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Bob Dreyfuss | The Nation

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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America's misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

War Crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan

War crimes, massacres, and, as Al Jazeera properly calls it, "collateral murder," are all part of the US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

The release last week of the Wikileaks video, thirty-eight grisly minutes long, of US airmen casually slaughtering a dozen Iraqis in 2007 -- including two Reuters newsmen -- puts it into focus not because it shows us something we didn't know, but because we can watch it unfold in real time. Real people, flesh and blood, gunned down from above in a hellish rain of fire.

The events in Iraq, nearly three years old, were repeated this week in Afghanistan, when trigger-happy US soldiers slaughtered five Afghans cruising along on a huge, comfortable civilian bus near Kandahar.

As the New York Times reports:

"American troops raked a large passenger bus with gunfire near Kandahar on Monday morning, killing and wounding civilians, and igniting angry anti-American demonstrations in a city where winning over Afghan support is pivotal to the war effort."

The Kandahar incident is only one of many, of course. Over the past year, dozens of Afghans have similarly died in checkpoint and roadside killings. Not one, not a single one, of these murders involved hostile forces. In other words, when the smoke and dust cleared, in all of the cases over the past year the bodies recovered were those of innocents.

As General McChrystal himself recently said:

"We really ask a lot of our young service people out on checkpoints because there's danger, they're asked to make very rapid decisions in often very unclear situations. However, to my knowledge, in the nine-plus months I've been here, not a single case where we have engaged in an escalation of force incident and hurt someone has it turned out that the vehicle had a suicide bomb or weapons in it and, in many cases, had families in it."

My question is: if so, then why aren't the rules of engagement altered? Why is it that US forces can fire wildly at an approaching vehicle, if in none of the cases that have happened thus far were there hostile forces involved?

In the Iraq case, as revealed in the stunning Wikileaks video, a group of eight men on a Baghdad street, in plain sunlight, is shot to pieces under withering fire from above. Then, when a van carrying four or five other men arrives to pick up a wounded man who is crawling painfully along the gutter, the van too is blasted to smithereens when the airmen request permission to "engage."

An analysis by Politifact takes apart Secretary of Defense Gates' callous assertion that the murders were "unfortunate" and "should not have any lasting consequences." We've already investigated this, he said, so what's the big deal?

The military's rationale for the slaughter is that US forces a few hundred yards away had taken small arms fire, and so the airmen in the copters circling above concluded that the men they'd seen carrying what they thought were weapons and RPGs -- although the "RPG" turned out to be a cameraman's telephoto lens -- were bad guys who could be shot to pieces at will. There was, of course, no evidence at all that the dozen or so Iraqis butchered were involved in what may or may not have been a shooting incident nearby. But, you know -- war is hell.

Politifact, to its discredit, defends Gates on these grounds, quoting David Finkel, a Washington Post reporter and author of The Good Soldiers, who writes in blase defense of the slaughter:

"What's helpful to understand is that, contrary to some interpretations that this was an attack on some people walking down the street on a nice day, the day was anything but that. It happened in the midst of a large operation to clear an area where U.S. soldiers had been getting shot at, injured, and killed with increasing frequency. What the Reuters guys walked into was the very worst part, where the morning had been a series of RPG attacks and running gun battles.

"More context. You're seeing an edited version of the video. The full video runs much longer. And it doesn't have the benefit of hindsight, in this case zooming in on the van and seeing those two children. The helicopters were perhaps a mile away. And as all of this unfolded, it was unclear to the soldiers involved whether the van was a van of good Samaritans or of insurgents showing up to rescue a wounded comrade. I bring these things up not to excuse the soldiers but to emphasize some of the real-time blurriness of those moments.

"If you were to see the full video, you would see a person carrying an RPG launcher as he walked down the street as part of the group. Another was armed as well, as I recall. Also, if you had the unfortunate luck to be on site afterwards, you would have seen that one of the dead in the group was lying on top of a launcher. Because of that and some other things, EOD -- the Hurt Locker guys, I guess -- had to come in and secure the site. And again, I'm not trying to excuse what happened. But there was more to it for you to consider than what was in the released video."

Finkel, who apparently is not going to write a sequel to his book called The Bad Soldiers, cavelierly dismisses the deaths of a dozen Iraqis as something that happens in the "real-time blurriness of those moments."

In Afghanistan, the repeated killings of innocent civilians has angered an embittered President Karzai, who has strongly and repeatedly condemned the killings of Afghan citizens by American troops. In a Washington Post story today, "Shooting by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan fuels Karzai's anger," the paper reports:

"Twelve days before President Hamid Karzai denounced the behavior of Western countries in Afghanistan, he met a 4-year-old boy at the Tarin Kowt civilian hospital in the south.

"The boy had lost his legs in a February airstrike by U.S. Special Operations forces helicopters that killed more than 20 civilians. Karzai scooped him up from his mattress and walked out to the hospital courtyard, according to three witnesses. 'Who injured you?' the president asked as helicopters passed overhead. The boy, crying alongside his relatives, pointed at the sky.

"The tears and rage Karzai encountered in that hospital in Uruzgan province lingered with him, according to several aides. It was one provocation amid a string of recent political disappointments that they said has helped fuel the president's emotional outpouring against the West and prompted a brief crisis in his relations with the United States. It was also a reminder that civilian casualties in Afghanistan have political reverberations far beyond the sites of the killings."

But I suppose Finkel can justify that one, too.

Iraq, Iran, and Sistani

Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Persian cleric who wields great influence in Iraqi politics, has been quiet lately. Too quiet, they might say in a horror movie.

Sistani, of course has cultivated a reputation as a "quietist," that is, as a cleric who does not believe in a noisy role for the Shiite clergy in political affairs, as -- you'll note -- is the opposite of the situation that prevails next door in Iran. There, the clergy rules under a questionable, or bogus, notion of Rule of the Jurisprudent, with the jurisprudent being a fancy word for a learned mullah. The fact that the mullahs in Iran are benighted and decidedly not learned hasn't deterred them from advancing the "Rule" idea, which was dragged out of obscurity by Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 revolution.

Sistani reportedly does not subscribe to Khomeini's Rule, also called the velayat-e faqih doctine. But if he doesn't, he doesn't say so. Apparently, his quietism extends even to being quiet about quietism.

