Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Campaign to Pardon Jonathan Pollard

There seems to be a steadily growing chorus (including Mr. Netanyahu's government) clamoring for the release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, a Naval Intelligence analysis who in 1986 was convicted of handing over to the Israeli government highly classified information.  (And this, apparently, after a series of incidents  in which he tried to set up deals with agents of other countries.)  By all accounts, the damage that he did to US military intelligence was huge.  Philip Giraldi, a former counter-terrorist expert and analyst with the CIA, puts it plainly:

Pollard did more damage to the United States than any spy in history.  And it was genuine damage, not just a mass of documents that had been routinely classified.  Pollard’s Israeli handler, aided by someone in the White House who has up until now evaded arrest, was able to ask for specific classified documents by name and number.  The Soviets obtained US war plans, passed to them by the Israelis in exchange for money and free emigration of Russian Jews without any regard for the damage it was doing to the United States.  The KGB was able to use the mass of information to reconstruct US intelligence operations directed against it and a number of Americans and US agents paid with their lives.  Pollard also revealed to the Israelis and Soviets the technical and human source capabilities that US intelligence did and did not have, which is the most critical information of all as it underlies all information collection efforts.  Compounding the problem, the United States has never actually been able to accurately ascertain all of the damage done by Pollard because the Israeli government has refused to cooperate in the investigation and has not returned the documents that were stolen.

Israel granted him citizenship in the 1990s, even as he was in prison.  A public square in Israel is named after him.

Yet a few days ago, the LA Times published an op-ed piece by Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan administration official, pleading for Pollard's release on essentially humanitarian grounds, as well as on the basis of the claim made by former CIA head James Woolsey (one of the more extreme neocons and American Likudniks of the 1990s and post 9-11 era, I might note, as well as a member of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy - DC's most pro-Zionist think-tank and the Project for the New American Century) that the information Pollard sold never made it into the hands of Soviet agents, as Giraldi claims.  In fact, Bill Clinton came close to making a deal with Israel to release Pollard in hopes of advancing a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians - only to back off when CIA chief George Tenet threatened to resign.

Obama is getting pressure to make a similar deal, for similar reasons.  He shouldn't.  For one thing, whatever Obama might get for Pollard's release won't be anywhere near enough to produce an actual deal. (Netanyahu might offer some prolongation of the already expired settlement freeze; but don't hold your breath.)  Meanwhile, a US citizen who spied for a foreign power that claims to be a US ally, and whose actions imperiled US security and possibly caused the deaths of CIA assets, would be welcomed to Israel with open arms and honored as a national hero.  Some of Obama's current foes might praise him for supposedly doing the right thing, but I suspect that far more of his foes, and his friends (including members of the current US intelligence establishment) would revile him for giving into Netanyahu, who's already shown himself quite capable of dissing an American president.  Any shreds of credibility that Obama might still have as a strong leader on the international scene would vanish.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Glimpse of Baghdad's Future?

Glimpse of Baghdad's future? Some liberalization on the streets, but militants ready to be called out? As in Hizbollah in Lebanon?

Obama undercuts his promise - and "American Values" - again

The AP reports that the US has decided to exempt several countries - including Yemen and Sudan - from its law penalizes countries for using child soldiers (a law, BTW, that Senator Obama supported as it made its way through Congress).  The rationale evidently is that enforcement would contravene US "national interests."

Those of you who've read Bob Woodward's recent book Obama's Wars may have been impressed - as I was - by how hard President-elect Obama was struck by the top-secret assessments he received from the CIA.  Indeed, they would be sobering for anyone.  Yet, this was a candidate who made change, and a return to America's "true values," a rallying cry and centerpiece of his campaign.  Those "true" American values, we were raised to believe, included respect for human rights and, implicitly, a refusal to be complicit in violating them.  

Well, Guantanamo has yet to be closed, the Obama administration has used the cover of "national interests" to deny terror suspects the rights of due process of law - and now, in the pursuit of "national interests," is acceding to the use of child soldiers in some of the most conflicted and poverty-stricken countries on the planet.

Yes We Can?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

WaPo: U.S. military campaign to topple resilient Taliban hasn't succeeded

After earlier reports touting the wonderful success US forces have had recently in smashing the Taliban (indeed, according to Carlotta Gall in the NYT, "routing the Taliban"), we're told by the Defense Dept today that the US has not succeeded in toppling the Taliban.  Obviously, not the news the public wanted to hear.  But, on the other hand, it certainly prepares us all for the announcement forthcoming from NATO early next month, at least according to Leslie Gelb, who's in a position to know: the departure date for "combat troops" will be 2014, much longer than the July 2011 start-to-withdraw date that Obama promised months ago.  As Gelb notes, this helps several people, on several scores: Karzai won't be facing his predecessor's fate of swinging from a lamp post quite so early, Obama won't need to deal with the accusation of "cutting and running" from "the terrorists" when (if?) he runs for re-election in 2012, and Petraeus gets the extension he's been angling for all along.

Of course, how all this gets funded with a probably new Republican-heavy Congress that will brook no tax increases - or cut in corporate profits for Raytheon, General Dynamics, or other weapons-industry Republican stalwarts - remains to be seen.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Those Frisky Kentucky Republicans

Courtesy of Salon, a story (with video) of how Rand Paul supporters wrestled a young woman demonstrator to the ground and then stomped on her head:

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Other Iraqi Documents in US's possession

From NPR's site comes this interesting revelation:

Saad Eskandar, head of the Iraq National Library and Archives, says he is trying to persuade the U.S. government to release another trove of documents. These detail atrocities during the Saddam Hussein era.

