Saturday, February 28, 2009

How the Withdrawal from Iraq will happen

The AP runs a story today that sketches out how the US withdrawal is supposed to proceed, and when. I'm sorry to focus on the possible down-sides, but there are so many what-if's here.

Leaving Iraq: Shift to south, exit through desert

BAGHDAD (AP) — The U.S. military map in Iraq in early 2010: Marines are leaving the western desert, Army units are in the former British zone in the south and the overall mission is coalescing around air and logistics hubs in central and northern Iraq.

Meanwhile, commanders will be shifting their attention to helping Iraqi forces take full control of their own security.

The Pentagon has not released the full details of President Barack Obama's plan to end America's combat role in Iraq by Aug. 31 of next year, but the broad contours are taking shape.

Statements from military officials, U.S. government reports and interviews by The Associated Press with Iraqi and U.S. planners offer a wide-angle view of the expected American formation in Iraq when the pullout quickens early next year.

Between 35,000 and 50,000 soldiers are expected to remain in a transition period before all troops must leave by the end of 2011 under a joint pact. In his speech Friday, Obama outlined the roles ahead.

"Training, equipping, and advising Iraqi security forces as long as they remain nonsectarian; conducting targeted counterterrorism missions, and protecting our ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq," he said at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

"As long as they remain non-sectarian"?! Any of you who saw the WaPo piece about the lingering mistrust and need for revenge in one of Baghdad's mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhoods will have noted that the Iraqi army is still perceived as Shiite-dominated, and especially dominated by the Badr militia of ISCI. You can bet that Mr. al-Maliki is not going to be doing much to change that, at least from the standpoint of allowing more Sunni influence in the military. On the other hand, Maliki now seems to be aligning himself more with Muqtada al-Sadr, who like him wants a strong central government at Baghdad. Will that translate to more Mahdi Army presence in the ranks?

There should be little immediate change in the American presence in 2009.

The bulk of the current 138,000 U.S. troops are expected to remain until Iraq's national elections scheduled for late this year. Maintaining security for the balloting is considered a top priority by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, and other high-ranking Pentagon officials.

Then the pullout will accelerate.

The first significant shift could be with the 22,000 Marines in Anbar province, a broad wedge of western desert where insurgents once held sway over key cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi.

The Marines have already tested exit routes through Jordan with plans for a full-scale exodus during the "2010 calendar year," said Terry Moores, deputy assistant chief of staff for logistics for Marine Corps Central Command.

Testing exit routes is not the same as a full-scale exodus, and there is a very strong anti-US Islamist element in Jordan that may feel compelled to act out against the US withdrawal through their country. Perhaps the routes have been chosen to avoid potential hot-spots?

The Marines could possibly leave a small contingent, but expect to turn over military duties to the Army.

The early exit from Anbar carries two important messages.

It's part of Washington's shift of military focus to Afghanistan. Obama plans to send 17,000 more soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan, to join 38,000 already fighting a strengthening Taliban-led insurgency.

Anbar also represents a critical turning point of the nearly six-year-old Iraq war. A U.S.-directed effort in late 2006 began to recruit and fund tribal leaders to join the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq and other insurgent groups — which were eventually uprooted in Anbar and began to lose their hold in and around Baghdad.

An important word there is "fund." Effectively, the US has been arming and bribing sheikhs to get them to keep their people quiet. If that funding is for whatever reason discontinued . . . .

In the south, the U.S. Army is making plans to fill the void left by the departure this spring of 4,000 British troops based outside Basra, the second-largest city in Iraq and a hub of the nation's southern oil fields.

Odierno has said a headquarters division — about 100 personnel — plus an undetermined number of troops would be sent to Basra. The transition is expected to begin in late March, and it's likely a U.S. force will remain around Basra until the final pullout in 2011.

Basra is a proving ground for Iraq's ability to handle security on its own. Iraq launched an offensive last year that — with U.S. help — crippled Shiite militia control in parts of the city. But the small British contingent has largely stayed out of direct security operations, leaving it mostly to Iraqi commanders.

During a tour of Basra on Friday, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said some military personnel will remain to train Iraq's navy, but the primary British goal is humanitarian aid and development.

"We will focus upon cultural, economic and educational topics," he told Basra Gov. Mohammed al-Waili.

Northern Iraq, meanwhile, poses the greatest uncertainties for the Pentagon.

Mosul — Iraq's third-biggest city — remains one of the last havens for al-Qaida in Iraq and its streets are among the most dangerous in the country.

On Tuesday, two Iraqi police opened fire during a U.S. military inspection of an Iraqi security unit in Mosul, killing one American soldier and an interpreter. The attack deepened worries of possible infiltration of security forces in the Mosul area.

U.S. combat support for Iraqis is likely to continue — and perhaps expand — in the coming 18 months. It then could become high on the agenda for the counterterrorism missions, which could include ground forces and aerial surveillance.

U.S. troop strength in the Mosul area is relatively light, but there is a U.S. base on the city's edge.

Obama left open the option for more extensive U.S. military backup if needed.

"There will surely be difficult periods and tactical adjustments," he said. "But our enemies should be left with no doubt: This plan gives our military the forces and the flexibility they need to support our Iraqi partners, and to succeed."

The northern city of Kirkuk is another potential trouble spot. Tensions between Kurds and Sunni Arabs over control of the city — and center of the northern oil fields — show no signs of easing.

Leaving Iraq before the issues of Kirkuk and Kurd designs on Nineveh province and Mosul have been resolved likely ensures that US forces will be asked to go right back in, or that a civil war breaks out as soon as Maliki's US military back-up has departed. As of right now, there's no resolution even glimmering on the horizon.

Two bases north of Baghdad will likely take more prominent roles next year.

Balad Air Base, home to more than 20,000 U.S. forces, provides air power, logistics and counterterrorism support, as well as training for Iraqi security forces. Its location — 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Baghdad — offers a rich vantage point for intelligence gathering and analysis across the entire north and specific areas such as the Iranian border.

Another major U.S. air and logistics base in Taji, 12 miles (20 kilometers) north of Baghdad, sits next to Iraq's new supply and logistics hub.

The two sites would be a natural centerpiece for U.S. training and advising of the Iraqi military, Army Brig. Gen. Steven Salazar, the deputy commanding general at Multi-National Security Transition Command, told the AP recently.

Salazar said the Taji National Supply Depot was designed by the Iraqis to be the "top end" of the supply and logistics chain for its security forces.

In Baghdad, the U.S. military is already making changes in anticipation of the first step of the withdrawal timetable: U.S. forces out of major cities by June.

The United States has handed over the Green Zone to the Iraqi government, closed forward operating bases and combat outposts in the city or turned them into smaller stations where U.S. troops work alongside Iraqi security forces.

But Camp Victory, a huge base on the outskirts of Baghdad in a former Saddam palace complex, will continue to serve as the U.S. nerve center in the capital.

A military official with knowledge of the military planning process told the AP that Camp Victory's proximity to many Iraqi government ministries and the Baghdad International Airport make it a prime location for the U.S. military, and one they are not likely to give up anytime soon.

The base also is expected to expand as it absorbs troops pulling out of Baghdad before the June 30 deadline, said another military official. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

For the sake of all concerned, let's all hope that this comes off without a hitch. But in my opinion, realities suggest that that's anything but a slam-dunk.

UPDATE: Be sure to have a look at Jeremy Scahill's Alternet piece today about the withdrawal plan. He poses three major caveats:

US military officials have told him that they expect to have troops in Iraq well after 2011, perhaps as long as 15 years

Who's going to guard that huge US embassy complex in Baghdad?

The SOFA includes language that explicitly reserves for the US the right to re-insert military forces in case of an internal or external attack on Iraq. (As Scahill notes, could that be interpreted to include a situation where the "wrong" party comes to power?)

Friday, February 27, 2009

Obama Ending US "Combat Mission" in Iraq by Aug. 2010?

So the NYT reports this afternoon, but as many as 50,000 troops will be there until the end of 2011, by which time, according to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) negotiated by the Bush administration, all US troops will be out. The schedule and the number of troops does not jive well with Obama's campaign promises, and he has had to spend some political capital calming down some of the Democratic Congressional leadership on that score - not to mention the more progressive elements in the party. But John McCain has now endorsed Obama's withdrawal plan on the Senate floor, patting himself on the back in the process by reminding us all of how well the Surge that he advocated so strongly "worked." And Obama borrows from one of McCain's stock campaign expressions as well, saying that this plan ensures that US troops can leave Iraq "with honor."

