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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

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

Gates on McChrystal: Just an 'Oops'

In the first official reaction from the Obama administration, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates treated McChrystal’s outrageous insurbordination and contempt for the president and his advisers as a minor “mistake.” Here’s the full statement from Gates:
 

I read with concern the profile piece on Gen. Stanley McChrystal in the upcoming edition of 'Rolling Stone' magazine. I believe that Gen. McChrystal made a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment in this case. We are fighting a war against al Qaeda and its extremist allies, who directly threaten the United States, Afghanistan, and our friends and allies around the world.  Going forward, we must pursue this mission with a unity of purpose. Our troops and coalition partners are making extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of our security, and our singular focus must be on supporting them and succeeding in Afghanistan without such distractions. Gen. McChrystal has apologized to me and is similarly reaching out to others named in this article to apologize to them as well. I have recalled Gen. McChrystal to Washington to discuss this in person.

 
So Gates says that the war must be pursued with “unity of purpose.” Is that a signal that McChrystal has got to go? Personally, I doubt that Gates wants McChrystal fired, and that’s why he emphasizes the apology and calls it “poor judgment.”
 
In fact, President Obama ought to fire Gates, too. He’s a Republican who was hired to give Obama cover with the rest of the Republican tribe. By hiring Gates, Obama gave fuel to the fire of those who believe that the Democrats can’t handle national security, and he put a conservative Republican in charge of the central part of his foreign policy. First step: fire McChrystal. Next: fire Gates.
 
McChrystal has apologized too, of course, in a desperate effort to save his job:
 

I extend my sincerest apology for this profile…. It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened. Throughout my career, I have lived by the principles of personal honor and professional integrity. What is reflected in this article falls far short of that standard.… I have enormous respect and admiration for President Obama and his national security team, and for the civilian leaders and troops fighting this war and I remain committed to ensuring its successful outcome.

 
Reporters covering the story have made much out of the fact that the controversy centers on McChrystal’s attitude toward Obama and his mean-spirited comments, but not about the conduct of the war itself. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that Obama has long been unhappy with the COIN-based, nation-building scheme proposed by McChrystal, Petraeus and Co. There were reports flying last summer that Obama was extremely angry with McChrystal, not because of personality clashes but because McChrystal had slammed Vice President Biden and others in the administration who wanted a much smaller, less ambitious effort in Afghanistan. That was a clash over policy, not politics, and it lingers. Now it centers on Obama’s pledge to start withdrawing troops in July 2011, a pledge made to placate Biden and left-liberals in the Democratic party, and which was strongly opposed by Petraeus, McChrystal et al.

Fire McChrystal

It’s possible that General Stanley McChrystal, the COIN freak who runs the war in Afghanistan, might be fired today by President Obama, not because of his fuck-ups in the war itself but thanks to a brilliant profile of McChrystal by Michael Hastings in Rolling Stone.

It’s been clear for a long that McChrystal was an insubordinate, power-hungry general who sees Afghanistan as the place to prove himself and his theories right, and everyone else wrong. For some odd reason, President Obama has refused to fire him, even after his openly insubordinate political activity last summer and fall, when McChrystal orchestrated a campaign to pressure the White House to escalate the war. (I wrote about that for Rolling Stone last October, in a piece called “The Generals’ Revolt.”)

In the new Rolling Stone profile, Hastings hoists McChrystal and his aides—one of whom has already resigned—with their own arrogant petards. McChrystal and his staff tell Hastings that Obama was unprepared to be president and that Obama was intimidated by the military brass. They say that General Jones, the national security adviser, is a “clown.” They laugh at Richard Holbrooke, and McChrystal jokes that he doesn’t even want to read his e-mails. When Hastings asks about Vice President Joe Biden, an aide makes a third-grader's pun on his name, calling him “Bite Me,” to general merriment. And McChrystal slams senators such as John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and John McCain for making publicity-stunt trips to Afghanistan.

McChrystal has been summoned back to Washington for a meeting with Obama, which could end in his dismissal. Let’s hope. 

The aide who resigned, Duncan Boothby, was McChrystal’s PR flack. It isn’t clear whether he’s out because he allowed Hastings unparalleled access to McChrystal or because it was Boothby who was responsible for some of the most outrageous comments to Rolling Stone. Both are valid. Either way, he’s a goner.

