An expert's point of view on a current event.

Get Out, or Get the Hell Out?

President Obama's speech highlights one inconvenient truth: The United States is running out of time in Afghanistan. And the only question, it seems, is how fast to head for the exits.


Anthony Cordesman and Adam Mausner: A Race Against Time 

Anthony Cordesman and Adam Mausner: A Race Against Time 

Thomas Ruttig: Where’s the Progress?

Ejaz Haider: Let’s Face It, the Surge Didn’t Work

David J. Rothkopf: When Withdrawal Is a Big Step Forward

Kori Schake: President Obama Changes Direction on Afghanistan, Again

Michael Waltz: Obama’s Dangerous Message

Anthony Cordesman and Adam Mausner: A Race Against Time 

Our recent trip to Afghanistan revealed that the U.S.-led coalition is much better resourced and has a far more realistic grasp of the problems facing them than in previous years. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has achieved major tactical successes in the south, clearing and holding much of the former Taliban heartland — and ISAF is unlikely to lose this territory in the near term. By 2014, much of the country outside Kabul will probably still have nonexistent, inefficient, or corrupt governance — but a number of good programs and good people are in place working on this and progress is being made. The Afghan economy, while deeply troubled, is also improving.

It was all too clear from our visit, however, that ISAF is in a race — a race against time, resources, and the enemy — that it simply may not win. Aid funding will probably peak in fiscal year 2012 and decline substantially thereafter. Military and civilian personnel will begin to withdraw this year and will continue to do so through 2014. Without substantive and demonstrable progress in the next year, resources are likely to drop even faster.

The realism we encountered among senior leaders in Kabul was reassuring, and programs have been put in place to deal with almost all the major problems facing the war effort. Although these programs hold great potential, potential does not win wars.

But even if many of the current efforts are successful in Afghanistan, there are several long-term problems with the overall strategy that still need to be addressed:

1. COIN vs. CT

This debate is not one of tactics. These two strategies — counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism (CT) — are different in their grand strategic goals. The counterinsurgency strategy is far more ambitious. It aims to gradually build up the Afghan government while degrading the insurgency so that eventually the Afghans can take over the bulk of the fighting while their government remains stable and their economy develops at least enough to maintain this stability.

The counterterrorism strategy dispenses with most of this and aims to prevent terrorist groups from forming sanctuaries in Afghanistan through Special Forces raids, building up Afghan security forces, and drone strikes. A CT strategy will dramatically lower the aid given to the Afghan government and economy. This is why senior leaders in Afghanistan were almost universally against the CT strategy — it will essentially abandon most of the programs they have been working on for years.

The COIN vs. CT debate is thus the wrong debate. These are not two comparable strategies that aim to achieve the same goals with different means. These are two different strategies with different goals. The White House needs to determine what its goals are in Afghanistan and whether they are achievable given resource constraints — backed by substantive analysis and a full assessment by U.S. and ISAF commanders.


The deteriorating situation in Pakistan has revealed another fundamental problem with the current strategy in Afghanistan. Pakistan is much more important than Afghanistan in virtually every way: It is larger; it has a significant number of terrorist training camps and sanctuaries, including for al Qaeda; and, perhaps most significantly, it has nuclear weapons. The United States can no longer depend on Pakistan cooperating in its border region and moving against militants on its territory. More importantly, the United States must come to terms with the very real possibility that Pakistan may become a failed state in the medium term. A failed or failing state with nuclear weapons and multiple anti-American terrorist groups operating freely is a U.S. national security nightmare and must be prevented at all costs.


There was a growing disconnect between the transition planning of various coalition efforts and the potential of the Afghan government’s negotiations with the insurgents to render them moot. Negotiations may result in the Taliban joining the Afghan government, gaining autonomy in parts of Afghanistan, forcing an accelerated withdrawal of U.S. troops or even aid personnel, or restricting women’s rights and other human rights in all or part of the country. Negotiations may even restrict U.S. basing options, which could prevent even the more limited CT strategy from working.