But read closely, my friends (if I may borrow another McCainism), because (1) a lot of wiggle room has been built into this schedule, as an Andrew Sullivan piece I sent out earlier points out; and (2) as Reuters reports, there are a number of possible scenarios taking shape in Iraq right now as we look ahead to a US troop drawdown, and most of them are dicey. At the earliest signs of an uptick in violence (be it in Mosul, Kirkuk, between Shiite militias in the south, or by resurgent Sunni elements if they feel that the Baghdad government is short-changing them), US military commanders will be pressuring Obama to keep the US troop presence strong in Iraq, so that all the "gains" and "sacrifice" are not wasted.

By no means do I mean to denigrate that sacrifice, but prolonging the US troop presence in Iraq ensures that more Americans (and Iraqis) make that ultimate sacrifice, all of them for what can never be the happy ending that Bush was banking on when he sent US forces in in 2003. The best possible ending, no matter how long US troops stay and are killed in Iraq, will be an Iraq that

  1. is on excellent terms with Iran (in my opinion, hardly a bad thing in itself, but something that US policy-makers did not want to see happen;
  2. is on poor terms with Israel, not at all what the neocons who promoted the US invasion were expecting;
  3. is internally very combustible, because a lasting rapprochement between Arabs and Kurds in Iraq is simply not in the cards; and
  4. is full of people who will forever hate the US for trashing their country and causing the often horrible extinguishing of hundreds of thousands of Muslim lives.

Juan Cole on the "Taliban"

As usual, excellent insight from Juan Cole about the behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Taliban, but I especially want to highlight his description of who the "Taliban" exactly are these days - and point out how lame is the customary grouping of all of these elements as "terrorists." Disgruntled Pashtun villagers are hardly dyed-in-the-wool terrorists, for example, and the warlords Hikmatyar and Haqqani were once allies of the US. Hikmatyar in particular was perhaps the favorite warlord "hero" of US Congressman Charlie Wilson (of the book and movie "Charlie Wilson's War") during the era of the mujahideen resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. He is also a man of conspicuous brutality.

What we now call the "Taliban" are actually 5 distinct groups and movements: 1) The Old Taliban of Mulla Omar, now based in Quetta, Pakistan; 2) the Hizb-i Islami [Islamic Party] of former prime minister and warlord, Gulbadin Hikmatyar; 3) the followers of warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani; 4) the Taliban Movement of Pakistan in that country's tribal agencies; and 5) disgruntled Pushtun villagers who object to foreign troops on their soil or whose poppy crops were forcibly eradicated, leaving them destitute. Hikmatyar and Haqqani at one time or another were opposed to the Old Taliban, but have now allied with them. According to the Pajhwok News Network, a joint US and Afghan patrol targeted a militant of the Haqqani group near Khost on Thursday, capturing 6 militants and some light arms.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Important new poll of Muslim public opinion

Marc Lynch at the Foreign Policy site discusses the results of a major new public-opinion poll conducted by the University of Maryland's Project on International Policy Attitudes. It deserves your attention, for a number of reasons - but I'd highlight especially the indications that large majorities of Egyptians and Jordanians support attacks on US troops in Iraq and are opposed to the US naval presence in the Persian Gulf.

What's obvious here is the huge disconnect between the regimes that rule these countries - both of them essentially police states, both of them professing support for US goals - and their publics. Combine that with the added economic and political instability being produced by the current global economic crisis - the effects of which, in the view of most experts, are likely to worsen at least in the short term, and perhaps significantly longer - and you have a very potent mixture that could result in upheaval.

PIPA: Muslims still don't like al-Qaeda or the U.S.

The University of Maryland's Project on International Policy Attitudes headed by Steve Kull has just released the results of its latest survey of Muslim public opinion. The survey was carried out between July and September 2008 in eight countries, including Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories. The main findings should not be surprising: Muslims overwhelmingly oppose attacks on American civilians (and thus reject al-Qaeda's tactics) but overwhelmingly oppose the U.S. military presence in Muslim countries and have deep suspicions about American intentions towards the Muslim world. Despite what so many people in Washington seem to believe, most Arabs and Muslims don't seem to see the "war of ideas" as being a choice between the U.S. and al-Qaeda -- they seem perfectly capable of disapproving of both, while continuing to hold to their own fairly well-established political convictions.

Attitudes towards the use of violence largely track with last year's findings. Only 8% of Egyptians express approval of attacks on civilians in the U.S, and 11% of Jordanians. Only 7% of Egyptians express approval of attacks on U.S. civilians working in Islamic countries (15% in Jordan, somewhat alarmingly). But 83% of Egyptians approve of attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq (down from 87% in 2007) and 72% of Jordanians approve. Most generally, 83% of Egyptians say that violent attacks carried out in order to achieve political or religious goals are not at all justified, and only 2% say strongly justified. In other words, very small minorities support al-Qaeda's approach while vast majorities agree with the Muslim Brotherhood-style approval of violence in areas considered to be under direct foreign military occupation (Iraq, Palestine).

What about the U.S. presence in the Gulf? 87% of Egyptians agree with the goal of getting the U.S. to withdraw forces from Islamic countries, while only 1% of Egyptians and 11% of Jordanians approve of U.S. naval forces in the Gulf? And alarmingly, 78% of Egyptians and 66% of Jordanians approve of attacks on U.S. troops (not civilians) based in the Gulf.

Views of the U.S. still reflect a great deal of suspicion and the entrenchment of the "clash of civilizations" narrative, with little evidence in the survey that U.S. strategic communications efforts had made much of a dent by the summer-fall of 2008. Favorable views of the U.S. in Egypt climbed from 3% in 2007 to 4% ... but views of bin Laden appear to have improved even more: 44% of Egyptians now have positive views, compared to 39% in 2007 (27% of Jordanian have positive views and 27% mixed). 87% of Egyptians say that the U.S. goal is to weaken and divide Islam, as do 80% of Jordanians.

Finally, on key questions of domestic governance: Does the U.S. favor democracy in Muslim countries? 37% of Egyptians say the U.S. opposes it, 42% say it supports democracy if the government cooperates with the U.S. , 8% say it supports democracy on principle. In Jordan, it's 41%, 40%, 6%. And there also still appears to be mass support for the moderate Islamist position: in Egypt, 73% would like to see shari'a play a larger role in the country, and only 10% a smaller role.

The Sliming of Charles Freeman

Excellent post at Mondoweiss on the ongoing sliming of new National Intelligence Director Chas Freeman, who IMHO - as I noted in a post here a few days ago - is one of Mr. Obama's better and braver picks. Weiss links to a longer piece by Robert Dreyfuss at The Nation about the Freeman selection, and even a cursory inspection of the comments will tell you all you need to know about how much the Israel-first crowd hates him.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The dilemma of oil prices for US "success"

The NYT runs a major piece tomorrow on how the steep decline in oil prices may be undercutting Iraq's stability, such as it is - which indeed is fragile enough without this complication. Iraq's revenues derive almost entirely from oil, and as oil prices have fallen, money for reconstruction, building infrastructure (electricity and water supply are still precarious), and ensuring security (by having the funds to pay salaries of security forces) has been dropping as well. And bear in mind that in the Iraqi political system, especially at the local level, the name of the game is patronage. Both the US and the Baghdad government have depended on their ability to pay (a less polite verb, but equally accurate, is bribe) local leaders - tribal sheikhs and the like - to cooperate. At the local and regional level, loyalty to the parties who recently came out on top in the provincial elections comes at a price, much more so than our government and the corporate media care to discuss. In the NYT piece, a "senior administration official" expresses confidence that this will all turn out OK, that prices will soon be on the way up. We'd all better hope so (even if it will cost us more at the gas station, and produce even more hurt among Americans already imperiled by the recession). Without salaries, a significant number of Iraqi military and police will likely begin to flake out - which would be music to the ears of "al-Qaeda" and other insurgent/resistance groups. That in turn would mean more pressure on Mr. Obama to keep US troops in Iraq, in considerable numbers, to try to ensure that the stability gains of the last year or so - as precarious as they are - don't evaporate altogether. And if you're keeping track of goings-on in Mosul and the Kirkuk region, you know that a potentially very violent storm is brewing there.

The irony I speak of, of course, is that the US has also been counting on the plummeting oil prices as a "good thing," to provide some leverage against Iran, which recently tested successfully its new nuclear plant at Bushehr and which, according to the IAEA, now has enough enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon. (Not, by the way, that I'm saying that's their intent - and on that score I'd refer you to a recent paper by a Council of Foreign Relations Fellow, who makes a strong case for why it might indeed be important to the Iranians to develop nuclear energy, without any intention of building a bomb.) Iran's economy was a mess even before the current recession began, and the sanctions imposed on Iran by the UN surely haven't helped. The US seems to be hoping that if the economic pain for Iran gets bad enough, the Iranian leadership will re-think its commitment to its nuclear program. But most indications are that the leadership are not so inclined - and that the Iranian public at large see the nuclear program as a matter of national honor, not to be scrapped at the behest of the West and Israel.

