Stratfor: “The Strategic Debate Over Afghanistan”

This is one of the best reports I have seen from Stratfor in many years, high praise considering their quality of work.  The section in red nicely sums up our situation in Iraq.   The second half is confused, reflecting as it does the confusion of thought at our Versailles-on-the-Potomac and our delusions of hegemony.

The Strategic Debate Over Afghanistan“, George Friedman, Stratfor, 11 May 2009 — Posted in full here with permission.

After U.S. airstrikes killed scores of civilians in western Afghanistan this past week, White House National Security Adviser Gen. James L. Jones said the United States would continue with the airstrikes and would not tie the hands of U.S. generals fighting in Afghanistan. At the same time, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus has cautioned against using tactics that undermine strategic U.S. goals in Afghanistan — raising the question of what exactly are the U.S. strategic goals in Afghanistan. A debate inside the U.S. camp has emerged over this very question, the outcome of which is likely to determine the future of the region.

On one side are President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and a substantial amount of the U.S. Army leadership. On the other side are Petraeus— the architect of U.S. strategy in Iraq after 2006 — and his staff and supporters. An Army general — even one with four stars — is unlikely to overcome a president and a defense secretary; even the five-star Gen. Douglas MacArthur couldn’t pull that off. But the Afghan debate is important, and it provides us with a sense of future U.S. strategy in the region.

Petraeus and U.S. Strategy in Iraq

Petraeus took over effective command of coalition forces in Iraq in 2006. Two things framed his strategy. One was the Republican defeat in the 2006 midterm congressional elections, which many saw as a referendum on the Iraq war. The second was the report by the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan group of elder statesmen (including Gates) that recommended some fundamental changes in how the war was fought.

The expectation in November 2006 was that as U.S. President George W. Bush’s strategy had been repudiated, his only option was to begin withdrawing troops. Even if Bush didn’t begin this process, it was expected that his successor in two years certainly would have to do so. The situation was out of control, and U.S. forces did not seem able to assert control. The goals of the 2003 invasion, which were to create a pro-American regime in Baghdad, redefine the political order of Iraq and use Iraq as a base of operations against hostile regimes in the region, were unattainable. It did not seem possible to create any coherent regime in Baghdad at all, given that a complex civil war was under way that the United States did not seem able to contain.

Most important, groups in Iraq believed that the United States would be leaving. Therefore, political alliance with the United States made no sense, as U.S. guarantees would be made moot by withdrawal. The expectation of an American withdrawal sapped U.S. political influence, while the breadth of the civil war and its complexity exhausted the U.S. Army. Defeat had been psychologically locked in.

Bush’s decision to launch a surge of forces in Iraq was less a military event than a psychological one. Militarily, the quantity of forces to be inserted — some 30,000 on top of a force of 120,000 — did not change the basic metrics of war in a country of about 29 million. Moreover, the insertion of additional troops was far from a surge; they trickled in over many months. Psychologically, however, it was stunning. Rather than commence withdrawals as so many expected, the United States was actually increasing its forces. The issue was not whether the United States could defeat all of the insurgents and militias; that was not possible. The issue was that because the United States was not leaving, the United States was not irrelevant. If the United States was not irrelevant, then at least some American guarantees could have meaning. And that made the United States a political actor in Iraq.

Petraeus combined the redeployment of some troops with an active political program. At the heart of this program was reaching out to the Sunni insurgents, who had been among the most violent opponents of the United States during 2003-2006. The Sunni insurgents represented the traditional leadership of the mainstream Sunni tribes, clans and villages. The U.S. policy of stripping the Sunnis of all power in 2003 and apparently leaving a vacuum to be filled by the Shia had left the Sunnis in a desperate situation, and they had moved to resistance as guerrillas.

The Sunnis actually were trapped by three forces. First, there were the Americans, always pressing on the Sunnis even if they could not crush them. Second, there were the militias of the Shia, a group that the Sunni Saddam Hussein had repressed and that now was suspicious of all Sunnis. Third, there were the jihadists, a foreign legion of Sunni fighters drawn to Iraq under the banner of al Qaeda. In many ways, the jihadists posed the greatest threat to the mainstream Sunnis, since they wanted to seize leadership of the Sunni communities and radicalize them.

