Monday, March 29, 2010

The NY Times on The Heart of Allawi’s Win

Insightful blog post in today's NYT helps explain Allawi's victory, and what it may promise for Iraq's future (also check out the map and chart provided  there).

Something that stands out: How the current PM Nuri al-Maliki has alienated so many erstwhile supporters, while Allawi has cozied up to both Shii Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, as well as the Western media.

But one wonders: Will Allawi be able to put together a ruling coalition that will still allow him to pursue a non-sectarian, secular, Iraqi nationalist agenda?  And will he be able to keep his new friends if Iraq's security situation worsens?  Most of the blame for bombings over the last several months has fallen on Maliki's shoulders.  If Allawi becomes PM, it's all on him.  Then what?

Avigdor Lieberman on East Jerusalem construction

From the indisputably racist foreign minister of Israel, pronouncements that Israel need not heed the US's call for a freeze on housing construction in East Jerusalem, as well as a call (again; this is not the first time) for the expulsion of Israeli Arabs to a Palestinian state - whatever that's supposed to be, or can be, at this point.
Asked how he expected the international community to accept that, he said, “The world will accept anything that we rally around.” He added: “The world is fed up with us. They want a solution by all possible means. We have become a global headache.”

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Implications of Iraq's Election Results

All of the major papers (NYTimes here, WaPo here, LA Times here, AP here) cover the slim victory of Ayad Allawi's Iraqiyya party according to the (still uncertified) results of a national parliamentary election that by now is three weeks old.  And Reidar Visser provides the numbers (i.e., of seats won by each party, per governorate) here.

The bottom line at this point is that we are far, far away from reaching that bottom line.  Allawi did not win enough votes to form a government on his own, which means he needs to make some deals with other blocs.  This is likely going to take several months.  As a secular Shii Iraqi nationalist (and former Baathist), he owed his success largely to his appeal to the Sunni Arab electorate, who have felt largely disenfranchised ever since the US booted out Saddam's regime and then oversaw the installation of a Shia-dominated government, led since 2006 by the current (and now very disgruntled) prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki.  You can be sure that the Shia of southern Iraq (and in the Sadr City section of Baghdad), who were so brutalized under Saddam's regime, are wary of Allawi.  Yet,  if Allawi is to have any hope of success, he will need to bring to his side at least one group with a largely religious Shii orientation, as well as the Kurdish parties of the north.  One possibility for him would be to split off from al-Maliki's mostly Shii State of Law bloc the Sadrist movement of Muqtada al-Sadr, who (like Allawi) is supposedly an Iraqi nationalist who favors a strong central government in Baghdad. Muqtada has a bone to pick with al-Maliki, an erstwhile ally who abandoned him and turned the Iraqi army loose on the Sadrist militias in Basra a few years ago.  On the other hand, Muqtada has spent most of the last few years in Iran, and his links to the Iranian leadership are obvious.  How Allawi (who campaigned on a very anti-Iran stance) deals with that will be interesting.

If Allawi is unable to put together a coalition, then Maliki just may be able to remain in power, but only by cobbling together a coalition that would be predominantly Shii, comprising both his own State of Law party (and remember, he hails from the religious Da'wa party) and the Iraqi National Alliance, which includes the Shii religious party known as the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (headed by Ammar al-Hakim, like Muqtada al-Sadr, the scion of a prominent  religious Shii lineage) as well as the Sadrists.  Such a bloc coming to power, however, would perpetuate the current Shii dominance (as well as the close ties to Iran) and likely enrage the Sunnis who supported Allawi and who would feel once again left out.

In any event, Iraq is facing what will likely be several months of political violence (note Friday's bombing in Diyala province, which killed more than 40), with Maliki remaining the prime minister of a caretaker government.  Some will blame Maliki for allowing the violence; Maliki will blame Baathist elements (read: Allawi's supporters - i.e., Sunnis) for it; and many will plead for the US to keep its forces in Iraq, even as they move toward the August withdrawal deadline.  Mr. Obama will be under a lot of pressure - as if Mr. Netanyahu was giving him enough headaches already.