February 26, 2009

Falling Revenues Threaten Rebuilding and Stability in Iraq

BAGHDAD — In few nations around the globe are the consequences of the financial crisis as potentially sobering as they are in Iraq. Both oil revenues and American financial support have plummeted just as the country has the chance to take advantage of its increasing stability to improve basic services and upgrade its ruined infrastructure.

Now, projects are being put off as Iraq struggles to pay for huge raises granted to government employees as well as the salaries and equipment for hundreds of thousands of new Iraqi security troops.

Last summer, with oil prices above $100 a barrel, Iraq was so flush with cash that many in the United States were arguing that a country so rich should be paying for its own reconstruction and possibly even reimbursing American taxpayers.

Six months later, the question is whether a decline in Iraqi government revenues, which depend almost entirely on oil, could threaten the relative security and stability won here at the cost of so much American treasure and life. Indeed, political pressure is rising here, as more Iraqis demand precisely the services, like better electricity, water and education, that could now come more slowly.

A stable Iraqi economy and an adequately prepared Iraqi military are crucial if American combat troops are to withdraw by August 2010, as aides to President Obama suggested this week. And illustrating just how closely the two countries are still intertwined, a faltering Iraq could also complicate Mr. Obama’s plan to lower the American deficit with billions in savings that would come from such a withdrawal.

As the Iraqi Parliament debates a proposed $62.8 billion budget this week, senior American and Iraqi officials say that Iraq can prevent an immediate crisis by drawing on the very source that attracted such intense criticism in the United States: the billions of dollars in oil revenues that Iraq was unable to spend on its reconstruction projects.

That money, which Iraq’s central bank and senior Obama administration officials say comes to roughly $35 billion, is sitting in various bank accounts, including one at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York.

To help plug the gap, Iraq is planning to withdraw about $20 billion in a single year. But that will not be enough, government officials say, to save reconstruction projects crucial to improving gravely inadequate services.

The provision of electricity is still far short of meeting demand, and the government is still struggling to provide clean water. Iraqi officials insist that Iraq could have revenue sources besides oil, like agriculture and industry, but developing them requires investments. Oil production itself has recently dropped in certain key fields, requiring a major injection of government money.

In the past, money for projects has been allocated but not spent. Now it is drying up altogether.

“It’s a mathematical issue,” Raed Fahemi, the minister of science and technology, said at a conference on Wednesday dedicated to finding alternatives to oil money. “We are staying up all night trying to ensure that there are required funds for projects currently under way. The issue comes with the future projects.”

The reason capital projects are being put off is that the reserve funds in the banks were originally intended to be spent as part of the capital budget, not to meet shortfalls in Iraq’s day-to-day operating costs, which now take up four-fifths of the proposed 2009 budget. And unless oil prices increase or Iraq finds new sources of revenue, its piggy bank at the Fed will last only so long.

“It’s a disaster,” said Ismail Shukir Haruty, a member of Parliament’s financial committee. “What are we going to do in 2009, 2010, 2011?”

In many ways, the financial crisis, with the resulting drop in oil prices, could not have come at a worse time. The government gave its employees substantial raises last year. Wages now take up about 35 percent of the budget.

And in a critical move as the United States takes less and less responsibility for security, the number of soldiers, police officers and other security personnel has soared to 609,000, from 250,000 two years ago, when oil prices were on the rise, according to the Pentagon.

“There are some critical expenditures, like paying the military and the police and making sure that’s being done very, very well,” said Rick Barton, co-director of the post-conflict reconstruction project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “You can’t afford any slippage at this time.”

Still, a senior administration official said the United States was confident that the cumulative oil surpluses would allow it to weather the immediate storm. “The overall trend is still moving in a reasonable direction even if they’re not able to do quite as much as anticipated,” the official said.

Identifying the roots of the crisis here is much simpler than it is in many places in the world. In Iraq, there is not much of a credit market to dry up nor are there mortgages to default on. Oil accounts for roughly 90 percent of government revenue. When oil prices drop, as they have to below $40 a barrel from a high last summer of nearly $150, there are few other options for collecting revenue.

Finance and Oil Ministry officials in Iraq maintain that oil prices will rise again by the end of the year. After years of conservative budgeting, the proposed 2009 budget is based on an optimistic projection that oil will be selling at $50 a barrel, and that Iraq will be exporting two million barrels a day, about 100,000 barrels more than Iraq exported per day in January.

Critics of the budget say that the projections are unrealistically rosy and that the deficit will be even larger than the one planned.

The timing is particularly bad for the new leaders who emerged from January’s provincial council elections. Many blamed incumbents for failing to deliver services and improvements, but they will have to make good on their promises with much less money.

“Reasonable people will understand, but the common people will not accept it,” said Baqir al-Shaalan, who won in the southern Iraqi province of Diwaniya on promises of a refurbished irrigation system, new housing and government jobs for unemployed youths. “They will tell us: ‘You’ve been justifying the lack of services with the security situation. Now the security situation has improved.’ ”

Then again, the provincial councils have such a dismal record of spending the money they have been allocated that, American officials say, they could actually spend more money this year even if their budgets are more austere.

There is a bright side: the crisis could finally force the Iraqi government to build up its agricultural and industrial sectors, and create a thriving private sector. Some Iraqi officials have been pushing for these moves for years.

“If the Iraqi government knew about the big depression, it would have done a lot of things differently,” Mr. Haruty, the lawmaker, said. “Same as the American government, I think.”

Campbell Robertson reported from Baghdad, and James Glanz from New York. Riyadh Mohammed contributed reporting from Baghdad.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Fox News' concern about reported appointment of Charles Freeman

It's being reported that President Obama is going to appoint Charles Freeman as national intelligence director. If Obama wants to signal this his administration will be adopting a new, more balanced approach to Middle Eastern policy, I can hardly imagine a wiser choice. Freeman is on the record as a critic of the US's pro-Israel bias, and of the US's ill-conceived invasion of Iraq.

Fox News, of course, takes issue. That's their right, obviously, but to quote Frank Gaffney as worried about Freeman's "lack of objectivity"is (to put it as charitably as I cab) laughable. This is a guy who began his career working for Richard Perle; who advocated bombing al-Jazeera; and who said on the record that 4000 American soldiers indeed had to die because of the direness of Saddam's WMD threat. I've read enough of Freeman's stuff (his views appear regularly in articles published in the journal Middle East Policy) to come to admire the general soundness and moderation of his judgment. Gaffney, on the other hand, is an American-hegemonist super-hawk who would gladly cheerlead us along the trails blazed by Bush and Cheney.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Playing with fire in Pakistan

Tomorrow's NYT reports that more than 70 United States military advisers and technical specialists, most of them Special Forces, are secretly working (as a "secret task force") in Pakistan to help its armed forces battle Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the country’s lawless tribal areas - specifically, by training and advising Pakistani commandos. They're not "conducting" combat operations, we're told. The report suggests that they've had some success.

I'm sure the Green Berets had some success as advisers working with ARVN forces against the Viet Cong in the early 1960s, too. I'm not going to pound that parallel too hard, but to those of us who remember how the US got itself into Vietnam - and, in effect, inserted thousands of US troops to support what was, in fact, the wrong side in what was actually a civil war - well, this doesn't exactly calm me down.

February 23, 2009
Secret U.S. Unit Trains Commandos in Pakistan

BARA, Pakistan — More than 70 United States military advisers and technical specialists are secretly working in Pakistan to help its armed forces battle Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the country’s lawless tribal areas, American military officials said.

The Americans are mostly Army Special Forces soldiers who are training Pakistani Army and paramilitary troops, providing them with intelligence and advising on combat tactics, the officials said. They do not conduct combat operations, the officials added.

They make up a secret task force, overseen by the United States Central Command and Special Operations Command. It started last summer, with the support of Pakistan’s government and military, in an effort to root out Qaeda and Taliban operations that threaten American troops in Afghanistan and are increasingly destabilizing Pakistan. It is a much larger and more ambitious effort than either country has acknowledged.

Pakistani officials have vigorously protested American missile strikes in the tribal areas as a violation of sovereignty and have resisted efforts by Washington to put more troops on Pakistani soil. President Asif Ali Zardari, who leads a weak civilian government, is trying to cope with soaring anti-Americanism among Pakistanis and a belief that he is too close to Washington.