Lately, though, Sistani is butting in once again in Iraqi politics. When they aren't flocking to Tehran to figure out the makeup of the next Iraqi government, they're flocking to Najaf, where the crusty, bearded old Sistani is holding court. The latest to make the pilgrimage is President Jalal Talabani, who's the Kurdish (non-Shiite) leader closest to Iran. (Back in the 1990s, when Talabani and Masoud Barzani engaged in a mini-civil war, Talabani got Iran's backing and Barzani sided with Saddam Hussein.)

An important Associated Press story now suggests that behind the scenes jockeying is underway to get ready for a successor to Sistani, 83, and that Iran is deeply involved. Iran's role is no surprise, since they've had Sistani hemmed in for years and since Iran has been quietly assembling chips in Najaf, part of its overall effort at acquiring political muscle in Iraq. Reports AP:

Behind the scenes in this holy city, Shiite clerics are quietly intriguing over who will succeed the sect's most revered and politically influential leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in a tussle that circles around money and foreign meddling as much as knowledge and piety.

The 83-year-old al-Sistani's departure from the scene would dramatically change Iraq's political landscape. There are already signs that neighboring Iran is seeking to increase its influence in Najaf and has long-term hopes of seeing a figure closer to Tehran's clerical leadership eventually ascend to al-Sistani's position.

Since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, al-Sistani has used his patriarchal standing to keep stability throughout Iraq's shaky shift to democratic rule by urging Shiites to stay away from any violence. At the same time, he has firmly promoted the rise and consolidation of Shiite power by urging his followers to turn out strongly in every election. ...

Aides say al-Sistani has a clean bill of health, though a heart condition sent him to London for treatment in 2004. But his advanced age has been enough to spark maneuvering behind the scenes in Najaf, the cloistered holy city south of Baghdad that is the Shiite world's foremost seat of theological scholarship, with dozens of religious schools.

Whoever replaces the Iranian-born al-Sistani could play a role in shaping the future of Iraq and the direction of its recently empowered Shiite majority.

That makes the position a lure for Iran as it seeks to boost its position while American forces begin their withdrawal, due to be completed by the end of 2011. Iran already wields considerable influence, largely because most Iraqi Shiite politicians lived there for years while in exile during Saddam's rule. ...

Still, insiders in Najaf say Tehran is beefing up its presence in the city, which has long maintained a stubborn independence from Iran's Shiite theological centers.

"There are sometimes attempts by hidden hands to meddle in the affairs of the marjaiyah," said Sheik Ali al-Najafi, the son and top aide to Pakistani-born Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, one of the city's four top clerics. Marjaiyah is Arabic for the collective Shiite spiritual leadership.

"It is to be expected that foreign nations meddle in Najaf," he said, in an implicit reference to Iran.

An aide to al-Sistani said top clerics from Iran, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have recently opened representative offices in Najaf, with some collecting the Shiite tax known as "khoms," or "fifth," and enrolling students in seminaries run by their representatives.

"When the Americans leave, the Iranians will play with us as they please," said the al-Sistani aide, mirroring fears in Najaf and elsewhere in Iraq that Tehran's influence in post-U.S. Iraq would grow. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Money is also a factor in the choice of a successor to al-Sistani, say several Najaf insiders, who are in daily contact with the city's clerical leadership. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of Najaf's internal dealings.

For example, seminary students -- there are an estimated 7,000 in Najaf, from across the Shiite world -- are mostly poor and depend on the city's top clerics for food and housing.

Clerics who offer better living conditions and higher stipends attract more students, translating into a wider base of support.

Al-Sistani holds the title of "al-marja al-akbar," or the "greatest object of emulation," and is venerated in Iraq and around the Shiite world. The world's estimated 200-plus million Shiites can choose what cleric they follow, but even among those who have their own "marja," al-Sistani holds considerable weight.

Choosing a successor is a complicated, informal process, without clear requirements beyond basic qualifications like knowledge and piety. Dozens of senior and middle-ranking clerics known as the "experts" take part, privately debating their choice -- and their view carries a great deal of weight.

Two grand ayatollahs in Najaf are seen as the top candidates to succeed him: The Afghan-born Mohammed Ishaq al-Fayadh and the Iraqi Mohammed Said al-Hakim. Both, however, are old and may only be interim figures.

The 80-year-old al-Fayadh is widely seen as the more likely. He has lived in Najaf for the past 40 years, enjoys only a fraction of the worldwide support al-Sistani commands. But the Najaf insiders say he is the closest to al-Sistani from among the city's grand ayatollahs.

Al-Sistani has kept his distance from Iran's regime and, significantly, does not subscribe to the religious principle on which the Islamic republic is based: "welayet al-faqeeh," or the right of the most learned cleric to hold political power.

Al-Fayadh is known to conditionally subscribe to that doctrine, though that does not necessarily mean he supports Iran, or that Tehran would prefer him in the post.

More likely, Iran is looking long-term, hoping that by building its influence among Najaf's lower clerics, it can ensure a figure close to its ruling clergy eventually rises to the top.

Since there is no figure with al-Sistani's stature, it is possible a weak or ailing successor moves in as a stopgap. The insiders say it is also possible that no one takes al-Sistani's title, and the three other grand ayatollahs continue to function the same way as they do now.

Who's the Enemy Again?

When it comes to Afghanistan, it doesn't sound like President Obama is in a negotiating mood. His in-and-out visit this weekend to Kabul, bomber jacket and all, included a rah-rah speech to US forces that didn't mention a word about a political settlement of the conflict. He seems to have gone head-to-head with President Karzai, who's at least engaged in peace talks with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Islamic Party, a key ally of the Taliban, and who's planning a peace council for the beginning of May.

Unfortunately, Obama seems more concerned about Karzai's corruption -- along with that of his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who heads the Kandahar provincial council -- than he does about Karzai's peace efforts. Indeed, it seems that many US officials have decided that Karzai is the enemy.

So Obama is counting on the major US military offensive in Kandahar, the capital of the Taliban's effort in Afghanistan, to give the United States a military victory. The goal, according to media reports, is to pacify Kandahar and its outlying districts, home to more than two million Afghans, and then hope that the Taliban has learned its lesson and submits meekly to US-style disarmament and reintegration. The plan, it seems, is to do all this by December, when the president will hold yet another review of the war's progress.

That's the plan.