Speaking on MSNBC, Eric Bates, Rolling Stone’s executive editor—who (full disclosure) was also my editor on the piece last fall—explained the background to the piece this way:

Well, we got a really unprecedented access with him. We spent—we reported this story over the course of several months. We were with him on a trip in Europe that wound up getting extended because of the volcano in Iceland. So our reporter was kind of trapped with him for about two weeks in Paris and traveling from Paris to Berlin. They couldn't fly, so they had to take a bus. So, we really spent a lot of time with him and really got to look behind the curtain, and hear how he and his men, top men, talk among themselves on their own.

Bates added that McChrystal and his aides knew that what they said was on the record

And Bates says:

What's most surprising about that, he was preparing for a speech in Paris. It was [during] a speech in London that he got asked about Joe Biden's counterterrorism strategy that resulted in his first act of insubordination, when he dissed the vice president and say that would result in Chaos-istan and got called to Air Force One for a meeting with the president.

 

So, here he is again, preparing for a question-and-answer session, imagining questions about the vice president.

Gaza: End of the Siege?

“This is the beginning of the total collapse of the siege.”

So said Hanin Zuabi, an Israeli Arab member of the parliament who was aboard the flotilla that was attacked by Israel on May 31. That judgment may be a bit premature, however, and both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are being far more cautious in their assessments of the Israeli decision to weaken its blockade of Gaza.

Skepticism abounds, and with good reason. But yesterday’s decision by Israel is an important step that could unlock the frozen Middle East peace process. Israel deserves no applause for its action, since the blockade was wrong in the first place and since it remains unclear how far the Israelis will go in implementing the new rules. Simultaneously with the announcement by the Israeli cabinet, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu set a meeting in Washington on July 6, at which the president will have to read the prime minister the riot act if there is to be any forward movement in talks.

Aluf Benn, writing in the liberal daily Ha'aretz, gives credit where credit is due: to Turkey and its prime minister, for their support of the flotilla:

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan can claim a big check mark for himself, despite the Turkish flotilla not having reached Gaza and nine activists aboard the Mavi Marmara ship having been killed during the raid in May. Erdogan achieved his goal: He collapsed the Israeli siege on "Hamastan." The cabinet announcement on Sunday put an end to the three-year-old civilian blockade on Gaza, initiated when Hamas took power.

Benn goes a little too far, of course. The siege hasn’t ended yet, and it’s unclear precisely what commodities will be allowed to flow in and out of Gaza. The naval blockade remains, but land crossings are to be reopened, while being carefully controlled by the Israeli armed forces. But Netanyahu himself said that while Israel will prevent “weapons and war-supporting material” from entering Gaza, “All other goods will be allowed into Gaza.”

We’ll see. There are major questions about how it will work out. Construction materials and equipment, for instance, will be allowed only when tied to projects approved by the Palestinian Authority and carried out under international supervision, i.e., not by Hamas.

A White House statement, issued Sunday, stressed the importance of the implementation of the new arrangements, saying:

We will work with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Quartet, and other international partners to ensure these arrangements are implemented as quickly and effectively as possible and to explore additional ways to improve the situation in Gaza, including greater freedom of movement and commerce between Gaza and the West Bank. There is more to be done, and the President looks forward to discussing this new policy, and additional steps, with Prime Minister Netanyahu during his visit to Washington on July 6.

Spokesmen for IHH, the Turkish organization that helped to assemble the flotilla, are taking credit, cautiously. Said Hossein Orush, an IHH board member:

“We will continue to struggle until the blockade is completely removed and Palestine achieves independence. Israel must pay the price for its illegal actions in the international court and be subjected to an international committee that will probe the outcome of the flotilla.”

And the IHH spokesman Omar Faruk said:

“This is a victory for the people of Gaza and their joint struggle with the humanitarian organizations.… We are still not entirely pleased and will continue to act toward the complete removal of the blockade on Gaza."

Getting Out in 2011

Via George Will, there’s the following exchange from 2009 between President Obama, General Petraeus, and Admiral Mullen about the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, taken from The Promise: President Obama, Year One, Jonathan Alter’s book on Obama’s first year:

OBAMA "I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?"

