Friday, January 29, 2010

The Approaching Battle over Afghanistan?

Tony Karon's latest Time piece argues pretty persuasively that the US no longer has (if it indeed ever had) any real hope of "victory" in Afghanistan - the Taliban are too embedded and widespread to be defeated, and Pakistan is in no mood or condition to go after the Afghan Taliban who are inside their borders.  Rather, we're on our way to, at best, some kind of negotiated settlement that will leave much of the Taliban in place, with a major role in the Afghan government.

The key tension now seems to be the one between reconciliation and reintegration.  The US is all for the latter: providing jobs and economic assistance, as well as political reintegration, to lower-level Taliban whose principal reason for joining up may have been the wages; but excluding from the deal the upper management, as it were, and especially those who might have any links to al-Qaeda.

But in his recent speech at the London conference on the situation, Afghan president Hamid Karzai stunned the attendees by offering the possibility of actual reconciliation, which entails a much closer embrace of the Taliban within the Afghan body-politic.  And at this point, as this LA Times report shows, it's not at all clear that the US is ready to buy into that unless the Taliban agree to certain conditions - "renouncing violence, following the Afghan Constitution and, perhaps most important, agreeing to not help the Al Qaeda extremists whose presence in Afghanistan started the long war."  And there's also justifiable concern that women will suffer if the Taliban are allowed back into the government.

The battle I see approaching is one in the halls of Congress, and US public opinion.  I'll be very surprised if the McCain-Graham-Lieberman clique of "no victory, no honor" will accept any possibility of reconciliation with the Taliban unless it's done from a position of US military superiority that allows the US to impose terms, rather than negotiate them with the Taliban.  Then the question becomes: Can the US+NATO achieve that level of superiority?  Seems to me that could be possible only (1) at tremendous cost of treasure and lives (both US and Afghan) and (2) if the US can win the hearts and minds battle.

And on that score, the Taliban leadership may see themselves as currently having the upper hand.  No, the Taliban are not universally loved in Afghanistan, but neither is Karzai's corrupt government.  And after going on 9 years, many Afghans are fed up with the US presence - and our guys keep giving them reason to get even angrier.  The latest incident has angered a lot of Afghans:
A gunner in a U.S. military convoy shot and killed a local imam as he was driving his car here Thursday morning, prompting outrage among residents and an apology from coalition forces. . . .
Residents expressed outrage over the shooting of a man they described as a respected religious leader who had spent the past three months in Kabul teaching at an Islamic school and preaching at the Marqazi Jumad mosque.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Anand Gopal's recent piece uncovers an ongoing story that has received very little coverage here, but that many Afghans are enraged and humiliated by: the detention and abuse of "suspects" rounded up by US forces, often Special Ops guys who raid villages at night, bust down doors, and haul away men on the tiniest suspicion of evil-doing. ( And when you add to that humiliation the insult that those same night-raiders may be equipped with weapons sporting those "Jesus gunsights" . . . .).

Bottom line: The US will never be able to come home from Afghanistan "victorious" - unless, of course, our government and media truth-spinners find a way to re-define "victory"  to include a negotiated settlement with a still-powerful Taliban. 

Again, it brings to mind Gen. Petraeus' question about Iraq: "Tell me how this ends."  It also, for me, raises a version of the question the then Navy officer John Kerry asked about the Vietnam War: "Who wants to be the last man killed in an unwinnable war?"

Thursday, January 28, 2010

US military involvement in Yemen - keep an eye out!

Excellent report from Dana Priest in the WaPo - that US military and intelligence (specifically, several dozen troops from the Joint Special Operations Command) are "deeply involved" in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops.  According to Priest, these guys aren't actually out doing raids.  Still, it's one more "Greater Middle East" theater where US troops are now on the ground.  How this spins out over the months to come bears watching.  But Priest makes an excellent point - one that (again) is going to undercut Obama's already shredded credibility as an advocate of democracy in the region:
The far-reaching U.S. role could prove politically challenging for Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who must balance his desire for American support against the possibility of a backlash by tribal, political and religious groups whose members resent what they see as U.S. interference in Yemen. . . .

Republican lawmakers and former vice president Richard B. Cheney have sought to characterize the new president as soft on terrorism after he banned the harsh interrogation methods permitted under Bush and announced his intention to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Obama has rejected those two elements of Bush's counterterrorism program, but he has embraced the notion that the most effective way to kill or capture members of al-Qaeda and its affiliates is to work closely with foreign partners, including those that have feeble democracies, shoddy human rights records and weak accountability over the vast sums of money Washington is giving them to win their continued participation in these efforts.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Update on the "peace process"