Eskandar says much of this database would be accessible to Iraqi academics and lawyers, but not to average people. He says while people have the right to know what happened to their relatives, how they might act on information from the Saddam data or the WikiLeaks data could be dangerous.

"If these records mention names of those who killed or the name of this battalion of this army units, or police, this will lead to social chaos, we don't want this," he says. 

As one Iraqi put it, "In our country, we don't sue someone when we feel like we've been wronged. We take revenge."

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The US's Imperial Overstretch

Tony Karon's recent Time mag essay on the implications of Britain's decision to shrink its military is a must-read, if only because of his conclusion that a similar fate awaits the US down the road:
the message for the U.S. in Britain's contraction may be a lot more sobering than simply the retrenchment of military capability by its most trusted ally. Britain's case may have illustrated the iron law that fiscal deficits inevitably corrode a nation's ability to project power beyond its shores. . . .

The Pentagon maintains more than 800 bases beyond the 50 states, and stations close to 300,000 troops abroad. The 2009 U.S. defense budget of $660 billion was more than the combined defense expenditures of the next 17 countries on the spending table. And that budget continues to rise steadily, growing at 4.8% for 2010, a year in which the U.S. economy's GDP growth is likely to be less than 2%.

Militarily, the U.S. is the British Empire of the 21st century — and then some. But it is policing the world on the back of a colossal $1.5 trillion budget deficit and a staggering $13.5 trillion national debt. Its economy is in the grip of a deep, and possibly long-term, crisis that shows little sign of reducing an unemployment rate close to 10%, let alone being in a position to make the desperately needed investments in everything from education to infrastructure necessary to restore long-term competitiveness.

Karon also notes - and if only the rest of America were reading him - that the millions of voters clamoring for drastic spending cuts and tax cuts (including the Tea Party's wannabe patriots; I'm not convinced they understand the true meaning of that term) seem never to include the military in that demand.  Yet, as Karon again notes, "The Congressional Research Service calculated last September that the U.S. has spent $1.2 trillion on military operations since the 9/11 attacks, and the ongoing commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan are costing the U.S. more than $3 billion a week."

All of this puts me in mind of a then-celebrated (when it was published more than 20 years ago), but now curiously forgotten, book by the historian Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which traced the rise and decline of the West's great powers over the last 500 years.  He spotlighted precisely in that book what the US is swirling down toward right now: imperial overstretch that overreaches economic capacity and leads inexorably to decline and to eventually being superseded by a new rising power.  Of course, Tea Partiers and the more chauvinistic elements among both Republicans and Democrats - believers all in the gospel of American exceptionalism - would blow off Kennedy's thinking (and for that matter, Cassandras such as Andrew Bacevich) as old-school negativism, and even unpatriotic. 

More's the pity if such people get elected into office come early November.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Conflicting signals out of Afghanistan

As the date for Obama's December reassessment of the Afghan operation approaches, I can't help but be stunned by the conflicting reports about the situation there, and fearful about what it may portend.

Today, the NYT's Carlotta Gall has an almost breathlessly reported piece about how "coalition forces" are routing the Taliban in the ongoing Kandahar operation.  Gall reported earlier this week that this operation is a big test of the Afghan military's effectiveness in dealing with security threats.  Now, she asserts, the operation is meeting great success, due in no small part to an extremely effective "new" rocket system that, she reports, is accurate to within a meter, and that has forced many Taliban back over the border into Pakistan.  But, on the other hand, Derrick Crowe (who accuses Gall of being a war stenographer for the US military command in Afghanistan - and her report does indeed  rely heavily on US military spokesmen's statements) reminds us that this is the same rocket system that was used months ago in the Marja campaign, but had to be taken out of service after US Marines killed a bunch of civilians with it.  Who ya gonna believe?  At this point the jury is still out, but I have to remember that Petraeus wants to put news of success out there, to demoralize the Taliban, ratchet up good feelings about his operation - and his leadership of it, and, quite possibly, to help make the case for prolonging the US adventure there well beyond Obama's stated July 2011 date for starting a withdrawal.

All of this may provide some context for another development: Afghan president Hamid Karzai's decision to kick out of Afghanistan all private security contractors.  According to the CSM, their operations were seriously threatening the US military effort.  But the WaPo's Rajiv Chandrasekaran now reports that because of Karzai's decision, US-led reconstruction projects are closing down because their leader simply refuse to continue their operations without adequate security to protect them.

And that, in turn, undercuts the entire counter-insurgency strategy favored by Petraeus:
Programs to assist Afghan farmers and improve local government, which are vital to the overall U.S. effort to stabilize the volatile southern and eastern parts of the country, are among those that will be affected, the officials said.

The consequences of the ban on development firms employing private guards "will be catastrophic," said one U.S. official involved in the issue. "If these projects grind to a halt, we might as well go home. They are essential to the counterinsurgency strategy."

Another U.S. official said the ban would affect about $1.5 billion in ongoing reconstruction work. More than 20,000 Afghans will lose jobs in road-building and energy projects alone, the official said. . . .