PETRAEUS: "Sir, I'm confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame."

OBAMA: "If you can't do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?"

PETRAEUS: "Yes, sir, in agreement."

MULLEN: "Yes, sir."

What’s the significance of that? At the time, the military (and the Republicans) were putting heavy pressure on Obama to add more troops to the losing effort. At the time, in a piece for Rolling Stone, I characterized it as a military insurrection against the White House: Petraeus was dropping hints about running for president in 2012 as a Republican, General McChrystal was threatening to quit if he didn’t get what he wanted, and he was giving speeches denouncing Vice President Biden’s less hawkish view that the Afghanistan war had to be circumscribed and limited to counterterrorism. In the end, Obama caved in to the generals, but he set a July 2011 deadline for the start of a US withdrawal.

Now we know, if Alter is right, that Obama sought and won a pledge from the brass that “no one is going to suggest we stay” if McChrystal can’t succeed in turning over the war to the Afghans by 2011. On Capitol Hill, there’s growing disenchantment with the whole war effort, although the establishment Democrats haven’t yet broken with the White House. That disenchantment will grow as it dawns on official Washington that the Afghan National Army and the police are never, ever going to be able to take control of the war. So the main issue between now and next summer is to hold Obama to his pledge to pull US forces out of Afghanistan starting next July.

Biden told Alter: “In July of 2011 you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it.”

Yesterday, as Petraeus and Defense Secretary Gates testified at various hearings on Capitol Hill (without anyone losing consciousness this time), Senator Carl Levin expressed anger and frustration at Petraeus’s reluctance to endorse Obama’s 2011 deadline. (It’s widely known that Petraeus is unhappy with the timetable.)  Having wrung an endorsement out of Petraeus, Levin, the committee chairman, said:

“I am glad to hear General Petraeus express his support for the decision to begin U.S. troop reductions in Afghanistan in July 2011. I strongly believe it is essential for success in Afghanistan that everyone understand the urgency with which the Afghans need to take responsibility for their own security.”

Naturally, Senator John McCain expressed diametrically opposite views, saying that the withdrawal date “does not bode well for success in Afghanistan” and adding:

 “If we sound an uncertain trumpet, not many will follow. And that’s what’s being sounded now.”

Petraeus Faints: Wonder Why?

The quote of the day actually comes from the June 14 article in the New York Times concerning the new report from the London School of Economics (yes, economics) about the Taliban's intimate ties to the Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI.

Here's the quote:

"I am skeptical of this sort of sensational discovery that seems to do better than U.S. intelligence."

Spare me! It's long been well known (even to US intelligence) that the Taliban was created by and is sponsored by Pakistan. The LSE report makes fascinating reading.

At today's Senate hearing, General David Petraeus lost consciousness, or fainted, or just plain keeled over while Senator McCain was haranguing him. Maybe he was thinking about the LSE. You can read the LSE's whole report at its website.

Trillion-Dollar War

Various estimates have suggested that the war in Afghanistan might cost the United States a trillion dollars. Now we find out that it's worth it: Afghanistan has a trillion dollars worth of mineral wealth under its soil.

The cartoon in the Washington Post, by Tom Toles, says it all. In front of a cavernous mine opening labeled “Afghan Minerals,” a turban-wearing Afghan is shouting “Eureka!” What he’s excited about is not so much that Afghanistan is alleged to have more than $1 trillion is mineral wealth under its war-torn land, but that there’s now a reason for the war itself. As Toles’ caption says: “Reason for U.S. Involvement Discovered.” 

That’s funny. Toles is joking, sort of. But an AP dispatch in the Washington Post says bluntly:

Foreign countries will have another recourse to persuade their war-fatigued populations that securing Afghanistan is worth the fight and the loss of troops.

Now that’s interesting. Before, during and after the US invasion of Iraq, it was considered bad form even to suggest that the attack on Iraq had anything to do with Iraq’s oil resources, perhaps the world’s largest. Once in a while, some US official or other would let it slip. But in the case of Iraq there was no need to proclaim it, since everyone knew that Iraq was floating on a sea of oil, as Paul Wolfowitz once carelessly pointed out. In Afghanistan’s case, pretty much everyone believed that Afghanistan is a basket case and that, except for a possible pipeline route or two, there was nothing worthwhile to fight over. Now we know different, thanks to the Pentagon.

