Sunday, May 31, 2009

Israeli ministers: No West Bank settlement freeze

The line in the sand is being etched into concrete, and Israeli officials are whining about unfair concessions to the Palestinians - and are seemingly aghast that the "understandings" made with the Bush administration (specifically, about "established realities" regarding West Bank settlement construction) are no longer in force.

Oh, come on! If they want to play that card . . . what about earlier understandings with Israel about a two-state solution - about the need for a Palestinian state - that go back as far as Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo Accords, and most recently, Ehud Olmert, the Annapolis meetings, etc.? Now Netanyahu/Lieberman reject any such understanding, but they cry foul over West Bank settlement construction? Something long recognized as illegal by both international law and UN resolutions?

Stick to your guns, President Obama,

Israeli ministers: No West Bank settlement freeze - Haaretz - Israel News

Anthony Shadid on the Effects of US Occupation in Iraq

Today's WaPo has what is absolutely a must-read in today's issue - by Anthony Shadid, who is one of the most intrepid - and surely the most lyrical and expressive - American journalists in Iraq today. As I've pointed out before, and as is well known among journalists, he has the distinct advantage of being an Arabic speaker. That enables him to move among people on the streets, to converse and elicit responses and impressions directly from them. It's invaluable. You can learn more about Iraq from one Anthony Shadid piece than you can from a hundred press releases from the US military command there.

Shadid's piece today is on the cultural impact of the American conquest and occupation of Iraq: American words, movies, music, even haircuts and dipping tobacco - along with an awareness that some important aspects of Iraqi custom and tradition are disappearing.

Or perhaps, I should think, just going underground. And if the re-emerging Sunni resistance to the US occupation is indeed as strong as it appears, and if the Muslim fundamentalist influences persist (they remain very strong in the predominantly Shiite south of Iraq), and if the US withdrawal from Iraqi cities proceeds as scheduled, one has to wonder about the possibility of an anti-American reaction in the years ahead.

Friday, May 29, 2009

More Washington Post nonsense on Israel-Palestine

The WaPo's Jackson Diehl publishes today an absurdly slanted piece ("Abbas's Waiting Game") that does absolutely nothing to promote the interests of Israelis, Palestinians, or the US in the ongoing "peace process." In effect, he lays all the blame on Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas for the failure to make progress. In particular, he cites Abbas's "failure" to accept the supposedly sweet deal that previous Israeli PM Ehud Olmert offered him for a Palestinian state that would encompass 97% of the West Bank. Diehl also refers to Abbas as the "pivotal player in any Middle East process."


No mention of the catastrophe that Israeli occupation has inflicted on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967.

No mention that Olmert's government at the time was hardly in a position to enforce any major deal. (His standing among the Israeli electorate had tanked after the 2006 war in Lebanon, and he personally was under investigation for corruption.)

No mention that after the US-Israeli rejection of the democratic process that brought Hamas to power in the Palestinian Authority parliament (followed by Israel's round-up and imprisonment of most of the Hamas legislators), and after the glorified photo-op that was Bush's infamous Annapolis meeting, Abbas had been reduced to a mockery of a leader. And he more or less is mired in that status even now.

No mention that now, after Israel's devastation of Gaza in late 2008-early 2009 and its ongoing blockade there, Abbas has almost no standing left among the Palestinian public, not to mention the Arab public at large.

Pivotal player?! Hardly. If anything, Abbas has been played, over and over. And he knows it. (And Obama probably knows it, which is why his meeting with Abbas today was relatively amicable, according to the NYT.) And he perhaps rightly feels that it's high time the US stepped up with a real will to accomplish something. And that can't happen unless/until the US allows Hamas into the tent, helps bring about some kind of Palestinian unity government . . . and forces Israel to stop building its settlements and allow Gaza to re-develop (not that Gaza ever had a chance to develop under Israeli authority - see the work of Amira Hass and the Harvard scholar Sara Roy on that score). The pivotal players now are the Israeli leadership, and the Israeli public.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pentagon denies report Iraq prison photos show rape

This denial comes despite the fact that the source of the allegations is a US general, Antonio Taguba, who is extremely familiar with the evidence and is already on the record (in a 2007 interview with the New Yorker) as having seen a video of an American soldier raping a female detainee.

This issue has become a real conundrum for US public relations and "force protection," or so it seems to me. Obama now wants to interdict the release of more of the Abu Ghraib photos in order to protect the lives of US troops overseas. Yet everybody and his grandmother knows that the photos exist, and that they document some horrific acts on the part of US troops. Until the images are actually released, imaginations are likely to run toward the worst, even as the US will be accused of covering them up. I begin to wonder how much the continued suppression of them is really "protecting" US forces overseas.

Roger Cohen: Obama in Netanyahu's web(?)

Personally, I'm inclined to give Mr. Obama a bit more credit in his first face-to-face with Mr. Netanyahu than does Roger Cohen, but Cohen's recommendations here are dead on.

May 28, 2009
Obama in Netanyahu’s Web

NEW YORK — Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, won the first round over President Barack Obama. That’s not good for American interests or for Israel’s long-term security.

All the overblown reciprocal compliments could not hide evident tensions — over Iran and Israel-Palestine and how the two are linked. In the end, Obama blinked.

The president ceded to Israeli pressure for a timetable on any Iran talks, saying a “reassessment” should be possible by year’s end (Israel had pressed for an October deadline). Obama talked of the possibility of “much stronger international sanctions” against Iran, undermining his groundbreaking earlier overture that included a core truth: “This process will not be advanced by threats.”

Obama also allowed Netanyahu to compliment him for “leaving all options on the table” — the standard formula for a possible U.S. military strike against Iran — when he said nothing of the sort. The president did, however, use that tired phrase in a Newsweek interview this month — another mistake given the unthinkable consequences of a third U.S. war front in the Muslim world.

In return, what did Obama get? Not even acknowledgment from Netanyahu that Palestinian statehood, rather than some form of eternal limbo, is the notional goal of negotiations.

Score one for Netanyahu, who, in the words of one former American official who knows him well, “is the kind of guy who negotiates the time he will go to the bathroom.”

It’s time to get real, and a several-kiloton nuclear blast in North Korea has helped. The test is a reminder that while the worst has already happened in Kim Jong-il’s isolated state, it has not yet happened in Iran and is still avoidable if determined and creative policies are pursued. This, however, will require that Obama replace the make-nice noises of a former community organizer with strategic backbone.

Three things are clear. The first is that if Obama allows the Israeli agenda on Iran to become America’s, his outreach is dead. I don’t know if Israel is bluffing about bombing Iran — nobody does — but one thing is clear: Netanyahu’s bellicosity is as unrelenting as his desire to distract attention from stillborn Palestine.

Netanyahu, declaring “It is us or no one,” said this week that his job was to “eliminate” Iran’s threat. Israel’s shifting “red line” on Iran, now avowedly months away, is at odds with U.S. intelligence, which holds that no Iranian decision on bomb production has been made and capacity is likely two to five years distant.

It’s essential that Obama cleave to an American framework that affords the time to overcome a 30-year impasse. He might remind Netanyahu that if anyone had asked five years ago if an Iran with 6,000 centrifuges, more than a ton of low-enriched uranium and a genie-out-the-bottle level of technical nuclear know-how was over Israel’s “red line,” the answer would have been, “Damn right.”

But the world has not come to an end, for all Netanyahu’s dangerous, mythologizing attempts to liken Iran to Amalek, the Biblical enemy of the Jews that the Israelites were told to destroy, every “man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”

The second imperative is that the sanctions game be revealed for an empty farce. There will be no “crippling sanctions” — Hillary Clinton’s phrase — because China and Russia have their own interests in Iran.

Beijing has paid lip service to mild sanctions while becoming Iran’s largest trading partner in recent years: Tehran is awash in Chinese products. Moscow has trained Iranian engineers while calculating how Iran can serve its aim of a less U.S.-dominated world.

A race is on for Iran, with its vast oil and gas reserves. China and Russia will be front and center.

Only a U.S. blockade would have impact — but that’s an act of war. Tightened sanctions equal a return to the sterile policies of the Bush years. They would prove no more effective than in North Korea.

The third imperative is for Obama to shift from what Nader Mousavizadeh of the International Institute for Strategic Studies recently called a “mix of rhetorical innovation and policy continuation” to new thinking on Iran freed of carrot-and-stick redundancy.

This must begin with Iran’s pride and insecurities — a medium-sized power facing the world’s superpower — and almost certainly envision as an endgame a “non-zero option” where Iran retains an intrusively monitored, limited pilot uranium enrichment program while jettisoning its unacceptable rhetoric and troublemaking to become part of a new regional security arrangement.

