News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
Did Hillary Clinton just throw in with the neoconservatives and the Israel lobby on the key sticking point in the Iran-P5+1 talks—namely, whether and how much Iran may enrich uranium on its own soil? In her appearance yesterday on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS program on CNN, it sure looks like it. Unless she misspoke, she said explicitly that she favors the idea of “so little enrichment or no enrichment,” a view that outright contradicts the position of the White House and the State Department, who’ve long ago agreed that Iran can maintain a civilian enrichment program to produce fuel for its current nuclear reactors and for a planned expansion of its nuclear program in the future.
In the interview, Zakaria notes that Iran argues that it has “the right to enrich just like every country that has a peaceful nuclear program,” and he then adds: “The Israeli position, as I understand it, is no, zero enrichment.” (Unfortunately, Zakaria doesn’t make clear that Iran, the United States and the P5+1 have all agreed that Iran may indeed continue to enrich uranium under the terms of whatever final accord is reached.) Clinton responds that she “worked very hard and led our efforts to get the sanctions” on Iran, and she adds:
I believe strongly that it’s really important for there to be so little enrichment or no enrichment, at least for a long period of time.
Since the talks have long ago passed the point at which “no enrichment” is part of the discussion, Clinton’s comments are confusing at best, besides being provocative and counterproductive. The main sticking point in the talks, whose first round concluded on July 20 and which have now been extended for four more months, concerns Iran’s civilian program and how many centrifuges, of what kind, with what capacity and producing how great a stockpile of low-enriched, non-weapons-grade uranium Iran may produce. By all accounts, concluding an agreement that satisfied both Iran and all of the P5+1’s members (the five members of the UN Security Council, including United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and the plus-one, Germany) is within reach.
On July 22, the State Department released a detailed summary of what’s been agreed to so far and what’s been accomplished already in the talks. In it, the State Department notes that already Iran “has carried out the very significant commitments it made, and has taken steps to address the international community’s greatest concerns.” In case you haven’t been following the talks closely, here’s the lengthy list of what’s already occurred as part of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) agreed to in January. Iran, says the State Department, has already:
Halted production of near-20 percent enriched uranium and disabled the configuration of the centrifuge cascades Iran had been using to produce it; completed the dilution of half of its near-20 percent enriched uranium stockpile that was in hexafluoride form, and the conversion of the rest to an oxide form not suitable for further enrichment; capped its stockpile of 5 percent enriched uranium; has not enriched uranium in roughly half of installed centrifuges at Natanz, including all next generation centrifuges, and three-quarters of installed centrifuges at Fordow; limited its centrifuge production to those needed to replace damaged machines, so Iran was not able to use the six-month JPOA period to stockpile centrifuges; did not construct additional enrichment facilities; did not go beyond its enrichment R&D practices that were in place at the start of the JPOA.
In addition, says the State Department, Iran has taken significant steps to resolve the conflict over its light-water reactor at Arak, and it has avoided taking steps to build facilities for reconverting neutralized, 20 percent enriched uranium back into a form that might be further enriched. All of this represents positive accomplishments and signs of good will for the future talks.
Clinton’s unfortunate decision to associate herself with the no-enrichment idea is likely pure politics, designed to insulate herself from criticism from Republican and neoconservative hawks in preparation for her presidential bid. Needless to say, by the time she’s inaugurated in 2017, the Iran-P5+1 talks will be long concluded, and barring an unexpected reversal Iran and the United States may have reached a parallel accord to re-establish diplomatic relations and reopen embassies in Washington and Tehran. And the onerous sanctions on Iran will be in the process of gradually being phased out in concert with Iran’s implementation of whatever final accord is struck. However, by parroting the hawks and, as Zakaria notes, Israel’s view, Clinton will only strengthen the clamor in Congress and elsewhere in opposition to the Obama administration’s deal-making.
On Capitol Hill, various members of Congress are competing with each other to design monkey wrenches to throw into the machinery of the talks. None are likely to be successful. None of these measures is likely to get though the Senate, and were one to do so, President Obama will certainly veto it. But that’s not stopping the hawks, including several Democrats, from posturing. As reported by Al Monitor, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) is one of several senators demanding that Congress get the right to approve (read: vote down) a final agreement, while Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) is backing legislation that would make it difficult or impossible for the United States to relax its sanctions regime as part of a deal. And Mr. Shutdown, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), has a bill requiring “immediate re-implementation of sanctions, additional enforcement mechanisms, and an end to the failed negotiations.”
Despite trumpeting from the elephants in the peanut gallery, virtually the entire American establishment and nearly all media outlets (such as USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and even The Washington Post) support the extension of the talks, although The Wall Street Journal predictably joins the hawks.
But, as Secretary of State John Kerry said last week in announcing the extension of the talks:
We do so mindful not just of where we hope to arrive, but of how far we have come. One year ago, few would have predicted that Iran would have kept all its commitments under a first step nuclear agreement, and that we would be actively negotiating a long-term comprehensive agreement. Now we have four additional months to determine the next miles of this difficult diplomatic journey. Let’s all commit to seize this moment, and to use the additional time to make the fundamental choices necessary to conclude a comprehensive agreement that makes the entire world a safer place.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin is at a fateful crossroads. He can go all-in on Ukraine, upping the ante by increasing military supplies to the retreating rebel separatists in Ukraine’s southeast, providing open military backing to their cause, and as a last resort ordering an invasion by Russian troops. Or, on the other hand, he can relinquish his would-be stranglehold over Ukraine and accept Ukraine as a unitary state, probably oriented toward Western Europe and the European Union, while establishing normal relations with Ukraine on the lines of, well, Poland. Whatever legitimacy and moral authority that Putin had left, shredded as it was by the annexation of Crimea and the massive covert operation that Russia has set into motion in Ukraine’s southeast, disappeared entirely with the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 by half-drunk, incompetent rebel forces.
In recent weeks, the separatists have suffered defeat after defeat in the face of an offensive by Ukraine’s army, at significant cost in destruction and lives lost, but without far more overt Russian aid it’s not likely that they can hold out much longer. As The New York Times reports today:
Although fierce fighting continues, particularly near the Russian border, the Ukrainian military has made major advances in recent days, and Mr. Poroshenko’s aides have told allies that they believe the military operation can be completed in up to three weeks, provided there is no invasion by Russia or a large new influx of weapons and fighters across the border.