A previously unreported survey by the Pentagon, reported by the New York Times yesterday, suggests that Afghanistan has at least $908 billion in mineral wealth, including iron, copper, cobalt, gold and rare minerals such as lithium, used in the manufacture of high-tech electronics. General David Petraeus wasn’t shy about proclaiming the value of the underground wealth: “There is stunning potential here.”

It’s ironic, indeed, to hear US officials trumpeting the importance of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, since the reason for the war is supposed to have something to do with Al Qaeda and 9/11, last time I checked. But the Times reports that US officials are worried and concerned about strategic competition with China (yes, China) over Afghanistan’s minerals, ever since China signed a $3 billion deal to mine copper in Afghanistan. Says the paper:

At the same time, American officials fear resource-hungry China will try to dominate the development of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, which could upset the United States, given its heavy investment in the region. After winning the bid for its Aynak copper mine in Logar Province, China clearly wants more, American officials said.

Today, the Senate will hold hearings on the war, raising questions about the failure of the Marja offensive, the postponement of the Kandahar offensive, the fight between the United States and President Karzai over Karzai’s insistence on striking a deal with the Taliban, and more. There’s growing discontent, inside the administration, in Congress, and among the public about a nine-year war gone awry. It’s sad, and pathetic, that a bunch of rocks under Afghanistan’s soil are being weighed in the balance, especially since that devastated nation has zero ability to create a mining industry. Of course, the idea that Afghanistan has iron, copper, cobalt and gold underneath the ground isn’t shocking, but one thing’s for sure, that mineral wealth won’t see the light of day for a generation, at least. As one expert told the Los Angeles Times: “Sudan will host the Winter Olympics before these guys get a trillion dollars out of the ground.”

Kandahar? Kandahar? What's Kandahar?

Don’t look now, but President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy is collapsing on his head.

The troops that Obama added to the war in 2009 were supposed to head south into Helmand and Kandahar. Instead, the whole war is going south. Fast.

Last year, in two reviews of Afghan policy, the president twice escalated the war, more than doubling the US troop commitment. At the time, he gave the Pentagon til the end of 2010 to prove that General McChrystal’s vaunted counterinsurgency-cum-nation-building policy would work. The headlong rush to add troops resulted, first, in an all-out military campaign to seize and control Marja, a dusty, worthless village of 60,000 in Helmand province; and, second, a planned assault on Kandahar, the city of one million that is the birthplace of the Taliban.

Oops. Marja was a complete failure, and the Kandahar "offensive" ain’t happening.

This is, or should be, devastating for Obama. The Marja offensive, last February, was touted as a demonstration of the "clear, hold and build" COIN that McChrystal was hired to implement. That in itself was silly, because Marja is a tiny town of little or no real strategic importance. By March, when the Marja operation was deemed completed, it was widely cited by the administration as a great victory. But over the last two months, reporters who’ve actually been there report back that it’s still a mess, plagued by violence, that the Taliban has come back in force. The Taliban is carrying out a reign of terror there, killing civilians and government officials alike and battling US and Afghan forces to a standstill.

The Marja operation was also described as a prelude to going into Kandahar, an operation that was described as "decisive" in the nine-year-long war. But yesterday, after a week of media reports suggesting that the Kandahar offensive was being delayed, McChrystal said himself in a news conference that there would be no US or Afghan effort to move into Kandahar anytime soon. In the spring, the military was leaking madly that the move into Kandahar would start in June, but if it happens at all now it won’t be until the fall. In his news conference, McChrystal was asked if the Kandahar operation would be decisive. Here’s the Q&A:

Q: General, will we know by the end of the year if the Kandahar operation is decisive, if it's worked?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: I think we'll know whether it's progressing. I think it will be very clear by the end of the calendar year that the Kandahar operation is progressing. I don't know whether we'll know whether it is decisive. I think historians will tell us that. But I think, by the end of the year, we'll have enough progress around Kandahar to be clear to the Afghan people that a substantive change and improvement has been made, and we'll continue on that point.

Don’t hold your breath.