The ban "also applies to private contractors who guard supply convoys for the military bearing food, fuel and other essential supplies, as well as to international banks and other private entities whose services support reconstruction work."

The Afghan government wants development workers and their projects to be guarded by police officers and soldiers, a goal that diplomats and aid workers say is unrealistic because the local government security forces are corrupt, ill-trained and not numerous enough to do the job. The development firms have also said they would be unable to insure their employees - a key prerequisite for operations in a war zone - if they are unable to employ private guards. . . .

Of particular concern to U.S. and NATO military officials is the effect of a shutdown on counterinsurgency operations in Kandahar province, where USAID's agriculture and governance programs are supposed to be implemented immediately after U.S. Army units clear areas of insurgents.

"This is the soft power that works hand in hand with the military's hard power," another development executive said. "You can't do counterinsurgency without these programs."

Something's gotta give.  

Meanwhile, the Financial Times notes the attention that Petraeus and the Pentagon are directing to a claimed uptick in contacts between the Karzai government and Taliban leaders - contacts that supposedly are evidence that the coalition's new tactics of pounding the be-jeezus out of the Taliban are working.  But the FT notes: 

. . . sceptics argue the US has an interest in publicising even the most tentative of contacts to provide a more optimistic narrative around the unpopular war ahead of a Nato summit next month and a White House review in December.  There is still little confidence in Kabul that the strands of secret negotiations and exploratory ­dialogue can coalesce into a peace process. . . .

There are also questions over how far a US offensive in Kandahar province, the Taliban’s spiritual birthplace, will succeed in convincing the Taliban that it must negotiate. In an indicator of the intensity of the fighting, the International Committee of the Red Cross said the number of patients admitted with gunshot or blast wounds to a hospital it supports in Kandahar has hit almost 1,000 in August and September compared with about 500 last year.

Reports from Kandahar suggest many fighters have retreated into havens in Pakistan. Even US officials have acknowledged that Mr Obama’s stated intention to start withdrawing US forces in July next year has led some Taliban hard-liners to believe they can outlast the west. Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban ambassador, dismissed the idea that Mr Omar would negotiate with the Afghan government as “comical”.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Prescription for Disaster: Zalmay Khalilzad on Pakistan

For a man whom the Bush administration touted as a star diplomat, Zalmay Khalilzad comes across (in his op-ed in today's NY Times) as not much better than a smack-em-down bully when it comes to the US and Pakistan. It's widely known that elements in the Pakistani military - especially the military intel branch known as ISI - have been sponsoring  the activities of some Afghan Taliban groups, and that those groups have found easy shelter in Pakistan.  ZK's solution?  Get tough:
The United States should demand that Pakistan shut down all sanctuaries and military support programs for insurgents or else we will carry out operations against those insurgent havens, with or without Pakistani consent. Arguments that such pressure would cause Pakistan to disintegrate are overstated. Pakistan’s institutions, particularly the country’s security organs, are sufficiently strong to preclude such an outcome.
Overstated? Really? Here's a country
  • reeling in the aftermath of the most catastrophic floods in its history, with millions of poor villagers dislocated, struggling for food and shelter that their government has proved itself woefully unable to provide
  • aflame with anger and suspicion toward the United States, which (in their view) dragged their country into a war more America's than Pakistan's and which is compounding that insult by ramping up drone attacks that kill dozens of Pakistani civilians
  • saddled with a highly corruptible political leadership (led by Mr. Zardari, the infamous "Mr. Ten Percent") that represents the country's feudal elite vastly more than its urban and rural masses
  • trying to overcome a legacy (promoted by the Mr. Bush for whom ZK worked) of dictatorship by the same "security organs" (i.e., the military) upon whom, he says, the US can rely to ensure Pakistan's stability if the US intervenes inside the country.

Meanwhile, says ZK, if Pakistan responds to such US intervention by closing the convoy routes on which the US military in Afghanistan so heavily relies, the US can abandon those routes and make more use of the northern routes as well as air transport.  Does he not realize that, even with the Pakistani routes open, the costs of supplying the US war in Afghanistan are almost prohibitively expensive, and that losing the Pakistan routes would increase that expense almost exponentially?

When does the bill for all of this come due?  On whose shoulders will it fall?  What is the man thinking?

The NY Times Editorial Board Instructs Iraq's Politicians

My goodness, it's so simple, according to the NYT editorial: Iraq's Shii politicians must make sure that Iraq's new government will be inclusive, with proper Sunni representation - and the Kurds must hold off on endorsing Nuri al-Maliki and use their "clout" to ensure the emergence of the afore-mentioned inclusive government.  Meanwhile, the US must press all sides to make a deal.

Is this the Rodney King school of editorializing?  As in, "Why can't we all just get along together?"

In a perfect world, peopled with love-filled, selfless, angelic beings, such an injunction might be all it would take.  But the Times does its readers a disservice by offering only the most succinct of hints about the long history of mistrust and violence that has created the fault lines within Iraqi society and politics.  At times throughout that history (including, ironically, the early years of the government dominated by the now much-reviled Baath party), those fault lines could be scabbed over.  But consistently during that history, it has also taken very little picking at that scab to reopen the wounds.

The NYT's stance here is one that I've seen consistently among my many provincially American students over the years: why can't those people just get along?  If Americans can do it (well, at least after 1865 - a date the significance of which deplorably few Americans, especially young ones, understand anymore), why can't everybody?