Not that Putin has to worry about either US or European military action. Even if Russia were to invade Ukraine, the chances that the United States or NATO would engage Russian forces is close to zero. The United States has little or no strategic interest in Ukraine, and despite its penchant for bluster and tough talk NATO has no significant military capacity to speak of without the United States. According to a poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Americans have no interest whatsoever in the United States’ getting involved militarily in Ukraine, although the percentage of Americans holding a “favorable” view of Russia has fallen to an all-time, post–Cold War low of just 36 percent. Even if Russia invades Ukraine, the poll reveals that Americans oppose sending troops, by a hefty margin of 68 to 30 percent. According to the Chicago CFR, that’s “because Americans do not see Russian ambitions as a threat to US vital interests.”
Nor, barring a major escalation, does Putin have to worry much about economic sanctions, in part because Russia’s economy is far too integrated into the world economy—unlike, say, Iran’s or North Korea’s—and in part because Western Europe’s trade and financial ties to Russia are so interwoven that, short of an outright invasion of Ukraine, Putin probably doesn’t have to be concerned with stiff EU sanctions. As an analysis in today’s New York Times makes clear, President Obama’s pro-forma pressure on the EU isn’t likely to have much of an effect, as Britain, France and Germany all insist on maintaining the primary of their financial, arms trade, and energy ties, respectively, what one analyst calls the “triple lockout.” (A story in The Washington Post goes so far as to point out that Holland’s trade in flowers with Russia could be a factor in that country’s response to the shootdown of Flight 17, although the overwhelming tie between Holland and Russia is natural gas, not flowers.) As The Moscow Times notes, “For all the tough talk, Europe is not likely to punish Russia over last week’s downing of an airliner over Ukraine.”
Despite his sometimes-soothing rhetoric about diplomacy and negotiations, however, there’s little sign yet that Putin is concerned about either a NATO military response, economic sanctions by the United States or the EU, or Russia’s drastic fall in world public opinion. According to US officials, some of the artillery directed at advancing Ukrainian forces is coming from within Russia itself. As Michael McFaul, the just-retired former American ambassador to Russia, told The Wall Street Journal:
If true, this represents a serious escalation on Putin’s part. … Instead of using last week’s tragedy as a pretext for ending this war, he seems to be doing the opposite, doubling down.
By many accounts, Russia hasn’t halted the supply of heavy weapons to the beleaguered separatist fighters, including tanks, artillery and anti-aircraft weapons systems. But, according to General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Russia’s military is a reluctant and cautious participant in the Ukraine war, a view that contradicts the oft-stated belief that Putin is under pressure from “hawks” within Russia, including its military. Dempsey, who said he’s been in touch with senior Russian military officers during the crisis, doesn’t believe that the military is driving the issue—which means it’s Putin, not the generals, behind it. According to Reuters:
Russia’s military is likely a reluctant participant in Ukraine’s conflict, the top US military officer said on Thursday, adding that although he had not spoken to his Moscow counterpart in about two months he was keeping an open line of communication. “I think the Russian military and its leaders that I know are probably somewhat reluctant participants in this form of warfare,” General Martin Dempsey said, noting Russia’s use of both conventional forces along the border and of proxies inside the country.… Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, voiced concerns about the implications of Russia’s actions on its ties with the United States and with Europe. “My real concern is that having lit this fire in an isolated part of eastern Europe, it may not stay in eastern Europe. And I think that’s a real risk,” Dempsey said. “I’m keeping an open line of communication with my counterpart and he’s doing the same with me.”
Let’s try to sort out facts from nonsense about the shootdown of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, and let’s say up-front what probably happened.
You don’t have to be a student of Occam’s Razor to figure out that neither the pro-Russian rebels—those out-of-control, half-drunk thugs who’ve proclaimed ersatz “people’s republics” in southeast Ukraine—nor Russia itself would have deliberately targeted a civilian airliner, so the shootdown was obviously a mistake. It was a mistake made in the context of recently successful efforts by the separatists to shoot down Ukrainian military aircraft, including recently two SU-25 fighter jets, but it reveals a stunning lack of competence by the anti-Kiev fighters, who managed to get hold of a sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons system, the Russian-made Buk, a mobile, radar-guided system that can hit targets as high as fourteen miles up, but clearly don’t know how to use the system safely. Though the perpetrators of the shootdown may have received training by Russia’s military, and though it’s almost certain that the Buk used in the atrocity was supplied from Russian territory across the border into Ukraine and then hastily withdrawn, it is truly mind-boggling that both Russia and the commanders of the anti-Kiev rebels would have trusted such as deadly system in the incompetent and reckless hands of those who fired it.
Among the leaders of the “people’s republics,” there are fanciful theories about what happened. What’s important to note is that these accusations are being made not by irresponsible bloggers and other propagandists either in the Donbass or in Moscow but by the actual senior leaders and commanders of the rebel force.
First, for sheer comic value—if comedy can ever be appropriate in a tragedy of such magnitude—take the comments of Igor Girkin (a k a Igor Strelkov, which means “shooter”), the Russian citizen and, reportedly, a retired Russian military intelligence officer who says that he served in the Russian FSB intelligence agency until 2013, who is the commander of the so-called Donbass People’s Militia and who’s sometimes been described as a ersatz “defense minister” of the Donetsk-Luhansk region. As the Associated Press reports, via Talking Points Memo, Girkin-Strelkov says that the plane that was shot down was full of dead bodies already and that the victims, drained of blood and reeking of decomposition, were therefore plants. “A significant number of the bodies weren’t fresh,” says Girkin-Strelkov. “Ukrainian authorities are capable of any baseness.”
The Girkin-Strelkov Theory fits in with what is emerging among the conspiracy-minded rebels as the belief that Ukraine somehow deliberately lured the anti-Kiev fighters into shooting down Flight MH17, having larded it with dead bodies. While that theory pales in comparison with the lunatic beliefs of 9/11 Truthers, it’s still crazy, but it’s backed by another top rebel commander, Alexander Khodakovsky, the leader of the so-called Vostok Battalion.
In an interview with Reuters, published in The Guardian, Khodakovsky, a defector from the Ukrainian special forces, admits that the Buk system used in the Flight MH17 shootdown was supplied by Russia and then hastily withdrawn back into Russian territory, which conforms with US and Ukrainian intelligence reports and unconfirmed photographs of the used Buk transport vehicle missing one missile. The New York Times, noting that the intelligence is sketchy so far, reported that there is evidence that the Buk system used in the attack traveled from Russia:
Photographs and videos posted on social media sites of what Ukrainian intelligence officials have said was likely the Buk system are unconfirmed and far from conclusive. But they offer a muddy picture of what might have been the weapon’s bumpy journey through eastern Ukraine to a location near this sleepy mining town where American intelligence officials believe it blew the passenger jet out of the sky that day.