Yesterday’s Washington Post reported that Marja is failing, that the insurgency there has regained momentum, and it reported "alarm among top American commanders that they will not be able to change the course of the war in the time President Obama has given them."

The day before, the New York Times reported—before McChrystal’s news conference—that the Kandahar offensive had been canceled, under a headline that read: "Disappointing offensive in Marja shapes Kandahar plan." It added: "The very word ‘offensive has been banned." Instead, McChrystal and Co. are talking about a civilian surge, new efforts to support economic development and a series of new jirgas, or councils, with President Karzai. (Last spring, Karzai attended a jirga in Kandahar with hundreds of tribal leaders and pretty much promised them that the Kandahar offensive wouldn’t happen without their support, which was not forthcoming. Karzai also opposed the Marja operation, and he had to be dragged, or strong-armed, into going along with it.)

Obama has declared repeatedly that he will start withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan in July 2011. By now it’s clear that that the United States will be no closer to anything resembling success by then. So, Obama has two choices: first, he will have to admit defeat and renege on his commitment to start pulling out troops, meaning that he’ll be lambasted by the left and liberals in his own party and his political base. Or, second, he’ll have to start working immediately to create the political and diplomatic conditions for a peace settlement with the insurgents, including the Taliban, along the lines proposed by President Karzai. So far, the administration has treated Karzai like an annoying puppet. He’s been disparaged, ridiculed, undermined, ignored and sniped at, and his efforts to reconcile with the armed opposition, including the Taliban, have been sabotaged by Washington. That has to end. And Obama has to start wheeling and dealing with Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia to work out the terms of a face-saving political accord.

None of those powers will help President Obama save face without wanting something in return. If Obama doesn’t want to be stuck in Afghanistan for the rest of his term in office (i.e., until 2017) he’d better start finding out what they want. Because every day that he delays, the price gets higher.

Iran Sanctions: Not Just Useless but Counterproductive

The vote by the UN Security Council today to impose a fourth round of UN-backed sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program—the first three were enacted under pressure from President Bush and his administration, including Ambassador John Bolton—are a sign that President Obama has no idea what to do about Iran.

Hint: sanctions ain't it.

You'll hear a lot from the Iran-bashing, neoconservative crowd and from the Obama administration itself, especially the State Department, about what a great victory this is. In particular, you'll hear Obama and the State Department tout the fact that it was Obama's brilliant effort to win over Russia and China for the sanctions vote that made all the difference. They'll tell you that Obama contrived to isolate Iran and to persuade Moscow and Beijing to go along with the new sanctions on Iran, when in fact Russia and China succeeded in ensuring that the sanctions imposed by the UNSC are meaningless. And, of course, President Bush did the same thing, three times: despite Bush's cowboy approach to unilateral hegemonism and unchecked wars abroad, Bush, too, managed to get Russian and Chinese support for three previous votes at the UNSC for sanctions on Iran between 2006 and 2008.

A self-congratulatory statement from the State Department's office at the UN—i.e., from Susan Rice's shop—notes that the United States "remains open to dialogue" with Iran, but it goes on to list no fewer than fourteen new or enhanced sanctions on Iran imposed by UNSC Resolution 1929. In fact, none of the sanctions is worth a damn. None of them are "crippling," none of them target Iran's oil and gasoline imports, none of them have a thing to do with Iran's real economy, and none of them will do a thing to persuade, compel, or scare Tehran into changing its policy on its nuclear program. (The fact that the sanctions are so mild and meaningless is the direct result of insistence by Russia and China that the sanctions have no impact on Iran's population.

So, according to the State Department, the sanctions in Res. 1929 ban nuclear and missile investment abroad, ban Iranian access to a range of conventional arms, restrict Iran's access to ballistic missile technology, provide for nations to inspect ships carrying cargo to Iran, target the Iran's shipping firm IRISL and its airline for increased "vigilance," and include various measures dealing with finance, including calling on all nations to "prohibit on their territories new banking relationships with Iran, including the opening of any new branches of Iranian banks, joint ventures and correspondent banking relationships, if there is a suspected link to proliferation." In response, Iran is likely to pretend to be outraged, but in fact Tehran is well aware that the sanctions are merely a political statement. No doubt, Iran is unhappy with the fact that neither Russia nor China acted to block or veto Res. 1929. But they won't accomplish their objective.