Almost without exception, every program we saw in Afghanistan had at least a conceptual transition plan, and many had far more than concepts. Yet it is still unclear how all these plans knit together to ensure any kind of lasting "victory" once transition takes place. What is lacking is an overall picture of what Afghanistan will look like in 2014 and exactly how ISAF’s transition plan will get it there.

COIN in Afghanistan is winnable. Given a great deal of resources, a flexible leadership, and several more years, the current strategy can succeed. But at this point resources and time are running out. Senior leaders were realistic about the problems facing them, and many recognized that they were in a race against time, resources, and the enemy. But few fully realize that they are now losing this race.

This does not mean that the current strategy cannot succeed within resource limits. It means that Washington must determine what its end goals are in Afghanistan, whether they are achievable, and what resources it is willing to spend to achieve them. The United States should not promote a comprehensive COIN strategy and then under resource it. Nor should U.S. leaders enact a CT strategy and expect all the results that only a COIN strategy can achieve. But a decision must be made, and once made it must be swiftly carried out — because the enemy has already made its decision.

Anthony Cordesman holds the Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and is the author of more than 70 books on military affairs. Adam Mausner is a research associate and program manager at CSIS and is the author of five books on Afghanistan and Iraq. Cordesman and Mausner recently released a detailed report on their recent trip to Afghanistan, from which this article is drawn.

Thomas Ruttig: Where’s the Progress?

Despite all the claims of progress put out by the U.S. military, the Afghan surge has not hit the insurgency beyond repair and has not shifted the strategic balance away from the Taliban.

The Taliban’s network structure is pretty elastic. During the surge, a lot of Taliban commanders have been killed, but their places were filled quickly and, it appears, by younger and more radical newcomers. Ironically, the U.S.-led coalition is thus undermining its own strategy of damaging the Taliban until they agree to talks: Hard-liners are less inclined to talks and might want to seek revenge before doing so, as many of those killed are often their older brothers or cousins.

Others simply went to hide in Pakistan, but a number of them have returned to Afghanistan to participate in the Taliban’s asymmetric spring offensive. Since mid-April, the Taliban have killed four provincial and even region-level police commanders and one provincial governor. Two other governors escaped narrowly. For the first time, they injured a NATO general.

A third group of Taliban comprises those pushed from one district to another, where they continue their activities, in both the south (as in Kandahar and Helmand provinces) and the north (Kunduz) of the country. To take a recent example, after an operation in Tala wa Barfak, an area of Baghlan province, the local Taliban moved to the Ghorband Valley, which now has become volatile.

Equally important, if not more so, are the political results of the surge. Instead of forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table, the coalition closed the door. Up to 2008, an internal debate about the wisdom and morality of suicide bombing went on within the movement, and there was perhaps a political opening. Around the same time, the Taliban appointed a confidant of Mullah Omar, Agha Jan Mutassim, as the head of their political commission that would have been responsible for prospective contacts with the West and/or the Afghan government. After the surge started, he was replaced, and dissenting voices — i.e., those who wanted an end to the bloodshed — became silent again. Ranks closed around the party line: No talks before all foreign troops have left.

The Taliban will thus likely not be impressed by U.S. President Barack Obama’s drawdown speech. If they are clever, they will not come out with their usual condemnation, but with a statement welcoming the announcement as a good first step — sending a signal that they might be ready for a political solution. But they do not trust that the United States really wants peace.

Those in the Taliban who genuinely do want an end to the fighting, and possibly will not insist on a complete U.S. withdrawal before negotiations, are still there and might not have changed their minds. I am not saying that serious talks would have happened naturally, but the surge destroyed an earlier chance for them.

The surge, along with its attendant concentration on the security sector, has also overshadowed the deep shortcomings of Afghanistan’s political institutions. The country suffers from an overly centralized and manipulative executive, a marginalized parliament, and a judiciary that is light-years away from being independent. Even the composition of the parliament is still unclear nine months after an election full of irregularities and based on Afghan institutions that were not up to the job. These elections were the first example of a handover of responsibility that failed, and they should have been a warning.

