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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

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

Huge Fly Swatter, No Flies: Top Secret America's Vast Counterterrorism Machine

Not surprisingly, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is complaining about the Washington Post's blockbuster series, "Top Secret America," whose first installment appeared today. (You can read the whole series, as it appears, at the Post's special site, TopSecretAmerica.com.) Laughably, the ODNI says:

The reporting does not reflect the Intelligence Community we know.… We have reformed the [intelligence community] in ways that have improved the quality, quantity, regularity, and speed of our support to policymakers, warfighters, and homeland defenders, and we will continue our reform efforts.  We provide oversight, while also encouraging initiative.  We work constantly to reduce inefficiencies and redundancies, while preserving a degree of intentional overlap among agencies to strengthen analysis, challenge conventional thinking, and eliminate single points of failure.

But as the Post makes clear, the world of Top Secret America has grown like Topsy Secret America. Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, who wrote the series, report that the post-9/11 apparatus has exploded to include at least 1,271 government organizations and nearly 2,000 private contractors in 10,000 locations, with 854,000 people holding top-secret security clearances. The intelligence budget for the United States has risen from $30 billion a year in 2001 to $75 billion today, and that only scratches the surface. And they report:

Twenty-four organizations were created by the end of 2001, including the Office of Homeland Security and the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Force. In 2002, 37 more were created to track weapons of mass destruction, collect threat tips and coordinate the new focus on counterterrorism. That was followed the next year by 36 new organizations, and 26 after that; and 31 more, and 32 more, and 20 or more each in 2007, 2008, and 2009.

What's missing from the story, however, is any assessment of the threat against which this vast and growing machinery is arrayed. The Post notes that twenty-five separate agencies have been set up to track terrorist financing, which admirably shows the overlapping and redundant nature of the post-9/11 ballooning of agencies and organizations targeting terrorism. But the article barely mentions that there are hardly any terrorists to track.

The Post points out that among the recent, nuisance-level attacks by Muslim extremists—the Fort Hood shooter, the underwear bomber, the Times Square incident—the intelligence machine failed to detect or stop them. True. That's an indictment of the counterterrorism machinery that has become a staple for critics of the outsize budgets and wasteful bureaucracy that has been created since 9/11.

The core problem, which the Post doesn't address, is that Al Qaeda and its affiliates, its sympathizers, and even self-starting terrorist actors who aren't part of Al Qaeda itself, are a tiny and manageable problem. Yet the apparatus that has been created is designed to meet nothing less than an existential threat. Even at the height of the cold war, when the Soviet Union and its allies were engaged in a brutal, country-by-country battle across Asia, Africa and Latin America to combat the United States, NATO, and American hegemonism, there was nothing like the post-9/11 behemoth in existence. A thousand smart intelligence analysts, a thousand smart FBI and law enforcement officers, and a few hundred Special Operations military folk are all that's needed to deal with the terrorism threat. It's been hugely overblown. Yet in the Post story, sage-like gray beards of the counterterrorism machine stroke their chins and pontificate about how difficult it is to coordinate all these agencies, absorb all the data, read all the reports and absorb the 1.7 billion e-mails and phone calls that are picked up every day by the National Security Agency. It's an "Emperor's New Clothes" problem. The emperor isn't naked, but no one, really, is threatening him.

That Iranian Nuke Spy: Was He Pressured to Fabricate Intelligence?

Let’s start with the obvious: it’s highly unlikely that Shahram Amiri, a mid-level nuclear scientist from Iran, was kidnapped by the CIA and tortured, although that’s what he claims.

Amiri says that in 2009 he was kidnapped by the CIA and Saudi intelligence, drugged, and spirited to the United States, where he then survived “mental torture” designed to force him to reveal secrets about Iran’s nuclear program.

He’s posted a series of contradictory You Tube videos about his supposed ordeal, in which he alternates between saying that he was seized against his will and held captive and saying that he is free. But it’s almost unimaginable that the United States would kidnap him, and the official U.S. view that Amiri defected to the United States while on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia seems plausible to me.

According to David Ignatiius, in the Washington Post, "Amiri made contact with the CIA well before his reported defection during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in June 2009."

Amiri’s own comments seem laughable. “I have succeeded in escaping from American intelligence in Virginia,” he said, in a June 29 video. (In fact, few captives of the CIA produce seemingly unending stream of You Tube videos.) Yesterday he showed up at the Iranian Interests Section on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, D.C., and today he’s winging his way home.

It’s also plausible that the thugs who control Iran these days threatened his young wife and child who remained back home after Amiri defected.