Nice sentiments, NYT.  But don't make it sound so simple.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Claims of Progress in Afghan War

I recommend Josh Partlow's report in the WaPo for the purposes of spin assessment.  Partlow's report reeks of cynicism about the US military's pronouncement of progress, especially with so much evidence to the contrary.  And as he notes, the Obama report card on the Afghan war is upcoming.  The Pentagon and field commanders are surely going to spin a case for their own success and effectiveness . . . and, ergo, increased funding.  I've selectively excerpted some portions below:

With a year-end report card coming due, top U.S. military and civilian officials in Afghanistan have begun to assert that they see concrete progress in the war against the Taliban, a sharp departure from earlier assessments that the insurgency had the momentum.

Despite growing numbers of Taliban attacks and American casualties, U.S. officials are building their case for why they are on the right track, ahead of the December war review ordered by President Obama. They describe an aggressive campaign that has killed or captured hundreds of Taliban leaders and more than 3,000 fighters around the country in recent months, and has pressured insurgents into exploring talks with the Afghan government. At the same time, they say, the Afghan army is bigger and better trained than it has ever been. . . .

As political pressure mounts for evidence that the United States and its allies are not hopelessly mired in Afghanistan, military officials here say the time is past to deplore deficiencies of manpower or strategy. Obama's 30,000 new troops are on the ground. The United States' most celebrated general is at the helm. And the deadline Obama set to begin withdrawal is nine months away.

Upbeat assessments had become more common here since Gen. David H. Petraeus took over in July, but the refrain grew louder after Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates sounded a note of hope during a trip to Afghanistan early last month.

Yet even as U.S. officials here echo Gates's assessment, they have offered relatively little evidence to back up their claims of progress, and many still hesitate to say that successes against the Taliban in certain pockets add up to the war's pendulum swinging their way. Indeed, one week last month broke the nine-year war's record for violence, as the Taliban sought to ambush parliamentary elections: NATO forces logged more than 1,600 attacks nationwide, 500 more than in the previous worst week.

Asked for specific instances of progress, NATO spokeswoman Maj. Sunset Belinsky cited Marja, the district in Kandahar where Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal sent troops in January with the hopes of a quick victory that could build momentum for a broader push in the province. The Taliban proved resilient in Marja, and Afghan governance was slow to take hold, but Belinsky pointed out that the district now has 300 trained policemen where there were none five months ago, as well as four new schools, including a high school that reopened after more than six years.

[But as the AP reported less than 2 weeks ago, the Marines deployed in Marja are still facing a "full-blown insurgency."]

Skeptics here counter such examples with accounts of ineffectual counterinsurgency efforts. Official corruption remains pervasive, and there is little tangible evidence of improved governance on a national scale, one of the main reasons the Taliban has won support. Relations between the United States and President Hamid Karzai's government are still fraught. Karzai's aides voice frustration with U.S. unwillingness to confront Pakistan more firmly on harboring insurgents. They have also repeatedly urged Petraeus to eliminate night raids and work to further reduce civilian casualties.

"This uncertainty, confusion and distrust is getting stronger and stronger now," said Shaida Mohammad Abdali, Afghanistan's deputy national security adviser. "The basic thing we should fix is to reestablish the trust."

U.S. military officials who say they see progress in the war also praise the development of the Afghan security forces, particularly the army, which has already surpassed its target of 134,000 members by the end of this month. In Kandahar, Afghan troops outnumber NATO forces for the first time, according to Wardak, the defense minister.

"We are practically in the lead of the operation," he said.

And see my post earlier today -  new operation unfolding there, with Afghan troops in the lead.  We'll see . . .

Big Test for Afghan Military?

The NY Times reports on a new military operation in the Kandahar region, the Taliban heartland, in which Afghan forces are said to be playing a major role.

This bears watching, especially after the reported failures of Afghan forces during an operation a few months ago, as well as the ongoing reports of fraud, corruption, and drug abuse in their ranks.  Add to that the fact that the Afghan army is dominated by Tajik and other non-Pashtun ethnic groups, and that they're being asked to (1) take on predominantly Pashtun fighters (2) in predominantly Pashtun communities, and that many commentators have noted that in going after the Taliban, the US has in fact inserted itself into an Afghani ethnic-based civil war . . .  one may conclude that the consequences of success or failure here may be significant.

And the timing is significant as well.  The mid-term elections are upon us.  The Democrats are evidently set to suffer substantial losses in both houses of Congress, but some signal of success for Obama's Afghan policy might mitigate some of those losses, even swing some crucial votes toward Democratic candidates (although the war in Afghanistan does indeed seem to be off most voters' radar).  Any success for Obama's policy is predicated upon ramping up an Afghan army that will be effective enough to enable the US to begin to pull its own forces out of there.

So much so, in fact, that I'd be careful to watch and see how much the reports of this operation will be spun to promote the "we're winning" trope.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

An Afghan's Thoughts on Marine "Kill Team"

Time Magazine has published a report on Afghan family members' reaction to the Marine squad that has been accused of targeting and killing Afghan men at random, and then trying to cover it up by adding appropriate stage props to the scene.  One of those killed was evidently a local village farmer who also served as the village's religious leader, or imam.  His wife witnessed his killing.