In his speech to US forces at Bagram , outside of Kabul, Obama seemed giddy about the idea that the American people support the war effort. "The entire country stands behind you," said Obama. That, of course, is not true. A recent poll, released by the Washington Post, showed that just over half of Americans, 53 percent, support the war. In recent weeks, the numbers are up. A CNN poll reported that 44 percent of the US public believes that the war is going well (up dramatically from a few weeks ago, when just 21 percent thought it was going well), while 43 percent still believe it is going badly. Obama, in the talk with the troops, seized on the uptick in the polls thusly:

"You've gone on the offensive. And the American people back home are noticing. We have seen a huge increase in support in -- stateside, because people understand the kinds of sacrifices that you guys are making, and the clarity of mission that you're bringing to bear."

Leaving aside the utter lack of clarity of the US mission in Afghanistan, it's unseemly at best for the president to be touting poll numbers in a speech to the troops. Channeling President Bush, Obama came perilously close to promising a military victory in the war ("a military effort that takes the fight to the Taliban"), saying:

"We are going to disrupt and dismantle, defeat and destroy al Qaeda and its extremist allies. That is our mission. And to accomplish that goal, our objectives here in Afghanistan are also clear: We're going to deny al Qaeda safe haven. We're going to reverse the Taliban's momentum."

So Obama is putting all his chips on the Kandahar offensive, hoping that it "reverse(s) the Taliban's momentum," while ignoring, dissing, or criticizing the Afghan's government to make peace. Admiral Mike Mullen, asked about Karzai's talks with Hekmatyar, whose delegation offered a sensible peace plan that included a flexible plan for the withdrawal of US forces, said:

"I think it is premature. There's no one I've spoken to, at least on the American side, that doesn't think we need to proceed from a position of strength. In my view, we're not there yet."

Note Mullen's caveat: "at least on the American side." On other sides, including those that matter, there are other opinions. No wonder Karzai has started telling confidantes, according to a stunning piece in the New York Times, that he no longer believes that the United States has Afghanistan's interests at heart:

"Some prominent Afghans say that Mr. Karzai now tells associates that the Americans' goal here is not to build an independent and peaceful Afghanistan, but to exercise their power. ...

"In January, Mr. Karzai invited about two dozen prominent Afghan media and business figures to a lunch at the palace. At the lunch, he expressed a deep cynicism about America's motives, and of the burden he bears in trying to keep the United States at bay.

"'He has developed a complete theory of American power,' said an Afghan who attended the lunch and who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. 'He believes that America is trying to dominate the region, and that he is the only one who can stand up to them.'

"Mr. Karzai said that, left alone, he could strike a deal with the Taliban, but that the United States refuses to allow him. The American goal, he said, was to keep the Afghan conflict going, and thereby allow American troops to stay in the country."

Pretty amazing stuff. I don't know that, left alone, Karzai could make a deal with the Taliban, but I certainly don't see any sign of US support for the effort. Karzai isn't my favorite world leader, but he's the only leader Afghanistan's got. He may or may not be willing to cut a deal with the Taliban, Hekmaytar, et al., that gives them a share of power, but as far as I'm concerned that the only path to peace.

Instead, planning its invasion of Kandahar, the United States is outright threatening to include Ahmed Wali Karzai on its enemies list. Listen to what the Washington Post reports today, in its story about the coming Kandahar offensive:

"One senior US military official described a personal visit he said he made two weeks ago to [Ahmed Wali] Karzai in Kandahar to threaten him with arrest or worse. 'I told him, "I'm going to be watching every step you take. If I catch you meeting with an insurgent, I'm going to put you on the JPEL,"' the Joint Prioritized Engagement List reserved for the most wanted insurgents. 'That means,' the official said he told Karzai, 'that I can capture or kill you.'"

So. In the Alice in Wonderland world of Obama's Afghan policy, we are threatening to kill the president's brother because he might be talking to insurgents!

But talking to insurgents is exactly what the Karzai's ought to be doing.

Who's the enemy again?

Tehran's Coup in Iraq?

Iran is losing no time in assembling a pro-Tehran government in Iraq, and in so doing Tehran may push the Sunni minority in Iraq into violent rebellion. Already, there are reports from Iraq -- from Iraqi political insiders -- that former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi who led a nationalist, anti-Iranian coalition of secular Sunni and Shiite voters, may opt to boycott the upcoming new national assembly if he isn't given the right to form a government.

"We expect that there will be calls for a boycott of the parliament and for civil disobedience," according to Aiham Alsammarae, an ally of Allawi's. A violent reaction by Allawi's supporters can't be ruled out, he said, from voters who demand that Allawi be given the first crack at putting together a government. In the March 7 election, Allawi's Iraqi Nationalist Movement won 91 seats, edging out the State of Law party of Prime Minister Maliki, who won 89 seats.

But top Iraqi politicians representing Shiite sectarian politicians and Kurdish separatists filed dutifully to Iran yesterday for meetings on the formation of a new Iraqi government despite Allawi's win.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish leader, visited Tehran this weekend for meetings with President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. Talabani was accompanied by Adel Abdel Mahdi, a leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI)and Iraq's vice president, one of the leaders of the pro-Iranian Shiite religious bloc, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA). In parallel, leaders of Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki's State of Law party traveled to Iran to meet with Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr and Abdel Mahdi are two key members of the INA, and behind the scenes Iran is knocking heads together to make sure that Maliki, the INA, and Talabani form a ruling alliance, according to Iraqi sources interviewed from Iraq and Jordan.

Their goal: to undercut former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Under Iraqi law, and according to previous procedures, Allawi would normally be asked to form a government. But Maliki finagled a court decision that, he says, allows him to form a broader coalition first and then claim the right to announce a ruling majority.

According to Iraqi sources, Maliki, the INA, and Talabani -- who controls eight or nine seats within the Kurdish bloc -- agreed in Iran to form a government, which could muster about 170 seats, more than the 163 necessary in the 325-member parliament. As a result, the sources report, Masoud Barzani, the chief Kurdish leader, will also throw in with the pro-Maliki bloc. (Recently, Allawi and Barzani reportedly reached an understanding about an alliance, but even together they don't have enough votes to form a government.)

Allawi and his allies, including Saleh al-Mutlaq, who was banned from running for office by the so-called de-Baathification commission, have tried to reach out to the United States for support. But Washington, whose influence in Iraq is waning rapidly, and which plans to withdraw its last remaining combat forces from Iraq by August, hasn't responded to Allawi's overtures. Needless to say, the last thing that the Obama administration needs is to become embroiled in Iraq's post-election crisis, and there's little that Washington could do, anyway, to affect the outcome. Indeed, for years now it's been clear that American influence in Iraq has been shrinking, and that Iran's clout has been increasing.