One aspect of Amiri’s story, however, rings true. He says that U.S. officials “pressured me to help with their propaganda against Iran,” and they suggested that he talk to U.S. reporters to say that he had secret, damaging information on his laptop. I don’t doubt that the United States would try to use Amiri for propaganda purposes, even by fabricating or exaggerating the information that he supposedly possessed.

That’s because the United States is overly concerned, to the point of seeming obsession, with Iran’s nuclear program. Iran, with some credibility, has claimed that at least some of the evidence about the military dimensions of its nuclear research, often cited by the International Atomic Energy Agency, are fabrications. In the Spy vs. Spy game, fabrications and fake intelligence are commonplace, as anyone who remembers the U.S. propaganda campaign over Iraq in 2001-2003 recalls. It’s unclear whether Amiri gave the United States anything of value after his now-reversed defection, but one thing’s for sure: in the Spy vs. Spy game now, it will be Iran which gains vast propaganda points when it allows Amiri to make a well-publicized victory lap describing his kidnapping, torture, and daring “escape from American intelligence.”

Stirrings in Iran: The Bazaar on Strike, Students Join In

Something interesting is happening in Iran. 

It’s far too early to say that it’s the first stirring of a significant rebellion against the regime since last summer’s post-election upheaval. But unlike that upsurge, which involved millions of unhappy pro-reformist voters, this time it’s the bazaar, Iran’s commercial class, that is showing signs of unhappiness. Back in 1978, when the anti-Shah revolution got going, it was the bazaar that provided the muscle. Many bazaaris, with whom I spoke extensively during two visits to Iran in 2008 and 2009, despite the mullahs. And traditionally, another part of Iran’s bazaar class has had close ties to the religious elite of ayatollahs and mullahs. They, too, have reasons to rebel, since in Ahmadinejad’s Iran, where the security forces and the Revolutionary Guard have emerged on top, the religious classes have to some extent been shunted aside. So it’s possible, but still unclear, that there could emerge an alliance between the bazaar, the clergy, and the reformists who, after all, are themselves led by clergy such as former President Khatami.

The unrest began several days ago, and it has reportedly spread beyond Tehran’s sprawling bazaar, a vast canopied and covered marketplace in the heart of the capital, to bazaars in other leading Iranian cities. According to one report, after members of the guard and the basij, the religious-fascist militia, stormed the bazaar in Tehran last week, one prominent shopkeeper was killed:

A prominent textile trader was killed when pro-government militiamen and police officers raided the bazaar on Wednesday, demanding that shopkeepers reopen for business, opposition Web sites reported.

Opposition websites, of course, are notoriously prone to exaggerate events. But it’s clear that something important is happening. In response, the Iranian government has declared a sudden, unscheduled two-day “holiday” whose sole purpose seems to make it appear as if the reason that shops in the Tehran bazaar are closed is because of the fake holiday, not a shutdown by shopkeepers.

The bazaar strike began as a protest against a government-imposed tax increase of 70 percent. The strike began last Tuesday. According to the Los Angeles Times:

By some accounts, the bazaar protest is gathering momentum. In response to the growing demonstrations, increasing numbers of police are stationed not only around the bazaar but in various points throughout Tehran.

The LA Times adds that students and other political activists are joining the strike:

Some Iranian youth joined the merchants in protest at Sabzeh Maidan. Eyewitnesses report that when a student attempted to record the scene, police beat him with a baton and arrested him, spiriting him away to an unknown location. Witnesses claim that plainclothes policemen and government security forces then launched tear gas bombs at protesters.

One opposition activist reported that by Thursday, hundreds of students and merchants had gathered in the shoemakers’ quarter of the old bazaar, chanting such slogans as, "Death to Ahmadinejad" and "Victory is God’s, and victory is near," adding "Death to this deceptive government!”

It’s very likely, if not certain, that many of the bazaaris are affiliated with the forces around Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the wily billionaire ayatollah who joined forces with the reformists and Mir Hossein Mousavi last summer. Reports the Independent:

There was some speculation that the striking shopkeepers were affiliated to factions within the Islamic regime that have grown disaffected with the president and his inner circle following last year's poll. Some are said to be close to Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, the former president, a leading cleric and sworn enemy of Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Stay tuned.

Centcom Commander Loves to Kill

Back in the ‘60s, Arlo Guthrie sang (in “Alice’s Restaurant”) about trying to get out of serving in the U.S. military by saying “I wanna kill!” Today, President Obama and Secretary of Defense Gates have chosen Marine Gen. James Mattis to replace General Petraeus as commander of Centcom. Mattis, of course, is best known for describing his enthusiastic desire to kill people in wars:
 

“Actually it’s quite fun to fight them, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up there with you. I like brawling.
 
“You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.”