The education system is also not as good as often described. Yes, schools and universities have been renovated and rebuilt. There are millions of students, but no jobs after graduation. Students have to pay their teachers to pass exams or bribe their way through the university entrance exams. In the primary schools, many teachers work a second job because they cannot live off their meager salary. As for the medical system, good luck getting an appendectomy at night in, say, Khak-e Jabbar, a district half an hour outside the capital that has a clinic but no doctor or medication.

None of this is really about Afghan President Hamed Karzai; it is about the failings of an entire system. It was the United States that shaped it in the early post-Taliban days, with no prime minister, no ID cards (which could have been used as voter cards as well, preventing fraud), and no conscription. The United States also reinjected the warlords, their former Cold War allies, into the system, which they duly managed to discredit very effectively from within.

Fixing Afghanistan’s deep problems will require a new generation of Afghans to enter politics. Before 2014, there is still time to put this and other required solutions at least on the right track. But the clock is ticking.

Thomas Ruttig is co-director and senior analyst of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based think tank.

Ejaz Haider: Let’s Face it, the Surge Didn’t Work

First, the good news: U.S. President Barack Obama is about to present the troop drawdown plan in the run-up to what everyone hopes will be the endgame in Afghanistan. The desirable has bowed to the doable; the United States will likely declare victory and go home, rather than quixotically seek to actually achieve it. But this is just about where the good news ends. Ten years of blundering to this realization has already turned Afghanistan into a wicked problem. 

Afghanistan, and with it the region, has reached a point where no course of action can be based on a definitive formulation. Staying is clearly not an option for a bankrupt and exhausted United States. But leaving creates a whole new set of problems, from the risk of a complete collapse in Kabul to the boost to militant groups’ prestige, with attendant blowback effects upon Pakistan.

Such a situation angels would happily avoid. Could Obama work a miracle? Let’s look at the report card.

The surge didn’t work, regardless of what the U.S. military may claim. Remember: The plan was to use kinetic force effectively to make space for negotiations from a position of strength. That has failed; the Taliban is not begging for mercy. Nor is it clear that the Taliban is ready to accept partnership in an Afghan political system, such as it is, that depends heavily on foreign largesse. And even in the unlikely event that dialogue succeeds, American taxpayers are liable to wonder why their tax dollars are going to a regime that includes Mullah Omar and friends.

Then there is the near breakdown in trust between Pakistan and the United States, a hidden casualty of the surge. Unless the two sides can work out a framework for cooperation — which is, again, fairly unlikely given the way things are heading — their interests in South Asia will inevitably diverge. The United States wants to see a liberalizing, pro-American Afghanistan free of al Qaeda; Pakistan wants above all else to retain its influence in its near abroad and prevent India from gaining a foothold on its northern flank — and the Afghan Taliban is the key instrument of that policy.

And yet, both sides need each other if the United States is to have any hope of an orderly withdrawal. This poses a dilemma for Pakistani strategists. Pakistan knows, or should know, that if the situation gets worse and the United States has to pull out in a hurry, the twin factors of geography and history will add to Islamabad’s woes.

In such a scenario, Afghanistan is likely to see a civil war along ethnic and linguistic fault lines far more destructive than in the 1990s. This would not only keep the Pakistani tribal areas unstable but also boost the influence of militant groups in Pakistani society. This is already the biggest internal threat to Pakistan, challenging the integrity of state institutions, including the military, the country’s last line of defense against external and internal threats. Far from being able to secure its interests, Pakistan will also have to contend with the hostile agendas of other state players in the region.

On the other hand, if the United States signals that it is undecided and will make decisions as the situation unfolds, the move will be interpreted in Pakistan either as an attempt by the United States to prolong its stay and carry out an anti-Pakistan agenda — evidence of recent CIA activities in Pakistan haven’t helped in this regard — or as evidence of confusion and incoherence in Washington. In either case, Pakistan will remain nervous, and its distrust will lead the country to pursue its own interests more doggedly, at America’s expense.

The worst option of all would be the withdrawal of the bulk of U.S. forces, with only some left behind to maintain boots on the ground — a version of Vice President Joe Biden’s counterterrorism-plus strategy. That would not be acceptable to most actors in the region, and not just Pakistan. It would also drastically reduce the political space for the Taliban to start negotiating openly with the United States, if we assume they are even willing to do so.