Despite the political hazards for Islamabad, the American effort is beginning to pay dividends.

A new Pakistani commando unit within the Frontier Corps paramilitary force has used information from the Central Intelligence Agency and other sources to kill or capture as many as 60 militants in the past seven months, including at least five high-ranking commanders, a senior Pakistani military official said.

Four weeks ago, the commandos captured a Saudi militant linked to Al Qaeda here in this town in the Khyber Agency, one of the tribal areas that run along the border with Afghanistan.

Yet the main commanders of the Pakistani Taliban, including its leader, Baitullah Mehsud, and its leader in the Swat region, Maulana Fazlullah, remain at large. And senior American military officials remain frustrated that they have been unable to persuade the chief of the Pakistani Army, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to embrace serious counterinsurgency training for the army itself.

General Kayani, who is visiting Washington this week as a White House review on policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan gets under way, will almost certainly be asked how the Pakistani military can do more to eliminate Al Qaeda and the Taliban from the tribal areas.

The American officials acknowledge that at the very moment when Washington most needs Pakistan’s help, the greater tensions between Pakistan and India since the terrorist attacks in Mumbai last November have made the Pakistani Army less willing to shift its attention to the Qaeda and Taliban threat.

Officials from both Pakistan and the United States agreed to disclose some details about the American military advisers and the enhanced intelligence sharing to help dispel impressions that the missile strikes were thwarting broader efforts to combat a common enemy. They spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the increasingly powerful anti-American segment of the Pakistani population.

The Pentagon had previously said about two dozen American trainers conducted training in Pakistan late last year. More than half the members of the new task force are Special Forces advisers; the rest are combat medics, communications experts and other specialists. Both sides are encouraged by the new collaboration between the American and Pakistani military and intelligence agencies against the militants.

“The intelligence sharing has really improved in the past few months,” said Talat Masood, a retired army general and a military analyst. “Both sides realize it’s in their common interest.”

Intelligence from Pakistani informants has been used to bolster the accuracy of missile strikes from remotely piloted Predator and Reaper aircraft against the militants in the tribal areas, officials from both countries say.

More than 30 attacks by the aircraft have been conducted since last August, most of them after President Zardari took office in September. A senior American military official said that 9 of 20 senior Qaeda and Taliban commanders in Pakistan had been killed by those strikes.

In addition, a small team of Pakistani air defense controllers working in the United States Embassy in Islamabad ensures that Pakistani F-16 fighter-bombers conducting missions against militants in the tribal areas do not mistakenly hit remotely piloted American aircraft flying in the same area or a small number of C.I.A. operatives on the ground, a second senior Pakistani officer said.

The newly minted 400-man Pakistani paramilitary commando unit is a good example of the new cooperation. As part of the Frontier Corps, which operates in the tribal areas, the new Pakistani commandos fall under a chain of command separate from the 500,000-member army, which is primarily trained to fight Pakistan’s archenemy, India.

The commandos are selected from the overall ranks of the Frontier Corps and receive seven months of intensive training from Pakistani and American Special Forces.

The C.I.A. helped the commandos track the Saudi militant linked to Al Qaeda, Zabi al-Taifi, for more than a week before the Pakistani forces surrounded his safe house in the Khyber Agency. The Pakistanis seized him, along with seven Pakistani and Afghan insurgents, in a dawn raid on Jan. 22, with a remotely piloted C.I.A. plane hovering overhead and personnel from the C.I.A. and Pakistan’s main spy service closely monitoring the mission, a senior Pakistani officer involved in the operation said.

Still, there are tensions between the sides. Pakistani F-16’s conduct about a half-dozen combat missions a day against militants, but Pakistani officers say they could do more if the Pentagon helped upgrade the jets to fight at night and provided satellite-guided bombs and updated satellite imagery.

General Kayani was expected to take a long shopping list for more transport and combat helicopters to Washington. The question of more F-16’s — which many in Congress assert are intended for the Indian front — will also come up, Pakistani officials said.

The United States missile strikes, which have resulted in civilian casualties, have stirred heated debate among senior Pakistani government and military officials, despite the government’s private support for the attacks.

One American official described General Kayani, who is known to be sensitive about the necessity of public support for the army, as very concerned that the American strikes had undermined the army’s authority.

“These strikes are counterproductive,” Owais Ahmed Ghani, the governor of North-West Frontier Province, said in an interview in his office in Peshawar. “This is looking for a quick fix, when all it will do is attract more jihadis.”

Pakistani Army officers say the American strikes draw retaliation against Pakistani troops in the tribal areas, whose convoys and bases are bombed or attacked with rockets after each United States missile strike.

Eric Schmitt reported from Bara, Peshawar and Islamabad, Pakistan, and Jane Perlez from Islamabad.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Juan Cole on the Netanyahu government

Juan Cole is pulling no punches in this very negative, but very realistic, assessment . . . and I also recommend the Mondoweiss blog's take on Ethan Bronner's NYT piece. But in contrast to Cole, I'm still holding onto some hope that Obama - and the American public, who may be waking up to how Israel how disserved its US patron in recent years - may be able to prevent the AIPAC crowd from convincing Congress to toe (or is that tow?) the Likud line.

Netanyahu: Train Wreck for Israel, Middle East;
Looming Disaster for United States

The selection of rightwing expansionist Binyamin Netanyahu to form the next Israeli government is being greeted with dismay by the Egyptian government, which remembers him for having derailed the Oslo peace process in the late 1990s.

Netanyahu has vowed to abandon negotiations with the Palestinians, and says he will expand the program of Israeli colonization of the Palestinian West Bank.

Since even before Netanyahu's coronation was announced, the Israelis had been busy stealing more Palestinian land and planning more colonies on the purloined territory, Netanyahu will just be accelerating an already inexorable process.

Despite today's faintly ridiculous attempt in the NYT to depict Netanyahu as a born-again pragmantist, in fact he rejects any withdrawal from the Palestinian West Bank by Israeli squatters, despite Israel's commitment to pull back in the Oslo accords. Since the West Bank looks like Swiss cheese with regard to administration and settlement patterns, there isn't a Palestinian state to be had there without an extensive Israeli pullback, and Netanyahu has never shown any interest in either pullback or Palestinian state.

Now his people are trying to revive this bizarre idea of giving Jordan some sort of vague authority over the West Bank Palestinians as a way of denying them statehood in their own right. Jordan's government has been under severe pressure to expel the Israeli ambassador over the brutal Gaza campaign, and any such active collaboration with Israel to repress the West Bankers would risk toppling the Hashemite throne. King Hussein once accused Netanyahu of single-handedly destroying every positive thing the Jordanian monarch had worked for.

Netanyahu is a train wreck for the Middle East. He is willing to ally with Avigdor Lieberman, an open racist who is gunning for the 20 percent of Israel's citizen population that is Palestinian. Netanyahu wants a war with Iran, and when the Israeli Right wants a war nowadays, they usually want our children to fight and die in it for them. The 1996 "Clean Break" Neoconservative policy paper advocating a war on Iraq was written for Netanyahu. (They are not satisfied with picking our pockets for their weapons and colonization projects). Netanyahu will further oppress and brutalize the Palestinians, which he will keep in a slave-like condition of statelessness, and from whom he will steal what little property they have left. Last time he was in office he went around poisoning his enemies, for all the world like the Bulgarian KGB in the old days.

Netanyahu is the devil's gift to international terrorism, which his policies will provoke. Fifty years from now, the turn of Israel to the hard right will be looked back upon as the beginning of the end of Israel, the time when the crucial decisions were made that rendered it impossible for the Israelis to stay in the Middle East in the face of the increasing popular anger Netanyahu will have provoked in 1.5 billion Muslims. No, Israel cannot be defeated on the battleground. But the French colons in Algeria were never really defeated on the battleground, either, nor were the thousands of Britons who had ruled India.

More immediately, all Americans will have reason to rue Netanyahu's return to power, since the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other elements of the powerful Israel lobbies will pull Congress around to support Likudnik policies in the next few years.

And it won't even be allowed to protest where Netanyahu will take America.

A 360 degree panorama from one of the farming villages in Gaza destroyed by the IDF.

I'm truly fortunate that some very talented and committed people noted something I wrote and have gotten in touch with some work of their own. I'm still shaking my head after seeing this incredible panoramic shot by Hans Nyberg.

Hello John

I have posted a 360 degree panorama from Juhor ad-Dik one of the farming villages in Gaza destroyed by the IDF.