The article concludes by noting that the victim's father-in-law said that any punishment by a US court won't matter.
People in his village "hated" the Americans even before these killings, he explained, because of errant airstrikes and heavy-handed night operations into private homes. The deep anti-American sentiment, he adds, has only grown worse since their religious leader was murdered. "The Americans really love to kill innocent people," he says. "We don't have a court for [the accused soldiers], but [God] will give them the strongest punishment."

All of this reminds me of a couple of things:
  • One of my readers commented on my earlier post about the Marine general who's been put in command in Afghanistan - and who'd been quoted as telling his men that it was great fun to go shoot some people - by saying "Marines will be marines."  OK, these guys are US Army, not Marines - but they seem to have been inculcated nonetheless with the same "gung ho." 
  • Recent weeks have seen US forces in Afghanistan moving away from counterinsurgency (which entailed protecting and trying to partner with the locals) to a more "traditional" approach focused on killing the "enemy" and shooting things up.  Evidently Petraeus et al. realize that they don't have either the time or the trust in the central government that's needed for counterinsurgency to work.  (Mr. Obama seems to indeed be serious about starting some withdrawal of forces by next July.)

Which means, of course, that the dogs of war may well be off their choke-chain - and that soldiers who felt overly constrained by the previously laid-down rules of engagement may now be freer to cut loose - "get some," in current military parlance, or get some payback for buddies killed or wounded in the past months.  In a "theater" where the "bad guys" don't wear uniforms, where you know that the population at large resent your presence, or even hate you, but where you possess overwhelming fire power . . . we can expect a lot of civilians to be "lit up" - thereby stoking more anger, and more urgency in securing revenge.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Netanyahu to Obama: "In your face! . . ."

An old basketball expression for when a player slam-dunks against a defender.  Perfectly suitable for this occasion: as the LA Times headlines, "Israel OKs new homes in East Jerusalem, raising doubts about peace talks."

Raising doubts?  Gee, ya think?  Midterm elections are less than 3 weeks away.  Netanyahu has had Obama by the balls for months; just gave him a hard squeeze to remind him.

Did the US just provide a boost to the "one-eyed mullah"?

I am hardly a fan of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Sunni Pashtun religious leader whom US and Northern Alliance forces drove out of power in Afghanistan in late 2001 and who is now a prominent member of the "Quetta Shura" of Afghan Taliban leaders who are directing from Pakistan at least some elements of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.  Nor would I be at all happy to see him assume an official capacity in any new Afghan government that might emerge in some peace deal between the Karzai government and the "Taliban."

But is it wise for the US (as has been reported) to reject him as more or less automatically disqualified from any such involvement?  For one thing, whatever Americans' opinion of him, he commands great respect among thousands of Afghans (arguably, significantly more respect than is accorded to Hamid Karzai and his government). A year ago, an NYT report noted about him:

Rahimullah Yusufzai, of The News International, a Pakistani newspaper, who interviewed Mullah Omar a dozen times before 2001, called him “a man of few words and not very knowledgeable about international affairs.” But his reputed humility, his legend as a ferocious fighter against Soviet invaders in the 1980s, and his success in ending the lawlessness and bloody warlords’ feuds of the early 1990s cemented his power.

Secondly, any new Afghan government perceived to have been constructed according to US dictates (including, perhaps especially including, dictates that exclude Omar from power)  is going to have from the get-go a major strike against it - and in circumstances in which it will be crucial that as many Afghans as possible - including those whom the US views as religious extremists - are able to buy into it as a legitimate representative and protector of Afghan sovereignty.  And it seems hardly a stretch to believe that for the US to exclude him is only going to rally more support to his side, and cause the deaths and maimings of even more American/NATO troops along with the inevitable "collateral damage" to Afghan civilians.

Finally, isn't it time to cool it with the constant references to Mullah Omar as the "one-eyed leader" or (even worse) the "one-eyed mullah"?  Did we refer to Sammy Davis, Jr., as the "one-eyed performer"?  Or to Moshe Dayan, the eyepatch-wearing Israeli general and defense minister who was lionized in the US media during the 1950s and 1960s, as the "one-eyed commander"?  No - to have done so would have seemed crude and indecent, even discriminatory.  Yet we see that epithet constantly applied to Omar.  When combined with the title of mullah (which, of course, has been customarily prefixed with the adjective "mad" when applied to Iran's religious leadership), it surely conjures up an image of a weird, deformed, even cyclops-like raving fanatic.  It certainly works as wartime propaganda (just as did the World War I references to Germans as "Huns").  But it does nothing to shed some much needed light on who the Taliban, and their leaders and motives, truly are.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

More hasbara from Michael Oren

This propaganda from Israeli ambassador to the UN Michael Oren will run in Thursday's NY Times.  I only wish I had the time to give it the thorough deconstruction it deserves. Three points up front:
  • Since when did the Balfour Declaration achieve the status of international law?
  • Oren talks of the millions of Palestinians "residing" outside Israel.  No mention of how the Zionist forces terrorized and intimidated them into leaving in 1947-48?  Or of the subsequent occupation and colonization of the West Bank and Gaza (and the Golan) since 1967?
  • Is it internationally agreed that the Jewish people comprise a "nation"?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ryan Crocker: Turning the Page in Iraq(?)