But Khodakovsky, in a burst of conspiracy-mongering, that Ukraine had “timely evidence” that the rebels possessed Buks but deliberately “provoked the use of this type of weapon against a plane that was flying with peaceful civilians.” In other words, the devious Ukrainian government tricked the rebels into shooting down Flight MH17. Said Khodakovsky:
They knew that this BUK existed; that the BUK was heading for Snezhnoye. They knew that it would be deployed there, and provoked the use of this BUK by starting an air strike on a target they didn’t need, that their planes hadn’t touched for a week. And that day, they were intensively flying, and exactly at the moment of the shooting, at the moment the civilian plane flew overhead, they launched air strikes. Even if there was a BUK, and even if the BUK was used, Ukraine did everything to ensure that a civilian aircraft was shot down.
Despite such nonsense, Khodakovsky admits in the interview quite a bit about the origin and departure of the Buk. According to The Guardian, Khodakovsky “said the rebels may have received the Buk from Russia, in the first such admission by a senior separatist.” He said:
That Buk I know about. I heard about it. I think they sent it back. Because I found out about it at exactly the moment that I found out that this tragedy had taken place. They probably sent it back in order to remove proof of its presence.… I’m not going to say Russia gave these things or didn’t give them.… Russia could have offered this Buk under some entirely local initiative. I want a Buk, and if someone offered me one, I wouldn’t turn it down.
Amid horrific conditions, in wartime, investigators from Ukraine, the United States, the United Nations, Britain, the Netherlands and Malaysia—along with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe—are slowly making headway in the recovery of victims’ bodies and in piecing together what happened. But it will be a long, slow process.
Contrary to the notion that the anti-Kiev separatists are simply one side in a Ukrainian civil war, it’s by now undeniable that Russia’s Putin has stoked the fire of conflict in Ukraine, turning what would have been an east-west civil dispute pitting the government in Kiev against the significant, long-standing pro-Russian feelings in the southeast into a shooting war, and one that now involves heavy weapons, including tanks, artillery, anti-aircraft weapons (including shoulder-fired Manpads) and other equipment supplied by Russia.
But, as The Guardian reports—and congruent with the deranged views of Khodakovsy and Girkin-Strelkov—in Russia there are rampant conspiracy theories among the shootdown of Flight MH17. Among them: that Ukraine itself shot down the plane, or that the rebels were aiming for Putin’s plane, returning from Brazil, as Russia’s Interfax/RT speculated. At least some of this is encouraged by Putin’s own spurious charge, outrageous in context, that Ukraine somehow bears responsibility for the tragedy by virtue of its military campaign against the Donbass “people’s republic.”
So far, it isn’t clear whether Putin is prepared to take responsibility for irresponsibly inflaming eastern Ukraine or that he’ll take the opportunity of the unspeakable Flight MH17 tragedy to back off. In his middle-of-the-night statement on Monday, he declared that the tragedy would not have occurred if Ukraine hadn’t renewed military efforts to retake the southeast in late June, but he called for negotiations to end the conflict and pledged to support efforts to secure the investigation of the shootdown. And he did say: “Such events should not divide, but rather unite, people.” Then, in a foreign policy speech on Tuesday, Putin said:
We are being urged to use our influence with the militias in southeastern Ukraine. We of course will do everything in our power, but that is not nearly enough.
He then once again slammed Kiev for its military actions in the southeast, saying:
It is necessary to call on the Kiev authorities also to observe elementary norms of ethics. At least to impose a cease-fire for a short time to hold an investigation.
So far, though, there is little confidence that a cease-fire wouldn’t allow Russia to step up the supply of heavy weapons and even personnel to the anti-Kiev forces. If Russia is truly prepared to use its influence over the rebels to get them to accept the authority of the government in Kiev, then the crisis could be eased. Lacking such a commitment from Putin, it seems obvious, and tragic, that the war will continue, and that the rebels will be pushed back into small enclaves and ultimately crushed, at enormous cost in human lives and destruction. And, unless Russia intends to get directly involved, there is virtually no chance that the anti-Kiev forces can hold out more than weeks or months. Meanwhile, given the staggering public relations setback that Russia has suffered since the Flight MH17 shootdown, it seems highly unlikely that Russia can back the rebels more aggressively. To President Obama’s credit, he’s ignored calls from neoconservatives and hawks, including in Congress, to rush American military support, arms and advisers to the Ukrainian government.
It’s hard to remember a time—we’re talking even way back in the bad old days of the Cold War—when things were such a mess. It’s hard even to count the number of wars underway right at the moment, but let’s list at least some of them: there’s the Israeli invasion of Gaza, the civil strife in eastern Ukraine, the twin civil wars in Syria and Iraq, the ongoing Afghanistan war, Pakistan’s assault on Taliban strongholds, virtual civil war in Libya, general conflicts across Africa (Nigeria, Mali, the Sudans, Somalia and of course in the eastern Congo/Uganda region), drone strikes and civil war in Yemen. To that list we might add tensions pitting China against Vietnam, South Korea, Japan and the Philippines and, of course, the high-stakes negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program between Iran and the P5+1 world powers. And then there’s the immigration crisis at the border. (You might be able to think of some I’ve neglected to mention.)
At the beginning of July, the surprise offensive by the Al Qaeda–like Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured the headlines. Though it hasn’t gone away, it’s essentially been eclipsed by the brutal Israeli offensive in Gaza and by the crisis in Ukraine, sparked by Vladimir Putin’s irredentist claim to defend Russians everywhere and culminating in the shootdown of Flight MH17. In normal times, any one of these crises, each one of which brings unbearable losses of human life and ill forebodings of things to come, would grab the attention of the entire world. But this is not normal times. Why is this all happening, and why now?
It’s tempting to say that it’s the result of retrenchment on the part of the United States and of President Obama’s disinclination to get involved in conflict overseas—tempting, but wrong. That hasn’t stopped Republicans, and hawks and neoconservatives in the United States, from blaming Obama for everything: if only he’d kept troops in Iraq, if only he’d bombed Syria, if only he’d rush military aid and US advisers to Ukraine, if only he’d bomb ISIS in Iraq, if only he’d throw America’s full support to the Syrian rebels, if only he’d been a stronger ally of Israel’s. And so on.