Paul Woodward (who also manages the War in Context site) provides a nice round-up of recent reports and analyses on the doldrums in which the Israel-Palestine "peace process" currently finds itself.  Bottom line: it's going nowhere, in large part because Mr. Obama is turning out to be more hot air than courageous "decider" (to use George W. Bush's characterization of the presidency).  On the other hand, Paul also links to a fine piece from Rami Khouri in the Beirut Daily Star, who notes, quite fairly,
"In the face of this erratic track record by Obama, what have the Arabs and Israelis done in the past year, other than oppose, delay, irritate and obstruct the US president? If Obama gets a B for effort and a D for achievement, Arabs and Israelis probably deserve an F for their collective failure to contribute meaningfully to resolving their own conflict."
There can be absolutely no progress unless Hamas is brought into the discussions.  Instead, Obama stupidly holds them at arm's length; Gaza still simmer and suffers under Israel's blockade, while Mubarak proceeds with a wall to worsen the situation; and there's more and more chatter about the coming war between Israel and Lebanon.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Jesus rifles as “spiritually transformed firearm[s] of Jesus Christ”

According to a former military lawyer, this is how US Army commanders refer to weapons outfitted with the now-infamous Trijicon gunsights.  It's at least somewhat reassuring that David Petraeus finds this disturbing (although if he has any political aspirations, he may have just lost a ton of right-wing Christian evangelical votes) and that Trijicon will remove them (though, I imagine, not out of conviction that putting that Biblical reference on the sights; they want to keep their contracts).

By the way, the reference was John, Chapter 8, Verse 12, which reads: 'Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.'

And on top of all this, I went for a workout today at the campus' recreation facility.  Besides the usual sightings of guys with symbols of the cross tattooed on their arms or shoulders (to which I've grown reasonably accustomed), one young man was sporting a shirt emblazoned with an ad for a "Spiritual Warfare Camp," complete with shield and Crusader-style sword, with handle up to signify the cross.


Friday, January 22, 2010

The Supreme Court shreds American democracy

Yesterday's nonsensical decision by the Supreme Court shreds whatever remained of American democracy.  Corporate interests already control our mainstream media.  Corporate lobbyists had already come to control Capitol Hill decision-making.  Now, the Supreme Court has send them what amount to engraved invitations to control the elections themselves.  The NY Times makes it plain:
With a single, disastrous 5-to-4 ruling, the Supreme Court has thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century. Disingenuously waving the flag of the First Amendment, the court’s conservative majority has paved the way for corporations to use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections and intimidate elected officials into doing their bidding.
The WaPo's editorial notes, "corporate money, never lacking in the American political process, may now overwhelm both the contributions of individuals and the faith they may harbor in their democracy."

What democracy?  It's called plutocracy, people.

Perhaps it's time to redesign the American flag.  Remove the 50 stars on a field of blue and replace them with dollar signs.

The NY Times also calls upon Congress to "act immediately to limit the damage of this radical decision, which strikes at the heart of democracy."

But when so many in Congress are already in the pockets of the corporate interests, what's the point?  Still, everyone, please try.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

David Brooks touts Americans' "equilibrium"

Once again featuring his own well-readedness (this time, Hobbes' Leviathan -  although it was the book's cover that seemingly impressed him the most), David Brooks oh-so-intelligently applauds the Republican victory in Massachusetts' Senate race yesterday, and cautions the Democrats against rushing the recently passed health-care bill to Obama's desk.  Although Brooks seems to find much in Obama that he admires, such a move by Obama's party, says he, "would would be the act of a party so arrogant, elitist and contemptuous of popular wisdom that it would not deserve to govern. Marie Antoinette would applaud, but voters would rage."  Because, says he, after all, "The American people are not always right, but their basic sense of equilibrium is worthy of the profoundest respect."

Uh huh.

This is the same American public so blessed with equilibrium and popular wisdom that millions of them, clueless to anything beyond the boundaries of their backyards or the pages of their Bibles, take their cues on domestic and foreign policy from the rantings of Limbaugh/Hannity/Beck/Hagee - and vote accordingly.

This is the same American public whose equilibrium and popular wisdom, though rightfully enraged by the attacks of 9/11, let George W. Bush lead them almost gleefully by the collective nose into ill-conceived and disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have trashed their country's global standing as well as its treasury, to that American public's own great cost.

This is the same American public whose popular wisdom has led the majority of them to blow off the theory of evolution as "un-Biblical" and therefore unworthy, who refuse to accept the evidence of human-induced global warming, who were buying gas-guzzling Hummers and mega-SUVs by the tens of thousands because they are, after all, entitled to the "American way of life," as Dick Cheney so blithely asserted soon after 9-11.

Brooks remains locked into his core message of soft neo-conservatism: that Americans have cornered the market on good sense.  One might call it myopia.

Monday, January 18, 2010

U.S. Rifle Scopes In Iraq And Afghanistan Feature Bible Verse Citations

Amazing, truly amazing.  Gosh, this will certainly win those hearts and minds, won't it?

O'Hanlon and Pollack plead for Iraq's democracy

 . . in this op-ed in today's NYT.  It's certainly a timely piece, and spot-on in terms of what the Iraq Election Commission's ban of 500 Sunni politicians may mean for the future of Iraq's "democracy" (such as it was).