President Ahmadinejad is heading to China soon for a high-profile visit to Shanghai, where he may meet with President Hu Jintao. And Iran has been meeting this week in Turkey with the Turks and the Russians. Not that there isn't some bad blood between Iran and its Asian allies: Miffed at Moscow and Beijing for backing the sanctions, Iran plans to boycott the latest meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Asian proto-alliance linking Russia, China and various central Asian counties in which Iran has "observer" status. Even so, the two big Asian powers aren't about to let the United States impose harsh new penalties on Iran, and the Iranians know it.

At the security summit in Turkey on Tuesday, the leaders of Iran, Turkey and Russia—including Ahmadinejad and Vladimir Putin—engaged in what the New York Times called a "display of regional power that appeared to be calculated to test the United States just one day before a scheduled American-backed debate in the UN Security Council." At the meeting, Ahmadinejad and Putin held private talks, and Putin said publicly that the UNSC action "should not put Iran's leadership or the Iranian people into difficulty."

Brazil and Turkey voted against Res. 1929. Earlier this month, Brazil and Turkey engaged in a brilliant diplomatic effort to persuade Iran to go along with the October, 2009, agreement worked out between Iran and United States, in Geneva, but in slightly modified form. The United States is angry at both countries for doing that, since it was seen (accurately) as an effort by the two regional powers to slow down the mad rush to sanctions. The vote by Brazil and Turkey will not endear either country to Hillary Clinton's heart. In a calculated insult to Brazil and Turkey, the United States today told the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the diplomatic effort was a bad idea. According to the Los Angeles Times:

The United States told the IAEA The United States told the U.N.'s atomic watchdog on Wednesday that a Brazilian and Turkish effort to resolve the standoff over Iran's nuclear program failed to address international concerns.

 

The neocons, of course, are pretending to be overjoyed. Pretending, because the most virulent neoconservatives, such as Bolton, have long argued that the sanctions are useless and meaningless and that they won't deter Iran. And the neoconservative watchdog group, United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), issued a statement moments after the UNSC vote praising the action but calling for more:

In passing a fourth round of sanctions, the United Nations Security Council has sent a clear message to Iran: the cost of pursuing an illegal nuclear weapons program is international economic isolation. While this is a clear message and an important symbol of the international community's opposition to Iran's current policy, it will not be sufficient to halt Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. Further action is required in the form of even more meaningful sanctions.

 

More sanctions are indeed coming, but it's an open question as to whether they will be "meaningful." Both the United States and the European Union intend to use the UNSC resolution as the starting point for imposing unilateral, non-UN sanctions on Iran, including Treasury Department-sponsored financial sanctions that could target Iran's Central Bank. And Congress, in its infinite nonwisdom, is likely to pass legislation that will put enormous pressure on the White House to restrict Iran's supply of imported gasoline and refined petroleum products. (For an analysis of the sanctions push, see my recent article in The Nation.)

Perhaps the saddest reaction to the provocative but useless sanctions resolution came from J Street, the supposedly pro-peace, anti-AIPAC Jewish lobby, which gushed over the resolution:

J Street welcomes the passage of enhanced multilateral and broad-based sanctions on Iran at the United Nations Security Council today.… Today, the Government of Iran hears a clear message from the international community that there are real consequences to continued obfuscation, delay, and intransigence over its nuclear program, as well as real benefits should they fully address international concerns.

The fact is that the resolution will make it harder, not easier to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough on Iran's nuclear program. That's because it will make it more difficult for Iran's fractious leadership to make any conciliatory move without appearing to be caving in to international pressure.

For Obama, who tried to open the door for dialogue with Iran, Res. 1929 is a symbol of his failure. Since military action has been ruled out, the choice are between diplomacy and containment of a post-nuclear Iran. In that choice, the sanctions are irrelevant. But they do make the diplomacy a lot harder. For the administration, the best that can be said is that the sanctions are an effort to buy time, to stave off the Congressional crazies who demand actions such as naval embargos of Iran and the neoconservative lunatics who want to bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb-bomb Iran. Unfortunately, President Obama, it only encourages them.

