Five Best Wednesday Columns

Afghanistan withdrawal, the solar power scandal, and Chris Christie's imperfections.

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Fernando Luján on the winnable war in Afghanistan Army Special Forces Major Fernando M. Luján returned home after 14 months in Afghanistan to hear many in the Beltway resigned to failure there. Luján "spent the past year leading a small team of Dari- and Pashto-speaking Americans whose mission was to embed with Afghan Army units," he writes in The New York Times, and his time on the ground makes him more optimistic. The 2010 surge focused on the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, where the Taliban enjoyed almost total control. Now, Afghan soldiers say they are in power, and Afghan civilians are beginning to move into their abandoned homes and recommence civic activities. Meanwhile, the Taliban have shifted to high visibility civilian attacks. In May, local news featured four small children who described "how the Taliban had given them candy and persuaded them to don suicide bomber vests by promising that they wouldn't die and that their impoverished families would be provided for." The soldiers Luján was with merely "shrugged" and said, "They're getting desperate." Still, he cautions, we shouldn't be naive and ignore the insurgents who still control many areas and will attempt a counteroffensive as foreign troops withdraw. "My optimism is rooted instead in an intangible metric, gleaned from the thousand cups of tea we drank and the hundreds of patrols we walked: the Afghans have the will to win, with or without us." Troops from rival tribes are now energetically working together and risking their lives, and success or failure will depend on their will to fight. "For all our technology and firepower, we will succeed or fail based on what happens after we bring our troops home."

Holman Jenkins Jr. on the problems facing solar power "If solar power is destined to become competitive with conventional fuels in the long run, then it will happen in the long run, and in the long run it won't matter whether it was seeded with government tax credits, loans and other handouts," writes Holman W. Jenkins Jr. in The Wall Street Journal. Even after the Solyndra scandal, Jenkins says, the solar industry will probably have no shortage of investors "to keep pursuing this Holy Grail." Ever since 1954 when scientists invented the first photovoltaic cell, people have invested in the effort despite little reassurance that it was commercially viable. Over time, we have found and supported some self-supporting solar ventures. (He cites solar powered calculators, solar powered satellites, and solar powered homes for those who live far from the grid.) And yet, "solar still isn't competitive with traditional fuels for most applications. Nor is there the slightest reason to believe that only the absence of government spending stands between us and a solar revolution." What Jenkins calls the "macro Solyndra policy failure" is the government's inability to see that a poor commercial risk remains poor even when its the government's risk. The "micro Solyndra failure" was their inability to see that no one has yet to solve the fundamental problem facing solar energy -- the problem of storing excess power -- and so investment in it was bound to be futile. "Without storage, no matter how cheap collection becomes you're still stuck building a conventional power plant to pick up the load when the sun refuses to shine." Government's best use is to finance "basic research" where commercial payoff doesn't seem likely, and the government is already doing that. "But, of course, the calculation behind Solyndra was political, not financial," he notes.

Michael Tomasky on Chris Christie's imperfections Gov. Chris Christie's strong performance speaking at the Reagan Library yesterday will do little to quiet those begging him to run for president, writes Michael Tomasky in The Daily Beast. "The Jews waited 400 years for their deliverer. Republicans are an altogether more impatient bunch," he says. First, they thought Rick Perry might be the "Messiah" but he "flubbed the audition," so now they turn to Christie to be "conservative, authentic, a man's man." "I still find his possible entrance into the race amusing on several levels," Tomasky says. First, if Christie entered the race, he would likely compete for the same votes as Mitt Romney, ironically boosting Perry's chances in the competition. Second, Christie has made taken several positions that Republicans will ignore only until he declares his candidacy. On immigration, Christie said in 2008, "Being in this country without proper documentation is not a crime. The whole phrase of 'illegal immigrant' connotes that the person, by just being here, is committing a crime." He supports gun control laws, blames carbon emissions for global warming, and even released an ad that associated him with Barack Obama. "So Christie possesses a record capable of breaking right-wing hearts more ways than Perry can." His appeal, then, is more his affect. His refusal to answer when asked, for instance, if he sends his children to private school with "a pitch-perfect, right-wing, don't-tread-on-me dudgeon." ("You know what? First off, it's none of your business," he snapped.)  Tomasky reminds unsatisfied Republicans that there is no perfect candidate. "All of them have taken 'indefensible' positions. The wingnut caucus is just going to have to settle on one."

Camelia Entekhabifard on Rabbani's influence For nine years, journalist Camelia Entekhabifard has lived part-time in a house next door to Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of Afghanistan's High Peace Council and a former president and leader of the mujahedeen. Rabbani was assassinated last week. "With his death comes the destruction of the hope many key Afghan leaders had for talks with the Taliban, as well as their trust in President Hamid Karzai's ability to make peace," Entekhabifard writes in The New York Times. Rabbani had put himself at odds with enemies and allies alike by attempting to negotiate peace with the Taliban. Other leaders had been murdered, and Rabbani kept a security checkpoint outside his house around which a crowd often huddled. "Yet I have never felt unsafe on Rabbani's street. As a journalist, I found it a privilege to live near the man whom admirers called 'Oustad Rabbani' -- Professor Rabbani." She often camped outside his foyer for hours during turbulent periods to glean information for her reporting. "Mr. Rabbani always granted me an audience, greeting me with a close-lipped smile before offering raisins and walnuts and green tea." He criticized Karzai's administration but urged the country to sort through its problems while the international community was still invested in their success. "One day, the world will no longer care and we will lose our support," he said. "As a moderate who was a leader of the mujahedeen, Mr. Rabbani served as a link between different factions of power in Afghan society," she writes. After his death, "it will be virtually impossible for [Karzai] to regain their trust and restart peace talks with the Taliban," she says.

Mark Palmer and Patrick Glen on outlawing dictatorships The Arab Spring led to the ousting of several dictators and encouraged reform among several others. Still, in Syria, Bahrain, and Jordan, there were "bloody setbacks," write Mark Palmer and Patrick Glen in The Washington Post. Even outside that region, dictators remain in control in countries from Cuba to Burma. "Simply put, international law has failed to keep up with the challenges posed by dictatorial regimes." Under the current system, "international institutions stand by while political rights are eviscerated and mass killings are committed by regimes desperate to retain power." Even when the International Criminal Court indicts sitting rulers, nations make little effort to arrest them. "What we think of as 'international law' is a patchwork of conventions that deal with issues raised by dictatorships in a piecemeal, ineffective fashion." We have outlawed torture and genocide and delineated a baseline of human rights, they write. "This patchwork leaves outside the purview of international institutions many political crimes a dictator would be likely to commit, while punishing certain heinous acts only once they have crossed an acceptably unacceptable threshold." The writers thus propose a convention that outlaws dictatorships themselves. "Rather than treating dictatorship as an ancillary issue in the prosecution of other crimes, this would focus attention on the types of atrocities and oppression in which dictators engage," like the denial of civil liberties or interference with justice systems. This doesn't represent an "elitist" proposal from the West, they say, because it would merely "vindicate" rights already guaranteed elsewhere under international law. The Arab Spring and the march away from dictatorship over the past half-century undercut any claim that the rough outlines of democracy are somehow the province of the West."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.