Bob Dreyfuss | The Nation

Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

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

UN Slams US Drone Killings

Drop what you’re doing and take half an hour to read the report by Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, on the implications of the U.S.-sponsored drone attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and around the world. It’s a stunning indictment of how the United States is flouting the rule of law and setting a precedent that could lead, in Alston’s view, to a world in which nations willy-nilly use drone technology to kill anywhere, anywhere, they care to.
Which is what the United States is doing.
The report also cites killings by Russia and Israel, among other countries, but the United States is far and away the principal culprit.
You can read the whole report here
In a statement on releasing the report, published today by the UN, Alston said:

“It is an essential requirement of international law that States using targeted killings demonstrate that they are complying with the various rules governing their use in situations of armed conflict. The greatest challenge to this principle today comes from the program operated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. . . . The international community does not know when and where the CIA is authorized to kill, the criteria for individuals who may be killed, how it ensures killings are legal, and what follow-up there is when civilians are illegally killed.”

By failing to “disclose their criteria” for who its kills and why, the United States is setting a dangerous precedent. It is, said Alston, “deeply problematic, because it gives no transparency or clarity about what conduct could subject a civilian to killing.” He added:

“I'm particularly concerned that the United States seems oblivious to this fact when it asserts an ever-expanding entitlement for itself to target individuals across the globe. … This strongly asserted but ill-defined license to kill without accountability is not an entitlement which the United States or other States can have without doing grave damage to the rules designed to protect the right to life and prevent extrajudicial executions.”

Alston didn’t say that the drone attacks violate international law, but that’s the implication – and the Obama administration is scrambling to justify the policy under law. Alston specifically rejects the notion of “preemptive self-defense” and said that killing outside of a combat zone under wartime conditions “is almost never likely to be legal.”
In an interview with the New York Times, Alston drew out the full meaning of the U.S. policy:

“This expansive and open-ended interpretation of the right to self-defense goes a long way towards destroying the prohibition on the use of armed force contained in the UN charter. If invoked by other states, in pursuit of those they deem to be terrorists and to have attacked them, it would cause chaos.”

 At the conclusion of his report, Alston calls on "states" -- i.e., the United States -- to identify in detail the policies and criteria used for killing civilians and to "specify the procedural safeguards in place to ensure in advance of targeted killings that they comply with international law." And he adds:

"States should make public the number of citizens collaterally killed in a targeted killing operation."

There's lots of meat in this report. Read it!
And when you're finished, and you want to read something mealy-mouthed, read the Q&A from the Council on Foreign Relations.

Obama Must Talk to Hamas

So far, the Obama administration has expressed “deep concern” over the Israeli air and sea assault on the flotilla heading for Gaza and called for an investigation of the facts. That won’t cut it.

Of course, even that is too much for right-wing and neoconservative critics of Obama, who long for the good old days when the administration of George W. Bush reflexively supported everything that Israel did. Elliot Abrams, for instance, who served as a top official at the National Security Council under Bush, blasted Obama for criticizing Israel’s policy of expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and for two recent actions at the UN: first, support for the nonproliferation resolution that called on Israel to open its nuclear facilities for inspection, and second, support for the unanimous UN Security Council resolution that criticized (mildly) Israel’s raid on the flotilla.

But in fact America’s response to the deadly attack has been mild. The United States has refused to condemn it. Yesterday, General Jones, the national security adviser, huddled with Israel’s Ambassador Oren and with Uzi Arad, the controversial, right-wing Israeli national security adviser, to work out a common policy that the Washington Post reports focused on “how to contain the immediate diplomatic fallout from the raid.” Secretary of State Clinton called Israeli Defense Minister Barak to say that “we should be extremely cautious in both what we say and what we do in coming days.”

Cautious? No, the United States ought to be outspoken. The New York Times, in a scathing editorial today, slams Israel (“no excuse”) and then raises the broader question of the blockage of Gaza itself:

“At this point, it should be clear that the blockade is unjust and against Israel’s long-term security.”

And the Times says Obama should forthrightly condemn the attack and demand an end to the blockade:

“On Tuesday, President Obama expressed his 'deep regret' over the flotilla incident. He is doing Israel no favors with such a tepid response. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shown time and again that he prefers bullying and confrontation over diplomacy. Washington needs to make clear to him just how dangerous and counterproductive that approach is.