As readers of this blog are know well, for the past several years I’ve analyzed every one of these conflicts as they’ve built to explosive levels. And while Obama might have handled things differently in every case, it’s utterly wrong to blame the president’s alleged over-caution and aloofness for the wave of crises sweeping the world. Fact is, what we’re seeing around the world might be the new normal. The emergence of a multipolar world, the irreversible decline of America’s ability to throw around its political, economic and military might, the rise of regional powers which insist on carving out spheres of influence, and the collapse of the old, authoritarian order in the Middle East are all factors—as is the growing competition for resources, especially water, food and energy, as climate change causes major shifts in the balance of power. There’s no magic bullet for any of these—especially solutions that actually require bullets.
So Obama’s caution is laudable, but that’s not to say that there aren’t things that Obama might do. He could push Israel to halt its murderous assault and then announce an American peace plan for the Israel-Palestine conflict—something he’d hinted he might do, but didn’t. He could wind down America’s support for the rebels in Syria, which would weaken ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. He could take advantage of the MH17 tragedy to unify the rest of the world around a no-nonsense approach to Russia’s out-of-control inflammation of Ukraine, and get diplomacy back on track. And so on. But Obama’s critics are wrong when they insist that a more “robust” (and I hate that word), stronger and more aggressive US military and political stand could somehow calm the waters. There’s no option that involves US forces in Ukraine, no option that sends US troops into Libya or back into Iraq, no new escalation of the war in Afghanistan, no Cold War–style “containment” of Russia and China and certainly no option to use US military force against Iran’s nuclear installations.
Equally, while it’s easy to look back and blame George W. Bush, the eruption of a world in crisis isn’t simply “Bush’s fault.” Yes, the Ukraine crisis would be less intense if President Bush (and President Clinton) hadn’t expanded NATO toward Russia’s borders. Yes, Iraq would be suffering far less but for Bush’s illegal 2003 war. Yes, radical Islamists would be less powerful if Bush hadn’t proclaimed a “Global War on Terrorism” that was perceived as an American assault on the entire Muslim world. But the rise of China, the reassertion of Russia’s claim to parts of the old USSR, the chaos that followed the Arab Spring, the conflicts in Africa—well, none of those have easy solutions. And there are deeper, underlying causes at work.
Although President Obama may be right in his instinct to focus on rebuilding America’s infrastructure at home, creating jobs and dealing with healthcare, he’s going to have to spend a lot of time at the United Nations—and perhaps hire a passel of new, Richard Holbrooke–style special envoys, too—because none of these crises are going away, and every one of them needs an army of diplomats.
That said, the crisis in Gaza ought once and for all to convince the United States that Israel is far too costly an ally, and one that is far too arrogant. The Israeli doctrine that one or two dead or kidnapped soldier on the border with Lebanon justifies killing a thousand Lebanese and bombing Beirut, or that a fusillade of mostly harmless rockets landing in Israel’s southern desert means that Israel has to (for the third time in a decade) kill hundreds in Gaza is breathtaking in its sheer arrogance. Given America’s vast aid to Israel—not to mention its being nearly the sole source of Israel’s political support—the United States can either rein in Israel or exact costly penalties. But perhaps it’s too much to believe that the Obama administration is finally getting the message, despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s hot-mike comment sarcastically referring to Israel’s “pinpoint” attacks that are anything but pinpointed.
If Obama does anything, in regard to foreign policy, in the next two and half years, he’ll need an all-out effort to develop a consensus at home about how to deal with a world in crisis, and how to put in place a serious diplomatic strategy that can take all of this on. Looking at each crisis on its own, as a fire to be extinguished, won’t work. That will take a lot of serious thinking from a lot of serious people, but he’d better start now.
President Obama needs to adopt a cautious stance in response to the downing of Malaysian Flight MH17 over Ukraine yesterday, and there’s no certainty about who did what, but make no mistake: the responsibility for this tragedy—which cost the lives of nearly 300 innocent people, including a team of internationally known AIDS-HIV experts—lies at the door of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. That doesn’t mean, of course, that either the Russians or the anti-Kiev rebels fired the missile deliberately at the Malaysian plane, though it’s possible that the rebels thought they were firing at a Ukrainian military target. But Putin’s irresponsible stoking of a crisis next door in Ukraine over the past several months, fueled by Russia’s own revanchist policy and Putin’s claims to defend ethnic Russians in “New Russia” has come home to roost.
It’s good news that all sides, including the pro-Russia rebels who control the area where the plane exploded, have called for a truce to allow investigators to access the area—though it’s unclear yet whether the rebels will fully comply.
But Russia’s response to the shooting down of MH17 resembles Russia’s dissembling last September, when Putin and the Russian media shamelessly blamed the Syrian rebels, and not President Bashar al-Assad’s government, for the horrific use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war,
Putin says he’ll work with the rest of the world to find out who’s responsible for the MH17 disaster. And the Russian state-owned media, which resembles Iraq’s “Baghdad Bob” in its sheer, unashamed propaganda, is blaming everyone else for the missile that struck the plane except for the Russian-backed rebels who’ve seized parts of eastern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian military and the Russian military, and probably the pro-Russian rebels, possess the type of missile apparently used in the MH17 attack, either SA-11s or SA-20s. But since the rebels aren’t known to possess any aircraft, it seems extremely unlikely that the Ukrainian military would fire at anything in the air, while in the past several weeks the rebels have shot down several Ukrainian military aircraft. And there are increasingly reliable reports that cast blame on the pro-Russia rebels, and in their own words.
In late June, separatist leaders told the Russian news outlets RIA Novosti and Interfax that they had taken control of a Ukrainian air-defense base near the village of Oleksiivka equipped with Buk missiles. The Donetsk People’s Republic also posted a photo of the missiles, sometimes known as Gadfly systems, on its official Twitter feed at the time, declaring a victory in having seized the weaponry.
In the immediate aftermath of the shootdown, the leader of the pro-Russian rebels, Igor Strelkov (“Shooter”) claimed that the rebels had shot down another Ukrainian plane, but when it turned out that a civilian airliner had been hit, Strelkov quickly deleted the post. And The New York Times reports: “A social media post attributed to Igor Strelkov, the shadowy pro-Russian commander, showed him claiming to have captured Buk missiles.”