U.S. policy under former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had been unbending hostility to the Sunni insurgency. The policy under Gates and Petraeus after 2006 — and it must be understood that they developed this strategy jointly — was to offer the Sunnis a way out of their three-pronged trap. Because the United States would be staying in Iraq, it could offer the Sunnis protection against both the jihadists and the Shia. And because the surge convinced the Sunnis that the United States was not going to withdraw, they took the deal. Petraeus’ great achievement was presiding over the U.S.-Sunni negotiations and eventual understanding, and then using that to pressure the Shiite militias with the implicit threat of a U.S.-Sunni entente. The Shia subsequently and painfully shifted their position to accepting a coalition government, the mainstream Sunnis helped break the back of the jihadists and the civil war subsided, allowing the United States to stage a withdrawal under much more favorable circumstances.

This was a much better outcome than most would have thought possible in 2006. It was, however, an outcome that fell far short of American strategic goals of 2003. The current government in Baghdad is far from pro-American and is unlikely to be an ally of the United States; keeping it from becoming an Iranian tool would be the best outcome for the United States at this point. The United States certainly is not about to reshape Iraqi society, and Iraq is not likely to be a long-term base for U.S. offensive operations in the region.

Gates and Petraeus produced what was likely the best possible outcome under the circumstances. They created the framework for a U.S. withdrawal in a context other than a chaotic civil war, they created a coalition government, and they appear to have blocked Iranian influence in Iraq. But these achievements remain uncertain. The civil war could resume. The coalition government might collapse. The Iranians might become the dominant force in Baghdad. But these unknowns are enormously better than the outcomes expected in 2006. At the same time, snatching uncertainty from the jaws of defeat is not the same as victory.

Afghanistan and Lessons from Iraq

Petraeus is arguing that the strategy pursued in Iraq should be used as a blueprint in Afghanistan, and it appears that Obama and Gates have raised a number of important questions in response. Is the Iraqi solution really so desirable? If it is desirable, can it be replicated in Afghanistan? What level of U.S. commitment would be required in Afghanistan, and what would this cost in terms of vulnerabilities elsewhere in the world? And finally, what exactly is the U.S. goal in Afghanistan?

In Iraq, Gates and Petraeus sought to create a coalition government that, regardless of its nature, would facilitate a U.S. withdrawal. Obama and Gates have stated that the goal in Afghanistan is the defeat of al Qaedaand the denial of bases for the group in Afghanistan. This is a very different strategic goal than in Iraq, because this goal does not require a coalition government or a reconciliation of political elements. Rather, it requires an agreement with one entity: the Taliban. If the Taliban agree to block al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan, the United States will have achieved its goal. Therefore, the challenge in Afghanistan is using U.S. power to give the Taliban what they want — a return to power — in exchange for a settlement on the al Qaeda question.

In Iraq, the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds all held genuine political and military power. In Afghanistan, the Americans and the Taliban have this power, though many other players have derivative power from the United States. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is not Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; where al-Malikihad his own substantial political base, Karzai is someone the Americans invented to become a focus for power in the future. But the future has not come. The complexities of Iraq made a coalition government possible there, but in many ways, Afghanistan is both simpler and more complex. The country has a multiplicity of groups, but in the end only one insurgency that counts.

Petraeus argues that the U.S. strategic goal — blocking al Qaeda in Afghanistan — cannot be achieved simply through an agreement with the Taliban. In this view, the Taliban are not nearly as divided as some argue, and therefore their factions cannot be played against each other. Moreover, the Taliban cannot be trusted to keep their word even if they give it, which is not likely.

From Petraeus’ view, Gates and Obama are creating the situation that existed in pre-surge Iraq. Rather than stunning Afghanistan psychologically with the idea that the United States is staying, thereby causing all the parties to reconsider their positions, Obama and Gates have done the opposite. They have made it clear that Washington has placed severe limits on its willingness to invest in Afghanistan, and made it appear that the United States is overly eager to make a deal with the one group that does not need a deal: the Taliban.