“Mr. Obama needs to state clearly that the Israeli attack was unacceptable and back an impartial international investigation. The United States should also join the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — Britain, France, Russia and China — in urging Israel to permanently lift the blockade.”

But there’s no sign, yet, that the Obama administration is prepared to break with its over-cautious, toe-the-line stance. At least not in public. Behind the scenes, there are reports that the United States might be rethinking its refusal to talk to Hamas. Having long avoided dealing with Hamas -- for instance, in trying to restart "proximity talks" between Israel and Fatah -- the United States has gone along with Israel’s absolute prohibition on contacts with the Gaza-based movement. According to Khaled Mashaal, the Hamas leader, and Musa Abu Marzouk, deputy chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau, however, Hamas has been in contact with a steady stream of American emissaries, all of whom have gotten the green light from the White House or the State Department. So far, the Obama administration hasn't budged from its official no-talks rule, but the Israeli attack on the peace flotilla will create more pressure for a change in the official American policy.

That would be welcome, and long overdue.

Israeli Blunder Should Force Talks with Hamas

The fallout from Israel’s air and sea attack on the Free Gaza Movement’s flotilla of aid ships is only just beginning, but it will be immense.

Most important, the event is likely to force the international community, including the United States, to open a dialogue with Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that rules Gaza. The blockade of Gaza can no longer be sustained politically. Today, Egypt opened the border with Gaza for passage of aid and people, and world pressure on Israel to undo the blockade is likely to be overwhelming. In that, the Free Gaza Movement and its allies have succeeded, though at the cost of many dead and wounded.

Protests are building worldwide, and even Israeli apologists are admitting that the attack on the flotilla was a catastrophic blunder.

Martin Indyk, the head of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution and a longtime ally of Israel, told the New York Times that it’s now the responsibility of the United States to extricate Israel from the mess it’s created in Gaza, and he proposed what is likely to be a workable solution: the lifting of the Israeli blockade, a ceasefire by Hamas, and the exchange of political prisoners held on either side. (Hamas hold Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier.)

Of course, Prime Minister Netanyahu may reject such advice, but in that case Israel is likely to suffer far more severe international isolation. The big question: Will President Obama finally decide to end the foolish U.S refusal to talk to Hamas? (George Mitchell, the U.S. envoy, has never visited Gaza, home to 1.5 million Palestinians. Sending him there, immediately, is the most important first step.)

The flotilla was carrying 10,000 tons of cement, construction supplies, wood, glass, material for a damaged water treatment plant, prefab housing and so on, not weapons. Also on board the ships were 700 peace activists, including pro-Hamas sympathizers, Turkish citizens affiliated with a Muslim charity and people from all over the world. They’ve been taken to Ashdod, an Israeli port.

Robert Malley, in the same Times piece that quoted Indyk, echoes that it’s long past time to turn attention to Gaza. In an exquisitely mixed metaphor, he said: “If you ignore the huge thorn of Gaza, it will come back to bite you.” Aside from the fact that one cannot be bitten by a thorn, it’s true. And the many months of rumors that President Obama is truly concerned about Gaza while keeping those concerns private mean that it’s time for the president to declare what he thinks. So far the U.S. response has been mealy-mouthed. (Even the Turkish ambassador to the United States said, “We would have expected a much stronger reaction [from the United States] than this.” Prime Minister Erdogan called the Israeli action “inhumane state terrorism” and added: “This attack has clearly shown that Israel has no desire for peace in the region.” Strong words.)

Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, said that the EU will oppose the blockade more forcefully. “The EU doesn’t accept the continued policy of closure,” she said.

US Slams Turkey, Brazil Over Iran

When the Obama administration decided to move aggressively down the path of more sanctions on Iran, it was not because they thought it would work – they don’t – but because they had no idea what to do when U.S.-Iran talks broke down in late 2009. According to U.S. officials, the United States was simply trying to buy time: by going to the UN, they could make it look like they were doing something, and ease the pressure from hawks, neoconservatives, and the Israel lobby.
But as a direct result, the administration is now is deep conflict with two close allies, Turkey and Brazil. Those two countries, acting like adults when the United States began behaving like a petulant child, sought to continue the stalled diplomacy, to coax Iran back to the bargaining table. It worked. Brazil’s President Lula, visiting Tehran with Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan, won a commitment from Iran to ship about half of its enriched uranium to Turkey, restarting the diplomatic process that ended last year when Iran first accepted a similar deal and then backed off.
Amazingly, the deal that Turkey and Brazil achieved was almost exactly the same as the one that was worked out by the United States and other world powers in Geneva on October 1. President Obama praised that accord, but now that he’s pushing for sanctions (that won’t work) his minions are denouncing the Brazil-Turkey agreement.
Yesterday, at Brookings, Secretary of State Clinton slammed Brazil:

"I don't know that we agree with any nation on every issue. And certainly we have very serious disagreements with Brazil's diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran. And we have told President Lula, and I've told my counterpart the foreign minister [Celso Amorim] that we think buying time for Iran, enabling Iran to avoid international unity with respect to their nuclear program, makes the world more dangerous, not less.'

"They [Brazilians] have a theory of the case, they're not just acting out of impulse. We disagree with it. So we go at it. We say well, we don't agree with that, we think that, that the Iranians are using you. And that we think it's time to go to the Security Council, and that it is only after the Security Council acts that the Iranians will engage effectively on their nuclear program."

Brazil and Turkey insisted that the deal with Iran is the right thing to do, defying Clinton’s criticism. According to the Wall Street Journal, Lula said:

"All the deadlines and dates are being met. We carried out everything they asked for."

And Erdogan added:

"The accord with Tehran was a diplomatic victory and those countries that criticize us are merely envious.”

They’re both right. That didn’t stop Thomas Friedman, the world’s worst columnist, from writing earlier this week in the New York Times that the Brazil-Turkey diplomacy was “as ugly as it gets.” He wrote:

“I confess that when I first saw the May 17 picture of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, joining his Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with raised arms — after their signing of a putative deal to defuse the crisis over Iran’s nuclear weapons program — all I could think of was: Is there anything uglier than watching democrats sell out other democrats to a Holocaust-denying, vote-stealing Iranian thug just to tweak the U.S. and show that they, too, can play at the big power table?”

What’s ugly, Friedman, is arrogant, imperialist commentary like that.
Meanwhile, by insisting on useless sanctions with Iran, the Obama administration has deeply alienated two very important countries, making a mockery of Obama's pledge to elevate diplomacy and brideg-building as the cornerstone of U.S foreign policy. He's also used up a lot of political capital to drag Russia and China to support the U.S-led effort for a fourth round of sanctions against Iran. As Robert Kagan, a neoconservative thinker noted this week in the Washington Post, President Bush managed to persuade Russia and China to vote for a UN sanctions resolution not once, but three times. Kagan is right, even if he's right for the wrong reasons. So Obama has alienated friends, given up political chips win over adversaries, and accomplished precisely nothing vis-a-vis Iran.

Obama's New Security Strategy: Real or Just Rhetoric?

President Obama today announced the administration’s new national security strategy, and you should read the whole fifty-two pages, not just the commentary and reporting, to draw your own conclusions.


Yes, as some liberals and progressives point out, the new strategy shows that Obama is not President Bush. Brian Katulis, an expert at the Center for American Progress, wrote yesterday in Politico that “the plan is grounded in core progressive foreign policy principles that stand in sharp contrast to mainstream conservative doctrine,” and he added:


Though some progressives clearly have deep misgivings about Obama’s policy choices — whether involving Afghanistan, drone strikes in Pakistan or the handling of terrorist detainees in Guantanamo and elsewhere — they should embrace and defend his overall national security vision.


But not so fast. Especially in the wake of the revelation, in Monday’s New York Times, that the administration has approved a vast expansion of covert operations by the U.S. military in the Middle East and Central Asia, it isn’t clear whether Obama's effort to separate himself from President Bush’s policy of unilateral interventionism, regime change, and the Global War on Terrorism is rhetorical or real. And the examples that Katulis points out – Afghanistan, drone strikes, and Guantanamo – aren’t just blips that can be overlooked.


In his introduction to the new strategy, Obama unfortunately proclaims, as did Bush, that America is “at war” with an amorphous network of terrorists. “For nearly a decade, our nation has been at war with a far-reaching network of violence and hatred,” says Obama. And he falls into the old, shop-worn rhetoric about American’s greatness and the need to maintain military superiority, “We will maintain the military superiority that has secured our country, and underpinned global security, for decades. … We must pursue a strategy of national renewal and global leadership, a strategy that rebuilds the foundations of American strength and influence.”