Some Russian media, especially the state-owned RT and Interfax, have come up with colorful and ridiculous theories about the crash, including one—reported by New York magazine—that it was an effort by the government in Kiev to shoot down Vladimir Putin’s own plane. As New York notes, Interfax reported (using unnamed sources) that Putin’s plane crossed the route used by Malaysian MH17 over Poland, while RT dutifully ran side-by-side photos of MH17 and Putin’s plane to reveal their supposed similarities (both had wings!), and it “reports”:
Malaysian Airlines MH17 plane was travelling almost the same route as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s jet shortly before the crash that killed 298, Interfax news agency reports citing sources. “I can say that Putin’s plane and the Malaysian Boeing intersected at the same point and the same echelon. That was close to Warsaw on 330-m echelon at the height of 10,100 meters. The presidential jet was there at 16:21 Moscow time and the Malaysian aircraft—15:44 Moscow time,” a source told the news agency on condition of anonymity.
And Putin, hardly mentioning the human scale of the tragedy, lost no time blaming Ukraine for the shootdown. Said Putin, according to RT:
Obviously, the state over whose territory it happened bears responsibility for this terrible tragedy.… This tragedy would not have happened if there was peace on this land, if military action in the southeast of Ukraine had not been resumed.
The Ukrainian government—which has made unreliable claims in the past, and which initially at least said that MH17 was shot down deliberately by Russia or the rebels as an act of “terrorism”—have released evidence that they say casts blame on the ersatz “People’s Republic” in eastern Ukraine, namely, intercepted transmission from the rebels. According to The New York Times, “Ukrainian intelligence has pointed to a fighter named Igor Bezler, the militia leader in the eastern town of Gorlovka, saying in an intercepted phone call that his men had ‘shot down a plane’ on Thursday.”
Unless Putin takes immediate steps to wind down the revolt, using his armed forces to close the Ukrainian-Russian border and halting the apparent transborder traffic in weaponry and fighters, it’s likely that the Flight MH17 crisis will further isolate Russia diplomatically and economically. So far, Germany and the rest of Western Europe have resisted calls from the United States to impose significant economic sanctions on Russia, but the pressure on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to do so now will intensify. Not that the sanctions are effective, of course, and indeed Russia is likely to retaliate with sanctions and other actions of its own, which could cause a long-lasting rift between Russia and Europe that would take many, many years to overcome.
In its editorial today, The New York Times blasts Putin, calling him the one person who can halt Ukraine’s tragic war:
There is one man who can stop it—President Vladimir Putin of Russia, by telling the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine to end their insurgency and by stopping the flow of money and heavy weaponry to those groups. But for all his mollifying words and gestures, Mr. Putin has only continued to stoke the flames by failing to shut down those pipelines, failing to support a cease-fire and avoiding serious, internationally mediated negotiations.
That’s about right. Unfortunately, Putin disagrees—and there isn’t much that the United States can do about it. Unless the MH17 disaster convinces Putin that he’s losing more, in international prestige and whatever soft power Russia has left, than he’s gaining by trying to reverse Ukraine’s inevitable tilt westward.
Barring a last-minute miracle, the talks between Iran and the P5+1 world powers on Iran’s nuclear program will go into extra time. Since January 20, when the parties began to implement the interim accord struck last fall, the clock has been ticking on a six-month deadline to reach a final agreement. But the accord itself contained an option for another six-month extension, and by all accounts it now appears that that’ll happen. As a result, though, one can expect many of the hawks and neoconservatives who’ve opposed the talks from the beginning to launch a new effort to disparage, disrupt or even wreck the negotiations.
Their effort won’t succeed, though they’re trying. Last January, following the interim accord, a coalition of hawks including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, led by Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and a passel of meddling members of Congress tried to enact yet another round of sanctions against Iran—even though the interim accord explicitly forbid the imposition of additional sanctions during the negotiations, and even though the White House made it clear that the legislation that AIPAC wanted would destroy the talks. In a display of toughness, back then the White House issued a strongly worded, direct challenge to the supporters of the sanctions bill, telling them that if they wanted war with Iran, they should say so. The tough talk from the White House scared off a number of pro-AIPAC members of Congress, especially in the Senate, and the legislation died. It was a huge and unprecedented defeat for AIPAC.
Despite important signs of progress, no agreement has been reached yet, so there’ll likely be more talks—perhaps not as long as six months, if an accord can be reached sooner—and President Obama says he’s ready to extend the talks. “We have a credible way forward,” said Obama. In editorials, The New York Times, Bloomberg and, a bit more surprisingly, the hawkish Washington Post support the extension in editorials today. The Times, in its editorial, points out that hawks on both sides would love to derail the talks:
Negotiators have made progress on other issues, such as strengthening inspections at Iran’s nuclear sites and winning Iran’s consent to alter a heavy water reactor at Arak to reduce its plutonium output. None of that has impressed the hard-liners in Tehran and Washington who are determined to sabotage any deal. Some in Congress are demanding conditions that would tie President Obama’s hands and make it impossible to lift sanctions on Iran, essential to any agreement.
Among the conditions demanded by members of Congress is for the United States to get concessions from Iran on issues that have nothing at all to do with the one at hand, such as Iran’s alleged support for terrorism and its program to build missiles. As the White House and the State Department know, adding unrelated topics such as those to the mix now would kill the talks once and for all, convincing Iranians that the United States isn’t serious about an accord.
Members of Congress such as Menendez and Senator John McCain especially oppose US efforts to reduce or eliminate economic sanctions on Iran unless Tehran blows up its entire nuclear program, destroys its infrastructure, halts all enrichment of even low-grade, fuel-quality uranium and takes other steps—unthinkable, now that the United States has conceded formally that Iran can have a limited enrichment program as part of a deal. The issue of economic sanctions is critical for Iran, needless to say. But if the United States overplays its hand—seeking too many concessions from Iran, pushing moderate President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif further than they’re able to go—then, in fact, the worldwide sanctions regime against Iran could crumble. At present, the United States has been able to corral and pressure most of the world into going along with the set of harsh sanctions, part of which are set by a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions and part of which are unilaterally imposed by the United States and other nations. But if the United States pushes Iran too hard, as hawkish members of Congress demand, and the talks fail, it’s likely that the global sanctions effort will fall apart, with countries such as Russia, China, India, Turkey, Iraq and Pakistan simply ignoring them. So Obama and Kerry have to play their hand very carefully in order to the hold the P5+1 together.
One message from the current crisis over Gaza is clear: the Palestinians have to get rid of Hamas. No one else can do it: the Israelis, vastly superior in military terms, only strengthen Hamas politically by wantonly raining death and destruction on Gaza. But the fanatics of Hamas, who seem to believe that they can resist Israel militarily—along with the even more radical Islamist groups that run around in Gaza—do incalculable damage to the Palestinian cause.