Why did Israel destroy a Gaza Farming Village including Olive Trees which were the living of these innocent farmers.

Quote from New York Times: JUHR EL DIK, Gaza — When the Assi brothers returned to their village, most of it was missing. Their house was flattened, and their olive groves crushed. The only thing left standing was a single almond tree.
Of all the areas hit in Israel’s military campaign, Juhr el Dik, a farming village on Gaza’s eastern border, had
more than its share of loss. In its center is now a giant swath of destruction where about 40 houses once stood.

“It’s an earthquake,” said Salim Abu Ayadah, the mayor of the town, whose house was among those destroyed. “When I saw it, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I couldn’t walk.”

Best Regards
Hans Nyberg

Website of extraordinary art and images of Gaza

I'm posting below a link to a very provocative (in a most positive sense) website sent to me by the artist, who'd seen one of my recent essays and wanted to share with me his work.

A new blog on human rights: "Israel's Back Yard"

Posting this, with a recommendation that you all have a look . . .

Dear Prof. Robertson,

I wanted to call your attention to a new blog, concerned with Human Rights: "Israel's Back Yard":

Israel's Back Yard is a blog focusing on testimonies from Israel's checkpoints in the West Bank. It is a valuable resource for anyone searching for information on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the peace process in the Middle East, and Human Rights. Written by an Israeli Human Rights activist, this blog has been running for over a year in Hebrew, and has been launched this week in an English version.

I hope you will find it interesting, and would deeply appreciate if you were to share this link with your readers, or at least with your friends:

Sincerely yours,


Iraqi PM, anti-U.S. group reach local alliance deal | Reuters

Political wheels are turning in Iraq. The US can't be pleased that "our guy" Nuri al-Maliki is allying himself with the most popular and outspoken exponent of expelling US forces from Iraq. The Kurds can't be pleased that an Arab Iraq-centrist nationalist is allying himself with another Arab Iraq-centrist nationalist. And whereas Maliki has downplayed his home party's (al-Dawa) explicit Shiite-religious orientation, Muqtada al-Sadr's Shi'ism is central to who he is and what his party stands for. Some very powerful forces are aligning themselves against the Kurds.

Iraqi PM, anti-U.S. group reach local alliance deal

Sat Feb 21, 2009 3:45pm GMT

By Khalid al-Ansary

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Followers of anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are nearing a deal with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to form coalitions in Iraq's provinces following last month's election, officials said on Saturday.

Where the Sadrists and allies of the increasingly assertive prime minister together won a majority of seats on provincial councils the two groups may rule as a coalition, said Ameer Tahir al-Kinani, a senior member of a list of candidates backed by Sadr.

"We have an initial agreement to form coalitions in all provinces without exception," said Kinani. "If we can't form a local government on our own, we can bring in a third party."

Hassan al-Sneid, a lawmaker from Maliki's Dawa Party, said the agreement was just about wrapped up between the Sadrists and the Dawa-led coalition, which trounced other Shi'ite groups in what was Iraq's most peaceful vote since the 2003 invasion.

The provincial alliances may be named "Public Service Front," he said.

The January 31 election to pick councils governing 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces passed without a major militant attack and boosted hopes for an end to the sectarian slaughter and insurgency as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from Iraq before 2012.

Maliki emerged as a strong winner, campaigning on a platform that called for a unified, centralized state and setting himself up for a powerful run in parliamentary polls at the year's end.

He also eschewed the religious overtones and secularism that traditionally characterized his Islamic Dawa Party and which colored the campaign of his main Shi'ite rivals, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI).

His success has alarmed ethnic Kurds, who were massacred by Saddam Hussein and have enjoyed autonomy since Saddam's forces were first routed in 1991 after the Kuwait invasion. Kurds fear their semi-independence may be threatened by Maliki.


Maliki's State of Law coalition performed particularly well in Basra, which includes Iraq's most productive oil fields, and Baghdad, both cities where Maliki used U.S.-backed Iraqi troops last year to crush militias backing the firebrand cleric Sadr.

That would seem to make them strange bedfellows. But Kinani said both had the same aims for Iraq -- a strong central government and competent bureaucrats to run local governments.

The two parties also share Islamist roots. Sadr's uncle, the cleric Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, was an early Dawa leader.

An alliance between the two groups would give them majorities in the provinces of Basra, Baghdad, Maysan, Wasit and Dhi Qar. In addition, they together have nearly half the provincial council seats in Kerbala, Najaf and Qadisiya.

When it came to picking powerful provincial governors, Kinani said party politics would not be the decisive factor.

"It is not a condition that they should be picked from the winning lists. We will seek the better, most competent and most honest candidate to run the province," he said.

Kinani did not rule out inclusion of third parties, including ISCI, so long as it dropped its campaign for autonomy in the oil-rich, Shi'ite south.

"We are open to all winning lists, even those that just got one seat," Sneid said separately. "Our theory is that no one should have a monopoly of the administration of the provinces."

The Madonna of the neocon set

Great feed from Barbara A on this one. (The WaPo's Dana Milbank on "Prince of Darkness Denies Own Existence ") And I'm not referring to the Blessed Virgin in the title. I'm referring to the Michigan native Madonna who's made a career of reinventing herself in order to stay near the top of the heap. And in the neocon world, we're talking Richard Perle, who has thousands of dollars, opportunities for interviews and think-tank appearances, and whatever future he may have left as a celebrity expert riding on his ability to wiggle out of his culpability in bringing the Iraq war down on the US and the world. Now, says Perle, there were no neocons, nor did anyone of such ilk have anything to do with Bush's decision to invade Iraq.

Like Hell.

This is the same Perle who was asked (and I heard this at the time, in 2003, with mine own ears) what the US's "success" in taking down Saddam meant for other unfriendly Middle East regime. His response was: "You're next."

Milbank skewers him, but good, and Perle deserves it. But this is no sudden turn-around on Perle's part. Some of us were appalled a couple of years ago when PBS ran a special documentary about the invasion of Iraq and included as one of the major segments a long interview (much more than an interview; more like a visit) with Mr. Perle, who morphed into a kindly avuncular type and with sweet reasonableness assured the audience that the invasion of Iraq was oh-so-well-intentioned, a great thing, really. And the interviewer did practically nothing to point out the realities or press him on the issues and facts. (Admittedly, this was during the heart of the Bush presidency, at a time when some were demanding that PBS's support be reduced or eliminated, so the network may have been trying to demonstrate "balance" and save its own skin. Nonetheless, it was not one of PBS's better moments.)

The US and Pakistan - A vicious game

The Pakistani government - and with it, the US - is walking a tightrope here. The more civilians killed by these drone strikes, the more anger aroused among Pakistan's electorate, the more recruits for the Taliban and their allies, and the more incentive for vendetta against US and NATO forces. But, as the story notes, Pakistan's leaders are in no position to say no to the US. They need the US's dollars. It's a vicious game.

February 19, 2009

Officials Confirm CIA Drones In Pakistan

This report was filed by CBS News' Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad.
Pakistan, the U.S., and other NATO member countries have had a quiet, unwritten agreement for the past three to five years to allow the CIA to fly unmanned drones out of remote airstrips in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, a senior military official from a NATO country confirmed to CBS News on Thursday.

In the past week, speculation has mounted over the extent to which Pakistan was aware of such flights, amid evidence that at least some of the drones were being launched from airstrips in remote Pakistani regions.

The issue is potentially explosive for Pakistan — a country that has been an ally to the U.S. in Washington's fight against Islamic extremism, but has routinely protested the drone strikes on suspected Taliban and al Qaeda militants in Pakistan's border region, which have also caused numerous civilian casualties.

On Tuesday, The Times newspaper of London reported that the drone flights were originating from an airstrip known as Shamsi in southwest Pakistan. At the same time, The NEWS, a Pakistani English language newspaper, printed what it said were images of that site showing three predator drones parked on a runway.

On Thursday, the Islamabad-based NATO military official, who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity, said the U.S., Pakistan and NATO had all collaborated in the use of remote locations in Pakistan and Afghanistan to operate the drones.

"There is no single site you can name. We are looking at different locations both in Pakistan and Afghanistan," said the official. "If the Shamsi base has been found to be a home for the drones, that is not the only location."

A NATO country diplomat stationed in Islamabad, who also spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity, confirmed the information given by the military official. "There is no one location. The locations keep on changing in both countries (Pakistan and Afghanistan). But yes, there are drones flying from locations in both these countries," said the diplomat.

Pakistani opposition politicians have repeatedly denounced their own government for its support of the U.S.-led war against militants, and called for an end to all cooperation with Washington.