Afghan Jirga: Talk to the Taliban

The long-anticipated peace jirga in Afghanistan concluded on Friday, with mixed but potentially very important results. And in its wake, President Karzai—who is committed to opening talks with the Taliban to end the war—fired two top Afghan security officials, to howls of protests from US and NATO officials. Both fired Afghans appear to have been American stooges.

In both the jirga and firing of Afghanistan’s interior minister and intelligence chief, a key issue was Karzai’s insistence on freeing political prisoners held by the United States and Afghanistan, including many Taliban, and removing more than 100 current and former Taliban from the so-called List 1267, the outmoded, post-9/11 UN-maintained watch list. At the jirga, the 1,600 delegates issues a sixteen-point resolution that called for the removal of top insurgent leaders from List 1267, including Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a key insurgent leader.

The jirga’s key accomplishments are significant: It decided to create a permanent shura, or council, to explore the opening of peace negotiations, and it’s possible that current or former members of the Taliban could take part in that council. It called on the Taliban to cut ties with Al Qaeda, a call widely seen as meant to placate the United States—even though Al Qaeda barely exists as an organization anymore. Besides calling for the elimination of the UN blacklist, it also called for the release of detainees held by the United States in Guantánamo and at Bagram Air Base and other prisons. Under great pressure from the United States, the jirga stopped short of calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of US and NATO forces.

The point of removing the Taliban officials from the list: it’s impossible to have official peace talks with men who would be instantly arrested and incarcerated. And it’s a gesture to the Taliban, a sign that Karzai is serious about wanting reconciliation. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy, has expressed horror at the idea of removing Mullah Omar from the UN list.

The jirga also demanded that no preconditions be imposed on peace talks with the Taliban. As Anand Gopal in the Christian Science Monitor reported:

Among the controversial propositions include the demand that both the Taliban and the Afghan government drop any preconditions for talks. Kabul and Washington have said that they will only talk to those insurgents who lay down their weapons and accept the Afghan constitution. The insurgents, on the other hand, believe such terms constitute a surrender and refuse to start talks until foreign troops leave.

A number of delegates said the government’s demands were unrealistic.

"When they say put down your guns and accept our law and then we’ll talk, what kind of negotiation is that?" asks a delegate from the eastern province of Nangarhar, who asked not to be named.

Originally announced by Karzai in January, the jirga was to have included representatives of the Taliban, apparently including Mullah Baradur, the number-two Taliban official, who had engaged in secret contacts with Karzai and the UN. But in February, Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, threw a monkey wrench into the planning for the jirga by arresting Baradur. His arrest was widely seen as an act by Pakistan to assert control over the Afghan peace process, a message to Karzai that his efforts would fail unless they brought Pakistan into the center of the talks.

It’s likely that the firing of the interior minister and the chief of intelligence by Karzai is meant to smooth the way for just that: talks with the Taliban, in which Pakistan will play a key role.

Though activists for women’s rights, among others, aren’t happy about the idea of reconciling with the Taliban, and although Afghanistan’s petulant opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah, the runner-up in last August’s presidential election, foolishly led a boycott of the jirga, the three-day meeting did bolster Karzai’s prestige, and it could set the stage for a lengthy peace process that could, in fact, end the war. Staffan de Mistura, the savvy UN official in Afghanistan, said that the jirga could indeed create conditions over the coming months that could lead to a political breakthrough. The Taliban are watching very carefully what is happening,” he said. “They are not naïve, as you know, neither blind, and they are also in my opinion tired.”

Mistura said that he’d orchestrate a visit to Afghanistan by UN officials to speed the process of removing Taliban officials from the UN watch list.

Two days after the jirga ended, Karzai fired Amrullah Saleh, the intelligence chief, and Hanif Atmar, the interior minister. In the New York Times and the Washington Post, along with other US media, American and NATO officials huffed and puffed with annoyance about their dismissal. According to the Times, the firing directly related to Karzai’s efforts to talk to the Taliban:

Officials also said that Mr. Saleh was uncomfortable with Mr. Karzai’s insistence that some Taliban members should be released from detention as a signal of the government’s intent to negotiate and reach out to the insurgents.