Thomas Ricks wrote that the Iraq war may be only halfway over, at best; and the former US ambassador, Ryan Crocker, stated that the most memorable events of the Iraq war hadn't even happened yet.  I fear they may be correct - and that the catastrophe of George W. Bush's (remember him?) "liberation" of Iraq has by no means played itself out.  But as the US pulls out, if Iraq goes further south, you can bet that many on the Republican side of the aisle will start to point the finger at Mr. Obama as the president who "lost Iraq" after Bush's "Surge" had "won" it.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Petraeus climbs down, and the US antes up

New York Congresswoman Nita Lowey, chairwoman of the US House appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, tells the Jerusalem Post:
 “Bibi has the support of Congress. It is solid. It is secure.”

In a sign of additional support for Israel and its government, as of Thursday afternoon well over half of the House of Representatives had lent their names to a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton affirming their support for the US-Israel relationship and urging the two countries to quietly resolve any differences.
Lowey also asserted that there is no threat to the $3 billion in aid that Israel receives from the US.

Meanwhile, General Petraeus has decided to clarify his statements about Israel's policies endangering the lives of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.  According to Haaretz,
Petraeus told reporters yesterday that the report, which he claimed had been taken out of context, had been drafted because "...there was a perception at times that America sides with Israel and so forth. And I mean, that is a perception. It is there. I don't think that's disputable.

"But I think people inferred from what that said and then repeated it a couple of times and bloggers picked it up and spun it," he added. "And I think that has been unhelpful, frankly."
Add to this
  • a report yesterday that US arms-makers have made another multi-billion dollar deal with the IDF
  • the line of US senators and congressmen who lined up for the appropriate kowtowing at the recently concluded AIPAC conference
  • the prominence of Christian Zionists at that conference - a group whose zealotry about Israel no politician in his/her right mind can take on these days without likely fatal repercussions at the ballot box . . . .
and it's obvious that Obama can push back only so hard against Netanyahu without his support crumbling in Congress.  Obama has pushed back about as hard as he can.  But nothing has really come of it.

The "peace process" is going nowhere.  The "two-state solution" is toast - Netanyahu really doesn't want to stop settlement building, in either the West Bank or Jerusalem; politically, he couldn't do so without committing political suicide.  Christian Zionists don't want him to stop, don't want the US to stop him, and could vote out of office too many of Obama's supporters if they chose to back him in a consistently tougher stance.

And as long as the US insists on its commitment to Israel's security, Netanyahu - or anyone else who might succeed him - knows he has, ultimately, time on his side.

In the end, the US will do nothing to bring about a truly just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.  It's up to the rest of the world.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Condi Rice: "We didn't know what we were doing"

OK, I take a few liberties with her exact words.  Here's the quote (from the al-Jazeera report) from a speech she made at the Chinese University of Hong Kong:
"We didn't understand how broken Iraq was as a society and we tried to rebuild Iraq from Baghdad out. And we really should have rebuilt Iraq outside Baghdad in . . . .  We should have worked with the tribes. We should have worked with the provinces. We should have smaller projects than the large ones that we had."
So, eight years later, with at least 95,000 Iraqis killed (and probably more), as well as more than 4000 US soldiers . . . now you tell us, Dr. Rice, that you really had no idea what you and your husband (Does anybody else remember that little slip of her tongue?  On camera, no less?) boss were getting into when you decided to "shock and awe" the Iraqis into what you hoped would be the long embrace of US domination.

If I might channel Sarah Palin . . . gee, how's that workin' out for you now?