But whether Washington likes it or not, Iraq may once again be pushed to the brink of civil war.

Allawi's Victory

Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi emerged from the election with a plurality of seats, winning 91 delegates to the next national assembly, against Prime Minister Maliki's 89.

It is, it seems, about to get ugly.

Allawi, a former Baathist who quit the party in the 1970s, led a coalition of parties representings secular Iraqis, nationalists, those who oppose Iran's influence, former Baathists, and various regional parties in provinces such as Nineveh (Mosul). His win is surprising, even shocking. He won with overwhleming support from Sunnis in northern and western Iraq, but in Baghdad -- which elected 70 delegates, nearly one-fourth of the total of 325 -- Allawi seems to have won not only Sunni votes but hundreds of thousands of secular Shiites, too.

Maliki, who pretended to be a nationalist but whose roots are deep in the ultra-religious Islamic Dawa party, is complaining that the election was rigged, an almost laughable charge. If anyone rigged anything, it was Maliki, who after all controls the levers of power. Before the election Maliki joined with the ultra-right Iraqi National Alliance, a clique of Iranian-backed religious Shiite parties, in support of an effort by Ahmed Chalabi to purge hundreds of secular and nationalist candidates from the ranks of those running for office, many of whom were members of Allawi's coalition. Indeed, any fraud that occurred -- though it seems minimal -- probably was directed against Allawi.

Maliki now says that he'll refuse to accept the results, a very ominous sign. As the Los Angeles Times reports:

"The fluidity of the situation has raised concerns that political battles will spill into the streets to be settled by force -- including assassinations.

"Before the election, Maliki assigned army generals loyal to him to the main divisions around Baghdad and sent others to the south, according to Iraqi politicians and a Defense Ministry memo obtained by The Times.

"Officers also were purged from the Interior Ministry prior to the election. According to an Iraqi close to the ministry and a Western official, 191 officers were recently removed on allegations that they had once belonged to the Baath Party. The decree is still waiting to be enforced, but it could lead to the sacking of more than 70 police generals and colonels, raising fears that Maliki and other Shiite parties are trying to stock the security ministries with their supporters.

"An intelligence operative who works with political parties in Baghdad predicted local politicians would be targeted for assassination in the weeks ahead. He acknowledged that he had already started surveying targets, in case his side was attacked."

If it does get ugly, Allawi will be at a disadvantage. Unlike Maliki, who controls the security and intelligence forces -- nicely funded by the American taxpayer, thank you very much -- and unlike the Kurds, the Sadrists, and the Badr Brigade of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which maintain militias, Allawi has none. The former resistance has disarmed, and the Sons of Iraq (Awakening, or sahwa) are badly disorganized.

Allawi's path to power involves a deal with the Kurds, who won 50-odd seats, but that won't be easy to get, since the Kurds are fiercely opposed to some of Allawi's more Arab nationalist allies, especially in Mosul. And Allawi will have to peel off some elements of the INA, probably the Sadrists, but they are strongly anti-Baathist and they've shifted to a great degree into the Iranian camp since 2007, so a deal with them, too, would be difficult for Allawi. (Sadr, who lives in Iran, won the majority of seats in the INA bloc, a massive defeat for ISCI.)

Iran will move mountains -- and assassins -- to stop Allawi. Tehran will put a lot of pressure on Maliki, the INA, and the Kurds to block Allawi and to reform the pro-Iranian bloc that has ruled Iran since 2005-2006. On the other hand, if politics and power conspire to deny Allawi what he has won, expect the Sunnis to move into armed opposition to the re-established powers-that-be.

A final word. Contrary to the assertions of various know-nothings, the Allawi coalition was not supported by the United States -- or, if it was, it was a deeply secret covert operation about which not a single shred of evidence has emerged. Indeed, when Allawi visited the United States a couple of times in the past two years, he knocked on doors all over Washington -- including at the White House -- and he couldn't get the time of day. The Obama administration decided that as it withdraws US forces over the next year and a half, the best option was to do nothing to interfere in Iraqi politics, and it didn't. Iraqi supporters of Allawi have complained to me that they haven't been able to convince the United States to support them, despite the obvious pro-Iranian tilt of the Maliki-ISCI government that was set up in 2006.

Allawi did get support from the Arab Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, though according to sources I've spoken with the Arab backing for Allawi paled in comparison to the massive support that Iran provided for its friends in the Iraqi National Alliance. The INA was assembled directly in Tehran, last summer, when scads of INA representatives traveled to Tehran, to the sick bed of the late Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of ISCI, whose son, Ammar al-Hakim, now runs the party. Top Iranian politicians such as Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, who is an Iraqi (born in Najaf), and the commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, brokered the deals that re-assembled the INA -- including the key deal, mending fences between Sadr and Hakim. Iran also put strong pressure on Maliki to join INA, but for personal reasons he refused.

The Iraqi Rubik's Cube

Final results of the Iraqi elections may, or may not, be released Friday. Of course, that will be the beginning, not the end, of the post-election crisis in Iraq.

Despite the trumpeting of democracy by US defenders of the war, sadly nearly all Iraqis voted along communal lines. Kurds voted for Kurds; Shiites either for Prime Minister Maliki or, worse, for the radical-right, Iran-backed Shiite alliance; and Sunnis (and a handful of secular Shiites, especially in Baghdad) voted for the cross-sectarian Iraqi Nationalist Movement of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Maliki had tried to appeal to Sunnis, but his hysterical, pre-election, anti-Baathist posturing -- in the wake of the purge of hundreds of alleged Baathists, secularists, and anti-Iran candidates by Ahmed Chalabi's commission -- resulted in Maliki getting virtually zero Sunni support. Allawi, a secular Shiite, tried to appeal across the sectarian divide, but it seems that few Shiites voted for his bloc, especially in the southern provinces.

Though final results aren't in yet, it appears that Allawi may have pulled off a stunning upset, winning the popular vote by a tiny margin and, possibly, winning more seats than Maliki. Both Allawi and Maliki are expected to gain about 90 seats in the 325-member national assembly, while the Kurds will have something like 50 and the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), the Shiite religious bloc will get perhaps 70. (In that latter bloc are Muqtada al-Sadr, the wily, radical cleric who's lately fallen under Iranian influence; the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which is an Iranian front; Chalabi; and a bunch of other Shiite-sectarian parties, including ISCI's Badr Brigade, a paramilitary group. The INA was literally assembled in Iran, with Iranian support, during 2009.)

Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd -- both of whom fared less well than they'd hoped -- are calling for a recount. According to Iraqi sources, Maliki is charging that the United States rigged the election software to favor Allawi during the counting, which is a ridiculous and inflammatory charge. He wants a hand recount. His authoritarian instincts and paranoid political style are becoming clearer: In a chilling message to Iraq's election overseers, Maliki all but threatened to use the armed forces to maintain his continued rule. Reportedly, US military forces in Iraq discreetly watched ballot storage centers in case Maliki ordered the army to seize them. Jawad Bolani, Iraq's interior minister, expressed fears that the prime minister might declare a state of emergency to preempt the political process. And, speaking of Maliki's opponents, Saad al-Muttalibi, a leader of Maliki's party, told Al Jazeera: "If these people do not understand politics, they should go home. I am afraid Iraq will go down in a very violent way."

So what now? Anything can happen. Iraqi politics is like a Rubik's Cube in which any twist or turn makes progress in one way but causes more problems on the other side of the cube. The best outcome for Iraq would be if Allawi were to gain a plurality and try to form a coalition. But there are many, many combinations.

The most likely coalition would involve a recombination of the existing ruling alliance, led by Shiites and Kurds, that would include Maliki's State of Law/Dawa party, the INA, and the Kurdish bloc. Achieving even that would require Maliki to resolve a very bitter rivalry with the Sadrists, who have emerged as the faction with the upper hand inside the INA. In 2007, Maliki launched a military crackdown against Sadr's militia in Baghdad and in Basra, Iraq's third most populous city and its southern port. And, in an effort to burnish his Arab credentials, Maliki has also used the army against the Kurds along the so-called "trigger line," where the Kurds are pushing to expand their territory, especially in oil-rich Kirkuk. So, like Sadr, the Kurds don't like Maliki much. But, this is the coalition that would most strongly be backed by Iran, and no doubt Iran would put a lot of pressure on Sadr and the Kurds to join with Maliki, rather than see Allawi -- a fierce nationalist -- emerge as prime minister.

But a reconstitution of the Shiite-Kurdish alliance would alienate and enrage supporters of Allawi's Iraqiyya coalition. Allawi's strong showing makes him a credible candidate to take the lead in assembling a ruling coalition, and he's already engaged in high-profile talks with Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish leader. However, Allawi's bloc harbors nationalists who despise the separatist Kurds, and even an Iraqiyya-Kurdish alliance would require Allawi to bolster his government with a contingent of Shiites, possibly the Sadrists. With bad blood all around there, too, it would be tough going. And Iran, which has deep ties to many Iraqi factions, especially among the Shiites, would likely support armed resistance to an Allawi-led government in Baghdad.

A remote possibility would be for Allawi and Maliki to band together. That, too, would earn Iran's enmity, and it would alarm the Kurds if an Arab nationalist government set up shop in Baghdad. An Allawi-Maliki alliance would have the virtue of keeping the most militant religious parties out of power. But it's hard to imagine either Maliki or Allawi agreeing to the other's primacy, so both might have to accept another politician, such as Interior Minister Bolani, an independent, as prime minister.

The problem is obvious: if a Maliki-INA partnership emerges to rule, the Sunnis would feel excluded, cheated, and angry. There is no doubt that over time a new Sunni insurgency would emerge, ranging from stepped-up Al Qaeda-style bombings to a far more organized, underground movement that, over time, could present a strategic threat to the government in Baghdad. On the other hand, if Allawi becomes prime minister, or even a major force in the new government, expect Iran to promote a violent counter-movement, reviving the death squads, assassination teams, and Special Groups -- such as the League of the Righteous -- that would carry out an unrelenting series of attacks.

Oh, yes: all of this as President Obama draws down US forces.

Light at the End of the Afghan Tunnel?

A lot happening on the AfPak front.

It's Pakistan week in Washington, and nearly the entire Pakistan government is in town for meetings with the Obama administration. But the real action is half a world away, where a delegation from the Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Islamic Party (Hezb-i Islami), a key ally of the Taliban, has sent a peace delegation to Kabul for meetings with the Afghan government of President Karzai.

It's the most important peace initiative since the start of the war in Afghanistan in 2001. And here I make a bold prediction: the war in Afghanistan will be pretty much over by July, 2011. Like the war in Iraq, which is winding down as U.S. forces withdraw, the end of the war in Afghanistan will be messy, a lot of loose ends will be left over, and it will be unsatisfying to all sides.

Let's remember, first of all, who Hekmatyar is. He's not exactly an anti-American firebrand. During the CIA-sponsored anti-USSR jihad in the 1980s, he was the prime recipient of aid from Saudi Arabia, the CIA, and Pakistan's ISI. He had a well-earned reputation as a brutal thug, but then so did many of Karzai's current warlord allies. During the pre-Taliban civil war of the early 1990s, he was an enthusiastic participant, and since then he's emerged as an ally of the Taliban, based in Pakistan and quietly receiving covert support from the ISI since 9/11. He is a committed Islamist.

But, according to the New York Times, in a piece by Carlotta Gall, the paper's long-time reporter in South Asia, Hekmatyar's delegation to Kabul has proposed a peace plan that is also supported by the Taliban, contingent on the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces. Gall writes:

"Representatives of a major insurgent faction have presented a formal 15-point peace plan to the Afghan government, the first concrete proposal to end hostilities since President Hamid Karzai said he would make reconciliation a priority after his re-election last year. ...

"His representatives met Monday with President Karzai and other Afghan officials in the first formal contact between a major insurgent group and the Afghan government after almost two years of backchannel communications, which diplomats say the United States has supported.

"A spokesman for the delegation, Mohammad Daoud Abedi, said the Taliban, which makes up the bulk of the insurgency, would be willing to go along with the plan if a date was set for the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country."

The terms of the peace plan, called the National Rescue Agreement, aren't exactly extremist in nature:

"The Hezb-i-Islami proposal, while categorical about the demand for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan, and to end military operations and detentions, goes some way toward meeting the demands of Western nations and the Afghan government on other issues.

"It accepts having the current government to stay in power, and having the Afghan police, army and intelligence services assume responsibility for security, while a seven-member national security council is formed as the ultimate decision-making body until foreign forces leave and new elections are held.