 
Predictably, the appointment of Mattis has drawn similarly enthusiastic support from the neocons and the right. Peter Feaver, a Bush administration national security official, wrote:
 

"When Obama picked Petraeus to take over the Afghan war role, the primary downside I saw was the hole it created at CENTCOM. General Mattis is probably the best possible pick to fill that hole."

 
Over at the American Spectator, more high praise, from John Guardiano:
 

“This is stunningly good news, which must give our enemies serious cause for concern. Mattis, after all, is a fighting general whose battlefield exploits and historical erudition are not fully known or appreciated. Suffice it to say that he is a better general than Patton ever was.”

 
And at National Review, Victor Davis Hanson compares it all to the U.S. Civil War:
 

“We now have, with General Petraeus as ground commander, our two most gifted senior combat generals in charge of Afghanistan, who have worked well together and who were brilliant in Iraq in its darkest hours. I think all this is somewhat analogous to the final rise of Grant and Sherman in spring 1864.”

 
What caught my eye, however, was the endorsement of Mattis by Tom Ricks on his blog, The Best Defense, over at Foreign Policy. “This is the best news I have heard in a long time,” says Ricks. Now, I am no fan of Ricks, and not long ago I blasted Ricks for his contention that Obama should postpone the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, in a piece I titled, “Shut Up, Tom Ricks.”

 

But to check out Mattis I took a look as Ricks’ book, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. And if there is any silver lining in the appointment of Mattis, it might de divined in Ricks’ account of Mattis role in battles there.

Certainly, Mattis comes across as a gung-ho commander. But a telling incident involves the eruption of the first Fallujah crisis the spring of 2004. That’s when a carload of American contractors was seized, murdered, dismembered, and their carcasses strung up on a bridge in the city. It was, at the time, the most violent and provocative encounter between Americans and the Anbar-based insurgency that was just getting off the ground. Mattis had just taken over the the local commander. Back in Washington, the neocons and the rabid, right-wing officials in charge of U.S. Iraq policy waxed bloodthirsty, demanding revenge. As Ricks tells the story, Robert Blackwill on the NSC staff and Paul Bremer, the U.S. czar in Iraq started pushing the military to go all-out to crush Fallujah and teach the Iraqis who’s boss. Reports Ricks:

“’This is what the enemy wants,’ Mattis protested. He had been preparing to take Fallujah for months, but didn’t want to do it this way—hastily, clumsily, acting in anger rather than with cool detachment. He was ordered nonetheless to get into Fallujah within seventy-two hours. He requested do see that order in writing, but didn’t get it.

 

“’Mattis wanted to do a police operation: Let’s find out who did this, and get them, this is a city of 300,000 in which a few hundred people did something,’ said another Marine general. ‘The answer was, No, go in there with the power of a Marine division.’ He argued against this. What would be the consequences of doing this? Mattis knew that the consequences of sending in a big conventional unit inevitably would be large amounts of damage.’”

 

 
Of course, the operation in Fallujah was a bloody disaster.
 
Now, there’s pressure from the far right on the Obama administration, and on Petraeus and Mattis, to take the gloves off in Afghanistan. They want to unleash the U.S. military from the restrictions on rules of engagement that were imposed by General McChrystal, who famously limited air strikes and artillery to minimize civilian casualties. Will Mattis resist that pressure? Seems likely. That hardly makes him a peacenik. He’s a Marine general who likes to kill. It’s a thin reed on which to place any hopes, but here’s hoping that Mattis remembers the First Battle of Fallujah.
 
The bigger question, of course, is the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, whose chief advocate, Petraeus, is now running the war. Mattis is said to be a devotee of the COIN doctrine, though perhaps not the Petraeus’ fervor. Still, in Iraq, Mattis seemed to enjoy killing, including through the use of lethal, hit team-style units of American forces that decimated the Iraqi insurgency in several years of ultimately futile, but very bloody, fights.

 

Leslie Gelb Says Obama Kneels to Netanyahu, Should Fire His Middle East Team

Leslie Gelb, the curmudgeonly president emeritus of the foreign policy establishment, didn’t much like President Obama’s recent meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.
 