Friday, March 19, 2010

More on the Taliban's persistence in Helmand

In the LA Times, the AP's Kathy Gannon quotes former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer on the Taliban presence in Helmand and Marja:
"As long as we have 10,000 folks on the ground and open the spigot of greenbacks the success will continue.  The U.S.-NATO-Karzai team will also get a boost from the large part of the media ... who will take a transitory local success and extrapolate it into a nationwide, permanent turning of the tide. How many times did we see that in Vietnam and in Iraq? How many times did the Soviets trumpet the same kind of victory in Afghanistan?" . . . ."Is it crippling or even hurtful (to the Taliban) over the long term? No," Scheuer said, citing multiple attacks in Kabul on Feb. 28, a day after the provincial government hoisted its flag in Marjah's town center, that underscored the Taliban's ability to strike throughout the country.
"I think the U.S. and NATO can make inroads and win tactical victories with conventional forces in Kandahar or most any other place they want to go in Afghanistan with big forces, but so what?" Scheuer said. "We do not have a tenth of the forces necessary to be everywhere at once and apply a nationwide strategy — even if we had one." [my emphasis]

And says the former governor of Helmand:
"The Taliban are not gone. They have only gone to the other districts of Grishk and Sangin," said Akhundzada, whose family has ruled the province for much of the past two decades.

"The administration of Helmand is generally corrupt and nothing is changing in Marjah, no signs of reform with the latest appointment," Akhundzada said. "It doesn't matter if you have thousands and thousands of NATO troops, you will still have Taliban in Helmand."
Highly respected journalist Ahmed Rashid, who wrote perhaps the definitive work on the Taliban, recently argued (in a WaPo op-ed) that the US need to talk with the Taliban.  Let's hope the White House is listening.  There simply is no viable military solution to Afghanistan's woes.

The Afghan tar baby?

The WaPo reports today that the Taliban have made a comeback in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz, where they threaten NATO supply lines - and that part of their strategy may be "stepping up operations in the north in a bid to force U.S. forces to spread out and thus dilute their effectiveness."

Add to that the reports that the Taliban are still intimidating people in Marja, in Helmand province; they're not just going away, and the US may not have enough troops there to ensure security.  Without that, then what's the point?

All of which has me wondering: How soon before Gen. McChrystal - or perhaps John McCain/Joe Lieberman - begin to suggest that the current "surge" in Afghanistan is not big enough, and that July 2011 as a prospective start-withdrawal date is too ambitious?

And add to this the suggestions of (among others) Thomas Ricks that the US needs to maintain a large military presence in Iraq for quite a few years . . .

Monday, March 15, 2010

Can Obama Stand Firm against Netanyahu this time?

US presses Israel over East Jerusalem settlement row - thus reports the BBC, with other outlets now quoting Israeli ambassador Michael Oren  about the worst crisis in US-Israel relations in 35 years, and a crisis of "historic proportions."  You can bet that Obama is under a lot of heat from the Israel lobby to make nice with Mr. Netanyahu and patch things up by climbing down from this confrontation.

Two things to bear in mind though:
  • Obama's remaining credibility with the Palestinian leadership and the "Arab street" is on the line.  If he doesn't stand up to the pressure this time (as opposed to how the White House wilted in the face of Israel's protests over the Goldstone Report), he's toast as far as any "peace process" is concerned.
  • He now has the Petraeus card to play - to wit, the sainted General's reported questioning of Israel's real value as a strategic ally of the US.  As Richard Beeston put it in the Times of London:
If America’s unwavering support for Israel is endangering the lives of US troops in Kandahar or Baghdad, then the Jewish state has a problem.
Petraeus has been the darling of the Fox News triumphalist right for years.  If he has indeed raised the question, they're not going to dismiss it easily.

Iraq War Triumphalism Ignores a Key Matter: Dead Civilians

On a day when the news banners are bemoaning David Beckham's surgery, David Corn provides a needed reality check.

Iraq War Triumphalism Ignores a Key Matter: Dead Civilians -- Politics Daily

Reagan on the $50 bill?!

Noted historian Sean Wilentz writes in Sunday's NY Times to oppose the proposed replacing of Ulysses Grant's face on the US $50 bill with that of Ronald Reagan.  Wilentz ought to know whereof he speaks: he's just published a history of the Reagan era.  And he also notes how Grant has recently enjoyed a revival of sorts.

Revival or no - Grant's achievements as Civil War general and president far outshine those of Reagan, IMO.  And even if Grant's presidency was marked by corruption, Reagan's was hugely flawed by (1) his dealing with Saddam Hussein  during the Iran-Iraq war, as part of which he essentially winked at Saddam's genocidal treatment of the Kurds of northern Iraq (in particular, his chemical-gas bombing of Halabja); and (2) the Iran-Contra scandal, which marked Reagan as an asleep-at-the-switch leader (and, some would say, liar) who was curiously forgetful of some major misdeeds taking place under his nose. 