"A future elected parliament would have the right to review the Constitution, and the Afghan courts would prosecute those accused of corruption, drug smuggling, theft of the national wealth, and war crimes."

Of course, the opening of peace talks isn't the end of talks, just the beginning. In a month or so, Karzai plans to convene a jirga, or council of tribal elders and others, to discuss an arrangement for reconciliation with the insurgency, including the Taliban, the Islamic Party, and anyone else who wants to take part. Karzai's initiative was encouraged strongly by the British and the rest of NATO and the EU, who've turned decidedly against the idea of prolonged war in Afghanistan. The United States' views on the whole effort are decidedly more mixed, since the counterinsurgency (COIN) and nation-building cult in Washington is far more committed than the Europeans to a decades-long program of war and rebuilding in Afghanistan. But Obama, I believe, wants to end the war in Afghanistan before running for reelection in 2012, so he can run as the president who ended President Bush's two misguided wars. In the end, Obama is likely to support a negotiated end to the fighting; indeed, that is precisely why the president announced last December that U.S. forces would start to withdraw from Afghanistan in July, 2011.

Although the Taliban and Hekmatyar want the U.S. withdrawal to start in July, 2010, it's an opening gambit. The head of the Islamic Party delegation in Kabul told Gall: "This is a start, this is not the word of the Koran that we cannot change it."

So what of Pakistan? In the end, a decisive role will be played by Pakistan, because of that country's vast influence with the Taliban, with the Islamic Party, and with the even more radical group around the Haqqani family, whose movement makes up the third part of the insurgency in Afghanistan. (The Haqqanis, according to experts, are much closer to the dead-enders in Al Qaeda than the others.)

An important story in the Washington Post today by Karen DeYoung and Karin Brulliard reports that Pakistan realizes that the end-game in Afghanistan is coming more quickly than it expected, and so Pakistan is scrambling to get its ducks in a row in preparation for a settlement of the war. Pakistan's main interest, as always, is in securing what it thinks of as a strategic interest in Afghanistan vis-à-vis India, and recently Pakistan has tried to up the ante so that it gets a seat at the table. In January, for instance, the Pakistanis offered to help train Afghan military forces. In the end, Pakistan will be critical, even decisive, in bringing the Taliban, Hekmatyar, and Haqqani to the bargaining table, and indeed it's almost certain that Pakistan is playing a leading role behind the scenes in making that happen already.

Reports the Post:

"Pakistani officials are also seeking reassurance that a substantial U.S. military presence will remain in Afghanistan long after Obama's promised withdrawal begins in mid-2011 and that their traditional adversary, India, will not be allowed to expand its strategic presence there. The Pakistani military and intelligence service see their long-standing relationship with the Afghan Taliban as insurance against the possibility of an unfriendly government in Kabul. In exchange for weakening those ties, they want a seat at the table for any Afghan reconciliation talks, and a guarantee that U.S. commitments will not evaporate if and when the Taliban and al-Qaeda are no longer deemed a U.S. security threat.

"'There is a sort of panic in Pakistan that the endgame may be earlier than Pakistan had thought, and that Pakistan isn't positioned well at all to protect its own interests,' said Tanvir Ahmad Khan, director of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Islamabad and a former Pakistani foreign secretary."

For its cooperation, Pakistan wants a lot: not only U.S. assurances that Washington won't abandon it, but tons of military hardware, billions of dollars in U.S. economic aid, and even a nuclear agreement parallel to the U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal that was signed by President Bush. Christine Fair, writing in Foreign Policy, suggests that a U.S.-Pakistan nuclear deal isn't out of the question, as long as it's "conditions-based," and she adds:

"Although the United States has professed a need for a 'strategic relationship' with Pakistan and has offered lucrative financial allurements and conventional arms since the 1950s, a genuinely strategic relationship has been beguiled by the reality that both states have divergent strategic aims. Washington wants Islamabad to give up what it sees as the only tools in its arsenal to secure its interests at home and abroad: jihadi terrorism under the security of its nuclear umbrella.

"But the United States is going to have to offer something in exchange: recognition and strategic support. Such a deal could create the conditions of trust whereby other initiatives, such as a limited security guarantee -- negotiated with India's explicit input -- would be welcomed."

The big question hovering over all of this is: Does the Obama administration have the savvy to undertake a vast, regional approach that sees Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China components and participants in a deal? Can it make all of those moving parts fit together? Can it do that, while doing the same in Iraq, where it was to work closely with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria, and Jordan? And can it do all of that while hammering away at the Israel-Palestine conundrum, which is approaching a major turning point, too? Stay tuned.

Not Chalabi's Iraq

Final results in the Iraqi elections, held March 7, won't be announced until Friday at the earliest. And even then, the vote count is likely to be disputed by nearly everyone, with Prime Minister Maliki issuing veiled threats that he won't relinquish the reins of power no matter the result. But with 95 percent of the vote counted, Maliki is locked in a dead heat with the Sunni-backed, nationalist bloc, the Iraqi Nationalist Movement, led by former Prime Minister Allawi, a secular Shiite. Both Maliki and Allawi are expected to win about 90 seats each in the 325-member parliament.

The best reporting on the Iraqi elections and their aftermath continues to come from Reidar Visser, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, whose invaluable blog provides regular updates on the politics of Iraq.

Today, however, I want to focus on the fortunes of the Great de-Baathification Machine, namely, Ahmed Chalabi and Ali al-Lami, whose provocative purge of more than 500 candidates -- nearly all of whom were associated with anti-Iran and secular, nationalist movements -- polarized Iraq in the weeks before the vote. (Those who've seen "The Green Zone," the thriller starring Matt Damon, saw Chalabi's role as an exile who lied about Iraq's weapons program portrayed beautifully.)

Among other things, it appears as if the anti-Baath purge boosted Sunni turnout and turned more moderate Shiite voters away from, rather than toward, Chalabi, Lami, and the Shiite religious coalition that they created.

Lami, who was Chalabi's ally and head of the Justice and Accountability Commission, got only about 900 votes in the election, according to Visser's count, meaning that he likely won't be elected to parliament. Chalabi, who ran as a stalwart -- indeed, the organizer -- of the Iranian-backed Iraqi National Alliance, the Shiite coalition of religious parties, will take a seat in the next parliament. As Visser reports, the INA -- which included the former Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Sadrists, and other Shiite parties -- won 16 seats in Baghdad province, and among them Chalabi finished ninth.