But the authors of this essay must be sweating blood over this turn of events.  Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack were two of the loudest and persistent cheerleaders for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 - and Pollack in particular provided the pro-invasion bunch with a veneer of academic pseudo-respectability with his 2002 book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, where he argued
"the only prudent and realistic course of action left to the United States is to mount a full-scale invasion of Iraq to smash the Iraqi armed forces, depose Saddam’s regime, and rid the country of weapons of mass destruction. . . .  It is unimaginable that the United States would have to contribute hundreds of billions of dollars and highly unlikely that we would have to contribute even tens of billions of dollars.” Likewise, he wrote, “we should not exaggerate the danger of casualties among American troops. U.S. forces in Bosnia have not suffered a single casualty from hostile action because they have become so attentive and skillful at force protection.”
Hammered for being so wrong about so much as the Iraq occupation unfolded, Pollack's rep was rescued somewhat by the "success" of the "Surge" in Iraq, which led oh-so-many to claim that the US had "succeeded" or even "won" in Iraq.  But Iraq remains very much up for grabs, and the election ban only pushes the country closer again to sectarian conflict, even as the Arab-Kurd conflict simmers in the north.

Taliban assault on Kabul

A frequently leveled barb at Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai was that he was, in fact, no more than the mayor of Kabul.  Well, maybe not even that.

Here are reports this morning from the Washington Post and from Dexter Filkins of the NYT.

Obviously, if security can't be ensured even in Kabul, the capital city, then the situation is truly out of hand.  Perhaps the US military command will opt to send a larger proportion of the US troop surge to Kabul - which means (1) fewer troops for efforts elsewhere, and/or (2) pressure on Obama from the usual suspects (McCain and his Mini-Me's Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham) to send in even more US forces in . . . even while Iraq become more unsettled, with US troops departing.

Holbrooke and the US don't get it

In theory, the plan to split non-ideological Taliban (as mentioned in this WaPo piece) from Mullah Omar's leadership makes sense.  But to make it happen requires  a major re-education of almost entirely illiterate Pashtun tribesmen, who have been raised from birth to distrust foreigners, wherever they come from, and to drive them out as a matter of honor and manly virtue.  Says Holbrooke:
"Everyone knows the great tradition in Afghanistan of throwing out the foreign invaders - from Alexander the Great, to the British, to the Russians - but we are not here in the same context.  We are here to help you regain your independence and to help you build up your own security forces. And after that, the troops will depart. And what the Taliban demand amounts to is surrender ... and that will return your country to the black years and nobody wants that."
IMHO, it will require a huge effort to convince these men that the US truly is not in Afghanistan "in the same context" as the British and the Russians.  There's a distinction there that they will not readily grasp, nor will the Marines and soldiers - who are (to use an old friend's expression) "full of piss and vinegar"; who are trained from boot camp on to be tough, engage the enemy, and "get some"; and who are already identified by the locals as infidels and in some cases even Christian proselytizers -  readily come across to the locals as "liberators" who are there only to "restore their independence."

This is a project that, if it's to achieve any semblance of "success" (however that's defined), will require years, not the many months that Obama's address to launch the Afghan "Surge" suggested - and it will require a huge outlay of American treasure (even as the economy at home is on shaky ground) and a steady destruction of American lives as well as the losing of both Afghan lives of those killed, and the Afghan hearts and minds of their loved ones.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

David Brooks on Haiti's Flaws and Faults

Once again Mr. Brooks applies a veneer of well-readedness (in this instance, Lawrence Harrison's The Central Liberal Truth, along with a dollop of Samuel Huntington = Dr. Clash-of-civilizations)) to diagnose what he perceives to be the flaws that have brought the people of Haiti to their current state:
Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.

. . . and prescribes a healthy dose of Americanism, involving an "intrusive paternalism" that will identify
 "self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures. . . , surrounding people . . . with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands."
Let's just turn 'em into Americans!  That'll fix everything.

To his credit, Brooks does note that Haiti has "endured ruthless dictators, corruption and foreign invasions."  But he hasn't the honesty to note (as ABC's 20/20 coverage did last night, much to its credit) that foreign invasion came at the hands of the USA, which controlled Haiti for a considerable time in the early 20th century, and that those "ruthless dictators" (such as the infamous Papa Doc Duvalier and his son and successor, Baby Doc) were thugs that we helped keep in power because they were willing to serve the interests of US corporations.  Meanwhile they enriched themselves and were content to let the people of Haiti languish in abject squalor.  No problem for the US though.

Brooks seems to have made his career by peddling a brand of kinder and gentler, or soft,  neo-conservatism (except when it's time to cheerlead for military action, as he has done for the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions): "We want to make you just like us, because we're oh-so-sure that it'll be good for you."  Would that the US had taken such a caring view of Haitians over the last century . . . and that Brooks and his ilk had the honesty to recognize that the US has been for Haiti - and so many others across the planet - a big part of the problem.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Tal Afar, 2005

I'd not seen these photos before.  Truly heart-rending, but they also remind me that this kind of incident occurred in Iraq - usually off the US media's radar, and sometimes at the hands of Blackwater's "contractors" - more often than we'll ever know.