It is therefore critical for Obama to announce an organized, phased withdrawal from Afghanistan, with a clear date for total pullout. In the interim, the United States needs to privilege political reconciliation over the use of force.

That goes for America’s actions in Pakistan, too. Pakistan will not undermine its stability for the sake of the United States any more than it already has. Crackdowns on the Afghan Taliban or affiliated groups like the Haqqani network — if they were ever more than a Washington fantasy — are far less likely today. Pakistan will not risk a civil war by going after powerful internal militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e-Mohammed on the U.S. timetable even though policymakers are clear about the need to weed out these groups through a mix of strategies underpinned by public support. Americans need to learn to accept this reality.

The only way out of this impasse, albeit not without its own pitfalls, is to come up with a strategy together. Each side has needs: Pakistan requires an orderly withdrawal, and the United States requires Pakistan’s help in negotiating a safe exit. Let’s make it happen.

Ejaz Haider is a contributing editor of the Friday Times and was a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Studies Program.

David J. Rothkopf: When Withdrawal Is a Big Step Forward

President Obama announced Wednesday that 33,000 American soldiers would be coming home from Afghanistan by next summer. The address was carefully calibrated. There was something in it for left and right, hawks and doves. Accordingly, in the wake of the speech, everyone grumbled. John Boehner asserted that Congress would hold the president accountable if progress were reversed because we were pulling out too precipitously. Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz complained the draw down was not fast enough. Vali Nasr, formerly an aide to Richard Holbrooke at the State Department, doubted whether real progress could be made on security issues at any speed and wished there were more focus on diplomatic solutions.

While my own preference would be for a faster exit than described, the specific number chosen will, in the long run be forgotten by history. It is only an indication of a temporary, transitional condition. Instead, we should look to the bigger implications of the speech — its larger messages.

First, more important than the specific number the president chose is the trend it reflects, the bigger policy decision that has been taken. The die is cast. The troops are coming home. America’s longest war will come to an end soon. The president ratcheted up the forces, they are at peak strength now, and that will soon start to change. A decade of major wars is coming to a close.

This is tied to the Obama’s second major point: America’s attention must now turn to nation-building at home. The president seemed at greater ease with the message he was delivering in this section of his speech; it seemed to flow more naturally than the justifications concerning troop strengths. It was clear he understands that our most crucial national security concerns lie within our own borders — not threats from fundamentalists… but from lousy economic fundamentals.

This point is even more important than the first, as it is indicative of a crucial fact: America’s foreign policy from this day forward is more likely to be driven the consequences of the economic crises of the past several years than it is by those associated with 9/11.

Finally, there was one more major message in Obama’s speech that was highlighted to me in a conversation with a senior White House official shortly after it concluded. The president, he observed, was keeping his word. As he had done with Iraq, as he had done with regard to shifting our security focus in the region to Afghanistan and Pakistan, as he had done with regard to his promise to do whatever needed to be done to get Osama bin Laden, Barack Obama was sending a message to allies and enemies alike: He keeps his word.  He does what he says he is going to do.

The president rightly recognizes that America’s influence around the world depends more on his credibility than it does the precise number of troops we have deployed anywhere. That credibility has been under siege for years. It was not helped by the misrepresentations of the George W. Bush years or the failures of our economic system during the recent crisis.

And while "Goldilocks solutions" like a troop withdrawal that is not too high or too low tend to leave major segments of the population disgruntled, nothing does the kind of damage that lies and deception do. The wars that are now ending in the Middle East were started by lies and prolonged by misstatements. They are now being ended by a guy who was elected to bring them to conclusion.

Try as the president’s opponents in next year’s elections might to quibble with his tactics, they will find that this last point — in conjunction with the shifting priorities reflected in the other aspects of last night’s speech — may prove to be this president’s most formidable advantage.

Imagine: a president who actually does what he said he was going to do. It’s the kind of thing that makes withdrawals, like those announced Wednesday night, a sign of strength.