Netanyahu talks a lot about the “existential threat” from Iran. The United States faces a prosaic daily threat: Many more young American men and women will die in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next several years if no Iranian breakthrough is achieved.

Obama must remind Israel of that. He should also tell Bibi that the real existential threat to Israel is not Amalek but hubris: An attack on Iran that would put the Jewish state at war with Persians as well as Arabs, undermine its core U.S. alliance, and set Tehran on a full-throttle course to a nuclear bomb with the support of some 1.2 billion Muslims.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Biden: Aid to Lebanon Depends on Elections

Chalk up another one for US promotion of democracy in the Middle East - not to mention a very mixed message from Joe B. (For public consumption, he says the US doesn't want to interfere in Lebanon's elections; behind close doors, the word is, the vote better damn well go the way we want it to.)

And we wonder why the US might be accused of a double-standard here?

Biden: Aid to Lebanon Depends on Elections

Netanyahu throws Obama a bone

. . . from the NY Times. The settler representative quoted in this story got it right: Netanyahu threw Obama a bone. This is a tiny, insignificant settlement. Nothing more than good PR - and Obama knows it.

May 22, 2009

Israel Removes Illegal Settler Outpost in West Bank

JERUSALEM — Israeli police and security forces on Thursday dismantled a small Jewish outpost in the West Bank in what many here saw as a gesture by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to President Obama three days after their meeting in Washington.

No arrests were made at the illegal outpost, where at least four families lived in a couple of concrete structures and several temporary shacks. Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, said the timing of the action was not significant. Another small West Bank outpost was removed about two months ago, he said.

But it was the first time Israel’s new right-leaning government had removed an outpost, and settler leaders and others saw it as a political message.

“It seems that this was done in order to throw a bone to the United States president,” Avi Roeh, the chairman of the local settler council, told Israel Radio.

Pressing for a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Obama administration has made clear that it expects Israel to carry out a total settlement freeze and remove illegal outposts in the West Bank, according to Israel’s commitments under a 2003 peace plan known as the road map.

The outpost, Maoz Esther, is in the Ramallah region. Hours after it was dismantled, a resident, Daniel Landesberg, 19, said he had already set about rebuilding his demolished home.

Speaking by telephone, Mr. Landesberg said the move was “a signal” from Mr. Netanyahu to Mr. Obama that Israel would do whatever he asked.

Israeli government officials say they want to remove the outposts by agreement with the settlers in order to avoid confrontation. Long months of talks under the previous government, however, did not yield tangible results.

Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, met with settler leaders on Wednesday and told them that the illegal outposts were damaging Israel’s international relations and their own cause. He said the outposts would be removed “if not through dialogue, then through swift and aggressive enforcement.”

On Thursday, Mr. Barak said that the evacuation of Maoz Esther was “not connected with the Americans or American pressure” and that it was carried out according to routine orders. More than a hundred outposts dot the West Bank, alongside dozens of established Jewish settlements authorized by Israel but widely considered abroad a violation of international law.

Yariv Oppenheimer of Peace Now, an Israeli advocacy group that opposes Jewish settlement in the West Bank, said that the outpost evacuated on Thursday was not a significant one, and that the action was “more about P.R.” after the Washington meeting. Mr. Oppenheimer added that the same outpost has been evacuated at least twice before.

Rina Castelnuovo contributed reporting from Maoz Esther, West Bank.

Obama quashed Israel military option against Iran

Here's hoping that Mr. Melman is accurate on this score . . .

w w w . h a a r e t z . c o m

Last update - 17:30 22/05/2009

Yossi Melman / Obama quashed Israel military option against Iran

By Yossi Melman, Haaretz Correspondent

Israel's military option against Iran has died. The death warrant was issued courtesy of the new U.S. administration led by Barack Obama.

All the administration's senior officials, from the president to his vice president, Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others are sending strong, clear hints that Israel does not have permission to strike Iran. Yet, given their familiarity with the Israeli client, they have not made do with simple hints and intimations. Washington dispatched the new CIA director, Leon Panetta, to Israel. Panetta made clear to Netanyahu, in so many words, that an Israeli attack would create "big trouble."

Perhaps Israel at one point had just a small window of opportunity to exercise the military option, or, in other words, the possibility of attacking sites in Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. This is assuming, of course, that Israel indeed has the military capability for carrying out such a mission - an assumption that raises many questions. This is a mission that requires gathering pinpoint intelligence, to identify the precise targets without harming thousands of innocent civilians.

Simply put, one of the targets of such a strike is the uranium enrichment facility in Isfahan, which lies in the heart of a congested civilian population. A realistic military option is also contingent on fighter jets finding undetected routes, as well as carrying a sufficient payload of bombs and missiles to inflict heavy damage on the targets.

Let us assume that Israel does, indeed, have a reasonable military capability which would enable it to strike at the targets, inflict heavy damage and set Iran's nuclear program back a few years. The opportunity to realize this capability arguably presented itself to Israel a few years ago. Iran at the time was subject to an intense international offensive. Inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency repeatedly exposed its lies and levied sanctions against the Tehran regime.

Threats made by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to wipe Israel from the map and his insistence on denying the Holocaust aroused great sympathy for Israel. This sympathy was buttressed by the Olmert government's willingness to hold peace talks with Syria and seek an agreement with the Palestinians. Above all, this friendly international atmosphere was backed by an accommodating Republican administration and a president who was ready to support (or to turn a blind eye to) any Israeli operation. In addition, Iran's ability to respond to an attack with missiles was limited.

But all this is now in the past. The sanctions are stuck. Ahmadinejad has, for the time being, softened his bellicose rhetoric. The production of Iranian missiles has doubled.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not ready to recognize the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own, nor does he have any intention of holding serious negotiations with Syria, regarding withdrawal from the Golan Heights. This position reduces international support for Israel. Yet, most importantly, there is a new president in Washington, one who has outlined a new policy vis-a-vis Iran. He has announced the start of negotiations with Iran, and even though he mentioned that the talks will have to be concluded by the end of this year, he did not set a clear deadline. All these factors, including the explicit statements made by administration officials, put Israel in its place.

The supreme tenet of Israeli defense policy states that Jerusalem must not launch any strategic initiative that stands in contradiction, or places in harm's way, the clear interests of the United States. This stance has underpinned every fateful decision taken by Israel relating to matters of war and peace. Israel embarked on the Six-Day War only after it was convinced that the U.S. would not oppose. In the hours leading up to the Yom Kippur War, Israel refrained from launching a preemptive strike for fear that Washington would blame it for starting the war. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 only after Defense Minister Ariel Sharon came under the impression that the U.S. would view the move with understanding. During the first Gulf War in 1991, the U.S. did not permit Israel to respond to Iraqi scud missiles, and Israel obliged.

If this tenet remains the cornerstone of defense policy, then Israel once again will not act against the explicit wishes of the U.S. Thus, when Israeli leaders say that "all options are open," this is nothing but a dog's bark being louder than his bite. Or, if you will, a mouse that roars. If the U.S. does not alter its policy, then Israel no longer has the military option at its disposal - if it ever had such an option at all.

Iran as existential threat?

Again, I say no, at least, not in the way that Mr. Netanyahu is proclaiming . . . but a recent poll suggests that many Israelis believe so, and that almost 1 in 4 Israelis would consider leaving Israel if Iran were to develop a nuclear weapon. Certainly an existential threat of a different order, in that it undercuts the Zionist imperative of attracting settlers to Palestine

Also, almost half of those polled believe that the IDF should attack Iran's nuclear facilities. I suppose the pollsters didn't mention any caveat about the Bushehr reactor possibly being blown up.

An Iranian nuclear weapon would be "calamitous"?!

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, now says - after Iran successfully fired a multi-stage missile - that for Iran to possess nuclear weapons would be "calamitous."

Calamitous?! Disastrous?! Please . . . .

Cannot Admiral Mullen or anyone else in the US state/defense establishment envision a geopolitics in which the USA does not call all the shots, always have the best hand at the table, or perpetually have the ability (or, both the US and Israel seem to assume, the prerogative) to intimidate Iran or anyone else into whatever policies or attitudes they prefer, simply by virtue of their military might?

I would recommend to Mr. Mullen the recent report from Abdullah Toukan and Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington (which is nicely summarized in this Haaretz piece from Reuven Pedatzur), which predicts that an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would most likely fail (and, if the IDF were to bomb the reactor at Bushehr, would produce a radiological and humanitarian catastrophe - in other words, a real "calamity", to borrow Mullen's expression - in both Iran and in the Gulf states), and that the US (and Israel) need to come to terms with the impending reality of an Iran with a nuclear deterrent.