And the paper added that if Karzai wants to talk to Pakistan (and the Taliban, which is sponsored by Pakistan) about a deal, he needed Saleh out of the way:

Mr. Saleh is also an outspoken critic of Pakistan and has publicly blamed the government for its support of the Taliban and other extremists. As Mr. Karzai positions himself to reach out to the Taliban, he is likely to have to turn to Pakistan for help, and that could have been more difficult if Mr. Saleh remained in a central role.

Stunningly, the Obama administration has the gall to state publicly that it’s not happy about Karzai firing the two stooges. According to the Post:

The departures of Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and National Directorate of Security chief Amrullah Saleh are likely to become an additional irritant in the already rocky relationship between Karzai and Washington.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said both officials were "people we admire and whose service we appreciate." Atmar, Morrell added, "was one of the ministers we cared about."

Gaza: It's Not About Anti-Semitism

Whatever your thoughts about the Gaza flotilla incident, one thing is certain: neither the event itself, nor the subsequent world reaction, has anything to do with anti-Semitism.

Try telling that to Charles Krauthammer or Bibi Netanyahu.

In what may be eligible for Worst Op-Ed of 2010, Krauthammer lies and prevaricates through a viciously misguided op-ed in today’s Washington Post entitled “Those Troublesome Jews” that includes this pathetic zinger:

“The world is tired of these troublesome Jews, 6 million—that number again—hard by the Mediterranean, refusing every invitation to national suicide. For which they are relentlessly demonized, ghettoized and constrained from defending themselves, even as the more committed anti-Zionists—Iranian in particular—openly prepare a more final solution.”

Krauthammer’s disgusting insinuation is echoed by Netanyahu, the thuggish Israeli prime minister, who says:

“Once again Israel faces hypocrisy and a biased rush to judgment. I’m afraid this isn't the first time.”

Playing the anti-Semitism card means that you can play with the facts. Krauthammer, for instance, arrogantly claims that he can “prove” that the flotilla was an act of aggression rather than a political statement aimed at weakening Israel’s embargo of Gaza by this canard:

“Oh, but weren't the Gaza-bound ships on a mission of humanitarian relief? No. Otherwise they would have accepted Israel’s offer to bring their supplies to an Israeli post, be inspected for military materiel and have the rest trucked by Israel into Gaza—as every week 10,000 tons of food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies are sent by Israel to Gaza.”

But, of course, Israel would not allow those supplies to reach Gaza under any circumstances precisely because many of the items—cement, for instance—are on the do-not-allow list that Israel arbitrarily maintains to weaken Gaza economically. To be sure, the point of the flotilla was not to provide Gaza with supplies. The point of the entire effort is to make a demonstration to the world that the continued embargo of Gaza is outrageous and cruel, and in that they have succeeded remarkably well.

It appears that the message has gotten through, on some level at least, to the Obama administration, which has tried to pretend since taking office in 2009 that Gaza doesn’t exist. Having ignored Gaza entirely—never once sending George Mitchell, the special envoy appointed in January, 2009—Obama now says that things have to change:

“What’s important right now is that we break out of the current impasse, use this tragedy as an opportunity so that we figure out how we meet Israel’s security concerns, but at the same time start opening up opportunity for Palestinians.”

That’s a start.

Personally, I’m not a fan of Hamas. As far as I’m concerned, Hamas is a radical-right organization whose main leaders are fundamentalist Muslims with a penchant for blowing up pizza parlors. There are elements in Hamas that are more enlightened, but overall Hamas is a creation of Israel itself: first, because in the 1970s and 1980s, the Israeli secret service helped fund and organize Hamas because it believed that radical Muslim Palestinians would split the Palestinian movement and fight Fatah, and they did; and second, because during the 1990s and 2000s Hamas’ nihilistic radicalism fed off the cynical radicalism of extremist Israelis such as Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu. It was the extremism of Sharon and Netanyahu that led to the growing popularity of Hamas. If Hamas were serious about peace, they’d agree to accept a permanent ceasefire with Israel and to accept the principle of a two-state solution by recognizing Israel. That’s what the PLO, under Yasser Arafat did, in the 1980s and 1990s. By doing so now, Hamas could checkmate the Israel embargo and capitalize on the fact that Israel is on the defensive, politically.

But to get there, the Obama administration may have to change its policy and start talking to Hamas. Smart diplomats can figure out a dozen ways of doing so and making it work.

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