Gates and Obama have pointed out that there is a factor in Afghanistan for which there was no parallel in Iraq — namely, Pakistan. While Iran was a factor in the Iraqi civil war, the Taliban are as much a Pakistani phenomenon as an Afghan one, and the Pakistanis are neither willing nor able to deny the Taliban sanctuary and lines of supply. So long as Pakistan is in the condition it is in — and Pakistan likely will stay that way for a long time — the Taliban have time on their side and no reason to split, and are likely to negotiate only on their terms.

There is also a military fear. Petraeus brought U.S. troops closer to the population in Iraq, and he is doing this in Afghanistan as well. U.S. forces in Afghanistan are deployed in firebases. These relatively isolated positions are vulnerable to massed Taliban forces. U.S. airpower can destroy these concentrations, so long as they are detected in time and attacked before they close in on the firebases. Ominously for the United States, the Taliban do not seem to have committed anywhere near the majority of their forces to the campaign.

This military concern is combined with real questions about the endgame. Gates and Obama are not convinced that the endgame in Iraq, perhaps the best outcome that was possible there, is actually all that desirable for Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, this outcome would leave the Taliban in power in the end. No amount of U.S. troops could match the Taliban’s superior intelligence capability, their knowledge of the countryside and their willingness to take casualties in pursuing their ends, and every Afghan security force would be filled with Taliban agents.

And there is a deeper issue yet that Gates has referred to: the Russian experience in Afghanistan. The Petraeus camp is vehement that there is no parallel between the Russian and American experience; in this view, the Russians tried to crush the insurgents, while the Americans are trying to win them over and end the insurgency by convincing the Taliban’s supporters and reaching a political accommodation with their leaders. Obama and Gates are less sanguine about the distinction — such distinctions were made in Vietnam in response to the question of why the United States would fare better in Southeast Asia than the French did. From the Obama and Gates point of view, a political settlement would call for either a constellation of forces in Afghanistan favoring some accommodation with the Americans, or sufficient American power to compel accommodation. But it is not clear to Obama and Gates that either could exist in Afghanistan.

Ultimately, Petraeus is charging that Obama and Gates are missing the chance to repeat what was done in Iraq, while Obama and Gates are afraid Petraeusis confusing success in Iraq with a universal counterinsurgency model. To put it differently, they feel that while Petraeus benefited from fortuitous circumstances in Iraq, he quickly could find himself hopelessly bogged down in Afghanistan. The Pentagon on May 11 announced that U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. David McKiernan would be replaced, less than a year after he took over, with Lt. Gen. Stan McChrystal. McKiernan’s removal could pave the way for a broader reshuffling of Afghan strategy by the Obama administration.

Conclusion

The most important issues concern the extent to which Obama wants to stake his presidency on Petraeus’ vision in Afghanistan, and how important Afghanistan is to U.S. grand strategy. Petraeus has conceded that al Qaeda is in Pakistan. Getting the group out of Pakistan requires surgical strikes. Occupation and regime change in Pakistan are way beyond American abilities. The question of what the United States expects to win in Afghanistan — assuming it can win anything there — remains.

In the end, there is never a debate between U.S. presidents and generals. Even MacArthur discovered that. It is becoming clear that Obama is not going to bet all in Afghanistan, and that he sees Afghanistan as not worth the fight. Petraeus is a soldier in a fight, and he wants to win. But in the end, as Clausewitz said, war is an extension of politics by other means. As such, generals tend to not get their way.

Afterword

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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts about our wars in Pakistan:

  1. Is Pakistan’s Musharraf like the Shah of Iran? (if so, bad news for us), 8 November 2007
  2. Stratfor says that our war in Pakistan grows hotter; Palin seems OK with that, 12 September 2008
  3. NPR tells us more about America’s newest war, in Pakistan, 14 September 2008
  4. Pakistan warns America about their borders, and their sovereignty, 14 September 2008
  5. Weekend reading about … foreign affairs, 19 October 2008
  6. To good a story to die: eliminate legitimate grievances to eliminate terrorism, 9 December 2008
  7. About the 4GW between India and Pakistan, 6 January 2009
  8. The US tells Pakistan to pick a side. Or else…, 4 May 2009
  9. Why are we fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 13 May 2009