Is this something to be happy about? Not particularly. In a better world, nuclear arms would be eliminated and outlawed. But in the world that now exists, Israel has a monopoly on nuclear deterrence in the Middle East, and is backed up by a nuclear superpower that believes it possesses a virtually inalienable right to the petroleum resources of the Gulf region. Perhaps in their view, Iran's "rational response" would be to knuckle under. It's not going to happen. After more than 200 years of being bullied and then reviled by the West, Iranians - even those who oppose the current Islamist regime - feel they deserve respect and the right to call their own shots, especially in the development of nuclear capability. (And let's not forget: Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Israel - along our other pals India and Pakistan - is not.)

Iran nuclear bomb would be calamitous: U.S. military | Politics | Reuters

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Releasing detainees - Guantanamo and Iraq

The Pentagon now reports that 1 in 7 detainees released from Guantanamo have "returned to the fight" and resumed their "terrorist" activities. Evidently some of these people were indeed affiliated with al-Qaeda, but I would also direct you to the comments (toward the end of the report) :
only a few of the 29 people identified by name can be independently verified as having engaged in terrorism since their release. Many of the 29 are simply described as associating with terrorists or training with terrorists, with almost no other details provided.

“It’s part of a campaign to win the hearts and minds of history for Guantánamo,” said Mark P. Denbeaux, a professor at Seton Hall University School of Law who has represented Guantánamo detainees and co-written three studies highly critical of the Pentagon’s previous recidivism reports. “They want to be able to claim there really were bad people there.”

Mr. Denbeaux acknowledged that some of the named detainees had engaged in verifiable terrorist acts since their release, but he said his research showed that their numbers were small.

“We’ve never said there weren’t some people who would return to the fight,” Mr. Denbeaux said. “It seems to be unavoidable. Nothing is perfect.”

Terrorism experts said a 14 percent recidivism rate was far lower than the rate for prisoners in the United States, which, they said, can run as high as 68 percent three years after release. They also said that while Americans might have a lower level of tolerance for recidivism among Guantánamo detainees, there was no evidence that any of those released had engaged in elaborate operations like the Sept. 11 attacks.
Not mentioned anywhere here is the fact that (1) many of these "bad guys" evidently were summarily rounded up, often on the basis of poor or false information, and have never been charged; and (2) that the humiliations of detention are themselves a motive for released detainees - even if they had been guilty of no "terrorist" acts before they were detained - to embark on careers of anti-US violence after they get out.

The same kind of thing has been happening in Iraq, especially in the early years of the US occupation. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the current US military chief in Iraq, has in recent years become a fan of Gen Petraeus' counterinsurgency tactics of protecting the population, but in his first command positions in Iraq, he was notorious for making big sweeps of Iraqi urban neighborhoods, breaking down doors, arresting all the men (which often entailed the humiliation of their being hooded and plastic-cuffed in front of their women and children), and packing them off to prisons, where they were held for years, usually without charge and with precious little evidence of wrongdoing. Many of these men are only now being released from US detention, and some observers credit them at least in part with the recent uptick in violence and bombings. They may well be extremely angry and intent of avenging their treatment at the hands of the Americans.

1 in 7 Freed Detainees Said to Be Militant Fighters, Pentagon Report Says -

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Iran's New Long-Range Missile

You can bet that the hot-lines between Jerusalem and Washington are buzzing about this - and that Arab capitals are concerned as well. Netanyahu will insist even louder that the military option against Iran be given a higher priority.

On the other hand, all of the world's major powers have this kind of capability. Iran sees itself as a major power. And Iran has US troops surrounding it in Iraq and Afghanistan, US naval forces in the Persian Gulf, a US government that at least until recently was trumpeting the need for regime change there, and an increasingly hostile and well-armed Israel threatening to attack. Can you blame them for wanting to develop a powerful deterrent?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Frank Rich on the ongoing legacy of George W. Bush

As for the Obama administration's and US military's reasoning for not releasing the Abu Ghraib photos - i.e., that that would further endanger the lives of US troops - might one reason just as validly that the widespread awareness that the US was covering up those photos just as easily encourage more attacks on those troops? And in any event, some of those photos are already out there, as was evidenced by their publication in a major Australian newspaper only a few days ago.

You'll also find below a link to an important new report from Robert Draper in GQ, detailing - among other things - how former Sec Def Donald Rumsfeld tried to inspire (manipulate?) Boy George with handy quotes from the Bible as the Iraq disaster was launched.

May 17, 2009

Obama Can’t Turn the Page on Bush

TO paraphrase Al Pacino in “Godfather III,” just when we thought we were out, the Bush mob keeps pulling us back in. And will keep doing so. No matter how hard President Obama tries to turn the page on the previous administration, he can’t. Until there is true transparency and true accountability, revelations of that unresolved eight-year nightmare will keep raining down drip by drip, disrupting the new administration’s high ambitions.

That’s why the president’s flip-flop on the release of detainee abuse photos — whatever his motivation — is a fool’s errand. The pictures will eventually emerge anyway, either because of leaks (if they haven’t started already) or because the federal appeals court decision upholding their release remains in force. And here’s a bet: These images will not prove the most shocking evidence of Bush administration sins still to come.

There are many dots yet to be connected, and not just on torture. This Sunday, GQ magazine is posting on its Web site an article adding new details to the ample dossier on how Donald Rumsfeld’s corrupt and incompetent Defense Department cost American lives and compromised national security. The piece is not the work of a partisan but the Texan journalist Robert Draper, author of “Dead Certain,” the 2007 Bush biography that had the blessing (and cooperation) of the former president and his top brass. It draws on interviews with more than a dozen high-level Bush loyalists.

Draper reports that Rumsfeld’s monomaniacal determination to protect his Pentagon turf led him to hobble and antagonize America’s most willing allies in Iraq, Britain and Australia, and even to undermine his own soldiers. But Draper’s biggest find is a collection of daily cover sheets that Rumsfeld approved for the Secretary of Defense Worldwide Intelligence Update, a highly classified digest prepared for a tiny audience, including the president, and often delivered by hand to the White House by the defense secretary himself. These cover sheets greeted Bush each day with triumphal color photos of the war headlined by biblical quotations. GQ is posting 11 of them, and they are seriously creepy.

Take the one dated April 3, 2003, two weeks into the invasion, just as Shock and Awe hit its first potholes. Two days earlier, on April 1, a panicky Pentagon had begun spreading its hyped, fictional account of the rescue of Pvt. Jessica Lynch to distract from troubling news of setbacks. On April 2, Gen. Joseph Hoar, the commander in chief of the United States Central Command from 1991-94, had declared on the Times Op-Ed page that Rumsfeld had sent too few troops to Iraq. And so the Worldwide Intelligence Update for April 3 bullied Bush with Joshua 1:9: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Including, as it happened, into a quagmire.)

What’s up with that? As Draper writes, Rumsfeld is not known for ostentatious displays of piety. He was cynically playing the religious angle to seduce and manipulate a president who frequently quoted the Bible. But the secretary’s actions were not just oily; he was also taking a risk with national security. If these official daily collages of Crusade-like messaging and war imagery had been leaked, they would have reinforced the Muslim world’s apocalyptic fear that America was waging a religious war. As one alarmed Pentagon hand told Draper, the fallout “would be as bad as Abu Ghraib.”

The GQ article isn’t the only revelation of previously unknown Bush Defense Department misbehavior to emerge this month. Just two weeks ago, the Obama Pentagon revealed that a major cover-up of corruption had taken place at the Bush Pentagon on Jan. 14 of this year — just six days before Bush left office. This strange incident — reported in The Times but largely ignored by Washington correspondents preparing for their annual dinner — deserves far more attention and follow-up.

What happened on Jan. 14 was the release of a report from the Pentagon’s internal watchdog, the inspector general. It had been ordered up in response to a scandal uncovered last year by David Barstow, an investigative reporter for The Times. Barstow had found that the Bush Pentagon fielded a clandestine network of retired military officers and defense officials to spread administration talking points on television, radio and in print while posing as objective “military analysts.” Many of these propagandists worked for military contractors with billions of dollars of business at stake in Pentagon procurement. Many were recipients of junkets and high-level special briefings unavailable to the legitimate press. Yet the public was never told of these conflicts of interest when these “analysts” appeared on the evening news to provide rosy assessments of what they tended to call “the real situation on the ground in Iraq.”