Israel and International Justice: the Irony

Haaretz features today an essay by Gerald Steinberg and Anne Herzberg (Gerald Steinberg is a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor; Anne Herzberg is NGO Monitor's legal advisor), titled "Israel and the illusion of international justice," in which they argue:
Speaking at a legal conference on January 4, former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak suggested that Israel would benefit from participation in bodies such as the International Criminal Court in order to fight for "its positions and justice." In endorsing Barak's recommendation, a Haaretz editorial ("Join the Court," January 6) contended that such participation would "place Israel on the side of the enlightened nations." Similarly, the argument goes, Israel erred in refusing to cooperate with the UN Human Rights Council's Goldstone Commission and the International Court of Justice proceedings on the security barrier.

While surely well-intentioned, in practice this line of thinking is pure folly. The dominance of nondemocratic and Islamic nations in international organs, and the increasing politicization of these bodies, virtually guarantees that no justice will be done when it comes to Israel or even NATO countries. In such morally corrupt frameworks, international law and human rights have become political weapons, disconnected from legitimate judicial processes and legal systems in democratic societies.

Isn't it ironic, though, that so many of the "nondemocratic and Islamist" nations they spotlight have been so long sustained in power by Israel's principal patron, the United States?  The list is long and, in its own way, distinguished: Saudi Arabia, Egypt (the second-leading recipient of US funding), Jordan.  And despite all the neocon touting of it as a new cradle of Arab democracy, it truly remains to be seen whether democracy will flourish in Iraq.  The current president, Nuri al-Maliki, has for many months been building up a security force, predominantly Shii, that enforces his will, especially against what his Shii-dominated regime identifies as Sunni threats.  Meanwhile, as the Washington Post reports, his government's Independent High Electoral Commission has decided to
uphold bans recommended by the Justice and Accountability Commission, tasked with barring Hussein loyalists from government and security positions. At least 700 people will be blocked by Sunday, including Saleh al-Mutlak, a popular Sunni member of parliament. . . .  The announcement comes days after the Justice and Accountability Commission said it would ban Mutlak and 14 parties from running in the election. The commission has now expanded the list of people who will be excluded from contesting. . . .  The move is a blow to efforts to bring marginalized factions, some of which turned to weapons, into the political fold.
"Marginalized factions" here means Sunni groups who have found themselves increasingly disenfranchised by the Maliki government. Some of them have Baathist ties, yes - but not all Baathists were advocates of, or participants in, the extreme measures to which Saddam Hussein resorted.  They were  a legitimate component of the broader secular Arab and Iraqi nationalist movement, and as such, they need to be allowed a place in Iraq's electoral politics.  Otherwise, Iraqi democracy is doomed, and the US may be yoked to another nondemocratic, Islamist regime of the kind that Steinberg and Herzberg point to.

And we can add still another such regime to the list of those that Israel's US patron supports.  As McClatchy's Jonathan Landay reports, Obama's aid to the Saleh regime in Yemen could ignite a backlash in the Arab world, in that it . . .
 . . . risks tying the U.S. more closely to an autocratic ruler whose repression of economic and political grievances is strengthening the terrorists and pushing his impoverished nation toward breakup.  "Any association with the (Yemeni) regime will only confirm al Qaida's narrative, which is that America is only interested in maintaining corrupt and despotic rulers and is not interested in the fate of Arabs and Muslims," warned Bernard Haykel, a Princeton University professor.  The State Department's latest international human rights report cited allegations that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime tortures and assassinates suspected opponents, operates secret prisons and muzzles independent media.  Security forces run by Saleh's close relatives and reportedly advised by former officers of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard are accused of using "excessive force" against a four-year-old Shiite Muslim rebellion in north Yemen, uprooting thousands of civilians. . . .

"The United States is increasingly shifting support to the Saleh regime at a time at which it is increasingly losing (popular) support," said April Alley, an expert at the National Defense University in Washington. "A popular view within Yemen is that the U.S. is supporting an increasingly unpopular regime and buttressing autocracy."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Deadly Protest in Afghanistan Highlights Tensions

Dexter Filkins reports in the NYT.  This development happens to coincide with the publication of a UN report that claims that over the last year the Taliban were responsible for more civilian casualties than were US+NATO+Afghan forces.
The 1,630 civilians killed by insurgents represented a 40 percent increase over the previous year — and two-thirds of the civilians killed. Most of those civilian deaths, the survey found, were caused by suicide bombings, homemade bombs and executions.

By contrast, the number of civilians killed by the American-led coalition and Afghan government forces in 2009 fell 28 percent. The coalition and Afghan forces killed 596 civilians, about a quarter of the total number killed that year.

The United Nations report said that 2,412 civilians were killed in 2009, a jump of 14 percent over the previous year. Another 3,566 Afghan civilians were wounded, the report found.

The growing number of civilian deaths reflects the intensification of the Afghan war over the same period: American and NATO combat deaths jumped to 520 over the past year, from 295, and the Taliban are more active than at any point in the past eight years.

