As President Barack Obama turns his attention to nuclear weapons, his AfPak strategy appears to be going south, even as polling shows his approach to be popular at home. That would be so even if Kyrgyzstan, home to the last remaining U.S. base in Central Asia, had not just experienced a sudden revolution in which the new powers appear to be opponents of the U.S. military presence in their country.
Obama has a big new nuclear weapons reduction treaty with Russia, signed Thursday in Prague. He's announced a new nuclear strategy for the U.S., which narrows the conditions under which nuclear weapons would be used. Next week, he hosts the heads of state of nearly 50 countries in Washington to discuss stronger international controls on nuclear weapons technology. All to the good.
Meanwhile, however, his surprise visit to Afghanistan on March 28th, heavy on drama, seems to be coming up very short on substance.
Obama met privately then with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. National Security Advisor James Jones, former commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, told the press pool that Obama was there to "engage President Karzai...to make him understand that in his second term, there are certain things that have been not paid attention to, almost since day one. That is things like...a merit-based system for appointment of key government officials, battling corruption, taking the fight to the narco-traffickers, which fuels, provides a lot of the economic engine for the insurgents."
A good message, which seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
Things have gone from bad to worse with Karzai, who reportedly told Afghan Parliament members over the weekend that he is so upset with America he's considering going over to the Taliban. Which of course is nonsense. While it's relatively easy for an American man to avoid being in the military, it's not at all easy for an Afghan man. Yet Karzai managed to do it. He arranged to be a grad student in India when the Soviets invaded his country. When he concluded, as it were, his pressing studies -- while the Soviets slaughtered his people -- he was a "fundraiser" for the war effort, safely far away from the fighting in his country. ... And yes, your supposition that I think very little of Mr. Karzai, a creation and creature of the Bush/Cheney White House, is quite correct. Suffice it to say that his weekend comments, behind the scenes, are decidedly non-serious. He is somewhat less likely to turn out to be a rebel against his own extraordinarily corrupt government than I am to be the time traveling titular character in Doctor Who.
President Barack Obama, on a surprise visit to Afghanistan, spoke to the troops at Bagram Air Base, which was established by the Soviets in the 1980s.
Before that, Karzai claimed that the widespread fraud found by domestic and international election monitors in last year's presidential election was all fabricated by America and Afghanistan's other Western allies. Afghanistan under his leadership is widely regarded as one of the most corrupt places on the planet.
Then, appearing with General Stanley McChrystal before 1500 tribal elders, Karzai went so far as to say that he may not support the coming summer offensive in the Kandahar region.
Which is completely bizarre behavior on Karzai's part, if he has any hope of extending his presidential authority into southern Afghanistan.
Of course, there is something else going on. His brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, widely reported to be deep in the drug trade (and a CIA asset to boot), is a power broker in the Kandahar region. The U.S.-led offensive could knock over some very lucrative arrangements for Karzai's brother.
And there has been the ongoing problem of civilian deaths in Afghanistan at the hands of U.S. and allied forces. Each death makes the expanded mission there that much less likely to succeed.
With all these problems emerging in Afghanistan, things are still going relatively well in Pakistan, where U.S. drone strikes against jihadist cadre have taken a large toll with the assistance of the Pakistani government, and where that government has successfully pushed back against a Taliban insurgency that was threatening the state. Or are they?
In Pakistan, the Taliban on Monday attacked the heavily fortified U.S. consultate in Peshawar, probably in response to increased Pakistani Army operations against them in frontier regions. No Americans were killed, but several Pakistani security and support personnel perished.
While an attack against an American consulate, which is heavily fortified, may not be a surprise at this point, the crisis of governance in Pakistan took a turn for the worse again at the end of last week. The country's attorney general, seeking to pursue reinstated corruption charges against President Asif Ali Zardari by pursuing Swiss banking records, resigned after he said he was interfered with by other elements of the government.
Then there is Kyrgyzstan, where a very sudden revolution has swept the government of the former Soviet socialist republic from power.
Kyrgyzstan is key to the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan. I have a few old friends who've lived there and know the country fairly well. It's picturesque but generally doesn't figure much in international news. However, the mountainous former Soviet republic plays a central role with its hosting of the last remaining U.S. base in Central Asia. Manas Air Base outside the capital city Bishkek (called Frunze in the Soviet days, after the architect of the Red Army) is key to the Afghan War.
Most troops deployed to Afghanistan pass through Manas. It also handles much of the shipment of ammunition and other supplies into the war zone, as well as fueling aerial operations over Afghanistan. It's key to the present U.S. military surge in Afghanistan.
President Kurmanbek Bakiyev took power in 2005 in one of the color revolutions, Tulip in this case, deposing President Askar Akayev, a physicist who headed the late Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic and remained as president following the fall of the Soviet Union. But the supposedly democratic Bakiyev ruled with an increasingly iron fist, which did not go down well with accusations of nepotism and corruption and repeated hikes in energy and utility rates.
The latest unrest began Tuesday and swiftly spread nationwide, with huge demonstrations in the capital city Bishkek on Wednesday and many killed.
Despite the 2005 ouster of Akayev, exiled to Mocow where he is a physics professor, Kyrgyzstan is again increasingly under the sway of Russia. There are three Russian military bases there, one of them near the American base at the international airport of Manas, which is now closed to commercial air traffic. It's unclear what role Russia is playing now, though Bakiyev complained greatly about his portrayal in the Russian media.
In any event, Obama now has more to talk about with Medvedev than he'd supposed. Their conversations will continue next week in Washington, at Obama's global summit on nuclear weapons.
A revolution in Kyrgyzstan, with all the other headaches surrounding his AfPak strategy, was approximately the last thing Barack Obama needed. He barely kept the Manas air base open last year, increasing U.S. payments to the Kyrgyz government. Now the price will only go up, if indeed there is a deal to be made with the new government when it fully emerges. And we'll see if the country's new leadership will go along with a second U.S. base there, just announced in the last month, a rather hazy anti-terrorism center.
This is all an awful lot of trouble to go to in order to pursue a nation-building strategy, even a limited one, in a country that is highly resistant to nation-building.
Our most important mission in Afghanistan has always been much simpler: To prevent it from again serving as a staging area for transnational jihadism as it did for Al Qaeda before 9/11.