When Barstow’s story broke, more than 45 members of Congress demanded an inquiry. The Pentagon’s inspector general went to work, and its Jan. 14 report was the result. It found no wrongdoing by the Pentagon. Indeed, when Barstow won the Pulitzer Prize last month, Rumsfeld’s current spokesman cited the inspector general’s “exoneration” to attack the Times articles as fiction.

But the Pentagon took another look at this exoneration, and announced on May 5 that the inspector general’s report, not The Times’s reporting, was fiction. The report, it turns out, was riddled with factual errors and included little actual investigation of Barstow’s charges. The inspector general’s office had barely glanced at the 8,000 pages of e-mail that Barstow had used as evidence, and interviewed only seven of the 70 disputed analysts. In other words, the report was a whitewash. The Obama Pentagon officially rescinded it — an almost unprecedented step — and even removed it from its Web site.

Network news operations ignored the unmasking of this last-minute Bush Pentagon cover-up, as they had the original Barstow articles — surely not because they had been patsies for the Bush P.R. machine. But the story is actually far larger than this one particular incident. If the Pentagon inspector general’s office could whitewash this scandal, what else did it whitewash?

In 2005, to take just one example, the same office released a report on how Boeing colluded with low-level Pentagon bad apples on an inflated (and ultimately canceled) $30 billion air-tanker deal. At the time, even John Warner, then the go-to Republican senator on military affairs, didn’t buy the heavily redacted report’s claim that Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, were ignorant of what Warner called “the most significant defense procurement mismanagement in contemporary history.” The Pentagon inspector general who presided over that exoneration soon fled to become an executive at the parent company of another Pentagon contractor, Blackwater.

But the new administration doesn’t want to revisit this history any more than it wants to dwell on torture. Once the inspector general’s report on the military analysts was rescinded, the Obama Pentagon declared the matter closed. The White House seems to be taking its cues from the Reagan-Bush 41 speechwriter Peggy Noonan. “Sometimes I think just keep walking,” she said on ABC’s “This Week” as the torture memos surfaced. “Some of life has to be mysterious.” Imagine if she’d been at Nuremberg!

The administration can’t “just keep walking” because it is losing control of the story. The Beltway punditocracy keeps repeating the cliché that only the A.C.L.U. and the president’s “left-wing base” want accountability, but that’s not the case. Americans know that the Iraq war is not over. A key revelation in last month’s Senate Armed Services Committee report on detainees — that torture was used to try to coerce prisoners into “confirming” a bogus Al Qaeda-Saddam Hussein link to sell that war — is finally attracting attention. The more we learn piecemeal of this history, the more bipartisan and voluble the call for full transparency has become.

And I do mean bipartisan. Both Dick Cheney, hoping to prove that torture “worked,” and Nancy Pelosi, fending off accusations of hypocrisy on torture, have now asked for classified C.I.A. documents to be made public. When a duo this unlikely, however inadvertently, is on the same side of an issue, the wave is rising too fast for any White House to control. Court cases, including appeals by the “bad apples” made scapegoats for Abu Ghraib, will yank more secrets into the daylight and enlist more anxious past and present officials into the Cheney-Pelosi demands for disclosure.

It will soon be every man for himself. “Did President Bush know everything you knew?” Bob Schieffer asked Cheney on “Face the Nation” last Sunday. The former vice president’s uncharacteristically stumbling and qualified answer — “I certainly, yeah, have every reason to believe he knew...” — suggests that the Bush White House’s once-united front is starting to crack under pressure.

I’m not a fan of Washington’s blue-ribbon commissions, where political compromises can trump the truth. But the 9/11 investigation did illuminate how, a month after Bush received an intelligence brief titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,” 3,000 Americans were slaughtered on his and Cheney’s watch. If the Obama administration really wants to move on from the dark Bush era, it will need a new commission, backed up by serious law enforcement, to shed light on where every body is buried.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Why did Petraeus oust McKiernan?

General McKiernan's firing is, of course, all over the news today, and the news begs the obvious question, why? In announcing his decision, Defense secretary Gates cited the need for new eyes on the problem, a new leader for a new mission under a new president, etc. That's all dressing for public consumption. Obviously there are other factors in play, some of them perhaps less noble.

One report I read yesterday noted that the new CENTCOM commander and man acclaimed as the genius who "won" Iraq for the US - Gen. David Petraeus - had previously served under McKiernan; that with Petraeus' elevation to CENTCOM commander the roles had been reversed; and that the two did not "form a bond." (Petraeus is well known to be prickly, driven, a bit arrogant, as well.) Other reports have centered on McKiernan as sort of "old army," more comfortable with the kind of armor-based tactics and approach in which Cold War-era officers were trained, whereas Petraeus is a supposed master of the use of fast, light forces and counterinsurgency. McChrystal fits his approach to a T, having been a Special Forces (what people of the Vietnam-war generation called the "Green Berets") commander (who earned Ranger qualification as well - as did Petraeus). But disturbingly, McC. also commanded forces in Afghanistan that were linked to torture and abuse of prisoners - something that the Taliban surely will have noted, and that may spell misfortune for US troops whom they might capture in the months ahead. McC. might want to revisit the experiences of the Soviet troops who fought Afghan mujahhedin in the 1980s. The stories of the torture and mutilation that Soviet captives suffered at these militias' hands are legion - and horrific. And the Taliban may well know that the American people are as a whole tiring of war, and that making examples of a few GI's or Marines may increase pressure back home to pull all the troops out - or else "take out" entire villages of Afghans as payback.

But this WaPo report cites one possible cause for McK.'s firing that especially concerns me: that McK. was somehow too slow to form local militias against the Taliban. This, of course, in contrast to the alleged brilliance of Petraeus' support (while he was in command of the "Surge" in Iraq) of forming local militias - the Sunni sahwa, or Awakening, what the US forces refer to as the Sons of Iraq (SOI). The (mostly Sunni) SOI were indeed effective against al-Qaeda jihadists in Iraq, but their support was mostly bought and paid for with US dollars. Even at the time, many experts (here I humbly include myself) warned about what might happen later, if the money dried up and these guys were not brought into the fold of the Iraqi military or police forces. That, of course, is exactly what's happening in Iraq. Some of these SOI are already turning against the central government and re-allying with "al-Qaeda" or other, Sunni nationalist elements of the anti-US insurgency.

In other words, Petraeus' local militia solution is coming back to bite the Iraqi government, and the US as it tries to withdraw from Iraq and redirect to Afghanistan. It was a very short-sighted solution, more tactical than strategic. But now Petraeus (with Obama's go-ahead, of course) may be hoping to implement the same short-sighted "solution" in Afghanistan - and to do that, he may have felt it prudent to move McKiernan (who was hardly a pal anyway) out of the way, and replace him with McChrystal. We'll see how this plays out . . .

Gen. David McKiernan Ousted as Top U.S. Commander in Afghanistan

Monday, May 11, 2009

Abu Ghraib, Act II

A real dilemma for Mr. Obama, but for him to appeal to the Supreme Court to prevent the release of these pictures might do just as much damage to the US image abroad. And I'm a little disappointed that the reporter here, while noting the deplorable actions of "some" American troops, makes no mention of the mountain of evidence that now implicated leading members of the Bush administration who authorized and encouraged those actions.

Monday, May. 11, 2009

Get Ready for Abu Ghraib, Act II

Are you ready for Abu Ghraib, Act II?

Five years ago, people around the world were sickened by photographs that surfaced showing U.S. troops abusing Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Act I resulted in an avalanche of congressional hearings, 15 Pentagon probes and courts-martial. More than 400 U.S. troops — but no senior officials — went to jail or were otherwise punished. Congress passed the Detainee Treatment Act to try to prevent future atrocities.

But now a new batch of photographs, perhaps hundreds of images, of prisoners being abused is about to be made public. It comes at a time when the debate over prisoner mistreatment is still roiling America's political and public conscience. The new photographs are being made public in a victory for the American Civil Liberties Union. And the Pentagon, after fighting, and losing, three federal court reviews of the matter, has waved the white flag and is now preparing to release the pictures. Some of the photographs are official; some, like the original Abu Ghraib collection, taken informally by soldiers. "We know this could make things tougher for our troops," a senior Pentagon official says, "but the court decisions really don't leave us with any other option." (See pictures of the aftershocks from the Abu Ghraib scandal.)

Two senior Senators on the Armed Services Committee beg to differ. Democrat Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have written to President Obama, urging him to fight the release. "We know that many terrorists captured in Iraq have told American interrogators that one of the reasons they decided to join the violent jihadist war against America was what they saw on al-Qaeda videos of abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib," the pair wrote Obama May 6. "The release of these old photographs of past behavior that has now been clearly prohibited can serve no public good, but will empower al-Qaeda propaganda operations, hurt our country's image, and endanger our men and women in uniform." They have urged him to reverse the Pentagon's decision, which was made with the backing of the Justice Department, and, if necessary, appeal the case to the Supreme Court. (Read about the Army Field Manual.)