That’s the nub of the issue. Unlike Bush, who eschewed alliances and believed that American military power could roll over enemies and allies alike, and whose use of unilateral force in invading Iraq outraged European and Asian allies, Obama seeks the same goals – military superiority and expanded global influence – through alliances, such as NATO. Perhaps multilateralism is a good thing, when it’s compared to unilateralism (especially the sort employed by Bush, which mixed ignorance and arrogance in equally lethal doses), but Obama still insists that American must arrogate to itself a worldwide leadership role, backed by overwhelming military power.


The best thing about Obama’s new strategy is that the president recognizes that national security starts at home, and he stresses the importance of a strong economy, education, technological innovation, and the search for clean energy as key to American power in the new century. Does that mean that he’s ready to launch an industrial policy that aims at creating high-paying skilled jobs at home, to vastly increase government funding of research and development, job training, and rebuilding American’s crumbling infrastructure? It isn’t clear. Sadly, in talking about new sources of energy, Obama emphasizes that doing so will reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, which is not the primary goal of clean energy technology, and he says little about the importance of that new energy technology as a good in itself. And he continually emphasizes reducing the deficit, which seems to rule out needed huge new expenditures for R&D, training, job creation, and infrastructure building. Still, it’s a good sign when the president puts rebuilding American at home at the “center” of his national security strategy.


In the key passage on the use of force, the new strategy says:


While the use of force is sometimes necessary, we will exhaust other options before war whenever we can, and carefully weigh the costs and risks of action against the costs and risks of inaction. When force is necessary, we will continue to do so in a way that reflects our values and strengthens our legitimacy, and we will seek broad international support, working with such institutions as NATO and the U.N. Security Council. The United States must reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend our nation and our interests, yet we will also seek to adhere to standards that govern the use of force.


Yes, that’s an improvement over Bush’s declarations that might makes right, even when it’s employed recklessly and unilaterally. But it still allows Obama a lot of wiggle room. And when U.S. military covert operators and U.S. Special Forces are reportedly operating inside Iran, making contacts with dissident groups and gathering targeting information for a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, then what’s the difference?

Don't Plan Vacation in Kabul

File this under the Department of It-Looks-Like-Satire-But-It’s-Not:
I know it’s only boilerplate from the State Department, the kind of warning they issue all the time about trouble spots and violence-prone places. But—Afghanistan? Really? I think we know.
Here’s from State’s latest official Travel Warning:

“The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against travel to Afghanistan.  The security threat to all U.S. citizens in Afghanistan remains critical.   This supersedes the Travel Warning for Afghanistan issued July 23, 2009, to remind U.S. citizens of ongoing security risks, including kidnapping, and to include an email address for the consular section at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. …
“No part of Afghanistan should be considered immune from violence, and the potential exists throughout the country for hostile acts, either targeted or random, against American and other Western nationals at any time.
“Riots and incidents of civil disturbance can and do occur, often without warning.  U.S. citizens should avoid rallies and demonstrations; even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence.
“Carjackings, robberies, and violent crime remain a problem.  …
“The U.S. Embassy’s ability to provide emergency consular services to U.S. citizens in Afghanistan is limited, particularly for those persons outside the capital.”

Duly noted.


General Petraeus's Secret Ops

A secret military directive signed last September 30 by General David Petraeus, the Centcom commander, authorizes a vast expansion of secret US military special ops from the Horn of Africa to the Middle East to Central Asia and “appears to authorize specific operations in Iran,” according to the New York Times.

If President Obama knew about this, authorized it and still supports it, then Obama has crossed a red line, and the president will stand revealed as an aggressive, militaristic liberal interventionist who bears a closer resemblance to the president he succeeded than to the ephemeral reformer that he pretended to be in 2008, when he ran for office. If he didn’t know, if he didn’t understand the order, and if he’s unwilling to cancel it now that it’s been publicized, then Obama is a feckless incompetent. Take your pick.

If Congress has any guts at all, it will convene immediate investigative hearings into a power grab by Petraeus, a politically ambitious general, and the Pentagon’s arrogant Special Operations team, led by Admiral Eric T. Olson, who collaborated with Petraeus. And Congress needs to ask the White House, What did you know, and when did you know it?

Drop what you’re doing and read the whole piece, by Mark Mazzetti, in the Times, which ran it on page 1 as the lead story in today’s paper. (Critics of the “mainstream media” take note: the Times broke this story fearlessly, even though it apparently redacted certain operational details at the behest of the administration.)

Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: In September, Petraeus signed the Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order providing for a “broad expansion of clandestine military activity” in the region of Centcom’s responsibility, the Middle East and South Asia. Reports Mazzetti:

The secret directive, signed in September by Gen. David H. Petraeus, authorizes the sending of American Special Operations troops to both friendly and hostile nations in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa to gather intelligence and build ties with local forces. Officials said the order also permits reconnaissance that could pave the way for possible military strikes in Iran if tensions over its nuclear ambitions escalate.…

The seven-page directive appears to authorize specific operations in Iran, most likely to gather intelligence about the country’s nuclear program or identify dissident groups that might be useful for a future military offensive.


Officials said that many top commanders, General Petraeus among them, have advocated an expansive interpretation of the military’s role around the world, arguing that troops need to operate beyond Iraq and Afghanistan to better fight militant groups.

The Times story raises a million questions: Is this how the United States intends to carry out the order to assassinate Anwar al-Awlaqi, the Yemen-based US citizen who is reportedly an Al Qaeda operative? Does the revelation of this order have anything to do with the abrupt resignation of Dennis Blair, the departed Director of National Intelligence? What sorts of “dissident groups” in Iran might the military connect with, and might they include paramilitary forces associated with rebellious Kurds in western Iran, several of whom were just put to death by Tehran, or the Pakistan-linked Baluchistan rebels in southeast Iran?

For decades, the military has tried to elbow the Central Intelligence Agency into a subordinate role. Even as the intelligence budget ballooned (since the 1990s) to enormous proportions, the Pentagon has gobbled up most of it and tried to force the civilian CIA into a subordinate role. (According to Mazzetti, the CIA supports the Petraeus directive, even though it is explicitly aimed at “break[ing] its dependence on the Central Intelligence Agency,” but we’ll see.) The gung-ho Special Ops folks at the Pentagon have been pushing hard to become a kind of uniformed covert operations unit of the US government, even though military operations aren’t governed by the same sort of restrictive Congressional oversight that the CIA operates under. And, according to Mazzetti, the Petraeus order is intended to accomplish things that the CIA “will not” do:

The order, which an official said was drafted in close coordination with Adm. Eric T. Olson, the officer in charge of the United States Special Operations Command, calls for clandestine activities that “cannot or will not be accomplished“ by conventional military operations or “interagency activities,” a reference to American spy agencies.

Petraeus, along with General McChrystal, should have been fired long ago by Obama, if for no other reason because of their insubordination in 2009 is trying to force Obama's hand in pushing for a series of escalations of the Afghanistan war. Obama can still redeem himself by firing them now.

Those Secret Taliban Talks

More details are emerging about the peace talks in the Maldives involving (in one degree or another) representatives of the Taliban, other Afghan insurgents, and members of the government of Afghanistan. Strangely enough, the Maldives talks aren’t being covered by the American media.

It’s murky, but it appears that the talks were organized by the son-in-law of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of the Islamic Party. The party, also known as Hizb-i Islami, is based in Pakistan, and its leader, Hekmatyar, was the chief recipient of CIA cash channeled through the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, during the U.S.-backed jihad of the 1980s. Reports AP:

“Humayun Jareir, a prominent member of Hizb-i-Islami and Hekmatyar's son-in-law, told The Associated Press in Kabul by telephone that he organized the Maldives meeting to bring together people who are influential in both Afghanistan's government and insurgent groups to try to come up with ideas for a peaceful resolution in Afghanistan.

“’We just have important people who are playing important roles in Afghanistan,’ Jareir said. He declined to name any of the participants but said 50 people were attending, 25 of them Afghan parliamentarians.”

In fact, a branch of Hizb-i Islami has reconciled with the Afghan government and is represented in parliament. In March, Hekmatyar’s group sent a delegation to Kabul to meet with President Karzai, bringing a fifteen-point peace plan with it.

It’s unclear to what extent the Taliban itself is taking part in the talks, which are continuing. The AP reports that “officials in Kabul said they did not believe any active members of the Taliban were present although some former members of the Islamist movement were.”

The London Times reports that the Islamic Party, at least, thinks it might be close to a deal: 

“A senior Hizb-e-Islami figure, Qaribul Rahman Sayad, who now lives in Belgium, denied that the talks were officially sanctioned by the group.

“’Officially Hizb e-Islami is not involved in this but we have unofficial representatives there,’ he said by telephone.