Gelb, of course, spreads his criticism around. He didn’t like it when Obama launched into a confrontation with Netanyahu over Israel’s settlements in the occupied territories, arguing that it forced Israel into refusing to compromise under pressure. But he’s even unhappier over the latest fiasco, in which Obama kowtowed to the Israeli leader. He wants the policy makers fired:
 

“Whoever advised Mr. Obama to kneel rhetorically to Mr. Netanyahu in public on Tuesday should also be fired. The only thing accomplished by this embarrassing tactic was to put Israel in a position to call the shots on Mideast policy for the rest of Obama’s first term. …
 
“Were the culprits the non-foreign policy White House intimates – chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and political honcho David Axelrod? Axelrod knows nothing about this, and worse, Emanuel thinks he does because he lived in Israel. Was George Mitchell, the president’s Mideast negotiator, the brains behind the foolishness? Surely, he’s had enough experience working with Israelis to know better. Did General James Jones, the National Security Adviser, remain silent, again? …
 
“Tuesday’s meeting, full of smiles and the adoption of Israeli-desired language on almost every topic, only made matters worse. It made the situation look as if the American president had been cowed by Jewish control of American politics. That certainly pleased American and Israeli hawks, but it did not please others who want to see genuine progress in Mideast talks.”

Hawks, UAE Ambassador Want War with Iran

They’re at it again.

The Bipartisan Policy Center, a collection of neoconservatives, hawks, and neoliberal interventionists is calling once again for war preparations against Iran, in its June 23 report, “Meeting the Challenge: When Time Runs Out."

Its most alarmist conclusions are summarized in an op-ed in the Washington Post by former Senator Chuck Robb and retired General Charles Wald, two BPC officials, who say (without any evidence whatsoever) that “current trends suggest that Iran could achieve nuclear weapons capability before the end of this year.” That’s utter nonsense: Iran has a modest stockpile of low-enriched uranium, a faltering program of centrifuges, and no known capability for weaponizing or delivering a bomb, and it is at least several years away from a military nuclear capability. To meet this not exactly urgent challenge, the BPC authors propose an immediate military buildup for war, and they call for “open preparation for the military option,” with a view toward “an effective, targeted strike on Tehran's nuclear and supporting military facilities.”

We’ll see, in a bit, what the BPC wants, in particular. But it’s important to note that the report prominently cites Dennis Ross, currently “Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region, National Security Council,” as one of the “original task force members” of the BPC’s bomb-Iran planning group. Ross, who’s been keeping a low profile, is the inside man for the neoconservatives in the Obama administration. Robb, a Democrat, is also an important player, whose most notorious role was as part of the Iraq Study Group in 2006, the much-publicized task force led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, which famously called for a drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq before President Bush ordered the “surge.” As part of the ISG, Robb argued forcefully for including a “surge” option in the ISG’s final report, against the better judgment of Baker, Hamilton, and their colleagues, and by threatening to quit the ISG in protest or write a dissident, minority report, Robb won. The surge was ordered just weeks after the release of the ISG report.

It’s not the first time that the BPC has issued a war-mongering report on Iran. Its first was issued in September, 2008, and that report was signed by Dennis Ross. A second report, similar to the first, was released in September, 2009. This, the third in the BPC’s series, isn’t much different from the first two, though it ups the ante in the sheer hysteria of how it portrays how close Iran might be to building a bomb. But the meat of the current is its call for outright war preparations, beginning with an immediate naval blockade of Iran:

“Specifically, we recommend the United States: augment the Fifth Fleet presence in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, including the deployment of an additional carrier battle group and minesweepers to the waters off Iran; conduct broad exercises with its allies in the Persian Gulf; intensify our enhancement of the defensive and offensive military capabilities of our Persian Gulf allies; initiate a “strategic partnership” with Azerbaijan to gain enhanced regional access; and work with the Saudis and Iraqis to improve their capacity to ship oil out of the region without using the Strait of Hormuz. If such pressure fails to persuade Iran’s leadership, the United States and its allies would have no choice but to consider blockading refined petroleum imports into Iran, to send a strong signal and to ensure the effectiveness of proposed sanctions on gasoline imports. A blockade would effectively be an act of war and the U.S. and its allies would have to prepare for its consequences.”

“Time,” they warn, “is rapidly running out.”

The release of the BPC report in late June, and the Post op-ed today, coincide roughly with a revealing and important diatribe from the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al-Otaiba, who said this week that the UAE wouldn’t be unhappy at all if the United States bombed Iran’s nuclear program. “I think it’s a cost-benefit analysis,” said Otaiba, the representative of a notorious kleptocracy in Abu Dhabi. Otaiba’s comments, aptly analyzed by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett in their blog, The Race for Iran, reflect the Mr. Hyde side the uber-wealthy Gulf kleptocracies. While the Dr. Jekyll side of the Janus-faced Gulf kingdoms prefer a stable, peaceful Gulf in which they can continue to export oil and pocket billions unmolested, the Mr. Hyde side of their personality is fearful, even panicked, that Iran’s regional ambitions will mean the end of their Golden Goose-like reign. In their worst moments, they wish, hope, and pray for an American attack on Iran, just as they fear that a U.S.-Iran entente might come at their expense.