The ACLU maintains that only by releasing the photographs — collected during the Pentagon's various investigations and involving a half-dozen sites — can Americans determine for themselves how widespread, and sanctioned, such abuse was. "These photographs provide visual proof that prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel was not aberrational but widespread, reaching far beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib," said Amrit Singh, an ACLU lawyer.

So the debate boils down to what's worse: the outrageous behavior by some American troops, or the prospect of angering Muslims that could endanger U.S. troops in southwest Asia. The question is especially pointed just as U.S. troop reinforcements, ordered up by President Obama, are now beginning to arrive in Afghanistan to battle Islamic Taliban forces. At the same time, his Administration is trying to keep neighboring Pakistan, and its nuclear weapons, from falling under the control of Muslim militants.

If Obama accedes to the Senators' request, he'll be accused of covering up war crimes by the Bush Administration. If he allows the photographs to be released, he'll be "needlessly endangering the lives of our brave troops," as David Rehbein, national commander of the American Legion, put it in Friday's Wall Street Journal. Pentagon officials expect Obama will allow the pictures' release. According to the deal struck between the Pentagon and the ACLU, that should happen by May 28, just in time for Memorial Day.

Israel no longer getting special diplomatic treatment from the US?

Such is the view expressed in this recent piece in Haaretz, which highlights a supposed breakdown in diplomatic cooperation between the US and Israel, at least compared to the almost sycophantic cooperation the Bush administration offered. It's obvious that there's a tremendous amount riding on the upcoming meeting between Obama and Netanyahu. A major point of contention will be the West Bank settlements, which Netanyahu has long championed and in one of which the new Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, resides. Haaretz says that Obama's people have told Israeli reps that Obama will demand that Netanyahu halt settlement construction. I'll be curious to see whether that includes the demolition of Arab houses in East Jerusalem, where there's a project now in progress to build a "historical park" that will celebrate Jerusalem as Israel's historical, "eternal" capital - and in the process undercut future negotiations on Jerusalem's status. The Palestinian Arabs have long insisted that a portion of East Jerusalem be reserved to them as the capital of a future Palestinian state. The Likud party traditionally has rejected any such possibility.

I'm equally curious as to what Obama and Netanyahu will discuss with regard to Iran. The buzz has been that Netanyahu might agree to go along with Obama on the two-state solution if Obama agrees to ratchet up the pressure on Iran - and the report yesterday was that Dennis Ross, Obama/Clinton's special envoy on the Iranian situation, is saying that Iran has until October to make some deal on backing off its nuclear enrichment program.

Meanwhil, we learn today that an Iranian court has suspended the sentence of the Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, who will be released from prison (and presumably allowed to return to the US). Good news, but don't chalk this up to humanitarianism on Iran's part. Releasing her is a nice reach-out to Obama on the eve of Netanyahu's arrival.

Jerusalem worried over breakdown of U.S.-Israel cooperation under Obama

Senior officials in Jerusalem expressed concern recently over the sharp decline in the coordination between Israel and the United States on security and state affairs since President Barack Obama's entered the White House and especially since the formation of Israel's new government.

Senior White House officials told their Israeli counterparts that Obama will demand Netanyahu completely suspend construction in the settlements, the officials said.

"Obama's people brief their Israeli counterparts in advance much less about security and Middle East policy activities than the Bush administration used to," the officials said.

In addition, when they do brief Israeli officials, they don't consult with them or coordinate their statements in advance.

This has caused several coordination "malfunctions" between the two states in the past two months, they said.

The last incident was the statement of Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, calling on Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The statement had not been coordinated with Israeli officials in charge of the nuclear issue and they heard it first from the media.

This followed other equally problematic incidents. The American policy shift toward Syria and opening direct talks with Damascus followed minimal coordination with Israel. For example, Israel was not briefed about senior American diplomats' trip to Damascus, which the U.S. had initiated.

Another incident concerned U.S. envoy for Iranian affairs Dennis Ross' trip to the Gulf states a few days ago for talks on Iran. Israel was briefed on the trip in general details, but no consultations or message-coordination took place before the trip. In addition, Ross did not pass through Israel on his way to the Gulf or back to brief Israel on the talks' outcome.

The American policy toward Iran has remained generally ambiguous as far as Israel is concerned and the administration has not outlined to Israel its plan for a dialogue with Iran in an orderly way. Many of the details Israel learned about this plan were obtained via European channels.

The Israeli officials said the problem also stems from the government change in both states and because clear work procedures between the sides have not been set established.

"This will be one of the most important things Netanyahu will have to settle with Obama," a senior official said.

However, the official said the new administration no longer seems to see Israel as a "special" or "extraordinary" state in the Middle East, with which the U.S. must maintain a different dialogue than with other states.

"The feeling is that the dialogue and coordination with the Arab states and with Europe is today no less important to the U.S. and perhaps more so than with Israel," the official said.

Uzi Arad, the official in the Prime Minister's Office in charge of the liaison with the American administration, maintains ties with various American officials but has not yet forged a direct channel to his counterpart, National Security Advisor General James L. Jones.

Arad is scheduled to go to Washington next week to prepare for Netanyahu's trip.

Arad will outline the first chapters of Israel's new foreign policy, with an emphasis on the Palestinian and Iranian issues, at his meeting with Jones next Tuesday in Washington ahead of Obama's meeting with Netanyahu May 18.

The Americans are expected to tell Arad what Obama expects of his meeting with Netanyahu and coordinate the meeting's agenda, issues and the two men's statements in the news conference after the meeting.

The Americans are also expected to brief Arad on the talks between American and Syrian officials in Damascus on Thursday.

During the Olmert government, Israeli officials kept very close ties with their counterparts in the American administration. This included advanced briefings about almost every American move. The Israelis were even briefed about former president George W. Bush's speeches or former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice's foreign policy statements.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert used to have regular conversations with Bush while former foreign minister Tzipi Livni kept in touch with Rice. Olmert's chief of staff Yoram Turbowicz and political advisor Shalom Turgeman coordinated foreign policy activities with National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and his deputy Elliot Abrams.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Obama and the Long Haul in Pakistan and Afghanistan

This morning's NY Times has a couple of reports on the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan, especially on the 3-way meeting among the leaders of the US (with the president and the Sec of State very high profile), Afghanistan, and Pakistan. A lot of brave optimism from Obama and Clinton, but beneath that gloss, lots of suspicion as to whether Pakistan's president is truly committed to what the US wants, and whether the Pakistani military is even up to the task. Meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton did not win herself many friends in Pakistan by referring to the two countries (Pakistan and Afghanistan) as "conjoined twins." Many Pakistanis resent that comparison very deeply. They regard themselves as a much more advanced, sophisticated society than the less developed, highly tribal society of Afghanistan.

Especially dire were the comments of one US official about the Pakistani military:

“They’re fundamentally not organized, trained or equipped for what they’ve been asked to do,” said a senior administration official who is closely following the Pakistani military operations in Swat, and who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid offending the visiting Pakistani leaders. “They will displace the Taliban for a while. But there will also be a lot of displaced persons and a lot of collateral damage. And they won’t be able to sustain those effects or extend the gains geographically.”
Pakistan is already dealing with a major refugee problem caused by the fighting with the Taliban, as well as "collateral damage" (again, for the poorly informed, that diplo-military-speak for slaughtered civilians and flattened villages). Odd though that the official laid the collateral damage at the doorstep of the Pakistani army. Pakistanis are just as angry about the deaths caused by missiles fired via remote control from US drones.

And the thousands of Pakistani refugees from the embattled regions of Swat and Buner are angry and terrified of the advances that the Taliban have made, and the harshness of their rule.

As the Times also reports, people in Afghanistan are extremely angry and protesting loudly about the recent US airstrike that killed as many as 130 people in western Afghanistan village - many of them women and children. According to the report,

In a phone call played on a loudspeaker on Wednesday to outraged members of the Afghan Parliament, the governor of Farah Province, Rohul Amin, said that as many as 130 civilians had been killed, according to a legislator, Mohammad Naim Farahi. Afghan lawmakers immediately called for an agreement regulating foreign military operations in the country.