New essay at the National Interest website.  Crocker, who was the US ambassador in Iraq during some of the most turbulent recent years there, reads the Iraq tea leaves very positively, but claims that if Iraq is to continue down that road, the US needs to stay there well after the current end-of-2011 deadline:
As Iraq moves toward the formation of a new government and we approach the final year of a deployed U.S. military presence under the terms of the 2008 security agreement, I believe it remains a strong possibility that the Iraqis will request an extension of our military presence. If they do, I hope we will respond positively. No one envisions a combat role for such forces. But they can provide critical assurance to Iraqis against internal and external security threats as Iraqi capabilities develop. For example, Iraq will not have main battle tanks, significant air-defense systems or combat-air capability for several years after 2011. Equally important, a significant U.S. presence is a political assurance to all Iraqis about their future at a time when critical compromises have to be made. We can turn a page in Iraq, but we must not close the book.

To say that no one envisions a combat role for US forces that might remain in station in Iraq seems a bit disingenuous.  Of course, no one in the US wants to see them have to engage - but that's precisely why the US wants them there, so they can, just in case.  The idea is to intimidate (even provoke?) Iran as much as possible, keep it surrounded (with big US bases already up in Afghanistan), and perhaps remind what's going to be a predominantly Shii leadership in Baghdad that the US is keeping an eye on them.

And the whole thing smacks of what the Brits did after World War I: occupy, install a new government that they could influence, and maintain a military presence.  In the end, as Britain's power waned (just as the US's power is waning now), that government came to a violent end, in large part because of its obvious ties to Britain.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Both Netanyahu and Abbas "playing" Obama?

Pretty sharp analysis by Victor Kotsev in Asia Times, in re the peace process du jour.  Kotsev notes how the two contending sides have been supporting each other's tricks on Obama's efforts:
Perhaps, in fact, both leaders have sensed Obama's weakness: the US administration publicly set peace in the Middle East as one of its top priorities and consequently implicitly declared its willingness to pay a high price for its achievement. By continuously playing brinkmanship, Netanyahu and Abbas are not only trying to squeeze more out of each other, but also are collectively squeezing the Americans.

It could also be argued that such a strategy constitutes a desperate attempt from both sides to keep America's attention (and aid) focused on the region. It is no secret that Obama wants a breakthrough on the Middle Eastern peace front to a large extent in order to concentrate more efficiently on other policy issues. An American shift away from the Levant is neither in Israeli nor in Palestinian interest, and one way to interpret the actions of both sides is as a pre-emption of such a development. Regardless whether this interpretation is correct, both Israelis and Palestinians are giving Obama a harder time than he likely ever anticipated.

"What Do We Have on the Ship That's Good?"

Thinking about the current state of US relations with Middle Eastern (and, more broadly, most Muslim-dominated) countries bring to mind (well, mine at least) a scene from the Ron Howard movie "Apollo 13," just after the on-board explosion cripples the spacecraft and the NASA controllers in Houston are scrambling for answers and a strategy.  (A scene that one might use as a metaphor for the American international experience after 9-11, when the toppling of the Twin Towers crippled our sense of secured invulnerability and set our foreign-policy establishment to likewise scrambling for answers.)  Ed Harris (portraying NASA mission-control chief Gene Krantz) turns to his colleagues and asks, "What do we have on the ship that's good?"

I look around at the cratered landscape of US foreign policy and have to ask that question.  Consider:

1. Our military intervention in Afghanistan is swirling down the commode, and taking with it the stinking mess that US credibility has become (as well as valuable American lives and treasure, all of which could be put to much better use back home).
2. Our putative allies in Pakistan hate our guts - thanks largely to spillover (drone strikes, Special Ops) from what we're doing in Afghanistan, as well as years of our supporting military dictators who thwarted popular movements toward democracy there.
3. Our ostensibly more than putative allies in Israel dissed our vice-president and are now dissing our president with increasing impunity and making the US into a laughing stock in the eyes of the world.
4. Despite our backing of pro-Western politicians in Lebanon, an organization that professes to hate the US has nonetheless emerged to wield effective veto power over that state's policy, and is about to welcome an Iranian leader who denies the Nazi Holocaust and intends to visit Lebanon's border to throw rocks toward Israel, despite the US's warnings and protests.
5.  Despite billions spent and more than 4000 Americans killed - as well as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis - American leverage in that country is diminishing at the same rate that Iranian leverage may be expanding (especially if, as seems likely, a Shii-dominated, largely Iranophile government is installed), and the democracy that the US tried to install may never really get off the ground.
6.  The publics of the "moderate" Arab countries - Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia - largely detest the US for its invasions of Muslim countries and its support of Israel.
7. The leaders of Turkey, a NATO ally of the US, are increasingly navigating away from the US's preferred policies in the region, even as anti-American feeling among the Turkish public is spiking (for the reasons, see above, #6)

Not much good on this ship. And it's hard to say that anything is looking up.

If you recall, the Apollo 13 astronauts were forced to spend a long period in frigid cold (which is about where US policy is right now), had to make some difficult course corrections, and then survived a fiery re-entry and dicey splashdown to eventually make it back to earth in what evidently came to be known as one of NASA's finest moments.  Of course, that required a large team of people working together to come up with creative solutions to solve many daunting problems in the face of possible disaster.