These reports taken together surely provide lots of food for thought, but I'm especially struck by
 (1) the total of dead and wounded (i.e., in many cases, maimed; ergo, lives ruined) among the civilian population.  We need to multiply that by some significant factor, of course, to calculate the number of Afghan civilian lives affected.
(2) As the account of the protest suggests, the US forces in Afghanistan - whatever the motives and intentions claimed by their military and civilian leaders -- are fighting a losing battle in terms of public trust and public perception.  The distrust is deeply seated, culturally rooted - and there is no way that it can be turned around within the kind of timeframe that Obama ostensibly established for this mission.  That does not inspire much hope for a "happy ending," much less, "victory."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Drones in Afghanistan: Playing with Fire?

Dexter Filkins and Alan Cowell report that two strikes by US drones firing Hellfire missiles have killed 16 "insurgents"  at two sites in Helmand province.  They also note that such use of drones is unusual in Afghanistan, where the population is already incensed by more than 8 years of civilians killed as "collateral damage" in US air-strikes.

Any ramping up of drone strikes by the US is likely to bring retaliation from the Taliban, as well as protest from the Karzai government, especially if it turns out (as it so often has) that the killed "insurgents" included women, children, and other innocents.

Monday, January 11, 2010

In Case You Believed that Saddam was completely Dead and Gone

A tribe located in a region about 150 miles south of Amman in Jordan has made a decision that suggests that Saddam still has a lot of appeal:
"The tribe council held a meeting following the latest developments and has agreed to ask all the members of the tribe to name their sons born in 2010 'Saddam' and to name their new-born daughters 'Raghad', 'Hala' or 'Rana' after the daughters of the martyr Saddam Hussein," the tribe council said.

"We will also start collecting donations from the tribe members to build a multi-purpose hall that we will name 'Hall of the Greatest Martyr Saddam Hussein' in tribute to his glory," the tribe council said.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

US could threaten Israel with Sanctions(?!)

So reported in YNet, as well as Fox News. 
US special envoy George Mitchell has, according to Ynet, threatened Israel that its failure to advance peace negotiations could result in financial sanctions. The diplomat made the veiled threat during an interview for PBS, but quickly clarified that the US would use sanctions and incentives with both Israelis and Palestinians.
Obviously, this bears watching, especially to see how Obama and Hillary Clinton respond to requests for clarification.  Might make for a field-day on the Sunday talk shows.

Two excellent essays in The Nation

The 25 January 2010 issue of The Nation features two superb essays from two especially enlightened sources: Fawaz Gerges (on "The Transformation of Hamas") and Henry Siegman (on "Imposing Middle East Peace").

Gerges is professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science at the University of London, and a well-published and highly respected expert on jihadist and Islamist groups who has spent time with such groups in the field, "on the ground." His essays (most recently, one on al-Qaeda in Yemen) regularly appear via CNN as well - much to CNN's credit.

Siegman is "director of the U.S./Middle East Project in New York and a visiting research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He is a former national director of the American Jewish Congress and of the Synagogue Council of America."  With credentials as a defender of the interests of the Jewish community in the US that are truly impeccable, for years he has looked the Israeli occupation of the West Bank squarely in the face and called it out for what it is (for example, in this London Review of Books essay published a year ago).

Would that Obama (and presidents before him) would have taken their prescriptions to heart.

Friday, January 8, 2010

LA Times/AP's Misguided Report on Hamas-al Qaeda Ties

I keep trying to get back to work on the last chapter of my book, but am too often distracted by reports such as this one.

Lolita Baldor of the AP reports - with the headline in the LA Times: "Palestinian militant groups aspire to formal ties to al-Qaida, but so far rebuffed."

OK, it's pretty well known that there are some universal-jihadist groups among Palestinian militants.  It's also well known that Hamas is an Islamist nationalist group.  Nonetheless, says Baldor,
"Osama bin Laden's terror network has so far snubbed Hamas and its offshoots for infighting and failure to prove their global jihadist intentions, a new study says."
But, where is there any evidence that Hamas has even reached out to OBL and al-Qaeda?  There isn't any.  How then could al-Qaeda "rebuff" Hamas? 

Oh, and guess who the report's authors are?  Matthew Levitt and Yoram Cohen, under the auspices of that fair-and-balanced thinktank, WINEP (Washington Institute for Near East Policy - AKA, Likud-USA).  Cohen, by the way, as Baldor does note (bless her heart) until recently served as the deputy director of the Israel Security Agency, Shin Bet.  No agendas here.

Well, too late; damage done.  A lot of LAT readers will now conclude that Hamas really wants to link up with al-Qaeda, even though (farther down in Baldor's report) it's made pretty clear that there's a real disconnect between Hamas and the smaller jihadist groups in Gaza.  Nonetheless, according to the tenor of  Baldor's take on the WINEP report, it's only a matter of time before al-Qaeda lets the Gaza militants (which, she's already insinuated, include Hamas) join the club.

So for many impressionable readers, the only reasonable conclusion now is: the Israelis are justified if they want to launch Cast Lead II.