“The governor said that the villagers have brought two tractor trailers full of pieces of human bodies to his office to prove the casualties that had occurred,” Mr. Farahi said. “Everyone at the governor’s office was crying, watching that shocking scene.”
US military spokesmen are laying much of the blame on the Taliban, and there seems to be some evidence that some of the villagers were killed by grenades, which the US attributes to the Taliban. (On the other hand, US Special Forces were also engaged - which is why the "close air support" that bombed villagers in their houses was called in. I would assume that grenades were part of their arsenal as well. And it may be wise as well to look behind what "close air support" actually means. Some military aircraft - like the A-10 "Warthog" - are low-flying, slow-flying aircraft designed indeed to support ground troops - not that the pilots are always able to distinguish between villagers and combatants. But many of the planes that have been called in in such situations are supersonic F-series fighters designed to operate most efficiently at higher speeds and altitudes. "Pinpoint" precision in their bombing - despite all the claims about vaunted "smart" bombs - is not their forte.

And however the blame gets apportioned here, the villagers are going to come away with the feeling that they are completely vulnerable and unprotected by their supposed (and very faraway) government in Kabul, who lets the Americans bomb them with impunity. When Mr. Obama declares to Mr. Karzai that the US is committed to the long haul, that's not necessarily music to the ears of people such as these.

Emphasis on Al Qaeda at Three-Way Talks -

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A New - and Big! - Oil Discovery in Iraqi Kurdistan

News of a major new oil find in Iraqi Kurdistan by a small Canadian company. Great news for the Kurdistan Regional Government, of course, but it begs the question: How - or if - the central government in Baghdad and the KRG are going to deal with who gets how much of the revenues.

This issue has been a major sticking point in relations between the two, and its resolution is no closer now than it was three years ago. If anything, a resolution is even farther away now. The Kurds are increasingly wary of their Arab Iraqi "brothers." The Maliki government has increasingly been insisting on its prerogatives to call the shots for the nation of Iraq, at the Kurds' expense; and the resurgence of Sunni groups (like the new al-Hadba party) - some of them with ties to Saddam's Baathist regime - in Nineveh and Diyala provinces, likewise at the expense of the Kurds, has resurrected decades-old Kurdish fears of being dominated - even exterminated - by the Arabs. Saddam's al-Anfal campaign of 1987-1989, and the horrific poison-gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, are seared into the memories of Iraq's Kurdish citizens.

Mr. Maliki is going to insist that the central government receive a major cut of future revenues from this field. The KRG leaders will want to make him sweat for it, if not deny it to him altogether.

From such tinder do civil wars erupt.

Clinton Expresses Regret for Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan

. . . after, according to the Red Cross, US airstrikes killed dozens of villagers, including 14 members of one family (one of them a Red Cross volunteer) who were trying to shelter from the fighting.

Referring to an airstrike in western Afghanistan Monday that Afghan officials and foreign relief workers say killed dozens of civilians, Clinton expressed "my personal regret, and certainly the sympathy of our administration, on the loss of civilian life in Afghanistan. . . . We deeply regret it. We don't know all of the circumstances or causes. And there will be a joint investigation, by your government and ours. But any loss of life, any loss of innocent life, is particularly painful. And I want to convey to the people of both Afghanistan and Pakistan that . . . we will work very hard, with your governments and with your leaders, to avoid the loss of innocent civilian life. And we deeply, deeply regret that loss."

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, "dozens of people, including women and children, were killed in airstrikes on villages in Farah province" in western Afghanistan on the evening of May 4 following clashes in the area between "armed opposition fighters" and Afghan army troops backed by "international military forces."

The Guardian reports that the dead may number as many as 100.

A US spokesman in Afghanistan, Colonel Greg Julian, confirmed that US coalition forces had participated in the fighting on Monday night.

"There was an insurgent attack on an ANA group and the ANA called for assistance, and some coalition troops joined them to help fight this group. There was close air support," he told Reuters.

He said US and Afghan officials would head to the site today to investigate the reports of civilian deaths.

Mohammad Nieem Qadderdan, the former top official in the district of Bala Baluk, told AP by phone he saw dozens of bodies when he visited the village of Gerani. "These houses that were full of children and women and elders were bombed by planes. People are digging through rubble with shovels and hands."

I'm sure the families affected will accept Mrs. Clinton's apology with resignation and open arms, and will wish her and her country all the best. After all, in the tradition of Vietnam, we're only killing the villagers in order to save them.

John Bolton on the "Spanish inquisition"

John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN (where his rudeness and chauvinistic arrogance epitomized for many the faults of the Bush administration's approach to international relations - a la Bush's Sec of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's famously snide reference to "old Europe"), weighs in in today's Washington Post with an essay about the impending Spanish legal investigation of Bush's Dept of Justice lawyers who penned the legal "justifications" for torturing detainees. (Bolton refers to it as the "Spanish inquisition" - using a lower case "i", but the allusion is quite intentional.)

Bolton seems astounded that any country might raise its head in defiance of American authority and prerogatives, or feels that it has the right to challenge, on the basis of established international law and treaties, American actions. This kind of arrogance IMO epitomizes the neocon approach to the rest of the world: the US's decisions and actions are by definition good and infallibly moral, because we are the United States, the "indispensable nation."

I have to wonder how much this essay might be motivated by self-defense. Bolton himself (as opposed to John Yoo, Bybee, Alberto Gonzalez et al.) did not author or authorize the Justice Dept memos, but it would difficult to argue that he was so much out of the loop to have been unaware of the kinds of interrogations that his own actions at the UN implicitly defended. He may not be liable to legal prosecution, but from a moral and ethical standpoint, he was involved up to his neck.

But as Mark Danner and many others have noted, were not we all complicit? To quote Danner's superb recent piece in the NYRB,

There is a sense in which our society is finally posing that "what should we do" question. That it is doing so only now, after the fact, is a tragedy for the country—and becomes even more damaging as the debate is carried on largely by means of politically driven assertions and leaks. For even as the practice of torture by Americans has withered and died, its potency as a political issue has grown. The issue could not be more important, for it cuts to the basic question of who we are as Americans, and whether our laws and ideals truly guide us in our actions or serve, instead, as a kind of national decoration to be discarded in times of danger. The only way to confront the political power of the issue, and prevent the reappearance of the practice itself, is to take a hard look at the true "empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years," and speak out, clearly and credibly, about what that story really tells.
Anyone who was paying attention over the last five years knew what was going on - but as a society, we all let it happen. Some of us even applauded, or even helped set the stage. To quote Toby Keith's song that appeared right after 9-11:
This big dog will fight
When you rattle his cage.
And you’ll be sorry that you messed with
The U.S. of A.
Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass
It’s the American way.
The American way, indeed. The responsibility lies on us to clean our own house, indeed, but to the extent that we neglect to do that . . . well, then maybe a little "Spanish inquisition" is in order.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Afghanistan = Vietnam = tar baby? (once again)

Reuters has a horrific report of villagers bringing truckloads of bodies to a provincial capital in western Afghanistan as proof of the toll US air strikes took recently on Afghan civilians. The US military is sending a team to investigate. If this process holds according to form, the military will report a count much lower than the villagers claim, but within a few weeks, will revise the count upwards. There will be apologies from US commanders and spokespersons; Afghan president Hamid Karzai will demand that the US stop the airstrikes (a defiance that will also win him votes in the upcoming presidential election); but nothing will change.

I wrote about this back in January in an essay published on the War in Context site (and linked to by The Nation): much as I admire him and hope for his success, Mr. Obama is sticking the US to a tar baby (I previously used the metaphor of steering the US into a perfect storm) in Afghanistan, much as presidents John Kennedy and (especially) Lyndon Johnson, advised by (as the late David Halberstam referred to them) "the best and the brightest," and claiming the best of intentions, stuck the US bit by bit, escalation by escalation (we call them "surges" today), into another tar baby, the debacle that was Vietnam. The US had no real chance of "winning" that war - whatever "victory" would have looked like - and there's precious little chance that the US can "win" in Afghanistan. The US presence there is deeply resented on the ground, and when "close air support" produces the kind of civilian casualties described above, any tactical "win" is going to be likely outweighed by the hearts and minds lost and the demands for vengeance thus generated. The Taliban in Afghanistan are surely tough to describe in a nutshell, but an important dynamic sustaining them is, quite simply, anger at the presence of a foreign, Christian occupier.

Truckloads of dead civilians after Afghan battle

Tue May 5, 2009 2:45pm EDT

By Sharafuddin Sharafyar

HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Villagers brought truckloads of bodies to the capital of a province in Western Afghanistan on Tuesday to prove that scores of civilians had been killed by U.S. air strikes in a battle with the Taliban.

The governor of Farah Province, Rohul Amin, said about 30 bodies had been trucked to his office, most of them women and children. Other officials said the overall civilian death toll may have been much higher, with scores of people feared killed while huddled in houses that were destroyed by U.S. warplanes.