Posts about the War in Afghanistan :

  1. Scorecard #2: How well are we doing in Iraq? Afghanistan?, 31 October 2003
  2. Quote of the day: this is America’s geopolitical strategy in action, 26 February 2008 — George Friedman of Statfor on the Afghanistan War.
  3. Another perspective on Afghanistan, a reply to George Friedman, 27 February 2008
  4. How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents?, 21 March 2008
  5. Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
  6. We are withdrawing from Afghanistan, too (eventually), 21 April 2008
  7. Roads in Afghanistan, a new weapon to win 4GW’s?, 26 April 2008
  8. A powerful weapon, at the sight of which we should tremble and our enemies rejoice, 2 June 2008
  9. Brilliant, insightful articles about the Afghanistan War, 8 June 2008
  10. The good news about COIN in Afghanistan is really bad news, 20 August 2008
  11. Stratfor says that our war in Pakistan grows hotter; Palin seems OK with that, 12 September 2008
  12. Pakistan warns America about their borders, and their sovereignty, 14 September 2008
  13. Weekend reading about … foreign affairs, 19 October 2008
  14. “Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda” by George Friedman, 31 January 2009
  15. America sends forth its privateers to pillage, bold corsairs stealing from you and I, 9 February 2009
  16. Why are we fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 14 May 2009

9 thoughts on “Stratfor: “The Strategic Debate Over Afghanistan”

  1. A fine article. It ought to bear the title “The Strategic Debate Over How Much More Gasoline to Toss on the Raging Bonfire,” however.

    An alternate strategy to continuing to randomly murder innocent girls and women in wedding parties by means of killer drones, until all of Afghanistan explodes in anti-American riots, would involve something lateral, like strengthening the cockpit doors of our 757s with bank-vault steel. Then, if the Taliban takes over Afghanistan again, we can tell them “Good luck trying to hijack any more of our planes, assholes,” and wave them goodbye.

    The situation in Pakistan looms much simpler than Gates and Obama claim. In particular, given the felon Gates’ involvement with the Iran-Contra treason, anything that comes out of Gates’ mouth should be regarded as the exact opposite of the truth. And in this case, that diagnosis is right on the money. Gates and Obama have pointed out that there is a factor in Afghanistan for which there was no parallel in Iraq — namely, Pakistan. While Iran was a factor in the Iraqi civil war, the Taliban are as much a Pakistani phenomenon as an Afghan one, and the Pakistanis are neither willing nor able to deny the Taliban sanctuary and lines of supply. This totally misunderstands the situation.

    Pakistan has a huge fundamentalist Islamic population, even a bigger majority of fundamentalists than in Iraq. They were only kept in check by a strongman in charge of Pakistan, Musharaf. But America kept murdering Pakistani civilians in its pointless battles in Afghanistan and worse, America continually violated Pakistan’s border in Taliban-hunting incursions from Afghanistan, which made Musharaf look like a weak spineless puppet of the United States. Which, in fact, he was. This destroyed Musharaf’s political legitimacy in Pakistan and eventually he resigned, rather than get violently overthrown. Now, even weaker secular leaders run Pakistan, who have even less ability to stand up against the huge fundamentalist Islamic majority in Pakistan. And now America is murdering even more innocent women and children in Pakistan, and making even more aggressive incursions across the Pakistan border in its frenetic Taliban-hunting. What do you think will happen?

    A genuinely clever strategy for Pakistan would involve immediately ceasing all drone attacks in Afghanistan and over Pakistan, pulling American troops out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, erecting fundamentalist Islamic mosques in memory of the murdered civilians killed accidentally by American killer drones, and sending an American ambassador to Pakistan steeped in fundamentalist Islamic tradition, who showed the utmost respect to the Pakistanis and honored their traditions in every way possible, whilst assuring them America was not preparing to invade Pakistan and was not trying to pressure the Pakistanis with that stupid “either you’re with us or against us” rhetoric.