Too many Americans are already clueless about the history of their country.  Let's not make it worse by allowing all the insipid hagiography surrounding Reagan to disrespect a 19th-century president of greater achievement.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Biden condemns Israel's plans to build housing in east Jerusalem. And then . . .?

Very harsh word, "condemn," in this diplomatic context.  Glad that Biden used it.  This was truly one of those "in your face" moves of the kind that the Israelis have resorted to - either diplomatically or militarily - for many years.

But now what?  Will Biden simply proceed on his visits, etc., as scheduled?  Will this go down as another Obama-era hissy fit, to be quickly forgotten with sweet words of "we will never abandon you" to Israel?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Netanyahu stakes a claim to Jordan Valley

Jerusalem Mayor Delays Plan to Raze Palestinian Homes | Middle East | English

This story is already a few days old - but as welcome as was the decision to delay razing Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, I'm very concerned with Netanyahu's decision that Israel will not relinquish its illegal settlements in the Jordan Valley. He cites strategic necessity. That's crap. What he's doing is rendering an already unlikely Palestinian state in the West Bank more or less impossible. It would be entirely surrounded, and with no control over its borders.

So, the humiliation continues. That Netanyahu can speak of a serious Israeli interest in achieving peace through negotiations, even as he summarily makes such decisions the pre-determine the shape of any future Palestinian state, beggars belief. That the US and most of its allies let him get away with it tells us that Obama's celebrated outreach to Muslims wordlwide was made with alligator arms.

New Afghan Chief in Marja Has Criminal Record [?!]

WE sure can pick some winners, can't we?

Turns out that Abdul Zahir, who was installed as Marja's mayor at the cost of several American and at least 12 local civilian lives - as well as the lives of dozens of "Taliban" (terrorists? resistance fighters? patriots?) - was convicted (after he'd confessed) of trying to stab his son to death during his long exile in Germany (where was a hotel and laundry worker = great qualifications to be mayor, no?) , and served some time in prison.  Zahir's comments?
'I was not a killer. I was not a smuggler. ... I didn't commit any crime,'' Zahir told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Friday evening. He said allegations of a criminal record were ''all a lie . . . .  This news is coming from those people who are against me.  They are against my relations with the foreigners. They want to sabotage me. They don't want such a person to serve the people, who has good relations with Americans, British, and foreigners.'' 
You have to believe that the the US+NATO commanders are having an "OH SHIT!" moment right about now - but they're keeping cool for the press.  Quoth Admiral Gregory Smith (NATO's PR guy): "Zahir . . . is doing good work down there."

Ahmadinejad: 9-11 a Fabrication

These are the kind of truly stupid utterances that bring us all closer to a war with Iran (which would, by the way, according to most war-gamed scenarios, cause the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to pale in comparison).  Mr. Ahmadinejad is entitled to believe what he wants - but for a major world leader to make such statements is incredibly irresponsible.  He has to know that it gives all those across the planet who fear Iran's motives and intentions, even more reason for that fear.  And he just refilled the ammo locker of those (most prominently, Mr. Netanyahu and his neocon pro-Likud echo chorus here in the US) who are itching to attack Iran.

Unfortunately, Reuters also perpetuates in this report the false assertion that Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be "wiped off the map."  As Juan Cole most prominently has pointed out, the correct translation of his words was to claim that Israel would "disappear from the pages of history."  (And in selecting those words, A. was simply repeating a comment of the Ayatollah Khomeini quite a few years ago.)

Monday, March 1, 2010

"Iraqcracy" - like Tammany Hall, Daley's Chicago?

Nice NYT reporting on Iraqi electioneering - but with Iraqi helicopters overhead, and US Apache helicopters circling over those, and people being ordered to attend rallies . . .  I have to wonder: what's to come of it?  And for this, perhaps a million Iraqis killed or maimed, millions more dislocated internally or in foreign exile, more than 4000 US military killed and tens of thousands of American lives destroyed, and mega-billions of dollars - desperately needed back home - up in smoke.