As reported on Tuesday, July 6 by Eli Lake, a neoconservative hatchetman who scribbles for the Moonie Washington Times, Otaiba delivered his “unusually blunt remarks” in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, another neoconservative scribbler, at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Otaiba suggested that the UAE kleptocrats might be willing to sacrifice some of their billions if that’s the price that it takes for a successful U.S. military attack on Iran:

"I think despite the large amount of trade we do with Iran, which is close to $12 billion … there will be consequences, there will be a backlash and there will be problems with people protesting and rioting and very unhappy that there is an outside force attacking a Muslim country; that is going to happen no matter what.

"If you are asking me, 'Am I willing to live with that versus living with a nuclear Iran?’' my answer is still the same: 'We cannot live with a nuclear Iran.’' I am willing to absorb what takes place at the expense of the security of the UAE.”

Like the BPC report, which ridicules the idea of containing a nuclear Iran, in his interview with Goldberg, Otaiba says that “containment and deterrence” won’t work:

“Countries in the region view the Iran threat very differently, I can only speak for the UAE, but talk of containment and deterrence really concerns me and makes me very nervous. Why should I be led to believe that deterrence or containment will work? Iran doesn't have a nuclear power now, but we're unable to contain them and their behavior in the region. What makes me think that once they have a nuclear program, we're going to be able to be more successful in containing them?”

The UAE, of course, quickly distanced itself from Otaiba’s war-mongering.

All this doesn’t mean that the Obama administration is about to go to war against Iran. Even the Bush administration, in its last years, adopted a policy of sanctions, containment, and deterrence, overriding Vice President Dick Cheney, who was singing “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb-bomb Iran.” The entire U.S. military, from Admiral Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, on down is firmly opposed to the idea of attacking Iran, especially while U.S. forces are engaged in two wars that make them vulnerable to Iranian counterattack. And so far, at least, President Obama hasn’t veered toward a military confrontation with Iran, though he’s refused, annoyingly, to take that option “off the table.”

But the BPC report, Otaiba’s intemperate comments, and commentary from various neoconservative chatterers makes it clear that not all of the deranged are happily contained in the asylum just yet.

Obama: 'I Have Met Israel and It Is "Us"'

Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu set up another illegal Jewish settlement, this time on the White House lawn. And, it appears, President Obama has agreed to serve as its armed guard.

So complete was Obama’s identification with Israel yesterday that he actually referred to Israel as “us” before correcting himself:

“We strongly believe that, given its size, its history, the region that it’s in, and the threats that are leveled against us—against it, that Israel has unique security requirements.”

 

By “its size,” did Obama mean Israel’s overwhelming military superiority? By “its history,” did he mean Israel’s usurpation of Arab lands and forty-three-year-long occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem? By “the region that it’s in,” did he mean the Arab and Muslim world, the region with which Obama wants to rebuild US relations? No: Obama was echoing Israeli talking points: that Israel is a tiny, besieged nation that made democracy flourish and the deserts bloom post-Holocaust, surrounded by scimitar-waving crazies.

Dana Milbank, writing in the Washington Post, characterized the Obama-Netanyahu meeting aptly:

"To capture the real significance of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit with President Obama, White House officials might have instead flown the white flag of surrender…

 

"On Tuesday, Obama, routed and humiliated by his Israeli counterpart, invited Netanyahu back to the White House for what might be called the Oil of Olay Summit: It was all about saving face."

 

But really, it was more about saving the fall elections, or at least that’s how it seemed. Not that American Jewish voters are going to flock to the Republicans, since they vote reliably Democratic, and more and more American Jews seem to care less and less about Israel. But, of course, crazed evangelical, right-wing Christian Republicans do care about Israel, if only because they hope it will be destroyed during the battle of Armageddon. And they vote.

As the Times pointed out:

With Democrats facing a tough time in the mid-term elections in November, Mr. Obama has reasons for softening his public stance on Israel. Republican candidates have been courting Jewish voters, who ordinarily back Democrats, by trying to portray the president as anti-Israel.

 

The Times account doesn’t mention that it’s not Jews but Christians who are being courted by the GOP, as usual.

Meanwhile, Obama has all but abandoned the promising start that he got by naming George Mitchell as Middle East mediator on his first day in office, by salting the White House national security staff with Jewish peaceniks, by naming General Jones as national security adviser and by confronting Israel over its settlements policy. He’s backed all the way down now. It’s not too late to recover, but where is the sign that Obama intends to do anything but facilitate talks between the Netanyahu’s extremist government and the weak Palestinians?

