminish Holbrooke's usually public persona, especially since the last-minute diplomacy to convince Afghan President Hamid Karzai to allow an election runoff was led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry.
But in an exclusive interview with The Cable, Holbrooke refuted the reports of his marginalization with a mix of indignation and bewilderment. He's been intimately involved in all the goings-on related to the situation in Afghanistan and his lack of media appearances is due to his hectic and relentless work as part of the administration's ongoing review of the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, he said.
"I didn't know I was missing in action because I was kind of busy all day," said Holbrooke, denying that the White House had given him any instructions to lay low or stay out of the public eye, as has been alleged.
Holbrooke and his staff have been working late hours every day to feed information to the endless string of White House meetings on Afghanistan. He broke away Wednesday evening to attend a reception at the New America Foundation to celebrate the publication of the latest book by his wife, Kati Marton.
He said he "has no interest" in the press stories discussing his lack of face time with the media, but took exception to one editorial in the New York Times, which wondered aloud about his status.
Holbrooke's absence from Afghanistan during what many see as a crucial time in Afghan politics also spurred rumors and speculation that Holbrooke was not welcome there because of a reported feud with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a feud that Holbrooke has clearly denied.
"The truth is that I go Afghanistan every two months and I was there less than two months ago. When I came back, I knew we were plunging into the biggest imaginable policy debate," Holbrooke said. "So [Secretary of State] Hillary [Clinton] and I mutually felt that my place at this time was to stay here."
Holbrooke said he will travel to Afghanistan and India next month, on the tail end of Clinton's trip to Pakistan, but the exact dates haven't been worked out yet.
"That was always the plan," he said.
His concern is that he isn't sure about the timing of President Obama's decision to rollout the new Af-Pak strategy and he didn't want to be abroad when the announcement is made.
"This is the most intense policy review before a big decision that I've ever been involved in," said Holbrooke. "He's really thinking it through."
There will be a principals meeting on Af-Pak in the White House Thursday and a National Security Council meeting led by Obama within the next few days.
Holbrooke said he had 25 conversations with Kerry throughout the recent election negotiations, including two on Wednesday (although he did not attend Kerry's latest meeting with Obama). Kerry's preplanned presence in the region to deal with the fallout of his Pakistan aid bill was fortuitous, Holbrooke explained, and he fully supported Kerry's representation of the U.S. government in the region this week.
"We encouraged John to get in on this," he said, "I have never seen a better interaction between a member of Congress and an executive branch on a major issue and the stakes yesterday were extraordinarily high."
He rejected the notion that Kerry was supplanting his role as the face of American policy in Afghanistan.
"Only a troublemaking journalist would think of something like that," Holbrooke joked.
ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images
The relationship between the United States and Afghanistan deteriorated during the first months of the Obama administration, due to a fumbled transition and the Obama team's initially cold approach to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a top aide of his said Thursday.
Kabul's ambassador to the United States, Said Tayeb Jawad, made the remarks today at the United States Institute of Peace, saying that the new Washington leadership placed too much emphasis on meetings and not enough focus on substantive challenges. He also suggested that Karzai, who stands accused of presiding over widespread fraud during the Aug. 20 election, might now be open to a second round of balloting.
"When the new administration came in there were a lot of changes," Jawad said, "and sometimes there was an oversimplification of the issues. It was like ‘Let's just get President Karzai and we'll invite the Afghans and Pakistanis over for tea and we'll resolve all the issues.'"
The Afghan government interpreted the message as, "We'll just have a trilateral, from 2 to 4 [p.m.], and then everything will be OK," Jawad explained.
He also alluded to a U.S. effort to marginalize Karzai, but pointed out that recently the Obama administration has done much better at working with the Afghan government and recognizing that "you could not just get rid of a democratically elected president of a country because you really don't like him."
"That's not how it works," he added.
Jawad acknowledged that a runoff election for the Afghan presidency might be in the offing after the final election results are tallied by the end of this week. But he portrayed such an outcome as not necessarily constructive.
"If there is a demand or a legal requirement for a runoff, then so be it, then let's everyone work to make this happen within 2 to 4 weeks," he said. "It's not easy to accomplish, but any other arrangement would put the country in limbo for a much longer time."