“The Times understands that Afghan officials believe talks with Hizb e-Islami are very close to producing a deal under which the group’s armed wing would lay down its weapons and join a reintegration programme.”

According to Al Jazeera, Hekmatyar sent his son, Feroz, to represent him at the talks.

The Times adds that both Karzai and the Taliban are keeping a little distance from the talks:

“Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, is unhappy that the talks are taking place, but has sent observers to hear what is discussed. His position has been echoed by the Taliban, which has drawn the line at full participation, but has sent representatives in an unofficial capacity.”

It’s not likely that Karzai is too unhappy, but it’s certain that Karzai would like to control the process, especially in advance of the peace jirga with Afghan leaders scheduled for next week. A spokesman for Karzai took pains to distance the Afghan government from the talks:

“We know something is going on in the Maldives, but we are not informed of the details nor are we involved in the process. We do not have any representation and we do not think it will be very helpful for the peace process of Afghanistan.”

Of course, a breakthrough with Hekmatyar’s group would be very important, especially if it is a sign that key elements of the Taliban—and, perhaps, its backers in Pakistan—are angling for a deal.

Encouragingly, the U.S. State Department hasn’t slammed the talks, saying only that it hopes that something good comes out of them. Said P.J. Crowley, the spokesman for the State Department:

“We continue to support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect human rights of their fellow citizens. We are not saying they are a good thing or a bad thing. The real question is, what comes out of this.”

More Secret Talks with the Taliban

On the eve of President Karzai’s peace jirga in Afghanistan, a national council that will include clergy, tribal leaders, warlords, and other “stakeholders” in that country’s star-crossed political constellation, it appears that talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban are accelerating.

Reports AP:
"A Maldives government official says that the Afghan government and the Taliban are meeting in the Indian Ocean archipelago for talks.

"Government spokesman Mohamed Zuhair says 15 representatives of the Afghan government and seven Taliban members met Thursday, nearly four months after a first round of talks in the Maldives.

"Zuhair says he's been asked not to disclose the location or the names of the participants.

"He says the talks will last until the weekend with a day off Friday."


Karzai’s jirga, which has been acknowledged only grudgingly by the United States, is aimed at creating the political framework for official talks with the Taliban. By bringing together all elements of Afghan society, Karzai is trying to establish himself and his government as legitimate representatives for those talks, using the jirga to do what the fraud-marred election last August failed to do. In particular, Karzai has to win the backing of the old Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban formation supported by India and Iran, for the negotiations with the Taliban.

Interestingly, Steve Coll of the New America Foundation, who’s long been a skeptic about the usefulness of talking to the Taliban, says in the latest issue of The New Yorker that the United States is foolish not to support talks: “Whether talks succeed or fail, it’s hard to understand why the U.S. would refuse to even try.”

Coll raises a key point, namely, that talking to the Taliban means, in effect, talking to its principal sponsor, Pakistan. Pakistan, of course, created the Taliban in the early 1990s as a tool for checking India’s influence in Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s military and its intelligence service, the ISI, continue to support the Taliban to this day. Afghanistan is concerned that the United States might be willing to hand Afghanistan over to Pakistan as the price of a peace settlement, and India, too, fears the same thing. (India is willing to open talks with the Taliban as well, in part to reduce the chances that Pakistan is able to play kingmaker in post-American Afghanistan.) As Coll points out:

“In March, two Pakistani generals met with Karzai and signaled that they could help cool down the Taliban insurgency if the Karzai government would, according to a senior Afghan intelligence official, ‘end’ India’s presence in Afghanistan.”

Frankly, it isn't clear whether or not Pakistan will end up with the lion’s share of influence in Afghanistan when all is said and done. Most likely, it will, because Pakistan has the inside track via its connections with the Taliban and because it shares a long, porous border with Afghanistan (and India doesn’t). At the same time, Iran will be a player, since Tehran is building up vast influence in and around western Afghanistan and in Heart. But it shouldn’t be too difficult for President Obama to seek a deal involving India, Iran, Pakistan and Russia, among other players – Saudi Arabia comes to mind – in a plan to end the war. If only he weren’t so all-fired intent on supporting General McChrystal’s foolish counterinsurgency war.