U.S. forces confirmed that a battle had taken place with air strikes and said they were investigating reports of civilian casualties, but were unable to confirm them.

"There was an insurgent attack on an ANA (Afghan National Army) group and the ANA called for assistance, and some coalition troops joined them to help fight this group," said U.S. military spokesman Colonel Greg Julian. "There was close air support, but I can't give any detail on the type of aircraft."

He said U.S. and Afghan officials would head to the site on Wednesday to investigate the reports of civilian deaths.

"Once we get eyes on the ground we will have a better idea of what may have happened."

Ghulan Farooq, a member of parliament from the province, said he had been told by family members in the Bala Boluk district where the fighting took place that as many as 150 people had died. He said U.S. air strikes had destroyed 17 houses. Those figures could not be independently confirmed.

Lieutenant Colonel Khalil Nehmatullah, commander of an Afghan Army battalion in the province, said: "Unfortunately the Taliban took people into some buildings and forced them to stay in there after the security forces started telling them to evacuate."

"Arabs and Pakistanis were among the Taliban fighters who were armed with RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) ... the ANA entered the scene with help from a unit of U.S. marines, and they were fighting until 11 pm," he told Reuters. He said he did not know the extent of the civilian casualties.


Amin said the battle in Farah province, a vast desert region on Afghanistan's western border, began after Taliban guerrillas moved into a village on Monday and executed three former government officials for cooperating with the state.

Before the reports of large numbers of civilian casualties emerged, the governor said four Afghan security forces members and about 25 insurgents had been killed.

The head of public health and hospitals in Farah province, Abdul Jabar Shayeq, said 11 civilians and three policemen had been admitted to hospital with wounds from the fighting.

Jalil Ahmad, a resident in the district, said earlier that some 100 Taliban fighters had taken up positions in residential areas to fight the Afghan and foreign troops.

"Civilian lives are in danger from both sides and they don't care about it," Ahmad said. "We beg President (Hamid) Karzai to save our lives."

Civilian deaths have become a bitter source of friction between Afghan authorities and U.S. forces. Washington says it is working harder this year to limit civilian deaths and investigate reports of such incidents more rapidly after the number of civilians killed by U.S. forces soared last year.

In the worst incident last year, the Afghan government and the United Nations said a U.S. strike killed 90 civilians. Washington initially denied it, but after three months said it had killed 33 civilians as well as 22 people it called militants.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in Washington, where he will meet U.S. President Barack Obama for the first time since Obama's inauguration. Obama has declared Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan to be Washington's main military concern.

Last year more than 7,000 people, including 2,000 civilians, died in insurgency-related violence in Afghanistan, the United Nations and aid agencies say.

The United States plans to more than double its forces to fight the Taliban insurgents this year from 32,000 at the start of the year to 68,000 by the year's end. Other countries have around 30,000 troops in Afghanistan.

(Additional reporting by Golnar Motevalli, Hamid Shalizi and Peter Graff in Kabul; Writing by Peter Graff; editing by Ralph Boulton)

Muqtada al-Sadr now a Grand Ayatollah?

Thus reports al-Sharq al-Awsat, via AKI - which also reports that Muqtada will now return to Iraq "to resume his religious leadership."

This is potentially a huge deal, especially if Sunni groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) or groups affiliated with Baathist remnants continue their recent attacks on Shiites and the Baghdad government's security forces either fail to stem them, or if Muqtada's thousands of supporters in Baghdad and Iraq's south feel that those forces (which consist largely of members of a rival Shiite militia, the Badr Organization) are not being zealous enough in protecting them. Muqtada's militia, the Mahdi Army, has been standing down for months; indeed, he claimed to have dissolved it, keeping only a smaller nucleus as a potential fighting force. But the Mahdi Army in recent years has been plagued with renegade groups. And with the prestigious mantle of a grand ayatollah, Muqtada may have more prestige to bank on as a leader of Shiite resistance to any Sunni resurgence. We'll see . . .

Pakistan in a Critical Hour, While AIPAC Heads Right

Several years ago the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid produced what became a highly acclaimed, prescient work on the Taliban that became the go-to source for anyone seeking to learn more about them. Recently, his new book, Descent into Chaos, has received similar acclaim.

Today's WaPo publishes a cri de coeur from Rashid for Congress to provide more aid to the Pakistani government, as soon as possible, or else, he believes, the country may succumb to a bloody internal revolution. Again, this view contrasts remarkably with Juan Cole's, who seems to feel that a Taliban take-over is not imminent. I have enormous respect for Prof. Cole's expertise, but I find Rashid's arguments persuasive (especially in light of reports by the NYT's Jane Perlez and the WaPo's Pamela Constable today). I'm not convinced though that a Pakistani government headed by Mr. Zardari (Mr. Ten Percent) will use US funds in the manner that the US would intend. On the other hand, to the extent that the US pushes him, Pakistani officials and commentators push back against the US, and evidently a significant number of Pakistanis feel that they're being asked to fight the US's war, are increasingly angry about US drone strikes that kill innocent villagers, and feel that the US is in cahoots with arch-enemy India to bring down their country.

And while the US tries to help steer the affairs of a predominantly Muslim country, it currently hosts in its capital the convention of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (Israel's lobby in the US), where various and sundry delegates, US lawmakers, and even Obama administration officials (like Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff) are singing the praises of Israel and its new hard-right government of Netanyahu-Lieberman, calling for action against the new Nazi Germany (Iran) and its Hitler (Ahmadinejad), and declaring that Israel will not allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons, even while Israel clutches to its own sizeable arsenal of nukes. I heartily recommend a look at the Mondoweiss site, where Phil Weiss is blogging from the AIPAC convention. And then ask yourself why any Muslim nation would feel entirely comfortable letting its fate be influenced by the interests of a government so heavily influenced by a group that supports the kind of views that AIPAC touts.

Pakistan's Critical Hour

By Ahmed Rashid
Tuesday, May 5, 2009

LAHORE, Pakistan -- Pakistan is on the brink of chaos, and Congress is in a critical position: U.S. lawmakers can hasten that fateful process, halt it or even help turn things around. The speed and conditions with which Congress provides emergency aid to Islamabad will affect the Pakistani government and army's ability and will to resist the Taliban onslaught. It will also affect America's image in Pakistan and the region. Pakistanis are looking for evidence of the long-term U.S. commitment about which President Obama has spoken.

Since Obama announced his strategic review of U.S. policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, worsening conditions here have nudged Afghanistan from the top of his foreign policy agenda. Pakistanis are beset by a galloping Taliban insurgency in the north that is based not just among Pashtuns, as in Afghanistan, but that has extensive links to al-Qaeda and jihadist groups in Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan.

That means the Taliban offensive in northern Pakistan has the potential to become a nationwide movement within a few months. Violence is already spreading. In recent days, at least 36 people have been killed in Karachi.

In the past, many of these jihadist groups, including the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, have been fostered by Pakistan's army and intelligence services -- at the cost of global security, democracy and civil society. The Bush administration ignored this trend for years while it pumped more than $11 billion into Pakistan. The bulk of that funding went to the military, which bought arms to fight Pakistan's historic enemy, India, rather than the insurgency.

The army's recent counteroffensive against the Taliban was prompted in part by U.S. pressure and, more significant, by a dramatic shift in public opinion toward opposing the Taliban. Many people are beginning to see the country threatened by a bloody internal revolution. This public pressure can lead to a major change in army policies toward India and Afghanistan.

But the army and the civilian government still lack a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy as well as a plan to deal with the 1 million refugees who have fled the fighting. Every government official I have met says that the country is bankrupt and that there is no money to fight the insurgency, let alone deal with the refugees.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has asked Congress for $497 million in emergency funds to stabilize Pakistan's economy, strengthen law enforcement and help the refugees. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked for $400 million in aid to the army, funds that would be monitored by U.S. Central Command. Lawmakers are hesitating, wanting to tie these emergency funds to the $83 billion the administration has asked for to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But delays are dangerous. Congress should authorize these funds quickly, giving the Obama administration tools to convince the Pakistani people that it is standing behind them. Immediate aid, and providing U.S. helicopters for the army's use, would shore up Pakistanis' resolve and could help persuade the army to accept the counterinsurgency training the United States has offered for the past year (but which has been refused because of the army's focus on India).

Other legislation before Congress would provide $1.5 billion a year to Pakistan for the next five years. But the extensive conditions -- as varied as improving relations with India, fighting the Afghan Taliban and allowing the U.S. interrogation of Pakistani nuclear scientists -- are too much for any Pakistani government to accept and survive politically.