However, a Pakistani government minister told CBS News on Thursday there was no question of ending Islamabad's support for Washington, especially given Pakistan's weak economy which, has made it rely on the U.S. for badly needed financial aid.

"The U.S. holds a vital lifeline for Pakistan. How can we move to cut that off ourselves," asked the minister, who also asked not to be named due to the sensitive nature of the matter.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Iran in 'backroom offers' to West

This is quite a story, on a number of levels:

  • Iranian officials admitting to British officials, years ago, that Iran was behind attacks on US troops in Iraq. No surprise, really.
  • Iran's cooperation with the US in the wake of 9-11 was both forthcoming and helpful.
  • The Bush team blew it - with its "axis of evil" nonsense and its tough-guy approach to dealing with Iran, none of which (as Nicholas Burns admits here) was very helpful.

Indeed, it was reported years ago that the Iranians as early as 2003 were offering to end their nuclear push (and to stop their support of Hamas and Hezbollah) in exchange for security guarantees from the US. Bush-Cheney turned them down flat.

Iran in 'backroom offers' to West
By Bridget Kendall
BBC diplomatic correspondent

Iran offered to stop attacking British troops in Iraq to try to get the West to drop objections to Tehran's uranium enrichment project, a UK official says.

The disclosure by UN ambassador Sir John Sawers in a BBC documentary throws new light on backroom discussions between Iran and the West.

Roadside bombing attacks on British and American soldiers in Iraq were at their height in 2005.

The extent of Iran's role in arming and training those militias was uncertain.

Tehran denied a role, while British officials tended to hedge their accusations with references to 'circumstantial evidence'.

Private talks

But now a senior British official has revealed that not only did the Iranians privately admit their involvement, they even made an astonishing offer to switch off the attacks in Iraq if in return the West would stop blocking Iran's controversial nuclear programme.

We stop killing you in Iraq... you allow us to carry on with our nuclear programme
Sir John Sawers on the Iranian offer

Sir John Sawers, currently Britain's ambassador to the United Nations, said Iranians raised the offer during informal private talks at a hotel in London.

"There were various Iranians who would come to London and suggest we had tea in some hotel or other. They'd do the same in Paris, they'd do the same in Berlin, and then we'd compare notes among the three of us," he told the BBC.

"The Iranians wanted to be able to strike a deal whereby they stopped killing our forces in Iraq in return for them being allowed to carry on with their nuclear programme: 'We stop killing you in Iraq, stop undermining the political process there, you allow us to carry on with our nuclear programme without let or hindrance.'"

The deal was dismissed by the British government and Iran's nuclear enrichment restarted shortly after.

Old pattern

It is just one incident in a revealing pattern of on-off backroom deals with the Iranians that appear to go back to 2001.

It emerges from interviews with both Iranian and American officials that after 11 September, 2001, Tehran collaborated so closely with the US in order to topple the Taleban and remove al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, that they even provided intelligence information to pinpoint military targets for bombing.

Hillary Mann, one of the US delegates, remembers how one Iranian military official pounded the table in his eagerness to get the Americans to change targets.

"He unfurled the map on the table and started to point to targets that the US needed to focus on, particularly in the north," she told the BBC.

"We took the map to Centcom, the US Central Command, and certainly that did become the US military strategy."

Over Iraq too, Iran's reformist President Mohammad Khatami offered to collaborate on ousting Saddam Hussein, arguing that the Iraqi leader was also Iran's enemy.

But relations deteriorated after former US President George W Bush accused Iran of being part of an "Axis of Evil".

Attempts at negotiations initiated by the Europeans in the end led nowhere.

Current prospects

According to Nick Burns, in charge of Iran policy at the State Department for the Bush administration until last year, the American policy of talking tough with Iran did not prove productive.

"We had advocated regime change," said Mr Burns. "We had a very threatening posture towards Iran for a number of years. It didn't produce any movement whatsoever."

The glimpses in this TV documentary of a whole series of backroom talks over several years that on occasion yielded real collaboration would appear to be encouraging.

But the impressive collection of interviews does not address what prospects now lie ahead for a possible improvement in relations.

And the essential gap remains: without exception all Iranian policy makers, even the reformist Mr Khatami who may well stand again for the post of president this summer, insist on Iran's legal right to pursue its nuclear programme without impediment.

But the West remains deeply suspicious and alarmed at what it fears is subterfuge and deliberate procrastination to conceal Iranian plans to be able to make weapons from its uranium stocks, and therefore the Western demand remains that Iran must suspend nuclear enrichment.

President Obama's promise to "extend a hand" if Iran "unclenches its fist" may not be enough to break the logjam.

The documentary, Iran and the West: Nuclear confrontation, airs on Saturday, 21 February, at 2100 local time (GMT) on BBC Two.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Netanyahu's predicament grows

Tapped by Shimon Peres to form the next government, Benjamin Netanyahu has reached out to both Tzipi Livni (Kadima party, which actually got the most votes in the election) and Ehud Barak (Labor party) to invite them to join a unity government. Barak has said no, Livni has agreed to meet with him, but so far has said no. And I suspect they won't join unless Netanyahu effectively repudiates his "natural allies" (=Lieberman and other far-right parties) - in which case he trashes his credibility and raises a stink with a huge number of voters, especially the "Russian" immigrants, Ultra-Orthodox, and pro-settlement types.

Netanyahu's in a bind, because he knows that a government based on partnering with Avigdor Lieberman and his ilk can be no partner with the new US president. But if he does indeed have to go that route . . . I wonder how AIPAC and the pro-Israel lobby will work the halls of Congress? Will they be powerful enough to force Obama to make nice with Netanyahu and Lieberman? Remember, the American South is full of Biblical-literalist Christian Zionists who'd have absolutely no problem forcing every last Arab out of the "land of Israel."

Netanyahu has as much as six weeks to make a deal. Stay tuned . . .

Here's the NYT report, datelined tomorrow . . .

February 21, 2009
Netanyahu Tapped to Form Israel’s New Government

JERUSALEM — Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the conservative Likud Party, was invited by Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, on Friday to take the lead in assembling the next government. Whatever form that government takes, Mr. Netanyahu, 59, is widely expected to return as prime minister a decade after the last government he led fell apart.

In a brief but statesmanlike speech at the presidential residence on Friday afternoon, Mr. Netanyahu accepted the mandate and immediately called on the centrist Kadima Party, led by Tzipi Livni, and the center-left Labor Party, led by Ehud Barak, to join him in a unity government. He said national unity was necessary in order for Israel to contend with the formidable challenges ahead.

“Let us unite to secure the future of the State of Israel,” Mr. Netanyahu said, adding that he wanted to discuss the possibility of forming a broad government “for the good of the people and the state.”

Mr. Netanyahu and Ms. Livni have agreed to meet on Sunday, but the negotiations between them are likely to be tough and the chances of success are unclear.

Ms. Livni, the current foreign minister and Mr. Netanyahu’s main rival for the premiership, has so far refused the idea of joining a government led by Mr. Netanyahu and including several ultra-orthodox and far-right parties. Committed to the peace process with the Palestinians, she has said she would rather go into the opposition than serve as a fig-leaf for a coalition of the right.

Mr. Barak, whose Labor Party fared badly in the elections, has already said he would heed the will of the people and head into the opposition.

But in his plea for unity, Mr. Netanyahu pointed to the existential threat to Israel that would be posed by a nuclear Iran and the global economic crisis that he said could cost hundreds of thousands of Israelis their jobs.

Such major challenges, Mr. Netanyahu said, required “a new approach” of unity and of “joining hands.” Striking a more positive and conciliatory tone, he said the goal was to seek “peace with our neighbors and unity among ourselves.”

A broad government joined by the center and left would likely promote a more pragmatic agenda and avoid friction with Israel’s most important ally, the United States.

Mr. Netanyahu will have up to six weeks to put together a governing coalition. He was tapped for the premiership after he gained the endorsement of 65 members of the 120-seat Parliament, from religious parties and those on the far right.

While Ms. Livni’s Kadima narrowly won the Feb. 10 elections, it failed to muster the support of a majority in the Parliament, a prerequisite for forming a governing coalition. Ms. Livni gained the endorsement only of Kadima’s 28 legislators.

In the last few days, many here have predicted that Mr. Netanyahu would be left with no choice but to form a narrow government with those he has termed his “natural partners,” parties representing the ultra-orthodox and the right.

After a private meeting earlier Friday with Mr. Peres, who has also been urging national unity, Ms. Livni said that the coalition taking shape lacked political vision and that “a broad coalition has no value if it does not lead the way.”