David Rothkopf is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and President and CEO of Garten Rothkopf. 

Kori Schake: President Obama Changes Direction on Afghanistan, Again

President Obama was sharply critical of the Bush administration for under-resourcing the war in Afghanistan; with his rapid drawdown of forces and funding announced last night, President Obama now deserves the same criticism.

President Obama has ordered a reduction of 10,000 troops by the end of this year and another 23,000 by the end of 2012, and they will "continue coming home at a steady pace" through 2014, when "the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security." He argued success on the battlefields of Afghanistan and elsewhere allow us to fight in a new way — a new way from 18 months ago, which was the last time he changed direction — and to focus on nation building at home instead of abroad.

Make no mistake: the president’s choices went against the advice of both the war’s military leadership and Secretary Gates’ recommendations. Understanding the deference the American public has for our military’s judgment on the wars, the White House is aggressively trying to spin the president’s policy as supporting our military commanders and as a gradual reduction in the force. Neither of those are true.

President Obama’s drawdown announced tonight is more than six times the reduction recommended by our military leaders and endorsed by Secretary Gates. The military leadership advocated withdrawing only 3,000-5,000 staff and support troops before 2013, so that front line fighting forces would be able to consolidate gains in the south and take the fight to the last of the Taliban strongholds in the east.

Drawing down troop levels before the objectives are met will increase strain on the forces fighting in Afghanistan. It will increase the risk they run by stretching them thinner across the demands, and it will likely increase the time it takes them to achieve the objectives, putting the president’s 2014 conclusion of the war in doubt. It will put diplomats and development experts operating in Afghanistan at greater risk, too. And it will reignite concern by governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan that we are more concerned about the exit than the strategy.

It was the president’s political advisors that advocated withdrawals of 15,000-30,000 troops — and the president decided on the highest number of their high numbers. They see high levels of public dissatisfaction with the duration of the war and have suddenly realized the war is expensive (although the costs have not increased over projections from 18 months ago, when the president approved this policy). Given how little this president has invested in shaping public attitudes about the war, what is remarkable is that more Americans aren’t opposed. He has been leading from behind again.

As Secretary Gates said last Sunday in rebuffing calls for a reduction larger than 5,000 troops, "we can do anything the president tells us to do, the question is whether it is wise." The president’s decision to withdraw 30,000 troops from Afghanistan before 2013 is unwise; it increases the risk of achieving his objectives, the risk to our military forces and diplomats operating in Afghanistan, and the risk of ending this war in 2014.

The crucial question President Obama did not answer in his speech is why he is sending soldiers and Marines to fight in Afghanistan if he is unwilling to commit the resources to consolidate the gains they risked their lives to achieve. This is worse than strategic incoherence. It is morally wrong.

Kori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and holds the Distinguished Chair in International Security Studies at the United States Military Academy.

Michael Waltz: Obama’s Dangerous Message

"We always suspected you would abandon us again. Now your president has said it," the deeply lined leader of a key Mangal subtribe scolded me across a small wooden table set with a bowl of Afghan raisins and nuts. To his left, dozens of other Afghans nodded in agreement. We were sitting in the small office of a women’s center on the outskirts of Khost city that was apparently funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and abandoned years ago.

I had been working closely with him for most of the year to garner his support along with his 500 arbakai, or tribal militia, during my most recent tour in Afghanistan. This meeting was supposed to be the final step toward winning over this historically pro-government subtribe.

He and his tribal council were now withdrawing their support completely. It was only week after U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2009 speech at West Point, where he announced the surge of U.S. forces but undercut the policy with the simultaneous announcement that he would begin their withdrawal by July 2011.

"We appreciate all that you have done for us — wells, roads, schools," the elder continued. "But until you are prepared to commit your children to stand side by side with our children, we cannot work with you."

"The Haqqanis and their Arab friends will build their training camps on our graves when you leave us," he concluded before walking away.

The president’s speech on Wednesday, June 22, outlining his strategy to begin the withdrawal of U.S. forces is evidence that American policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan is more about U.S. domestic pressures than it is about making any sort of long-term commitment to stabilize the region so that terrorist sanctuaries can no longer be used to attack the West.