Inspiring Essay about Tony Judt

I ran across this article from the CHE's "Chronicle Review" serendipitously, with no knowledge that Prof. Tony Judt, whose work I have read and admired for years (especially for the courage of his stance against Zionist extremism), is as ill as he evidently is.  As the article attests profusely, his courage extends to how he is coping with that illness.

(Not as uplifting, unfortunately, are some of the comments from the Judt-haters (who also appear to be Arab-haters and Islamophobes) who decided to weigh in - one of them with a "good riddance" comment.)

Did John McCain just put his foot in it?

Among the other developments reported in today AfPak Daily Brief from Foreign Policy come the report that John McCain (and his trusty Tonto Mini-Me Joe Lieberman) have endorsed, out loud, US drone strikes inside Pakistan.  OK, those strikes are indeed an open secret, but as the FP comments note, the US does not acknowledge them officially, and the Zardari government has repeatedly taken public issue with the Obama government about the US's continued flaunting of Pakistan's sovereignty with them.

For McCain to be so brazen about it may be another notch in his personal "straight-talk express" belt, but it's hardly to be chalked up as a shining moment for US public diplomacy.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

And Now for a Little Business

With Valentine's Day approaching, here's a gift idea for you.  This outfit got a nice notice in the Detroit Free Press recently.  (Full disclosure: One of the owners is my sister Ursula.)

Iraq De-Baath commission bans Sunni party from March elections

According to McClatchy's Inside Iraq blog, the government's de-Baath commission "banned Sunni politicians and their political blocs from participating in Iraq’s national elections due in March."  One of the politicians banned, Saleh al Mutlak,

is heading a parliamentary bloc that won more than 11 seats out of 275 in 2005 elections and was part of a committee that wrote the current Iraqi constitution. Al Mutlak is a part of a one of the main political blocs, Iraqiya, headed by Iraq’s former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, who threatened to boycott the elections if the ban was proved.

You can bet that General Odierno's office - and the White House - are seeking "clarification."  But an action such as this is going to rile up thousands of already riled-up Sunni Arabs, many of whom (those among the Sunni Awakening/sons of Iraq groups) have been getting hammered by the predominantly Shii-Kurd government for months.  If the Sunnis don't get a fair shake in the March elections, there will be trouble - count on it - with corresponding pressure on Obama (I'm thinking John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Lindsay Graham) to slow the US withdrawal.

Reporting from the New Surge

The NYT's Alissa Rubin today has a report that that spotlights much of what's oh-so-wrong about the US surge in Afghanistan:
  • resentment of the locals.  As US troops were throwing candy to the locals, a bomb went off, killing 5 Afghans (and wounding some Americans as well).  The locals are accusing the Americans of doing the bombing.  Of course, that's not what happened, but the point is that a lot of the locals believe it is and resent the US presence.
  • a US Special Forces operation stole its way into a village and "took out" a Taliban commander and his guards.  I'm sure McChrystal and the special-ops guys are bristling with pride, but I wonder how the locals feel about Americans who sneak in and shoot up people.
  • Joe Lieberman and John McCain are briefly on the scene, uttering words of sweet reassurance that we will "succeed" in Afghanistan just as we "succeeded" in Iraq, if we can only stay the course.
The course to what?  What is success going to look like?  And (as Andrew Bacevich recently asked, channeling David Petraeus' question early on during the Iraq invasion), can Joe and John tell us how this ends? 

Perhaps, with our military, our treasury, and whatever's left of our standing in the international community, trashed?  (see Doug Bandow's recent piece in The National Interest)

And if you're not yet convinced that what's happening in Afghanistan is related to broader developments - say, in Gaza - take note of the report in Haaretz (citing the London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi ) that Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, the Jordanian physician who blew up the CIA operatives in Afghanistan, was furious about Israel's attack into the Gaza Strip last year and was also running a medical clinic in a Palestinian refugee camp.  The report also notes that

According to a statement posted on Islamist websites, the attack avenged the deaths of Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban leader killed by a US missile strike in August, as well as the deaths of Abi Saleh el-Somali and Abdullah el-Libi.

The two other Taliban commanders were killed in a drone attack in Pakistan's North Waziristan region in December.

Those dots really aren't all that difficult to connect, are they?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Afghanistan Counter-insurgency and Poor US Intelligence

Both the Washington Post and The Nation's Dreyfuss Report today spotlight a new report from Major Gen. Michael Flynn, "the deputy chief of staff for intelligence for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan" and "highest-ranking U.S. military intelligence officer in Afghanistan," calling for
a shift from collecting information to help with capturing or killing insurgents, and said more resources should go toward gathering facts about the political, economic and cultural environment of the population that supports the insurgency.

But as the WaPo report also hints at, who's gonna do it?  Notably, at least some small-unit commanders have assigned such fact-gathering to their own soldiers in the absence of specialists trained for the task.  It will bear watching to see if Flynn's recommendations are implemented, and how.  But if they are, and the job is indeed going to be handed off to young "grunts," it seems to me that its going to demand a significant shift in the US military culture - how soldiers are trained, or at least "oriented" - before they deploy to Afghanistan.