When it's all said and done - and we still won't reach that point for a long time to come, if ever - will it all have been (as Madeleine Albright once said of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children killed by post-1991 sanctions) "worth it"?

Iraq's elections: coming none too soon?

The AP reports that Iraqi civilian deaths from war-related violence has jumped significantly over the last month, from 177 in January to 255 in February.  Tensions are high across the country: Sunni extremists continue to launch terror attacks that kill people on an almost daily basis; Sunni politicians deemed to have been to cozy with Saddam's Baath regime are being denied the opportunity to run in the elections; Shii groups in the south are accusing each other of cheating.

Of course, most of America has been glued to the Olympics, or maybe checking into how the "troops" are managing in Afghanistan.  Iraq has been consigned to yesterday's news; the country has moved on; and anyway, what are a couple of hundred Iraqis killed in a month?  Doesn't everyone know that the Surge fixed everything there?  (Dick Cheney would even have us send a group hug to W. to thank him for how well Iraq is turning out.)

Perhaps those folks need to look to Iraq's north, and remember that major issues dividing Arabs and Kurds there have been repeatedly kicked down the road since 2005, but that those issues are still there, only getting worse.  The CSM reports on how what could have been a major dust-up was only narrowly averted only days ago in the Nineveh governorate.  Now, Kurdish president Massoud Barzani says the governor of the province, a Sunni Arab from a party that some see as too close to the Baath,  will be arrested if he enters Kurdish-controlled areas. The governor runs a province with a large Kurdish population, yet refuses to appoint more Kurds to official posts; the Kurds, in protest, refuse to attend provincial council meetings.

Barzani went on to describe the governor as a "criminal" and said a warrant would be issued for his arrest in connection with an incident this month involving US forces. Things were made worse by the local US military commander, who seems to have poorly gauged just how high the tensions have been raised.  His insensitivity seems mirrored in the CSM quote from a US military official, who brusquely, even contemptuously, tossed off the remark that
“He is the governor - as much as they hate his guts, he is the governor.  The fact that they hate his guts is immaterial.”
How much you wanna bet that this gentle soul has never heard of (Sunni Baathist) Saddam's genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds during the late 1980s, or of the town of Halabja, where Saddam's forces dropped chemical weapons that killed hundreds of Kurds?  Decades of mistrust underlie the tensions in Iraq's north.  They're not going to be overcome by a US injunction of "Hey, that's tough, but who cares now?"

A lot is riding on these elections in 7 days.  They're not going to be pleasant, and the aftermath is likely to be very tense - especially, as was recently reported, some electoral skullduggery is afoot.

Operation Moshtarak was for show

Interesting comments from Gen. McChrystal today in the wake of the Moshtarak operation in the city of Marja.  The "property," he notes, is "not particularly valuable. The operation is about changing everyone's mind-set. . . .  We're trying to convince everybody, okay, we've now figured this out. To convince them, "now we're winning, and we're going to win."

I can't say that McChrystal's comments are very well-calculated to win hearts and minds on the home front, especially among the families of the US soldiers who lost their lives in the effort.

And I can't help being struck by the parallel between his comments and those of the British commanders and political officers during the Mesopotamian campaign of World War I (which I'm writing about right now as I come very near to completing the manuscript of my book).  In their various reports, they harp constantly on the need to ensure British "prestige" by keeping on the offensive (even when they were being threatened by Tigris flooding or had outrun their supply lines).  The view was that the locals  would lose respect for them if they sat back too long to regroup.

McChrystal's Moshtarak is similarly a show of force - in its way, good public diplomacy, actually - and the locals will surely have developed respect (and I'm sure fear was part of the message intended as well) for the US forces' ability.  But the truly heavy lifting is in the future - in building some kind of trust between the locals and their own national government (and I truly hold out very little real hope for that), and in the upcoming operation in Kandahar.

US Marines will stay in Marja for months

So reports the WaPo.  Question: how many months?  Past July 2011?  Will that be long enough?


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