I wonder if the White House has a Netflix subscription?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Obama's Obeisance

It was bad enough several years ago watching George W. Bush, completely disregarding international law and decades of American diplomacy on the issue, award Ariel Sharon the large settlement blocs that Israel had established in the West Bank.  But to now be forced to watch the spectacle of an American president, for all intents and purposes, pleading with an Israeli prime minister to please, oh please, just give me 60 more days of your settlement freeze - only to be spurned and left stunned . . . .

I seem to recall writing here, many months ago, of my fear that Netanyahu, the operator that he is, might wind up eating shiny-bright Mr. Obama's lunch.  But when Obama took it to him early on, with his Cairo speech and his outreach to Iran, I was hoping that I'd be proven wrong.  Now, I'm not so sure I wasn't right to begin with.  The recent reports and analyses by Paul Richter in the LA Times and Jonathan Cook in The National (via make a strong case that Mr. Obama is embarrassing himself and trashing the US's credibility as either an honest broker or a force to be reckoned with in the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process." 

Monday, October 4, 2010

Afghan war stakes are higher than in Vietnam?

Thus pens an editorialist in USA Today, who claims that
Win or lose in Vietnam, life for most Americans was not going to change. There was no al-Qaeda equivalent intent on attacking the United States. . . .For all the problems in Afghanistan, we are not reliving Vietnam. This is something much, much worse.

I'm guessing the writer may be all of, like, 40 years old, max.  But, du-ude . . . . you don't remember "duck and cover," do you?  Maybe you've never even heard of it?

As I remember the 1960s and 1970s, the fear with which we were inculcated was that, if the Commies take Vietnam, the dominoes will begin to fall, inexorably (OK, I admit, I didn't know that word back then), and the Soviets will soon be knocking at our door, offering us the lovely option of "Red or dead,"  shooting us if we said we still believed in God. And if we refuse to submit, they have a bazillion nuclear-tipped ICBMs (that's Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, meine kinder) waiting to vaporize us - and then their millions of soldiers can sweep in and take over the entire universe.

Sounds ridiculous, like out of some comic book?  Maybe.  But we believed it, because our government told us it was the Truth.  It was Us or Them.

Still don't get it?  OK, hit Wikipedia, and look up Joe McCarthy, and while you're at it, Curtis LeMay.

Now our government (and those steeped-deeply-in-wisdom editorialists at USA Today) tells us that if we don't defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan (all maybe 150 of them), it will be the end of civilization as we know it.


Well, maybe it'll all be OK if our guys can first knock out all of Osama's nuclear-tipped ICBMs.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Henry Siegman on Netanyahu's Freeze Scam

Brave, incisive, and on the money, as is usual for Mr. Siegman.  Once again, Obama's weakness and/or lack of leverage are apparent.  Great take-away quote:

President Abbas should challenge Netanyahu to continue negotiations to reach agreement on a border in the next three months and declare his willingness to do so even if settlement construction continues. However, Netanyahu would have to promise that if no border agreement is reached within three months, there would be a total freeze of all settlement construction until a border agreement is achieved. At that point, Israel can build without restraint on its side of the border, and Palestinians will be able to do so on theirs.

The likelihood of Netanyahu agreeing to this is remote, but his rejection of such an offer by Abbas would expose Netanyahu's intention to use the peace process as a cover for his government's effort to achieve the irreversibility of Israel's settlement enterprise. It would also confirm Netanyahu's commitment to viable Palestinian statehood as the sham that it is.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet -- not even American-sponsored parameters -- that can guarantee the goal of "two states living side by side in peace and security." But President Obama's present course absolutely precludes it. Instead, he must lead an international initiative to define the parameters of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement based firmly in international law and previous UN resolutions and actively promote political reconciliation among Hamas, Fatah and the other Palestinian parties. If he cannot provide that leadership, others in the international community must do so, and see to it that America will at least not stand in their way.

Friday, October 1, 2010

More on The Netanyahu "letter"

M J Rosenberg nails Netanyahu's rejection as his "biggest insult to US yet" - and tells us why, citing as well the report in Haaretz:

"Netanyahu said he appreciated the letter but could not accept the American proposal because it included a two-month extension of the construction moratorium, which he said would damage his public credibility," Haaretz reported.

But the "moratorium" was the whole point of the offer. Bibi seems not to believe that his dealings with America have to be two-way streets. He will only consider deals where the United States gives and he gets. (But then, that is the way it always is.)

Ross and the other administration figures are now "incensed," having been played yet again.

And note:
They even went up to Capitol Hill to discuss the situation with Bibi's pals up there. No dice. . . .

The word from Israel is that Netanyahu is counting on a huge GOP landslide to save him from Obama. And then in 2012, there will be a Republican president who is more likely than Obama to let him bomb Iran.

Netanyahu has done this before. During the Lewinsky affair, he came to Washington, ignored President Clinton, and went up to the Hill to smoke cigars with Speaker Newt Gingrich and exchange Monica jokes. To understand Bibi, you need to realize that as much as he is Likud, he is a right-wing Republican.

Here's what we should do. Tell Netanyahu that either he agrees to the freeze or the United States slows down the delivery of aid. After all, Israel is the #1 recipient of U.S. aid in the world. Surely, there are ways the Pentagon can indicate displeasure.

Or maybe we can refuse to veto one of those Security Council resolutions that rightly condemn Israel's actions in occupied areas. We don't always have to be the one country in the world that stands alone at Israel's side when the U.N. attempts to pass a resolution we know is right.