In this case, I agree with Bret Stephens, who wrote today in The Wall Street Journal, concerning Israel and Hamas, “If you must have a nemesis, better it be a stupid one.” Stephens, a neoconservative hawk who is a blind supporter of Israel, certainly doesn’t qualify as sympathetic to the Palestinian plight. But he’s right here: Israel has no stupider enemy than Hamas. And the people of Gaza, entrapped in a hellish, prison-like entity—where conditions of despair give rise to the nihilist, Islamist radicalism of Hamas—have once again to endure the pain of Israel’s bombardment. And for what? Already in Gaza Israel has struck nearly 1,500 separate targets and killed more than 200 people, including civilians and children.
As I’ve written repeatedly over the years, in the 1970s and 1980s Israel’s intelligence service—especially after the rise of the Likud government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1977—helped Hamas organize and gain power. The Israelis aided Islamists on the West Bank and in Gaza, including the Muslim Brotherhood (of which Hamas is a branch), in the belief (correct, as it turned out) that Hamas would be a bitter enemy of the Palestinian nationalist movement. Indeed, back then the early supporters of Hamas clashed with moderate and left-wing Palestinian groups throughout the occupied territories. Decades later, Hamas has emerged as the perfect foil for Israeli rightists and advocates of Greater Israel, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In the latest round, Hamas’s idiotic decision to fight Israel by firing useless missiles against unseen Israeli targets not only gave Netanyahu a pretext for his brutal war but managed to erase the controversy over the premeditated killing of a Palestinian youth by a gang of ultra-nationalist, right-wing Israelis. Just a week or so ago, that killing transfixed Israel and generated horror among Israelis with a conscience. Now, while the story goes on, it’s figuratively buried under the rubble of Gaza.
Making matters worse, and perhaps leading to a full-scale assault on Gaza, Hamas arrogantly rejected a workable cease-fire plan that was proposed yesterday by Egypt and apparently accepted by Israel’s government—though not without criticism of Netanyahu’s agreement to the cease-fire from even more militant Israeli factions. The Egyptian proposal also had the support of Secretary of State John Kerry, although the United States could do a lot more, including issuing strong condemnations of Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of civilian homes in Gaza. (Apparently, the White House believes that Israel’s use of force is not disproportionate.) But it boggles the mind to think what Hamas believes it is accomplishing by continuing a suicidal campaign against Israel’s overwhelming might.
In Gaza, supporters of Hamas are chanting, “Ya Qassam, ya habib. Strike, strike Tel Aviv!” Do they live on another planet?
Kerry, whose life has been difficult lately—dealing with the Iran nuclear talks, the crisis in Afghanistan, the Iraq-Syria civil war and Russia’s continuing destabilization of Ukraine—is at least right when he said: “I cannot condemn strongly enough the actions of Hamas in so brazenly firing rockets in the face of a goodwill effort to offer a ceasefire.”
Not that a cease-fire would solve any problems, other than ending the current round of violence. It would still leave Gaza in its abysmal state, and it certainly wouldn’t restart the collapsed Israel-Palestinian peace talks on a two-state solution. But Hamas seems determined to be Israel’s useful bogeyman.
Patrick Cockburn, a veteran journalist experienced in the complexities of the Middle East, usually makes sense. But his latest piece, for something called The Unz Review (“A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media”) is way, way off base. Its title is: “How Saudi Arabia Helped Isis Take Over the North of Iraq,” and it’s a conspiratorial mishmash of truths, half-truths and outright misinformation—much of it derived, weirdly enough, from a speech by Sir Richard Dearlove, the former chief of Britain’s intelligence service, MI-6. In it, Cockburn suggests that Saudi Arabia, in its fanatical zeal to oppose Shiites worldwide, “has played a central role in the ISIS surge into Sunni areas of Iraq.” (ISIS, of course, is the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, now pretentiously calling itself a “caliphate” and changing its name to “the Islamic state,” presumably signaling that it intends to rule the entire Muslim world.)
In this case, despite The Unz Review’s belief that it brings forward information “excluded from the American mainstream media,” perhaps the reason that Cockburn’s thesis has been excluded is because it is flat wrong.
The ISIS crisis in Iraq, parallel to the ISIS crisis in Syria, is indeed an ugly and serious challenge to the Middle East status quo. But there’s far too much alarmism in response, including Eric Holder’s statement yesterday that the threat from ISIS is “more frightening than anything I think I’ve seen as attorney general.” There’s no doubt that ISIS is a bad actor, but the chance that ISIS will seize or even seriously threaten either Baghdad or Damascus is zero, and eventually the Sunni tribes, Baathists and the former Awakening movement in Iraq will crush ISIS, while President Bashar al-Assad’s forces squash it in Syria. And despite Cockburn’s view, most analysts believe that Saudi Arabia is alarmed by, and doesn’t support, ISIS.
The easiest way to resolve the Iraq-Syria civil war is through an accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Although Saudi Arabia supports the Sunni side in a broad, regional proxy war throughout Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf and into South Asia, and Iran supports the Shiite side, neither side tolerates either Al Qaeda or ISIS. Both Riyadh and Tehran are worried about the rise of ISIS, and the common ground is there for both countries to establish a détente and try to resolve the civil war.
If Saudi Arabia were committed to an all-out conflict with the Shiites, as Cockburn and Dearlove suggest, then Saudi Arabia would have supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, since the Brotherhood was a bitter enemy of the Shia and a supporter of the revolt in Syria. Instead, the Saudis opted to work with Egypt’s military to crush the Muslim Brotherhood. And while the Saudis have close ties to Iraq’s Sunni tribal militia, and beginning in 2006 Saudi Arabia supported the Sunni Awakening, it certainly doesn’t support ISIS in either Iraq or in Syria, where the Saudis back less-radical forces battling Assad’s government. If fighting ISIS takes priority now, Saudi Arabia will have to ease off its support for the anti-Assad forces, freeing up the Syrian army to go into Syria’s north and east, where ISIS is strong. (The United States, rather than bolstering Syria’s “moderate” rebels, ought to do the same.)
Cockburn bases a big part of his analysis on Dearlove’s comment that the spy boss once heard Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia once say: “The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally ‘God help the Shia’. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.” But that statement was made many years ago, before 9/11, and Cockburn manages to add, “Dearlove says that he has no inside knowledge obtained since he retired as head of MI6 10 years ago to become Master of Pembroke College in Cambridge.” Well.