Unless my impressions are completely mistaken, their training has focused almost entirely on learning how to "engage and defeat" (i.e., kill) the enemy. What Flynn is recommending will require a less coercive approach to "engagement," I should think - perhaps something more akin to how British troops approached their engagement with the locals in Iraq's Shii south, where they were deployed from 2003 until their departure.  As I recall, the US commanders were not especially enamoured of that approach, even if the US adopted a version of it during the Petraeus-led "Surge" in 2007.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

As Yemen Jumps onto our Radar . . .

Kudos to Ken Silverstein at Harper's Mag for this brief note that points us to some good sources for info - and continued reporting - about Yemen.  Among them, the "always interesting" Professor Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy as well as a primer from Michelle Shephard at The New Republic.

But I was especially happy to learn about the blog Waq al-Waq, published by Gregory Johnsen (a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen and currently a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University) and Brian O'Neill (a former writer and editor for the Yemen Observer and currently an independent analyst in Chicago).  Silverstein's piece links to this entry - What to do in Yemen: Five Basic Suggestions - and the blog in general looks to be very promising as the US wades into the new morass that Yemen is on the way to becoming.  The authors seem to know the region well, know Arabic, and propound a mission statement that grabs one's attention:
We both have been studying Yemen for years, and as the country has risen in importance, the quality of discussion has declined. We wanted to contradict some other individuals, blogs and commentators who have no experience in Yemen or with Arabic, and who turn the facts to fit their opinions. We feel that presenting a thoughtful and nuanced discussion of Yemeni affairs, based in knowledge of its history and culture is in the best interest of all.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Terrorist Attacks Widen Pakistan's Fault-lines

The WaPo's Pamela Constable reports from Karachi on how a terrorist attack on a Shii religious procession has threatened to widen fault lines between ethnic and sectarian communities there.
With one strategic blast, the attackers added a volatile new ingredient to the cauldron of ethnic and sectarian tensions, political brawls, business mafia rivalries, and street crime that simmers in this metropolis of 18 million. Although these conflicts periodically erupt into violence, they have rarely disrupted the purposeful hum or resilience of city life.

This time, the destruction triggered by the explosion was so shocking and affected so many interest groups that the entire city went on strike Friday, uniting in an act of peaceful protest. The normally clogged boulevards and teeming bazaars were silent; the swank seaside eateries were empty. Even the Karachi stock exchange shut down instead of grandly opening for New Year's Day. . . .

With few solid facts emerging, the devastation has also provided tinder for conspiracy theories to suit the agendas of every religious, ethnic and political group in the complex, fragile mosaic of Karachi society. They range from accusations of economic sabotage by property owners to wild speculation of international plots by Western and anti-Muslim powers.

Some groups have accused Shiite militants of using their holy day to create chaos, saying fire accelerants were hidden inside religious cloths. Shiite leaders insist that most mourners continued with their procession after the bombing, while the looting and arson broke out many blocks behind. They assert that the attackers were trying to provoke sectarian divisions among Shiites and Sunnis, backed by a conspiracy of Western interests.

Doesn't this sound eerily familiar to Iraq, starting in 2004?  How terror attacks ratcheted up distrust between communities with already long histories of mutual grievance, leading eventually to the Sunni bombing of the Shii al-Askariya mosque in Samarra, which led to what was essentially a civil war that left tens of thousands dead?  Iraq has never truly recovered from that time, at least from the standpoint of trust being restored between Shii and Sunni.

And Pakistan seems to have at least as many potential fault-lines as does Iraq: among them, Sunni v. Shii, as well as regional/ethnic lines involving Pashtuns, Punjabis, Baluchs, Sindhis, Mohajir.  As Constable's report indicates, there surely are many in Pakistan who want to preserve ethnic unity.  But in 2004, there were many in Iraq of similar good will.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Why Won't Those Terrorists Just Leave Us Alone?!

Glenn Greenwald in Salon, citing both David Brooks (in what is indeed one of his better columns) and John Adams (an unlikely pair, that), pens an excellent essay on how the mainstream media (in cahoots with the Cheneyesque element in the Homeland Security crowd) have created a
citizenry planted in front of the television, petrified by endless imagery of scary Muslim monsters, who then collectively crawl to Government and demand that they take more power and control in order to keep them Protected and Safe.  A citizenry drowning in fear and fixated on Safety to the exclusion of other competing values . . . .

And according to a recent poll,
Fifty-eight percent (58%) of U.S. voters say waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques should be used to gain information from the terrorist who attempted to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day. . . . Seventy-one percent (71%) of all voters think the attempt by the Nigerian Muslim to blow up the airliner as it landed in Detroit should be investigated by military authorities as a terrorist act. Only 22% say it should be handled by civilian authorities as a criminal act, as is currently the case.