As Obama himself said, yesterday:

“If you look at every public statement that I’ve made over the last year and a half, it has been a constant reaffirmation of the special relationship between the United States and Israel, that our commitment to Israel’s security has been unwavering. And in fact, there aren’t any concrete policies that you could point to that would contradict that.”

 

Sadly, he’s right.

Biden in Iraq: US Influence Shrinks, Iran Gains

The good news from Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Iraq for the Fourth of July is that the United States has reaffirmed its commitment to reducing US forces to 50,000 by next month, ending the US combat role, and pulling all of its remaining forces out of Iraq by the end of next year.

That's despite pressure from hawks and neoconservatives to slow the drawdown. Of course, there is still talk about renegotiating the terms of the US withdrawal in 2011 by establishing some kind of long-term US-Iraq military agreement. Such an agreement, however, is not up to the US alone. It will also depend on what the Iraqis think, and if Iranian influence in Iraq continues to gain strength as the US departs -- as seems likely -- and if the US and Iran continue to engage in a confrontation over Tehran's nuclear program and Iran's regional role, then the likelihood of a lasting US-Iraq aliance vanishes.

In fact, Iraq has become a battleground for competing US and Iranian influence, and Iran has the upper hand.

In his visit to Iraq -- his 17th -- Biden seemed not to care who forms a government in Iraq. "He made it very clear that we have no candidates, we have no preferred outcomes, we have no plan," said an aide to Biden, on background, briefing reporters in Baghdad. Pressed repeatedly by reporters, the administration officials conducting the briefing refused to say anything about the kind of government they'd like to see take shape. All things being equal, however, it's clear that the United States would prefer that Iyad Allawi's secular, nationalist, and anti-Iran bloc, Iraqiya, have a major role, either leading the next government or in some sort of grand coalition with Prime Minister Maliki's State of Law/Dawa Party bloc. But the United States has few cards to play, and as the level of US troops declines, it will have fewer still.

One administration official, in the briefing, tried to make a Goldilocks-like case that the Iraqi porridge is just about right:

"Can I just -- I just want to add one thing, which I meant to say before, which is, it’s been very interesting to read some of the stories about the United States and Iraq, because one group of stories seem to suggest that we’re abandoning Iraq and that we’re disengaged.  Another group of stories suggests that we’re interfering too much in Iraq’s business, which suggests to me that sometimes the porridge is just right."

That's a false dichotomy, however. The United States isn't abandoning Iraq. Quite the reverse: Iraq is abandoning the United States, in favor of closer ties with Iran. The problem is that even if the United States wanted to "intefere too much" in Iraq's affairs, it would fail. Such interference would backfire, stir Iraqi anti-Americanism, fuel the support for rebels such as Muqtada al-Sadr, and push Iraq even closer to Iran.

The clearest sign of the lack of US influence in Iraq is that oil contracts, once seen as a great prize for the US occupiers of Iraq -- remember Ahmed Chalabi promising to make sure that US oil companies get the lion's share of Iraqi oil -- have gone not to US firms but to rival firms from China, Russia, and other Asian and European companies.

The New York Times, reporting on Biden's trip, noted with a straight face:

"In a sign of how much further Iraq must go, [Biden] did not venture beyond the secure bubbles of the massive army base at Camp Victory or the barricaded streets of the Green Zone."

It's been four months since the March 7 elections in Iraq, and it appears that the political parties are no closer to forming a government than they were on March 8. That's partly illusory: according to one Iraqi sources, Allawi has acceded to the inevitability of an alliance between Maliki and the overtly pro-Iranian Iraqi National Alliance, the Shiite bloc that includes Sadr and the old Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), now called ISCI. (In exchange for his agreement, Allawi wants the mostly symbolic post of Iraqi president.) That's an alignment that Iran would probably support, because it puts the government into the hands of the Shiites, and the Obama administration would have little choice but to go along.

But Biden reportedly expressed concern in Iraq that any deal with excludes Allawi, who represents the hopes of anti-Iran Iraqis, Sunnis, and secular forces, could lead to a reversion to far greater violence than the current, low-level campaign of bombings and assassinations now underway. Many of the assassinations have targeted Allawi's party and its allies, and while the killings are nomnally blamed on remnants of Al Qaeda in  Iraq (AQI), it's possible that at least some of them are being conducted by the same Iranian-backed death squads that have operated in Iraq with efficient lethality since 2003.

A Deal in Afghanistan

Now that the McChrystal-Petraeus excitment is over, as the dust clears the United States is still facing the same ugly, unwinnable war in Afghanistan that was there last week, last month, and last year. Despite the fantasies of General Petraeus and the cult of counterinsurgency (COIN), the war isn't going to end when the Taliban is pushed out of every village and every valley of Afghanistan. It will end when the Taliban, the forces of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and the fighters led by the Haqqani family -- encouraged or pressured by their sponsors in Pakistan -- strike a power-sharing deal with a new government in Kabul.