In Washington, and despite Holder’s comments, a more reasoned approach to the ISIS crisis may be dawning. President Obama’s initial response, which included hints that the United States might conduct air strikes in Iraq, seems to have cooled. And while I’ve written about the potential for a “slippery slope” in Iraq, with the United States first sending advisers to Baghdad, then troops to protect the airport, and then more troops to protect the airport road, the White House seems to be listening the US military and the intelligence community. According to a classified report leaked to The New York Times, the military argues that Iraq’s armed forces and security apparatus are so badly run, so infiltrated with Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen and informers from ISIS, that there isn’t much of an opening for greater US involvement. And Iraq’s political deadlock doesn’t look like it’s going to broken anytime soon, meaning that the United States can’t take Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s egregiously Shiite-sectarian side in a war against Iraq’s Sunnis.
So far, many of Iraq’s Sunnis—badly alienated by Maliki’s one-sect rule—have supported the ISIS offensive while viewing their Taliban-like extremism with, well, extreme distaste. In some parts of Iraq, the entire Sunni community—tribes, Baathists, Sunni Islamists of various kinds—sit on soviet-like councils alongside ISIS, but that doesn’t mean that the non-ISIS groups want anything to do with ISIS’ obscurantist beliefs and harsh imposition of its version of sharia law. If a deal is struck to get rid of Maliki, or if Maliki decides to open up his government, the Sunni hammer will fall on ISIS. That, however, might depend on an accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Read Next: Obama fiddles while Gaza burns.
Let’s review the bidding on whether or not the United States is seriously making an effort to prevent war in Gaza and perhaps beyond, with at least seventy-six Palestinians already dead. You’ll recall that in 2009, just before President Obama took office, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pretty much let Israel run amok in Gaza. Is the Obama administration doing any better?
First, here are the official statements. In a July 8 White House briefing, spokesman Josh Earnest said:
Well, let me start by saying that we strongly condemn the continuing rocket fire into Israel and the deliberate targeting of civilians by terrorist organizations in Gaza. No country can accept rocket fire aimed at civilians, and we support Israel’s right to defend itself against these vicious attacks. At the same time, we appreciate the call that Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has made publicly to act responsibly. We’re concerned about the safety and security of civilians on both sides. This means both the residents of southern Israel who are forced to live under rocket fire in their homes and the civilians in Gaza who are subjected to the conflict because of Hamas’s violence. As you know, Secretary Kerry spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu a couple times over the weekend and reiterated the United States’ concern about escalating tensions and our willingness to engage robustly in helping to stop the rocket fire and restore the 2012 ceasefire as soon as possible. So these kinds of consultations are ongoing. It is not in the interest of either side for this violence to continue and even to escalate. So we are hopeful that even as Israel exercises their right to self-defense that they’ll leave open a channel for diplomacy to prevail and for a ceasefire or at least a de-escalation in the violence to commence.
You’ll note, obviously, that the White House condemned rockets fired by “terrorist organizations” but said that it appreciates Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “call” to act responsibly, without a word about massive Palestinian casualties. In Tel Aviv, the American embassy is closed, and over at the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki weirdly complained that there is difficult “time change challenge,” given that Secretary of State John Kerry is in China. And then there was this exchange with reporters, in which Psaki said that there is “strong difference between attacks, rocket attacks launched by a terrorist organization that is based in Gaza and the right of Israel to defend itself,” even if Israel recklessly bombs targets like a seaside café in which people were gathered to watch the World Cup. Here’s the exchange:
QUESTION: Okay. He also made very clear time and time again Israel’s right to self-defense. And I asked you about the Palestinians’ right to self-defense. Let me ask you this: The population in Gaza, is it largely Hamas operatives or largely innocent civilians? And if there are larger Hamas operatives, then an argument can be made that they could be targets. But if they are largely civilians, then they should have, certainly, the right to self-defense—
MS. PSAKI: Well, Said, I would simply say there’s a—
QUESTION:—or to protection.
MS. PSAKI:—strong difference between attacks—
QUESTION: Right, I understand.
MS. PSAKI:—rocket attacks launched by a terrorist organization that is based in Gaza and the right of Israel to defend itself. At the same time, as you know, we work closely with the Palestinians. We work closely with the Israelis. And it’s important at this point in time to see if all sides can take steps to de-escalate.
QUESTION: How could you follow or do you have any means of following what is going on on the ground in Gaza in terms of the humanitarian suffering, people that lack water, lack the—of medical care, lack of food, things of that nature. Do you have anyone—
MS. PSAKI: How do we—
QUESTION: Do you have anyone on the ground in Gaza that can monitor the situation?
MS. PSAKI: Said, I think we are concerned about any humanitarian suffering around the world. As you know, that isn’t about sides. That’s about what’s right morally.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the administration is “sharply limit[ed]” in its ability to help de-escalate the crisis, given the recent collapse of Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy, and so the United States has no plans to send Kerry to the region to prevent war. Despite loud calls from the Palestinians for the United States to get involved and broker a cease-fire, the Journal reports:
But with the crisis escalating just two months after formal US-led peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians collapsed, the White House isn’t preparing to dispatch Mr. Kerry to the region to broker a cease-fire, these officials said.
In an editorial, the always hawkish Washington Post dismisses the crisis as a “mini-war” and adds that no diplomatic blitz is required:
Obama administration officials argue that this deterioration proves that it was right to pursue a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. In our view, the failed US effort, with its tight timetable and disregard for the obvious unwillingness of leaders on both sides, merely raised expectations that could not be met, making a backlash inevitable. What’s needed is not another diplomatic blitz but a more patient, incremental and sustainable effort to restore trust between Israelis and Palestinians, improve economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, and create the foundations for an eventual settlement. That is if the fire in Gaza can be put out.
At the Electronic Intifada, Medea Benjamin urges President Obama to visit Gaza. But the chances of that happening are about as high as the chance that Obama will preach from the mosque in Mosul, Iraq, where the head of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria just appeared.
By any measure, the preliminary results of Afghanistan’s runoff vote in the 2014 presidential election, released yesterday, were a shock and a surprise. In the first round, held April 4 among a plethora of candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani emerged to face a runoff on June 14, and in that vote Abdullah led Ghani by nearly 900,000 votes, winning 2.97 million votes to Ghani’s 2.08 million. But the results announced yesterday turned everything on its head, with Ghani credited with 4.86 million to Abdullah’s 3.46 million. Surprisingly, too, turnout in the second round, 7.95 million, surpassed the turnout in the first round, 6.60 million, by well over a million additional votes. Needless to say, Abdullah isn’t pleased, charging fraud and threatening to declare himself the winner anyway and lead a parallel state.