Certainly the United States can demand that its money be used for good purposes. The original Biden-Lugar bill introduced last year had the mix just right, setting down three strategic benchmarks -- that Pakistan be committed to fighting terrorism, that Pakistan remain a democracy (in other words, the army must not seize control), and that both nations provide public and official accountability for the funds. Unlike the extensive conditions that lawmakers are seeking to impose now, such broad parameters would provide space for further negotiations and progress between Pakistan and the United States.

Pakistan is deteriorating. Congress should pass the emergency funds quickly and, at minimum, offer the first year of the $1.5 billion without conditions to foster stability between the two sides at this critical juncture and ensure that the powerful right wing here has no excuse to once again decry U.S. aid as politically motivated. At the least, U.S. lawmakers should stipulate that aid for Pakistani and Western aid agencies involved in development, particularly agriculture, education and job creation, should not be conditioned.

U.S. flexibility to set a minimum of conditions that can be further negotiated once aid delivery begins could become a model for donors in Europe and Japan.

For three decades, I have written about the fire that Islamic militancy has lit in this region. I do not want to see my country go down because Congress is more concerned with minutiae than with the big picture. Yes, there must be a sea change in attitudes and policies in the army, intelligence services and civilian government. But tomorrow may be too late. Pakistan needs help today.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Hamid Karzai criticised for selecting former warlord as election running mate

For a leader who owes his position to support from the US, Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai surely likes to push that support right to the edge. Only a few weeks ago he upset American observers with his support for a draft law that effectively would have legalized marital rape. Only a couple of days ago he was able to prevail upon his chief political rival to drop out of the upcoming presidential election - as Juan Cole has noted, much to the consternation and dismay of US leaders, who hoped to see him unseated.

Now, Karzai tells his US backers that he has selected as his running mate "Marshal" Fahim, a warlord suspected in major human rights abuses. One commentator puts it bluntly:

"I want to move to a situation where leaders and people who have a reputation for being involved in serious human rights violations disappear from the political landscape, and not the opposite"
And notes another Western diplomat,

"The question really is: if Karzai gets killed on August 21 [the day after the election date] who is the president? It's Marshal Fahim. If he is just put in the presidential palace and given a good car and nice life then fine. But if he gets involved in policy then it's goodbye to the future of Afghanistan."
And this is what the impending military-civilian "surge" of US personnel to Afghanistan is supposed to be in support of?!

Afghan president Hamid Karzai criticised for selecting former warlord as election running mate | World news |

Old Troubles Stir in Baghdad. . . and around the Middle East

Excellent analysis by the Financial Times' Roula Khalaf. The Obama administration is being forced to deal with several escalating crises that may become interwoven catastrophes. The ramping-up of violence in an Iraq still torn by sectarian divisions is but one. The media have relegated it to the back burner, and with newspapers like the Boston Globe about to close (and the NY Times itself is hardly in the financial pink), coverage of all of the crises may become even more sporadic, at least by the US media. The advance of the Taliban in Pakistan has lately seemed inexorable, and as the NYT reports, the US is indeed concerned about the safeguarding of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Afghanistan is facing elections at a time when the countryside is hardly secure, with even worse fighting probably in store as the summer unfolds. Meanwhile, Michael Oren, the US-born historian who has been appointed Israel's new diplomatic representative to the US, has declared to the just-convened AIPAC convention that Israel will not allow Iran to become a nuclear power - and Haaretz reports a recent poll that indicates a large majority of Israeli Jews are in favor of bombing Iran.

The next few months - or perhaps weeks - are going to tell a very interesting story . . .

US must pause for thought as old troubles stir in Baghdad

By Roula Khalaf

Published: May 1 2009 03:00 | Last updated: May 1 2009 03:00

It was with great relief, if a little surprise, that the world greeted Iraq's improved security following the previous US administration's temporary troop surge. Some brave souls were so encouraged that they dared to start investing in what is, after all, one of the Middle East's biggest oil-rich economies.

But as Iraq sells itself to the world more vigorously - yesterday it held an investment conference in London - it is violence that has been surging. And it is reviving some of the old fears that many had assumed were buried.

With the US pushing ahead with its withdrawal plans, pulling out first from the cities by June, the question that has nagged the country since the 2003 American-led invasion is rising back to the surface: could Iraq unravel?

In Washington, some voices have raised warnings that the Obama administration's policy on Iraq is drifting, as attention focuses more on danger zones elsewhere, including Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Kenneth Pollack, director of research at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, argues that the Bush administration moved away from Afghanistan to Iraq prematurely and with tragic consequences, but that the Obama administration is turning away too early from Iraq to Afghanistan, and this, too, could have disastrous consequences.

"Iraq is one of several dozen issues on the agenda, and it doesn't stand out," he laments.

The recent spate of bombings in Shia areas, which have killed at least 200 people in the past fortnight, appear designed to re-ignite a new round of sectarian bloodshed. While tragic, the violence is not unexpected.

US commanders have never claimed victory. Indeed, they have consistently made clear that the gains in Iraq are fragile. Nor should the attacks deter the US from pushing ahead with its military withdrawal plans.

Anthony Cordesman, a leading Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says: "At some point we cannot stop the insurgency from carrying out attacks. People who favour violence adapt, just like those vying for security adapt."

Iraq is still haunted by a series of intractable problems, many of which have the potential to reverse recent gains or fuel new cycles of violence.

Financial aid is drying up at a time when oil revenues have also fallen, constraining a government that is, by far, the largest employer in the country. Holding pacified areas of the country becomes all the more difficult without the ability to create jobs and deploy massive investment.

Meanwhile, the capabilities of Iraq's security forces are only now being tested, as the US draws down its own troops. If Iraqi forces fail to end the new wave of bombings, Shia militias could reappear and extract revenge from Sunni insurgents.

A crisis over Kirkuk is also looming. Will the government and Kurdish parties use the soonto-be-published United Nations recommendations on the dispute over the oil-rich city to launch a process of negotiations or entrench their positions further?

Then there is the fate of the so-called Sons of Iraq, the former Sunni insurgents who, with US support, fought al-Qaeda but are now having to deal with, and be paid by, a reluctant Iraqi government. Some of these groups - and they include many thugs - have already disintegrated and, according to some reports, rejoined the insurgency. Others have clashed with Iraqi security forces.

Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, has made some progress. He has been willing to confront violent groups within his Shia camp and he has cleverly promoted a more national agenda that has undermined religious parties.

Moreover, the US faces a huge dilemma today. A new president in Washington who had consistently stood against the Iraq war and is eager to turn the page on the occupation wants Iraqis to assume control of their own affairs. So some US distance from Baghdad is needed. American leverage, in any case, is also reduced.

But even as it seeks to normalise its dealings with Iraq, the US has to recognise that it still has a lot at stake - including thousands of troops, at least for two years - and that it remains the most powerful outside party on the Iraqi scene, capable of mediating between factions.

It continues to have both the ability and the responsibility to exercise that leverage.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Lessons, and costs, of empire

The British Middle East expert Toby Dodge - author of an excellent analysis of the British creation and occupation of Baghdad after World War I - publishes in The Independent a fine post-mortem for the British experience in Basra (from which the British have now pulled out, ending their combat role in "Operation Iraqi Freedom"). Among his conclusions: that Britain had neither the political will nor the economic resources to sustain a commitment in post-2003 Iraq, and that as it ramps us its commitment to war versus the Taliban in Afghanistan, it had better think long and hard about what its realistic prospects truly are and be very cautious in its commitment.

I hope Mr. Obama takes note.

Basra itself, however, is in worse shape than before the Brits arrived. I'm sure the same can be said for Baghdad and the Americans.

Friday, May 1, 2009

A Young Marine’s Dream Job

Fascinating article that leaves me with a welter of conflicting impressions.
  • that these 2 young Americans are brave men, full of what an old friend of mine used to refer to as "piss and vinegar"
  • that these 2 young Americans are also (if we take their words at face value) having the time of their lives, as if they're living some kind of life-sized, ultra-real video game, or are holed up in a big hunting-blind from which they can go out to track down the local "game" - except that this "game" shoots back. Or, is this their way of compensating in a very dangerous situation
  • that these 2 young Americans, whom Chivers obviously much admires, are (I must remember) the face of the enemy in the eyes of many (most, perhaps) of the locals, who (as Chivers himself notes) are mosque-going believers in God (just as these young Marines may be church-goers back home) and likely see killing or expelling these young Americans as occupiers of their home villages and lands (and, maybe, country) - just as we might if we were in their shoes.


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