    This would accomplish the key goal of defusing the Pakistani fundamentalists. Once they quieten down, we can send in covert ops special forces to pick off Taliban leaders, if need be, in the dead of night, preferably using dodges like staged car “accidents.” If defusing the Pakistan situation and preventing the Taliban from inciting the general population to rise up and stage a popular Iran-style fundamentalist Islamic uprising is our goal, this would accomplish it.

    If, however, our goal involves preventing evil oppressive regimes from brutalizing their own populations…please. There don’t exist enough troops in the universe for that. Paging Rwanda, Somalia, the Gold Coast, the Balkans, Myanmar…you’re wanted on America’s intervention list, stat.

    I don’t see any sign of a “strategic debate” over Afghanistan within the United States, at least not in the Obama administration. The only “debate” seems to involve how quickly the Obama administration can wreck Pakistan, and then presumably destabilize India with U.S. troop incursions once the disorder starts leaking over from a failed Pakistani state.

    Meanwhile, Yemen has disintegrated into a failed state.

    Frankly it looks as though states are failing faster than the world community can exert order, and Mexico certainly seems next on the list. America seems to have the poison touch — wherever our troops go, states fail and fall apart. Perhaps it’s time to send U.S. troops to Washington D.C.

  2. Strategic debate about A? Buy the opium crop and distribute the money to anyone who will oppose Arabs and Iranians meddling in the country. Withdraw all American troops tomorrow. P. won nothing in Iraq as Stratfor pointed out, except avoiding defeat. There is nothing there to win. As long as the Pashtuns are divided between two countries there will be civil war. Pakistan is a failing state of 175 million Muslims with nuclear weapons. The great majority of the people are not Islamic radicals. Can we promote a way to reunite the Pashtuns? Our concern is P. nuclear weapons — period. Arabs are not well liked in South Asia and we can counter their radical influences by ceasing to be in the pay of the Saudis who have corrupted our political class 100%. Can we convince the Indians and Chinese to cooperate over Pakistan? Doubtful but worth the effort. India is emerging as a Great Power and Pakistan is failing, Bangladesh, the other Pakistan, has failed. This is the root of the problem and being in A. is a terrible waste of our spirit and treasure. It is simply stupid, even worse than entering Iraq without an army or a strategy. Who are these people running our country?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: What is the evidence that Pakistan is a failed or even failing state? The next post discusses this in some detail.

  3. Yes, this is a fine analysis. Who knows how thorough it is, how factual? It makes good reading, though, like Shakespeare and Thucydides. We all feel more involved with the issue, think we can see an outcome, and can take sides.

    Electro and Jonathan, with fine wit, see through the illusion that there is any solution here. We are, after all, only in the second phase of a single war that was launched in ignorance and hubris. It is, and will always be, an act of folly, a waste of money and lives, a nursery for further folly to come.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: How factual is this? That is the question with reports like this. Stratfor has a reputation for accurate reporting (less so for reliable analysis), so I am inclinded to believe him. However, I have already heard from one area expert who disagrees, and hopefully will write up his rebuttal.

  4. Strategic discussions require facts but they are not factual. Policy is about reality and desire as you know. Not real policy of course as is practiced in the United States where fantasy seems to rule. Will look forward to seeing your take on Pakistan, 175 million, a ruined industrial base that has added nothing since the Brits left except mouths. Huge illiterate urban population with nothing to do but migrate. Who would invest a nickel there except for the oil subsidy they get from the Saudis who presumably paid for their nuclear arsenal? The Islamic Bomb they call it. Actually, Paskistan is the Islamic Bomb which might make a nice joke if there was not the real possibility they will ignite the next phase of radioactivity. We do not know whether their bombs actually work since they have never tested. Believe they used the same plans the N. Koreans fizzled with.

  5. “Policy is about reality and desire as you know. ” (JR)

    Wow, JR, you are hot today! To paraphrase the Bush admin figure quoted by Ron Susskind, and capsulize Bush admin policy, one could say that desire created the facts, in order to justify policy.