As readers of this space know, I've been excoriating US neoconservatives who gleefully embraced Chalabi in the 1990s and who backed him in 2002-2003 during their headlong rush to war in Iraq. Since then, of course, Chalabi has come out of the closet as an agent of influence for Iran, and he worked closely with Iran's leaders in 2009 to assemble the INA. In February, in response to my question, General Odierno virtually accused Chalabi of being an Iranian tool. Among the neocons closest to Chalabi was Michael Rubin of the neocon-infested American Enterprise Institute.

In that light, an interesting debate has erupted among neocons over the Chalabi factor.

Joshua Muravchik, a former AEI fellow who is now a fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University, has written a mea culpa of the first order for World Affairs, in which he apologizes for having gotten into bed with Chalabi two decades ago:

"Confessing error is never easy, especially when under attack. ... The particulars of our errors -- whether it was the whole idea of invading Iraq or just aspects of its execution -- will be sorted out for a long time, but one cardinal mistake was undoubtedly our infatuation with Ahmad Chalabi."

In his piece, Muravchik provides a skewed but mostly accurate account of Chalabi's post-2003 machinations, including the espionage charges involving Iran, his role in assembling the pro-Iran Shiite coalition, and so on, and he adds:

"In an effort to change the subject from his election shenanigans, Chalabi floats the idea of 'a regional alliance among Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran that would be of benefit to the entire Middle East and a strong bastion against Islamic extremism.'

"Say what? I heard Iran’s reactionary Majlis speaker, Ali Larijani, make a roughly similar proposal at a forum in Dubai once. An alliance of this kind is designed to push the United States from the region and pave the way for Iranian and/or Islamist hegemony. Who knows about the espionage charges, but the games Chalabi is playing are a threat both to Iraq’s prospects for democracy, as well as to America’s interests in the region."

If you read down to the comments following Muravchik's article, you will find enthusaistic, pro-Chalabi comments from two other Chalabi partisans. Francis Brooke, who was Chalabi's aide and publicist in Washington, calls Muravchik's argument "silly," and asks: "Why the drive-by attack?" And Max Singer, a fellow at the neocon-infested Hudson Institute, which he helped to found, wrote a long, meandering post defending Chalabi that deserves to be read in full for its magnificent self-delusion. He writes:

"While I do not know enough about current Iraqi politics to judge how much I agree with Chalabi’s recent positions, I am not ready to give up either the view that Chalabi was the right person to lead Iraq toward stability and democracy in 2003 or that Chalabi is a force for good in Iraq today."

Personally, I don't believe for a minute that Chalabi is, in fact, an "Iranian agent." But he's maintained close political ties to Tehran going back to the 1990s, and these ties were well known to the neoconservatives then, and now. He is a rank opportunist of the first order. In 2003, and subsequently, his fanatical anti-Baathist views coincided neatly with both the Supreme Leader of Iran and the supreme leader of the neocons, Richard Perle. They still do. The hardcore pro-Israeli far right and its neocon allies consider the Sunni Arab nationalist movement in all its forms, including its Baathist variant, as more inimical to Israel than Iran's version of clerical rule, despite the emerging Iranian bid for hegemony in the region. Politics, indeed, does make strange bedfellows.

That Singer, a visceral supporter of the Likud regime in Israel, would continue to embrace Chalabi is a sign that many neocons still believe that Chalabi is their guy, despite his close ties to Iran and his outright advocacy for Iran's influence in Iraq.

GOP Peaceniks?

Last December, when President Obama launched his second escalation of the Afghan war, he did so with the unflinching support of the Republicans, the right, and neoconservativies. But a small group of conservatives, libertarians and assorted contrarians on the right has opposed the war, and yesterday I journeyed to the Cato Institute to find out whether that nucleus of anti-war opposition is significant or not. The answer: maybe, but probably not.

The Cato conference was entitled "Escalate or Withdraw? Conservatives and the War in Afghanistan," and it brought together several ultra conservative members of Congress: Tom McClintock (R-CA); Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA); and John J. Duncan, Jr. (R-TN), for a panel hosted by Grover Norquist, the right-wing activist and president of Americans for Tax Reform. Other speakers included Joe Scarborough, the MSNBC host and a former member of Congress elected as part of the 1994 Republican Contract with America revolution that Norquist and Newt Gingrich organized, and other conservatives, including Cato staffers.

Perhaps the most important participant was Norquist. As leader of ATR, Norquist ia a fierce crusader for cutting taxes and eliminating government programs and regulations. Nine years ago, when I wrote a profile of Norquist for The Nation, he told me: "My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." Since then, of course, the government has grown bigger, not smaller, and a big part of that growth has been the Pentagon, mostly the Bush administration's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part of what motivates Norquist today is that the Bush-era wars did two things that small-government crusaders are unhappy about: they enlarged the federal government and, by mobilizing voters against politicians who supported the wars, they contributed to crushing national defeats for the GOP in 2006 and 2008.

In an interview on the sidelines of the conference, Norquist told me that for the most part he "hasn't weighed in" on Iraq and Afghanistan, preferring instead to concentrate his activities on taxes and related issues. "I try not to have an opinion about everything," he told me. At the same time, his appearance at a conference whose very purpose was to raise questions and doubts about the war effort in Afghanistan, Norquist was making an important statement, and one that might resonate among broader elements of the "center-right" coalition that he leads. "It's important to have this conversation on the right," he says.

According to Norquist, it's difficult for Republican members of Congress to speak out against the war, because the adventure was initiated by President Bush. But, he suggests, there is a kind of silent majority of Republicans in Congress who'd come out against the war if the right political opportunity emerged. Indeed, during the panel discussion with McClintock, Duncan, and Rohrabacher, Norquist asked the three members of Congress how many of their colleagues in the House shared their dissident views on Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama's escalation, and the nation-building project underway. And all three said that Republican opposition is high. McClintock said that "virtually everyone agrees that going into Afghanistan the way we did was a mistake" and that more than half of the Republican caucus has strong misgivings about the war. On Iraq, Rohrabacher made the surprising assertion that "almost all" of the GOP members of the House think that it was a mistake to invade Iraq. And Duncan, who cited his experience in facing a Republican primary challenger who criticized Duncan's antiwar views, said that the vast majority of Republican voters in his conservative Tennessee district agree with him. His opponent, he said, won 12 percent of the primary vote.