Too much outside interference delegitimizes the election process, he argued, and took a swipe at recently ousted U.N. official Peter Galbraith, who says he was fired for speaking out about the fraud he witnessed while in Kabul.
"There were 7,000 international participants and observers, but then all of a sudden one guy, Peter Galbraith, is taking the crusade on himself," Jawad said, warning that Galbraith's outspokenness would cause "a reaction by the Afghans."
Some in Washington and the international community have proposed that Karzai share power with his chief electoral rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. But Jawad also threw cold water on that idea, arguing that a coalition government would only promote an internal stalemate and ensure the rise of purely political appointees.
"It might be a good political solution," said Jawad, adding, "If you have a coalition government, then of course both sides will appoint those who are most loyal to them, so you are really sacrificing merits."
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Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, the head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, came out Tuesday in strong agreement with the Afghanistan assessment put forth by General Stanley McChrystal and promised to fully fund any forthcoming troop increase there.
The stance of the powerful Hawaii lawmaker is the opposite of his House counterpart, Wisconsin Democrat David Obey. Inouye is also taking a starkly different tone from the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-MI, who has said he opposes sending more combat troops there.
But after returning from a weekend trip to the region, Inouye said that his meetings with troops, officials, and military leaders convinced him that the mission in Afghanistan is not only winnable, but should be pursued under the counterinsurgency strategy that McChrystal has called for, which is necessarily troop intensive.
“At this time, I believe General McChrystal’s assessment of the current situation and his conclusions, including his assessment that coalition forces must have more daily contact with the people of Afghanistan, is correct and is what is needed if we are to achieve security and stability in Afghanistan,” Inouye said.
He also promised to use his chairmanship to fully fund any new strategy the administration submitted to Congress, but declined to say exactly what his position on specific troops increase options would be.
“I will make certain that our men and women in uniform have everything they need to accomplish their mission,” he said, “If, after further consultation and deliberation we decide we need 40,000 more troops or 50,000 more troops in Afghanistan, that’s what we’ll send but much more discussion has to take place before a final decision on troop levels can be made.”
Obey, who has threatened to cut off troop funding if progress isn’t made in one year’s time, argued the position exactly opposite Inouye Tuesday in a speech in Wisconsin. The House funding chief repeated his often expressed aversion to any escalation in Afghanistan.
"The Taliban is a god-awful operation. But if we're looking at our own national interests, our interest is in hemming in al-Qaida," Obey said. "If we're going to try and take on the Taliban all across Afghanistan, it's going to require hundreds of thousands of American, Pakistani and Afghani troops, and I just don't believe that this country wants to see that happen."
Obey also referred, as he often does, to the cost of military operations in Afghanistan, something Inouye acknowledged.
The two senior lawmakers, although having the same job in their respective chambers, could not be more different in terms of their backgrounds and motivations. Obey represents the liberal wing of the House Democrats, dozens of whom are calling on their party leaders to take a stronger stance against Obama’s war policies.
Inouye hails from a state that benefits hugely from military spending, mostly dispersed by Inouye himself. His state also raised Obama, and Inouye has been clear that he will defend and support his president.
In the end, Inouye also works in a chamber that tilts more toward the right on national security matters due to the presence of several powerful moderate Democrats. If the Iraq war debates of the mid-decade are any guide, the money will get dispersed in the end, because a leading fear of many Senate Democrats is being tarred as weak on defense.
Inouye’s voice carries weight, especially since he can’t be attacked as being weak on defense. In fact, he referred to his own military service as part of the psychological prism he factored his analysis through.
“Having served as an enlisted man and junior officer in World War II, I know what they’re going through,” he said, “I’ve tasted it.”
The Democratic Party has never been known for unity or message control. But as President Obama and his advisors continue to deliberate over their next move in Afghanistan, the stark difference between the top Democrats on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees shows just how far apart party leaders are on the war.
Ike Skelton, the Missouri Democrat who heads the House committee, gave directly the opposite message that is being put forth by his Senate counterpart Carl Levin, D-MI, who is calling for President Obama to only add trainers and hold off on sending more U.S. combat troops to that theater. In an interview with The Cable, Skelton called on the administration to fully resource the troop and equipment request of Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
"I will support General McChrystal because he's the commander on the ground like Roosevelt supported Dwight Eisenhower on D-Day," Skelton said. "This is very, very serious. American security is at stake. So whatever General McChrystal thinks he can do, whatever he wants we'll give him."