Virtually everyone involved from the outside, including the United States and the United Nations, is urging calm and patience, noting that the results declared on July 7 are only preliminary, and that final results will be released on July 22. Maybe. But massive protests have erupted. And, in the meantime, anything and everything can happen: hundreds of thousands of votes, or even millions, could be thrown out in the course of an investigation, and it’s anyone’s guess who’ll be the ultimate winner—but right now Abdullah is facing a steep uphill climb. The nice, neat and tidy results that Washington was hoping for, leading smoothly to a new government and the implementation of the strategic accord between the United States and Afghanistan that was worked out earlier this year, is up in the air. Parallel with the ugly civil war in Iraq, it’s increasingly likely that Afghanistan, too, could face fragmentation and civil war later this year or in 2015, with the Taliban-led insurgency only one factor.
Even a cursory look at the second-round election results, sorted by province, reveal the deep divide in Afghanistan politics, in which Ghani, a Pashtun, with strength in Afghanistan’s south and east, and Abdullah, a Tajik, with strength in the north and west, won drastically skewed results. In Paktia province, in the southeast, Ghani won 92 percent of the vote to Abdullah’s 8 percent, while in Panjshir province, a chief base of the anti-Taliban (and anti-Pashtun) Northern Alliance, Abdullah won 94 percent to Ghani’s 6 percent. Not exactly a sign of national unity! (You can find all of the results, province by province, at the website of Afghanistan’s Independent Electoral Commission.)
A warlord from the north, Atta Mohammad Noor, the governor of Balkh province—where Abdullah won 63 percent of the vote—has already declared that he’ll help lead a government opposed to whatever government Ghani might set up. “From this moment on we announce our own legitimate government led by Abdullah Abdullah,” he said, though it isn’t clear whether he had Abdullah’s support. The United States warned Abdullah’s supporters, and everyone else, to stay away from any such action. Said Secretary of State John Kerry:
I have noted reports of protests in Afghanistan and of suggestions of a “parallel government” with the gravest concern. The United States expects Afghan electoral institutions to conduct a full and thorough review of all reasonable allegations of irregularities. At the same time, there is no justifiable recourse to violence or threats of violence, or for resort to extra-constitutional measures or threats of the same. The apolitical role of the security forces must be respected by all parties. We call on all Afghan leaders to maintain calm in order to preserve the gains of the last decade and maintain the trust of the Afghan people. Any action to take power by extra-legal means will cost Afghanistan the financial and security support of the United States and the international community.
Despite its waning influence, the United States has a lot of muscle because it, and the rest of the international community, provide virtually every dollar of Afghanistan’s budget, including cash to keep its military afloat. But that may not be enough to keep Afghanistan together if the various factions, and the warlords, can’t agree on who’ll get the biggest slice of the pie when the final (adjusted) election results are announced.
Last time around, when President Hamid Karzai was re-elected, there were widespread reports of massive fraud, intimidation and ballot stuffing, and Abdullah is making the same charges in 2014. And, as Ioannis Koskinas wrote last week for Foreign Policy, it isn’t exactly a surprise that fraud was in the offing:
As late as December 2013, the international community knew that there were over 19 million voter registration cards in circulation even though there were only 11 million registered voters, but did not feel compelled to act. It is important to highlight, however, the fact that there has been fraud in this election is no surprise to most credible analysts. But the level of fraud is so significant and surprisingly efficient, that it has surprised even the most cynical pundits, pointing to perhaps a widespread use of the Afghan election instruments (i.e. the Independent Election Commission, or IEC, and the ECC) to facilitate this fraud.
Is it possible that turnout increased by 1.3 million votes in the second round, even though dozens of candidates who’d run in the first round—and who might have attracted constituent votes—had been eliminated? And that nearly all of those additional votes would go to Ghani, and almost none to Abdullah? Maybe, but it doesn’t seem likely. Over at Foreign Policy’s South Asia Channel, Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili suggests that Ghani “learned to play the tribal game.” She writes:
There is little doubt that Ghani was able to mobilize Pashtuns in the East. Ghani claims he was able to do so by calling upon tribal leaders and mullahs to mobilize voters in their communities. For weeks before the second round of the presidential election, Ghani proudly touted the support of tribes. His twitter feed produced an endless stream of tribal “leaders” promising to deliver the votes of entire lineages.
But it isn’t at all clear that such bloc voting could have generated such a stunning turnaround in just weeks. To get a flavor of the cacophony of the just-concluded runoff, consider the following from Nishank Motwani, an Australian researcher on Afghanistan:
A…development which tarnished the legitimacy of the IEC transpired when its Secretariat Chief, Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhail was stopped by the police chief of Kabul for attempting to transport unused ballot material out of the IEC headquarters after polling had ended. His attempt was broadcast live on Afghan television and the incident sharpened widely held fears of electoral fraud. In the aftermath of this development, neither the IEC nor Amarkhail could offer a reasonable explanation to clarify his actions thereby generating suspicion that the unused ballots were intended for fraudulent use.
The IEC’s initial refusal to suspend or investigate its head of secretariat resulted in Abdullah’s team to cease its cooperation with the IEC and called for U.N.-led mediation. Furthermore, Abdullah’s team appears to have devoted its resources to unveiling Amarkhail’s (and by extension the IEC’s) role in electoral fraud. The latter came to light on 22 June during a press conference from the Abdullah camp where they played intercepted mobile phone conversations that allegedly implicated the Secretariat Chief discussing ways and means to trip the electoral process in favor of the rival presidential candidate. While the audio recordings have not been verified for their authenticity, their release has intensified the political crisis and has cast a fear that tensions might escalate and lead to violence. Since this incident unfolded, Amarkhail stepped down from his position and “strongly rejected” the accusations made against him. Making matters worse, new reports indicate that Amarkhail quietly left Kabul on a flight bound for Dubai. It is unsurprising that such precarious events have failed to inspire confidence or rebuild trust for the IEC in the public’s viewpoint.
In any case, poor, battered Afghanistan will have to negotiate once again a bitter, contested and perhaps violent battle over election results and then hope that it’s corrupt and venal politicians and warlords can come to an accommodation about what the next government will look like. And the man who’s been in the middle of it all for the United States, James Dobbins, the special envoy for Afghanistan, will soon be leaving his post, to be replaced by Daniel Feldman.
Read Next: Haaretz, commenting on murder in Israel, says extremists are ‘“vermin”.