Speaking of which: the Taliban is back at nearly full strength in Marja, the rural hamlet of 60,000 that was occupied by U.S. forces in February, amid great publicity and congratulations all around. (Oops.) And it’s not looking good for the U.S. invasion of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, this summer. The American military isn’t calling it an invasion, of course, preferring to describe the deployment of 10,000 U.S. troops to the city and surrounding districts as a slow, tidal buildup of forces. Meanwhile, the Taliban has launched two major assaults on the twin strongholds of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan – “back-to-back strikes at symbols of American power in Afghanistan,” according to Los Angeles Times -- sending a team of guerrillas and suicide bombers against Bagram air base north of Kabul and deploying a suicide bomber in a van that struck a U.S. convoy in the Afghan capital, killing five U.S. troops.


Brazil, Turkey Engineer Breakthrough on Iran

The best comment so far about the brilliant diplomatic coup engineered by Brazil, Turkey, and Iran yesterday comes from the Turkish ambassador to the United Nations, who said, in reacting to the smarmy, negative reaction from Washington:

“I would have expected a more encouraging statement. We don’t believe in sanctions, and I don’t believe anyone can challenge us, certainly not the United States. They don’t work.”

Despite the huffing and puffing from the Obama administration, there are other powers reaction positively to the dramatic development. President Sarkozy of France called it a “positive step,” adding:

“France will examine this with the Group of Six [international powers] and is ready to discuss without preconceptions all its implications for the whole of the Iran dossier.”

China, too, which had reluctantly joined the idiotic U.S. sanctions bandwagon, now seems to be backing off, and China’s foreign minister said:

“China has noted the relevant reports and expresses its welcome and appreciation for the diplomatic efforts all parties have made to positively seek an appropriate solution to the Iranian nuclear issue.”

Before traveling to Iran, Brazil’s President Lula da Silva said that he believed that he had a 99 percent chance of a successful breakthrough in the talks with Iran, even as U.S. officials expressed extreme skepticism that anything could be accomplished. What Brazil and Turkey did is to get Iran to reaffirm the terms of the October, 2009, deal that was worked out in Geneva, by which Iran would have sent the bulk of its enriched uranium to Russia and France for reprocessing into fuel rods for a medical research reactor in Tehran. Under the new accord, worked out by Brazil and Turkey, Iran will send about half of its enriched uranium to Turkey, instead. True, Iran has more enriched uranium now than it had in October, but the very fact that Iran is still ready to ship some of its fuel abroad is a sign that diplomacy can still work.

In the United States, however, reaction is sharply negative. It’s almost as if the Obama administration is more concerned that it’s hard-fought battle to get Russian and Chinese support for more (useless) sanctions on Iran is unraveling than it is about a real solution to the problem.

The Washington Post, petulant and petty in its editorial today, called “Bad Bargain,” says that the Brazil-Turkey accord will “do nothing to restrain Tehran’s nuclear program,” that it might “derail” the Obama administration’s sanctions push, and that it represents a “major diplomatic coup for the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.” In fact, it might have been a diplomatic coup for the United States, if Washington hadn’t foolishly insisted that the terms of the October deal were sacrosanct and couldn’t be altered in order to get the deal back on track, after Iran first accepted it and then rejected it. It could have been a diplomatic coup for President Obama if he’d encouraged Brazil and Turkey to go ahead, rather than having his spokesmen pooh-pooh the effort and issue ugly warnings to Brazil.

The New York Times reports that the Obama administration is angry over the deal, in part because Obama met personally with the Brazilian and Turkish leaders in Washington earlier this month and then sent them letters urging them to reject a deal with Iran.

The text of the 10-point plan, which you can read here, specifically says that Iran, as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), has the right to enrich uranium:

“We reaffirm our commitment to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and in accordance with the related articles of the NPT, recall the right of all State Parties, including the Islamic Republic of Iran, to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy (as well as nuclear fuel cycle including enrichment activities) for peaceful purposes without discrimination.”

That, more than anything else, is driving some at the Post and the Obama administration wild. In fact, despite the existence of UN resolutions calling on Iran to suspend its enrichment program, President Obama should have long ago declared that Iran has the right to enrich, under appropriate IAEA safeguards. He hasn’t.

The Post, in its account of the deal today, calls the diplomacy by Brazil and Turkey a “revolt by smaller powers over the rights to nuclear power and prestige.” How very imperial!

Since sanctions won't work, and since military action would be a catastrophe, you’d think Obama would be thrilled to see diplomatic progress. You’d be wrong. The Post reports that, right on schedule, the United States has ready the text of a draft UN resolution calling for new sanctions on Iran

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