That's the message of an important essay today by Dan Serwer, vice president form Centers of Peacebuilding Innovation at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Entitled, "A Negotiated Peace," Serwer says that negotiations with the Taliban et al. could start as early as this fall. He argues:

"The administration is looking for a decent, negotiated exit. The Pakistani intelligence service would act as a surrogate (and guarantor) for the Taliban, as Slobodan Milosevic did for the Bosnian Serbs 15 years ago. The Americans would deliver Kabul. The deal might leave the Taliban in control of large parts of Afghanistan but keep al-Qaeda in Pakistan, where Islamabad would agree to deal harshly with its fighters."

And:

"If the Taliban does come to power in part of Afghanistan -- say, controlling the south and sharing power in Kabul -- Afghanistan could start to look like Lebanon: Hezbollah controls large portions of the country, operates its own military forces and delivers services to large parts of the population, but the United States and other countries have embassies in Beirut, deal regularly with the government and parliament, and try to persuade Lebanese authorities to limit the sway and reach of Hezbollah."

And he addresses the divisions within the Afghan elite, where elements of the old Northern Alliance -- and their friends in India, Russia and Iran -- aren;t likely to welcome the Taliban into a power-sharing arrangement in Kabul. Still, Serwer says:

"While Afghan President Hamid Karzai would gladly end a war that pits him against fellow Pashtuns, the Taliban's Afghan enemies -- the Tajik- and Uzbek-dominated Northern Alliance -- are unlikely to appreciate a large fraction of their country being turned over to those who regard the Quetta Shura, which runs the most important segment of the Taliban, as the ultimate authority.

"Karzai recently fired two key security officials, ostensibly for allowing attacks on the national peace conference (jirga) that gave him more or less a blank check in dealing with the Taliban. The men he fired were tough Afghan nationalist opponents of the Quetta Shura and their perceived backers in Pakistan.

"Who replaces them as interior minister and intelligence chief will send signals to Pakistan and the Taliban. If Karzai replaces them with people more to the liking of Islamabad, and the Americans nod approvingly, it will indicate that the door is open to negotiations."

When Karzai fired those two officials, the interior minister and the director of the intelligence service, it drew howls of outrage from American circles. Key representatives of the American project in Afghanistan had befriended those officials, who in turn were unyielding opponents of the Taliban and of Pakistan. But Serwer is exactly right that it would augur well if Karzai names replacements who are more in tune with Karzai's deliberate effort to reach a political accord with the Taliban.

Today's New York Times carries, as its lead story, a critically important piece by Jane Perlez, Eric Schmitt, and Carlotta Gall, called "Pakistan Is Said to Pursue An Afghanistan Foothold." In it, the reporters provide a comprehensive account of how Pakistan, led by its military and the ISI, the army's intelligence service, are seeking to broker a deal between Karzai and the Taliban. And Washington isn't happy:

"Washington has watched with some nervousness as General Kayani and Pakistan’s spy chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, shuttle between Islamabad and Kabul, telling Mr. Karzai that they agree with his assessment that the United States cannot win in Afghanistan, and that a postwar Afghanistan should incorporate the Haqqani network, a longtime Pakistani asset. In a sign of the shift in momentum, the two Pakistani officials were next scheduled to visit Kabul on Monday, according to Afghan TV. "

It adds:

"Pakistan is presenting itself as the new viable partner for Afghanistan to President Hamid Karzai, who has soured on the Americans. Pakistani officials say they can deliver the network of Sirajuddin Haqqani, an ally of Al Qaeda who runs a major part of the insurgency in Afghanistan, into a power-sharing arrangement.

"In addition, Afghan officials say, the Pakistanis are pushing various other proxies, with General Kayani personally offering to broker a deal with the Taliban leadership."

The real scandal inside the Obama administration isn't the one involving Petraeus and McChrystal, although the COIN cult will actively oppose the president and Vice President Biden if they seek a political accord in advance of the July, 2011, pullout date. The scandal is that the White House isn't supporting negotiations, on the unfounded theory that first it's necessary to deliver punishing blows to the Taliban in the hope that only then will the insurgency fragment and leaders start to talk.