But in his speech on Friday, Mr. Netanyahu indicated that he wanted to embark on a new track. He said he would meet first with Ms. Livni and Mr. Barak, and made no mention of the parties that endorsed him — groups like Avigdor Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, which came third in the elections, or the ultra-orthodox Shas.

Rina Mazliah, a political commentator with Israel’s Channel 2 News, said that Mr. Netanyahu had changed direction and that his call for unity based on national responsibility might make it difficult for Ms. Livni to refuse.

Nevertheless, Mr. Netanyahu’s vision of unity seemed far from assured.

Leading members of Mr. Barak’s once-dominant Labor Party, which won a mere 13 seats in the new Parliament, have said the party must spend time rebuilding itself in the opposition.

Moreover, the parties to any coalition would have to agree on basic government guidelines.

Ms. Livni has staked her political career on promoting negotiations with the more pragmatic, Western-backed Palestinian leadership for a two-state solution. Mr. Netanyahu says he wants to promote “economic peace” in the West Bank but has remained deliberately vague about any long-term political solutions.

Ms. Livni noted on Thursday that Mr. Netanyahu “meanwhile refuses to talk about a two-state solution.”

Mr. Netanyahu acknowledged on Friday that there were serious political differences, but he said that given the momentousness of the hour he believed it was possible to “find a common path to reach the country’s goals.”

A narrow government would be less stable, with Mr. Netanyahu having to balance the often competing demands of small parties. A right-wing agenda would also set Israel on a possible collision course with the new administration in the United States, which has pledged an active and aggressive pursuit of peace.

Shalom Yerushalmi, a columnist in Friday’s Maariv newspaper, described such a government as Mr. Netanyahu’s “nightmare.”

“The narrow government he formed in 1996 fell apart in stages,” Mr. Yerushalmi noted. “Netanyahu swore that he would not make a narrow government again, and would never again be the prime minister of half the people.”

David Corn on Obama's Afghanistan problem

I refer you to an excellent comment from David Corn. He puts it well:

Afghanistan is not a war to be won. It is a helluva problem to be managed and slowly improved in a deliberate step-by-step manner.

The campaign to re-create Avigdor Lieberman is under way

Lieberman nod to Netanyahu tips Israel right

The controversial leader of the Yisrael Beytenu party endorsed Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu Thursday, virtually ensuring that a right-wing coalition will govern the country.

Long disparaged as the bad boy of Israeli politics, Avigdor Lieberman has leveraged a racially divisive campaign assailing the loyalty of Israel's Arab minority to become the kingmaker of the next government.

On Thursday, Mr. Lieberman, who is leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu, or "Israel Is Our Home" party, formally threw his support behind Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, nearly clinching his chances to lead a right-wing coalition. In return, Lieberman is seen as a candidate for one of three top cabinet posts: finance, defense, or foreign affairs.

Now, as the controversial politician prepares to shape Israeli policy, many are concerned that he could put Israel at odds with the United States and the international community.

Lieberman is relying on a career diplomat to help avoid such tensions.

"It's a challenge, there are a lot of misconceptions," said Danny Ayalon, a newly elected member of parliament for Lieberman's "Israel is our Home" party and a former ambassador to the US.

Mr. Ayalon predicts that international diplomats will give Lieberman a hearing despite all the criticism. "There is a recognition that Avigdor Lieberman is going to play a central role here, not just in Israeli politics but in Israeli foreign policy."

Following Lieberman's recommendation of Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said she plans to take the centrist Kadima party into the opposition rather than accept offers to join Netanyahu in a unity government.

Ayalon's most difficult task may be explaining domestic proposals that have earned Lieberman comparisons to far-right French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The Moldovan-born immigrant says that Israel's Arab minorities – one-fifth of the population – threaten to destabilize the Jewish state, just as ethno-religious conflicts sowed turmoil in the Balkans. The problem is even more acute in Israel, because it sits at the "clash of civilizations" divide between the West and radical Islam.

The "Israel is Our Home" party advocates passing a law requiring Israeli citizens – including some 1.4 million Arabs – to swear loyalty to the country's Jewish symbols or lose voting rights. As part of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel should redraw its border with the West Bank to cede hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs to a Palestinian entity in return for sovereignty over Jewish settlements.

Ayalon insists that Lieberman is a pragmatist who has been unfairly attacked campaign of "name calling." Once a part of the government, the hardball rhetoric of the opposition will ease, he predicts.

Some says it's too late. After his party's recent campaign slogan of "no loyalty, no citizenship," Lieberman would be disastrous choice, says Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalem Center's Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies in Jerusalem.

"It's nightmarish but not inconceivable. Lieberman has become the face of ugly Israel," he says. "Lieberman would be an anti-foreign minister because of his reputation. Even if he tones his rhetoric down, the vulgar anti-Arab campaign will continue to haunt him."

To be sure, for someone who came up through the ranks of the right-wing Likud party to serve as Netanyahu's chief of staff during his first term as prime minister, Lieberman has an approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that is unorthodox.

His focus on demographic politics and the need to separate from the Palestinians takes a page out of the argument of the Israeli left.

His support for a political and physical border between Israel and the West Bank Palestinians – he's even mentioned conceding parts of Arab East Jerusalem – offends hard-core religious ideologues who rule out conceding sovereignty over any scrap of land.

Though Lieberman lives in the isolated West Bank settlement of Nokdim, support for his party among settlers was lower than the national average.

Ayalon concedes that Lieberman has not been "politically correct." But he insists that Lieberman offers "out of the box" solutions to Israel's enduring problems.

It's that perception that helped boost his power in the incoming parliament to 15 seats compared with 11 seats in the previous session. Though the core of his party support comes from immigrants from the former Soviet Union, about one-third of the votes came from native-born Israelis, known as sabras, who have despaired of the establishment politicians and prescriptions.

"It was 'in' to vote for Yisrael Beytenu. It was refreshing, with an attitude, and with a clear message," said Israeli pollster Yitzhak Katz. "There was an atmosphere of someone who was giving a simple solution."

Still, Lieberman's critique of the peace process makes him sound more in line with the right wing, which is liable to make the Americans uncomfortable.

For one, he doesn't see the Palestinian Authority as a partner for a peace agreement now. Before solving the conflict, Ayalon says, Israel and the international community first need to curb the growing power of Iran.

And the platform of Lieberman's party supports encouraging a political separation between Gaza and the West Bank – in contradiction to the longtime position of the international community that the two territories constitute a united political entity.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported today that US officials are unhappy about the prospect of an Israeli government led by Netanyahu and Lieberman, and have made their preference for a unity government known. A spokesman for the US Embassy declined comment.

Lieberman, who served as minister for strategic threats under outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert before bolting to the opposition, has already been received in the US as a top cabinet minister.

But with a record of provocative comments about Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Iran, and Israeli Arabs, Ayalon's job now will be to help correct Lieberman's reputation.

"When people know him and know the party, I think they will realize that it is a very serious one, a very democratic one," he says. "With leaders like [Avigdor] Lieberman you can make peace.''

Find this article at:

A possibly ominous force emerging in Iraq's Shiite politics

Although he disbanded his Mahdi Army militia months ago and has been seen as a declining force in Iraqi politics, Muqtada al-Sadr's supporters did reasonably - perhaps surprisingly - well in the recent provincial elections, and are now being cultivated as coalition partners by prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and his al-Dawa party. But the Sadrist movement itself is now fragmenting, with an assertive, more militant minority element preparing for the parliamentary elections slated for the end of 2009. The sources cited here indicate that this new movement has links to Iran - which Iran denies.

More Krauthammer policy wisdom

If you dare, check today's Krauthammer special on "Obama's Supine Diplomacy." The man is forever locked in a world of evil empires and existential threats - the only legitimate response to which is to impose one's will, as forcefully as possible. I honestly believe that if some rogue US general were able to push the right buttons to nuke Moscow and Tehran tomorrow (and, hell, why not throw in Gaza and the West Bank as well, if we can just shield Israel somehow), CK would demand that the man's face be added to Mount Rushmore.

Israel's new government taking shape?

The LA Times as well as other sources are reporting that the ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beitenu party did so well in the recent elections, has thrown his support to the Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu, which makes it almost certain that he will be asked to form the next government and serve as prime minister. None of this comes as a real surprise, of course. But what's increasingly interesting are the possible twists and turns in store now on several fronts. US relations with Israel are likely to turn a bit frosty, with a new US president committed to finding a new way forward in the Middle East now having to deal with a new Israeli PM who has never believed in the peace process with the Palestinians, or in the advisability of either evacuating the West Bank settlements or bringing into being a viable Palestinian state. (Not that, of course, Tzipi Livni of the Kadima party was ever any bargain as far as the cause of a Palestinian state was concerned.) The hardness of Netanyahu's position will only be augmented by the fact that, for his new government to survive, he has to play ball with a political partner whose stance on these issues is even farther to the right than is his.