So, like bleating sheep being herded by an all-powerful shepherd, Americans have gone along with their government in a misguided war in Iraq, and now with a misguided war in "Af-Pak"  (and perhaps Yemen's on the horizon?) because the government tells them that only the might of the US military can protect them from the big bad Muslims.   And Mr. Bush told them, "Go out and buy what you want.  Meanwhile, we'll spend whatever we need to.  But we won't dare tax you or ask you to sacrifice one iota of your American way of life!  After all, we're the great Christian nation that saved the world from Hitler, and Tojo, and the Commies, and Saddam's WMDs.  We're entitled to live as large as we want!  So, build yourself that Mcmansion!  Buy yourself that SUV!"

So, wanting to remain safe, secure, and obese in our bubble,  we've amassed a huge debt to China and have thrown mega-billions of bucks at a military that is nonetheless overstretched and exhausted, but always ready to accept our tax dollars.

Whatever the cost . . .  party on, dude. 

But when the government tries to take the actions - and spend the money - needed to protect their health or their jobs, our clueless public raises a terrified hue and cry.  "Obama's turning us into a Communist country!"  or "Obama's going to set up death panels to decide which of us lives or dies!" or  "Obama's taking away our freedoms!"

(Hey, aren't there some big games in the NFL today?  And what time does that bowl game start tomorrow? Let's drive over to Bill's house.  He just bought a 60-inch screen!")

 (Yemen? Where the hell is Yemen anyhow?  And isn't Gaza somewhere in Iraq?  Ah, who gives a shit.)

Face it, people.  We didn't ante up before.  But now, we're going to need to pay up,  pay for our mistakes,  pay for our ignorance. . . . and if we're lucky, we just may have a future.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Federal Judge Dismisses Charges against Blackwater Mercenaries

Most of us in the US have been exposed to enough TV series about lawyers and the court system (e.g., "Law and Order") to understand that in many instances when the technicalities of the law are enforced, the broader interests of justice are nonetheless not served.

As both the NYT and the WaPo have reported, Judge Ricardo M. Urbina of Federal District Court in Washington has ruled to dismiss the charges against five former Blackwater "security contractors" (i.e., mercenaries, guns for hire).  If you don't recall, these are the same guys who in 2007 shot up a public square in Baghdad and left 17 Iraqis dead about 20 wounded.  As the NYT also notes,
The guards could not be prosecuted under Iraqi law because of an immunity agreement that had been signed by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the governing authority installed by the United States after the invasion of Iraq. [That's very cute, how the NYT puts that.  Let's be blunt: US viceroy Jerry Bremer gave Eric Prince's goons the means to cover their asses against any charges of overstepping the bounds.  Read Jeremy Scahill's book on this.  They tended to be tough-talking thugs with itchy trigger-fingers.] But American prosecutors knew from the beginning that they were facing a difficult task in bringing the case. Complications included the applicability of federal statutes to the guards because they were working overseas at the time for the State Department, and the significant problem stemming from statements the guards gave shortly after the shootings.
In other words, the company these guys worked for got a free pass from the US government, right from the start, to murder Iraqi civilians.  Later, the Justice Department (much to its credit) reconsidered and decided it appropriate to go after some of them. But now,the Blackwater guys are off the hook, and as the WaPo report notes:
Urbina's decision, coming on New Year's Eve, surprised Justice Department officials, attorneys for the guards and relatives of the victims in Baghdad. Many were preparing for a trial, which had been scheduled to start Feb. 1. Jurors were being summoned to appear Jan. 11 as part of a screening process.

The Justice Department can appeal the ruling. But legal experts said it will have a difficult time because Urbina wrote such a detailed opinion and held such long hearings. Prosecutors can also seek a fresh indictment but would be precluded from using any evidence that Urbina ruled was tainted. That would be another tough task because Urbina eviscerated much of the government's case. He also found that many of its key witnesses were badly tainted by the guards' statements, which they had read or heard about in the media.

Meanwhile, the mercenaries themselves are celebrating an unexpected New Year's present.   On Thursday, the president and chief executive officer of Xe [Blackwater's new name, which they undoubtedly adopted in the wake of the Baghdad incident because the Blackwater name had been so tarnished by it], Joseph Yorio, praised Judge Urbina’s ruling in a statement:
“The company supports the judge’s decision to dismiss the charges. . . . From the beginning, Xe has stood behind the hundreds of brave men who put themselves in harm’s way to protect American diplomats working in Baghdad and other combat zones in Iraq. Like the people they were protecting, our Xe professionals were working for a free, safe and democratic Iraq for the Iraqi people.”
The Iraqi government would like to take some kind of action.  Fat chance it will do any good.  Many Iraqis are upset, even if the past 7 years ought to have shown them by now that Iraqis victimized by American wrongdoing can expect no justice from the US.

But we all ought to be ready for that justice to be exacted, by "non-state actors" who have been long motivated by the US's high-handedness when it comes to the lives of Muslims.

An update: Iraqis are indeed angry, and perplexed (to put it mildly) about how the vaunted US justice system could allow this to happen.  General Odierno, on the other hand, holds it up as an example of America's adherence to the "rule of law."

There's "rule of law," General.  And then there's need for justice.  This won't cut it on that score.


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