Can Gen. McChrystal. Then, Can Afghan Policy

[UPDATE By choosing David Petraeus to replace Stan McChrystal, the president hasn't improved the chance that he will get Afghanistan policy right. Petraeus, of course, is the Hero of the Iraq Surge, and he literally wrote the handbook on counterinsurgency (COIN). ]

Members of the counterinsurgency (COIN) cult, various neoconservatives and editorial writers for the Washington Post ought to stop hyperventilating about how they’d be shocked, shocked if President Obama fires General McChrystal today. After all, they cheered lustily when Obama fired General McKiernan a year ago. With solemn hypocrisy, those same COIN cheerleaders now argue that it would be horrible to fire the commander of the war before the job’s done. Well, why wasn’t it horrible the last time?

A story line that developing in the media—fed, no doubt by the same COIN cultists – is that the devastating Rolling Stone profile was about personalities and insults, not politics and policy differences. I beg to differ. The underlying theme of the Rolling Stone piece, if you haven’t read it in its entirety, makes clear that McChrystal and Co. are deeply unhappy with the civvies back home, and not because they don’t enjoy dancing in a drunken circle in a Paris bistro late at night singing, “Afghanistan! Afghanistan!” like McChrystal’s gang of frat boys, jocks and other assorted types. The reason McChrystal and Co. are so angry and resentful is that President Obama has set a deadline of July, 2011, for the start of a withdrawal from Afghanistan. That’s it. Nothing else.

McChrystal wants a president who’s gung ho committed to the fight, like, well President W. was committed to the one in Iraq. In Obama, they ain’t got one.

Consider, for instance, the “statement” from the Heritage Foundation issued Tuesday:

The artificial Afghanistan withdrawal deadline has obviously caused some of our military leaders to question our strategy in Afghanistan.

 

That deadline, which President Barack Obama announced to the American people, the military, our allies and our enemies on December 1, 2009, has provoked many—including the government in Kabul, the Afghan people, the military in Pakistan, and our enemies the terrorists—to question America’s resolve to win the War in Afghanistan.

 

More disconcerting for the American people is that the timeline appears to be putting tremendous unnecessary pressure on our armed forces to accomplish their task: victory on the ground.

 

We don’t need an artificial timeline for withdrawal. We need a strategy for victory.

McChrystal couldn’t have said it better. The fact is, the Obama administration is at war with itself. Last summer, McChrystal engaged in a guerrilla-style insurrection against the White House to pressure Obama to escalate the war. He won, sort of, when Obama caved in to the Pentagon’s pressure and—for the second time in year—added tens of thousands of additional US cannon fodder to the unwinnable war. Remember the elements of that McChrystal effort: he let it be know that he might resign in protest if he didn’t get what he wanted; he leaked a copy of his war-mongering report to the Washington Post, to make public the fact that the military wanted more, more, more; he agreed to a fawning profile on 60 Minutes to tout his brilliance and charisma; he flew to London where he flat-out dissed Vice President Biden’s less militaristic approach to the Af-Pak conflict; and his boss, General Petraeus, dropped hints that he might consider running for president in 2012 as a Republican. As a result, Obama demanded that he fly from London to Copenhagen, where the president read the general the riot act on a tarmac aboard Air Force One.

So when McChrystal’s boys joke like glue-sniffing seventh graders that Vice President Biden’s name ought to be “Bite Me,” when they make homophobic slurs about French diplomats, give each other the finger and so on, at bottom what they’re mad about is the same thing that General MacArthur was mad about six decades ago: that damned thing called civilian control of the military.

Unfortunately, President Obama isn’t comfortable with the fact that he’s commander-in-chief either. The president bungled it big time last year, when he had a chance to fire McChrystal for insubordination. Instead, the president capitulated. He gave McChrystal what he wanted, or nearly: 30,000 troops. On top of the 20,000-plus he’d added six months earlier. At the time, Obama had a choice: instead, he could have declared that the war in Afghanistan had to wind down, not intensify. He could have outlined a drawdown of American forces modeled on the Iraq withdrawal. Instead, Obama gave McChrystal his troops, and then he added the timetable by declaring that a withdrawal of forces would begin next July. To Obama, that must have seemed like a Solomon-like baby-slicing.

But why, exactly, couldn’t Obama have upped the timetable to, say, July 2010, and not added more troops? Because, to his everlasting discredit, Obama thought first about domestic politics, not long-suffering Afghanistan. Fearing the wrath of the right—and God knows, it’s horrible to be yelled at by Joe Lieberman and John McCain!—he placated the military... and then he placated the left, including war critics on Capitol Hill, by adding the July 2011 deadline. That’s crass. What it’s not is acting like a by-God commander-in-chief.

Now Obama has another chance to get it right. With McChrystal out of the way, he can act forcefully to ensure that everyone on the team gets the message that the war is drawing to a close. As Vice President Biden says: “In July of 2011 you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it.”

I’m not betting on it. Not just yet.

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