The Embarrassment that US Middle East Policy has become

Stephen Walt weighs in on the "new low" that US Middle East policy has reached if (as David Makovsky reported yesterday) Obama is offering some new lollipops to Netanyahu if he'll pretty-please extend the settlement freeze by a whopping two months (as if that's going to be enough time to get a real deal done).  I have to agree with Walt: This is embarrassing.  And I have to blame Obama for launching this whole "peace process" without making sure he had the leverage to follow through.

On the other hand, with Congress snugly in Netanyahu's (or any other Israeli prime minister's) back pocket at this point (and for the foreseeable future), there's no way to get that leverage.

What will it take?  It requires a major re-orientation of American legislators and the American public to the strategic value of the US's alliance with a state that with its unilateral military actions, repression of Palestinian Arabs, and repeated violation of international law, has succeeded in making itself one of the foremost rogue pariah states on the planet.  And the new issue of Commentary features a cover article, by Daniel Gordis, that asserts that Iran has become an existential threat to the Jewish people, worldwide, and that military action by Israel has therefore become necessary.  Gordis seems to admit that this will indeed make Israel even more a pariah - but also seems to imply that, well, that's OK, because it's necessary if the Jewish people are to continue to exist (which, many would argue, it most assuredly is not) - and anyway, the world will get over it, and even thank Israel later.

Many experts have weighed in on the catastrophic consequences likely to attend a military strike on Iran.  Among the less dire are the impact Iranian retaliation would likely have on US forces in Iraq and the Gulf region, as well as in Afghanistan.  Basic equation here: IDF strike on Iran = more Americans being flown into Dover AFB in body bags.  That is the kind of math that just might get Americans both inside and outside the Beltway to reconsider the strategic relationship with Israel.

But by then, Pandora's Box will have been emptied already.

Jacob Heilbrun on Who Lost Afghanistan?

from the National Interest website, Jacob Heilbrun makes some of the same points I did this morning about Krauthammer's sliming of Obama - i.e., he's cleaning up Bush's mess

Shi'ite Alliance to Nominate Maliki (uh, oh)

So reports the NY Times.  If they can pull this off, one would surmise that the Iranians just ensured for themselves a major voice in Iraq's affairs; that the largely Sunni/secular Iraqiya party will be forced into opposition or else a very minor role in the government; and that al-Qaeda in Iraq has just been given a great recruiting tool, especially among marginalized, disaffected, and persecuted former members of the Sunni Awakening.

And one also wonders what kind of deal the Shiite alliance had to make (or will have to make) with the Kurds to keep them on board.(For more, check out Reidar Visser's always excellent commentary.)

A New Low, Even for Krauthammer

The WaPo's Obama-hater-in-chief and neocon flag-waver (and also one of its leading apologists for Israel; don't know how I could have left him off my earlier list) reaches a new low today.  Charles Krauthammer is all over Mr. Obama for the hypocrisy (though he doesn't actually use that word) of having sent more troops to Afghanistan when he's already announced a withdrawal date, and when (according to CK) Obama's heart really isn't in it anyway.  CK may indeed have a point in noting that Obama (and Kerry before him) campaigned on Afghanistan as the "good war" (as opposed to the Iraq "bad war" - which, in Krauthammer land, the Bush-Petraeus "Surge" won for the US - which must explain why the Iraqis obviously feel so comfortable with the result that they're perfectly happy with having just established a new record for a country to go without a government after an election).  But CK completely omits any mention that it was his own sweetheart, Mr. Bush (soon to be enriched by royalties from the forthcoming memoirs that will undoubtedly argue the case for his bold and brave leadership), who left this stinking turd for Mr. Obama to have to try to clean up.

Actually, truth be told, Bush left Obama a pile of them, none of them bigger and smellier than an economy devastated by his complicity in letting Wall Street brokers party hard and then drop the bill on all of us, and by trying to wage two horrendously expensive wars while cutting taxes, borrowing needed war-funds from China, and running the deficit (which was already in the ionosphere) to the point where it's, for all intents and purposes, lost in space.  

Truth be told - and as a real expert on Afghanistan, Gilles Dorronsoro, makes plain - the war in Afghanistan is lost (indeed, Petraeus himself admits - as is recorded in Bob Woodward's new court stenography book - that it's not the kind of war one wins, but that one more or less sticks with, perhaps well into our children's lifetimes).  And it's a war that the US simply no longer has the financial wherewithal to fight.  When (as a recent piece in Maclean's magazine points out) our bridges are crumbling (or even collapsing) and paved roads are being returned to gravel, when members of a local community in Ashtabula County, Ohio, have to take up personal arms (at a local judge's recommendation) to detain a criminal so that its remaining single squad car can get to the scene, and when our education system is taking a standing 8-count, then it's time to recognize that the US can't keep pouring millions of dollars into a lost war in a country where the elections that we touted are rigged and where the neighbors (themselves at risk, both from us and from their own home-grown insurgency) are blackmailing us by blocking the convoys that supply US troops in Afghanistan.  (And one of those convoys was attacked and torched today in Afghanistan.)

Most of this is not of Obama's doing, but if he is to save the country from being completely sucked into the Afghan black hole, he needs to get the US out of there as quickly as possible - and not be tarred by the likes of Krauthammer for doing so.


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