Practically, Skelton's tactic is to continue his push for McChrystal to testify in open session at his first availability. He has an outstanding request for just that, but the White House has not responded.
"I don't want to bring him back just for this specific purpose. I want him to stay there and fight the war," Skelton said. "But if he's coming back here for business, we want him."
Skelton is not the only senior Democrat to come out publicly in favor of McChrystal's call for increased troop levels. Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, said as much on ABC's This Week Sunday.
"I don't know how you put somebody in who was as crackerjack as General McChrystal, who gives the president very solid recommendations, and not take those recommendations if you're not going to pull out," Feinstein said.
But Skelton was out in front in calling for Obama to support McChrystal and made his views known in last week's congressional meeting at the White House on Afghanistan.
He is also not shy about criticizing the strategy put forth by Levin. When asked directly why the Michigan senator's approach was faulty, he responded: "And then what would happen, we let the Taliban take over? I don't think so."
Skelton is also gearing up for a tougher fight than he usually faces for his seat, which Republicans are targeting in 2010.
File photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
In which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. Here are the highlights of today and yesterday's briefings by spokesman Ian Kelly:
President Obama expressed strong support for Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal in his meeting with lawmakers this afternoon, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin reported upon returning to Capitol Hill.
Several lawmakers used their short speaking time at the marathon briefing/discussion at the White House to weigh in on the firestorm created by the perception that McChrystal's statements in speeches and interviews were meant to pressure Obama to increase troop levels or represented insubordination because he was getting ahead of the ongoing Afghanistan policy review.
"People talked about how good of a commander he's got in the field and [Obama] agreed. People said he ought to put a lot of stock in what that commander says, and he agreed with that. Of course, others pointed out that there's a chain of command above McChrystal that he ought to listen to, and he agreed with that as well," Levin said.
But Levin said that story was overblown and that the president and his field commander are on the same page.
"There's no rift with McChrystal," said Levin, "[Obama] said he picked McChrystal and he wants McChrystal to be direct ... He reiterated that McChrystal is very supportive of the deliberative process and getting the strategy right before focusing on the troop levels or resources."
Someone who is not on the same page as McChrystal is Levin himself, who said he told Obama clearly at the large meeting and during a private conversation afterwards that he was opposed to sending more combat troops past what it would take to protect additional trainers for the Afghan security forces.
"I don't think we should be sending in more combat troops, because the downsides of doing that outweigh the additional value," Levin said, who added that "A lot of Republicans spoke as if they very much support what he is trying to do, in terms of the general direction in which he's heading."
War makes strange bedfellows...
The Senate Intelligence Committee's ranking Republican, Kit Bond, R-MO, calls into The Cable to give some insider details on the Afghanistan strategy briefing he attended at the White House just now.
The meeting was heavy on strategy, light on specifics, and generally had a positive and bipartisan tone, Bond reports. His main takeaway was that Obama pledged not to return to a counterterrorism approach, where troops "shoot and then fall back to the base," Bond said.
Obama told the lawmakers that "nobody on his team was proposing that," Bond reported, which lawmakers took to mean that the president was leaning toward a strategy heavily focused on counterinsurgency, which is of course more manpower intensive.
And though Obama didn't reveal whether or not he will approve Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for up to 40,000 more troops, the president did talk about the need for Congress to quickly approve additional funding quickly if and when more troops are sent over there.
"If he provides more troops, we are going to need more resources," was the message the White House was sending, according to Bond, who interpreted that to mean another supplemental funding bill could be in the offing.
Bond's message to the president was similar to that of Sen. John McCain, namely that time is of the essence and the new strategy needs to be announced now and explained to the public.
"Obama said he understands the urgency but still wants to consider all options," Bond said.
Every lawmaker who wanted to had the opportunity to say his or her piece, but only for one to two minutes, so everybody had to make it short and sweet. So many congressmen took that opportunity that the meeting lasted much longer than had been planned.
There was no discussion in the meeting of the demand by Republicans that McChrystal be allowed to testify in open hearing, Bond said.