The debate within the administration and among Washington’s pundits over numbers of troops and timelines misses the point. According to former colleagues still at senior levels of the military commands and at the Pentagon, the differences between the most extreme options offered to the president amounted to only a few thousand troops and several months on the timeline.

The larger strategic issue is the broader signal Obama has sent to U.S. allies and the region: America is leaving. This signal, which was received loud and clear by those Afghan elders in 2009 and reinforced Wednesday night, presents four fundamental problems.

First, the entire region has begun to maneuver for a post-American Afghanistan and mostly in ways that run counter to U.S. interests. What this administration doesn’t fully realize is that the Afghans, their government, the Pakistanis, the Indians, the Iranians, and the rest of South and Central Asia aren’t listening to the policy nuances of Wednesday’s announcement. All they hear is U.S. withdrawal and abandonment. More disturbingly, all the Taliban and al Qaeda hear is that they have survived the worst of it and they only need to last a few more years until 2014. Three and a half years is nothing in that part of the world. Although Obama attempted to emphasize that significant U.S. forces will remain after the withdrawal of the surge, their very mission to win over the populace will be severely undercut by the message he sent Wednesday night. The entire region is now hedging against the United States rather than siding with it.

Second, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates has recently addressed very bluntly, the United States cannot let the withdrawal of a few thousand U.S. troops be the green light for the Europeans to run for the exits. Unfortunately, despite the attacks on Madrid, London, and Denmark, we know that will likely be the case. At least the planned drawdown of U.S. civilian capacity is something we can control. During my most recent visit to Kandahar, one senior U.S. military commander described USAID as a source of instability rather than stability due to its continued lack of a meaningful presence in the provinces and therefore its inability to fulfill its promises to Afghans.

Declining troop numbers will also affect the ability of U.S. government civilians — most of whom operate under military protection as they provide aid and guidance on agriculture, governance, and the rule of law — to go out in the field. From what my former colleagues have told me, the civilian agencies have their own withdrawal schedule, with plans to pull back their already meager presence from forward bases.

Third, every Afghan I’ve spoken to recently, from ministers to my former interpreters, is increasingly concerned about the prospect of civil war. My Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara friends believe the United States is cutting a deal with Pakistan, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the Taliban at their expense. A multitude of notable Tajik leaders — the late Deputy Interior Minister Daoud Daoud, former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, former Minister for Reconstruction Ehsan Zia, former Interior Minister Hanif Atmar, and others — are increasingly spending time in their home turf reconstituting old alliances and networks. The Northern Alliance is getting the band back together and that includes outreach to its old allies in Iran, Russia, and India — all of whom are increasingly viewed as more reliable than the United States. The U.S. policy of withdrawal based on timelines rather than conditions — not to mention excluding minorities from talks with the Taliban — are only exacerbating the situation.

Finally, Obama’s policy is based on the assumption that al Qaeda is defeated and cannot reconstitute itself in the seams of an increasingly unstable Pakistan, a diminished U.S. and coalition presence, ethnic tension, and Afghan army and police forces that are years away from independent operations. This is a very dangerous assumption. Al Qaeda can and will restore itself as the United States invariably loses its hard-fought gains with the Afghan people due to diminished resources and will. A counterterrorism strategy must be nested within a counterinsurgency strategy, as the populace won’t risk their necks to work with the coalition unless they feel they will be protected. It takes a network to defeat a network.

Success in Afghanistan and the region is going to be tough and expensive. Most importantly, it will take time. Nearly every commander and civilian who has served there, including me, cites the progress that has been made in the last 10 years, but caveats his or her response with the need for more time. Although the costs are great, they will be far greater if the United States leaves too soon. The people of the region will never trust America again, and the cost of re-engagement if our assumptions are wrong will be nearly insurmountable.

Michael Waltz is a former South Asia advisor to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and a Special Forces officer (reserve component) with multiple tours in Afghanistan. He is now vice president of Metis Solutions, a strategic international consulting firm.

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