In the interview, Norquist cited their statements as evidence that the Republican party is mostly unenthusiastic about the wars. "All three of them [McClintock, Duncan and Rohrabacher] came down strong, close to saying that practically everybody" in the Republican caucus agrees that the Iraq-Afghanistan efforts are misguided. The problem is, he said, most of the Republicans believe that the Republican voter base won't tolerate anything other than lock-step support for the war. Why? "Because Bush identified the Republicans with Iraq and Afghanistan."

Republicans, Norquist says, have other priorities. "On taxes, where if a Republican says, 'I want to raise taxes,' or on guns, where if a Republican says, 'I want to take away your guns,' the base would say, 'We're outta here.' But if Bush had said, 'We're not going to invade Iraq,' he wouldn't have gotten three harshly worded letters." He argues that there was no real public support for the war in Iraq before it was launched.

Today, many conservatives, especially traditionalists, are uncomfortable with nation-building in Afghanistan. They are strict constitutionalists, who believe that wars need to be declared by Congress, not launched by executive fiat. And many of them are concerned over the fiscal implications of defense spending. They strongly criticize neoconservatives, who they believe dragged the GOP down by convincing Bush to go to war. Duncan, in his Cato talk, called the neocons "the most radical" element in US politics. McClintock criticized Obama for trying to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan, noting that the military's job is to apply overwhelming force to win wars and then get out. And Rohrabacher said that more troops for Afghanistan is not the answer, that the United States ought to let the Afghans fight it out, perhaps supporting allies such as the Northern Alliance or other anti-Taliban veterans of the 1980s anti-USSR jihad who are willing to cooperate with the United States.

The three members' views, though, as expressed in the Cato conference, were confusing, and ill-thought-out at best. None presented a coherent view of the conflict, none proposed a true exit strategy, and not one of them mentioned the idea of a political settlement by negotiating a deal with the Taliban. Worse, they didn't address the political problem of how to convince the supposed silent majority among the GOP to speak out.

Pentagon vs. Israel?

Nearly a year ago, I wrote about General Keith Dayton's address to the annual Soref Symposium of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the pro-Israeli thinktank. In that address, I noted, Dayton -- who'd been assigned the job of helping to train and equip Palestinian military units in the West Bank -- worried out loud that despite the fact that the individuals selected for those units were vetted by Israeli and Jordanian intelligence, and despite the US involvement, it wasn't impossible that these units could become stirred by a Palestinian nationalist (i.e., strongly anti-Israel) outlook.

Dayton added, however, that the point of building these units was to "create a Palestinian state." But he added:

"With big expectations, come big risks. There is perhaps a two-year shelf life on being told that you're creating a state, when you're not."

As I wrote at the time:

"To my ears, at least, his subtle warning is that if concrete progress isn't made toward a Palestinian state, the very troops Dayton is assembling could rebel."

Which raises the question of the US military's role in the Middle East, in Palestine, and in America's Middle East policy. Recently, as noted below, key commanders in Centcom and at the US Joint Chiefs of Staff have reportedly been sounding the alarm that Israel's intransigence on peace talks is undermining the US position in the Middle East. And, top US military officers, including Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, are strongly opposed to the idea of an Israeli attack on Iran. What it means is that the fiercely pro-Israeli neoconservatives, who hug the military to their breasts when it comes to invading Iraq, are wary of the Pentagon's role more broadly in the Middle East, since the Pentagon -- and the military-industrial complex -- is fond of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Arabs, and the regional machinery that supports America's huge presence in the area of Centcom's bailiwick.

Daniel Pipes, who makes most neocons look mild by comparison, has just issued another fatwa against America's support for what he calls "the Palestinian militia," i.e., General Dayton's responsibility, and he concludes: "The Dayton mission needs to be stopped before it does more harm."

Why does Dayton need "to be stopped"? Because, says Pipes:

"Looking ahead, I predict that those troops will more likely be a war partner than a peace partner for Israel."

Pipes says that the Palestinian armed forces, weak as they are, are prone to "start directing their firepower against Israel," cooperating with Hamas, or even being taken over by Hamas if the militant Islamists from that benighted organization take over the West Bank.

Pipes' blast at General Dayton is only the most recent neoconservative assault against the US military in the Middle East. In part, the neocons are suspicious -- as always -- of the so-called "realists" who, in turn, are skeptical of Israel's role of monkey wrench in the machinery of US-Arab relations.

Case in point: General Petraeus.

According to Mark Perry, writing in Foreign Policy, Petraeus recently delivered a 45-minute briefing, with slides, that "stunned" Mullen and the brass. Writes Perry:

"The briefers reported that there was a growing perception among Arab leaders that the U.S. was incapable of standing up to Israel, that CENTCOM's mostly Arab constituency was losing faith in American promises, that Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region, and that Mitchell himself was (as a senior Pentagon officer later bluntly described it) 'too old, too slow ... and too late.'"

In addition:

"The briefers were careful to tell Mullen that their conclusions followed from a December 2009 tour of the region where, on Petraeus's instructions, they spoke to senior Arab leaders. 'Everywhere they went, the message was pretty humbling,' a Pentagon officer familiar with the briefing says. 'America was not only viewed as weak, but its military posture in the region was eroding.'"

It isn't a shock, of course, that Israel's hardline policies are undermining America's relations with the Muslim world. For most hardline Israelis, including the Likudniks and people like Bibi Netanyahu, that's the point.

As Perry concludes, citing reports in the Israeli press, Vice President Biden's recent fiasco in Israel wasn't merely pique over a settlements blunder by Israeli hardliners. Perry used Yediot Aharanoth, a conservative Israeli daily, to add:

"Not surprisingly, what Biden told Netanyahu reflected the importance the administration attached to Petraeus's Mullen briefing: 'This is starting to get dangerous for us,' Biden reportedly told Netanyahu. 'What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace.' Yedioth Ahronoth went on to report: 'The vice president told his Israeli hosts that since many people in the Muslim world perceived a connection between Israel's actions and US policy, any decision about construction that undermines Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem could have an impact on the personal safety of American troops fighting against Islamic terrorism.' The message couldn't be plainer: Israel's intransigence could cost American lives."

Which is why the Washington Post and its pro-Israel editorialists are going to have to keep their pencils sharpened. In today's paper, the Post has an editorial entited, "The U.S. quarrel with Israel." It says:

"It has been startling -- and a little puzzling -- to see Mr. Obama deliberately plunge into another public brawl with the Jewish state."

With any luck, that brawl is just beginning.

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