    What interests me is where did this “policy” come from in the first place? I don’t accept that a cabal of neo-con writers and political junkies just created it out of thin-air and slipped it by a gullible establishment. Who thought they were going to gain from this, who actually did profit from it, what were all the rest doing besides taking home greater and greater bonuses and wringing profits from more and more flimsy investments?

    We need Freud AND Marx to analyse this national psychosis.

  6. Pepe Escobar has a nice series of articles on what he calls Pipelineistan. He goes into great detail on Eurasian resources of oil and gas. He attempts to explain the ever changing chess game going on between Russia, China and US in the area. The present conflicts seem to center around routes for pipelines out of Eurasia. He had some interesting spin on the Taleban. After reading the 1st 3 articles, it all seemed to make sense to me. The only question I have is why can’t the pols in DC explain it to us that way? Heating our homes and driving to work are bread and butter issues. Personally, it makes little difference to me who I have to pay to heat the house. Whether the money goes to a Mandarin, a Kossack, or a fat cat on Wall street, I will be only poorer afterward.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: The versions of his Pilelineistan articles posted at TomDispatch (here and here) are “nice” in the sense of meaning “mostly speculation, citing zero supporting sources.” Until somebody provides some evidence, I consider this an urban legend.

    Joshua Foust posted a scathing but brief critique at Registan.net (“All Central Asia, all the time”).

    For a serious look at these issues I recommend reading “Baloch Nationalism and the Geopolitics of Energy Resources: the Changing Context of Separatism in Pakistan“, Robert G. Wirsing, Strategic Studies Institute, April 2008 (63 pages).

  7. Numbers from the World Factbook: 14,000,000 Afghans are under 15, 18,000,000 aged 15-64 are women, 100,000 have internet access.

    Q1. How many Afghans have mobile phones? Are they internet enabled?
    Q2 How much time does your teenager spend on internet/texting? Does your teenager give a toss about politics?
    Q2. Which is the odd one out? What does the person wearing (odd one out) do all day? Balaclava ,Bee-keepers Veil, Burka, Chemical suit, Hoodie, Mantilla, Hat+Scarf.
    Q3. Explain the command structure of the Taliban in government, (a) then and (b) this autumn .
    Q4. Compare and contrast the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, the Karzai government, the IRA, the Camorra , and a selection of Mexican drug gangs.
    Q5. In Afghanistan, what is a Govenor of a Province? Who chooses this person? Is there a Civil Service?
    Q6. Outline the CV of an existing senior female civil servant, and explain how regime changes affected her career.
    Q7. $8 billion loan from Russia. Explain how/when this money was spent, how the interest and capital repayments are paid.
    Q8. Explain the Afghan Navy and Air Force.
    Q9. Outline the justice and penal system in Afghanistan. What changes have been made since NATO and the US became involved? How do the New Improved Police interact with the justice and penal system?
    Q10. Explain the importance of your heart and mind when someone is pointing a gun at you.
    Q11. List cash crops, that grow well on cold stony soil in drought conditions.
    Q12. Criminal gangs may burn out your home if you snitch or fail to pay your protection money. Discuss in relation to 9/11.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: What is this? What is the point? This looks like cards from Trivia Pursuit – Central Asia Edition.

  8. I think Anna has a fine sense of humor and should be made a member of the White House staff. Q11 is the main question of today and yesterday and tomorrow. As you know historically A. has been the assembly point for the invasion of South Asia. But now Pakistan, temporarily not India is in the way and is viewed as Pakistan’s “strategic depth”. You need Lenny Bruce to write this stuff really, but that is how the Pak General Staff talks. Why not give the NW provinces to A. neutralize the place and make it the official producer of opium for the UN. Then we can focus on helping Pakistan right itself, reduce its arms, maybe convince them to stop murdering Indians out of pique before the Indians decide to kick the shit out of them once and for all. It will happen one of these days, dead certain. It would be a shame as it will accomplish nothing good for anyone except Hindu extremists and possibly some Sikhs who will reclaim their ancestral lands which were stolen from in 1947/48.

  9. FM , not trivial pursuit . Think anomalies , between the official picture we are painted and little details that pop up . You stand in the Louvre admiring the Mona Lisa then notice a pylon in the background landscape .

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