The challenges to Obama and to the Palestinian leadership will grow, obviously. But there may be an up-side, of sorts. The three-way minuet of the US, Israel, and Mahmud Abbas as they danced around any real progress on the "peace process", is over. Both Hamas and a perhaps resurgent Fatah in the West Bank (with Mr. Abbas likely facing ouster now) can have no doubt which way the wind has turned, and may well adopt a much tougher and more insistent stance toward Israel. There's even some talk of a resumption of the intifada in the West Bank, in which Hamas and Fatah just might find common cause. Increased violence means, of course, increased suffering, which no one can want or hope for, but a reunification of the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation will likely raise respect for Palestinian nationalism around the world and draw international support to their cause.

That support will be even easier to attract, of course, with the wounds of Gaza both fresh and even more visible as journalists and delegations (including two US congressmen, one of them Keith Ellison of Minnesota, whose public statements reflect their disgust with Israel's acts) visit there and report on the horrors still so evident on the ground and in local hospitals. In the US, calls for US colleges to dis-invest from companies supporting Israel's military are growing. Students at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland and at New York University have occupied campus buildings and called upon their administrations to take action. A groundswell of criticism and opposition to Israel's policies has grown within large elements of the American Jewish community. (The Mondoweiss blog, now being jointly fed by Philip Weiss and Adam Horowitz, has been reporting on this steadily for many days.)

The US Congress, of course, may still insist that Israel's security be the US's pre-eminent foreign policy concern. But how staunch can that usually reliable support remain for an Israeli government, soon to be in place, one of whose top ministers (and I speak here of the execrable Mr. Lieberman) is on the record with statements about Arabs that have been nothing less than racist - indeed, genocidal, if one considers his comment that an appropriate Israeli solution for Palestinians opposed to Israel might be one like what the US resorted to against Japan at the end of World War II? Perhaps Netanyahu will try to sequester Lieberman in some lesser cabinet post as a way of keeping him out of the klieg lights of global opinion, but he will need to accommodate Lieberman's views and policy prescriptions or else face the possibility of losing his coalition - and with it, his prime-ministership.

Indeed, all of this just may give Mr. Obama the opening he needs to begin to move away from the Israel-first assumptions that have dominated the foreign policies of US presidencies going back at least to Bill Clinton. Such a shift would undoubtedly help pave the way to some workable rapprochement with Iran, and might even enable the US to bring in Iran as a partner in some program to stabilize the situation in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Iran surely has an interest in damping down the zeal of anti-Shiite Sunni fundamentalists like the Taliban.

But perhaps most importantly, by taking a principled stand against a Netanyahu-Lieberman government, Mr. Obama could make giant strides to re-establish an image of the US across the Muslim world - including those young men who otherwise might be flocking to the banners of al-Qaeda and the Taliban - as a champion of fairness and justice in the global arena.

From the Los Angeles Times

Israel ultranationalist Lieberman backs Netanyahu

The move almost guarantees that the Likud party leader will be the next prime minister and lead a right-wing coalition government less inclined to negotiate with Palestinians
By Ashraf Khalil

4:52 PM PST, February 19, 2009

Reporting from Jerusalem — Conservative opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu today moved closer to winning the Israeli prime minister's post, gaining the endorsement of ultranationalist politician Avigdor Lieberman in a development likely to slow any movement toward a peace settlement with the Palestinians.

Lieberman, having assumed a kingmaker's role thanks to his party's third-place finish in recent parliamentary elections, threw his support behind Netanyahu after meeting with President Shimon Peres, who ultimately must decide whether to ask Netanyahu or moderate Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to form a governing coalition.

The action increased the likelihood that Netanyahu will run the Israeli government with a narrow right-wing coalition that observers predict would encourage the controversial growth of settlements in the occupied West Bank and clash with the Obama administration over the pace and scope of Mideast peace negotiations.

Lieberman, whose Israel Is Our Home party captured 15 of 120 seats in parliament, urged Netanyahu to form a broad unity government that included Likud, which won 27 seats, and Livni's Kadima, which won 28. Livni quickly replied that she would not serve in a "right-wing extremist government under Likud."

A government led by Netanyahu and Lieberman would be "a bad combination for America's interests," Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, said at a Georgetown University panel discussion this week. "It would be much more difficult for the right wing, even with determined American leadership, to advance the peace process."

Peres has been meeting with party leaders all week, and could announce his decision on forming the government as soon as Friday. Whomever he chooses will have 42 days to assemble a coalition that receives 61 votes of approval in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Peres has until Wednesday to pick either Livni or Netanyahu. He invited both party leaders to meet him separately Friday and could urge the pair to find a way to work together.

Both Livni and Netanyahu lay claim to the premiership, Livni by virtue of her narrow popular victory and Netanyahu because the rightist tilt of the post-election landscape gives him a better chance of gathering the necessary votes. Netanyahu has expressed a desire for a broad coalition including Kadima, but has been unwilling to meet Livni's price of a rotating premiership, with each serving two years.

A cartoon in Thursday's today's edition of the Maariv newspaper showed Netanyahu and Livni in bed together reading the Kama Sutra. Netanyahu says: "Whatever you want, as long as I'm on top."

Theoretically, Netanyahu, Livni and Lieberman could find common ground on domestic and social issues in a unity government. All are secularists, particularly Lieberman, whose mostly Russian immigrant support base wants to see civil marriage instituted in the Jewish state.

All three have a working history with Likud dating to Netanyahu's previous term as prime minister in the mid-1990s. Lieberman was his chief of staff and helped Livni land her first high-level government job. Lieberman and Livni remain on good personal terms, although neither has overly warm relations with Netanyahu.

The three's positions diverge sharply on the issue of negotiations toward an independent Palestinian state. Livni backs continuing U.S.-endorsed peace talks and is willing to concede much of the West Bank and at least discuss the division of Jerusalem. As foreign minister under outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, she led a year of lackluster negotiations with the Palestinian Authority that showed few public signs of progress.

Netanyahu believes it's too soon for final status negotiations and recommends years of economic development in the West Bank and strengthening the Palestinian Authority first. Lieberman technically supports the idea of a Palestinian state, but is lukewarm on the current process; he recently drew accusations of racism by advocating that Israel's 1.4 million Arab citizens be forced to take a loyalty oath.

Although Lieberman said his endorsement of a Likud-led government was dependent on a willingness to include Kadima, he also sided with Netanyahu in saying Livni would have to give up her main demand of rotating the top post. Referring to Netanyahu by his nickname, he said, "Bibi must get used to the fact that this will be a broad government and not a narrow one, and Tzipi will have to get used to the fact that there is no rotation."

Livni and her lieutenants quickly rejected the notion of serving as an unequal partner in a Likud-led government. In a text message sent out to Kadima members, Livni said it would be impossible to reconcile Netanyahu's politics with Kadima's, particularly on the peace negotiations.

"Bibi's natural partners are not our partners, and are not partners who share our way," Livni wrote. "I do not intend to double-cross the faith my voters placed in me in order to promise myself a job in the government."

Given the nature of Israeli political negotiations, Livni's statements could simply prove to be last-minute hardball tactics. But there are few political benefits and serious risks for her to join as anything less than an equal partner to Netanyahu.

Livni successfully broadened Kadima's centrist tent this election by courting a new pool of leftist voters alarmed by the rise of the right. She consistently promoted herself as the only candidate who could deliver a viable peace deal. Many of those new supporters would view it as a sellout if Livni agreed to serve under Netanyahu.

"Livni cannot compromise on conceding the diplomatic process. We can not betray the trust of a quarter of a million voters," said Kadima parliament member Tzachi Hanegbi in a radio interview.

Likud officials happily proclaimed that Lieberman's backing gave them a minimum of 65 Knesset seats and the right to form the next government. But that math is by no means rock-solid.

It assumes the inclusion of both Lieberman and several right-wing religious parties that view his civil marriage policy as an attack on the Orthodox rabbinate's authority. Shas, the largest of the ultra-Orthodox parties, which holds 11 seats, openly vilified Lieberman in the days before the election.

Lieberman would have a hard time backing off his civil marriage demand, a crucial issue among his supporters and potential deal breaker for the religious parties. Tens of thousands of Russian immigrants with Israeli citizenship cannot be wed because they aren't viewed as Jewish by rabbinical authorities.


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