News of America's misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
Yesterday, during his appearance at the Institute for the Study of War, I had a chance to ask General Ray Odierno, the US commander in Iraq, about the role of Iran in the recent purge of nearly 500 Iraqi candidates on trumped-up charges that they are Baathists. Odierno avoided diplomatic niceties and blamed Iran, Ahmed Chalabi, and Ali al-Lami by name.
Lami is the executive director of the de-Baathification commission in Iraq, now reemerged as the Accountability and Justice Commission, overseen by Chalabi. On January 14, the AJC ruled that hundreds of Iraqi candidates would be barred from running for office, including some very prominent secular politicians opposed to Iran. I asked General Odierno to clarify Lami's ties to Iran, and why he'd been arrested by US forces in 2008.
From the transcript:
DREYFUSS "I'm Bob Dreyfuss with The Nation magazine. [I want to ask about] Ali al-Lami, who was arrested by the U.S. a year and a half ago. And I was wondering if you could kind of clear up who this guy is and what his connections to Iran are and why he was arrested and why he was freed."
ODIERNO "Al-Lami is a Sadr'ist by trade. He was arrested after an operation in Sadr City where both Iraqi security forces, U.S. civilians, and U.S. soldiers were leaving a meeting that they had with the local government in Sadr City, and their vehicles were attacked with IEDs as they left the meeting.
"There were some accusations. We had some intelligence that said that al-Lami was the one who directed these attacks on these individuals. He was released in August of '09 as part of the drawdown of our detention facilities because we did not have the actual prosecutorial evidence in order to bring him in front of a court of law in Iraq. All we had was intelligence that linked him to this attack. So, as we had some others, we had to release him. He has been involved in very nefarious activities in Iraq for some time. It is disappointing that somebody like him was in fact put in charge or has been able to run this commission inside of Iraq, in my opinion.
"He is -- him and Chalabi clearly are influenced by Iran. We have direct intelligence that tells us that. They've had several meetings in Iran, meeting with a man named Mohandas, which is an ex-council representative member -- still is a council representative member -- who was on the terrorist watch list for a bombing in Kuwait in the 1980s. They are tied to him. He sits at the right-hand side of the Quds Force commandant, Qassem Soleimani. And we believe they're absolutely involved in influencing the outcome of the election. And it's concerning that they've been able to do that over time.
"Chalabi, who -- you know, has been involved in Iraqi politics in many different ways over the last seven years, mostly bad."
I also asked Odierno whether Lami is tied to the League of the Righteous, a Shiite terrorist group that is widely seen as an arm of Iran's Qods Force, the branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps that is responsible for the IRGC's external operations, including Iraq:
ODIERNO: "Yeah. I'm not going to -- it's not clear, so I won't comment on that."
As I've noted recently in this blog, the AJC's anti-Baathist purge, which has struck hundreds of Iraqis with only tenuous connections to the former regime, has threatened to unravel the entire Iraqi political fabric and restart sectarian violence. The Iranians aren't shy about taking credit for it, either, linking the United States to the Baath as part of some (nonexistent) anti-Iran plot. Last week, for instance, in his speech on the anniversary of Iran's 1979 revolution, President Ahmadinejad said:
"Why do you [United States] want to impose your will and Baathists on Iraq and regional nations?"
Tariq al-Hashemi, the vice president of Iraq and a leading Sunni politician who has joined with the campaign of Iyad Allawi, wrote a protest to the Iranian ambassador in Iraq about the speech by Ahmadinejad and Iran's blatant interference in Iraqi affairs.
As Iraq's election decends from manipulation to thuggery to outright brutality, assassinations, and bombings, it's hard to know what reaction to have to Vice President Biden's comment that Iraq is a great triumph for the Obama administration.
My own reaction: sadness and outrage.
Appearing on the CNN program hosted by the always insipid Larry King, Biden said:
"I am very optimistic about -- about Iraq. I mean, this could be one of the great achievements of this administration. You're going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You're going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government.
"I spent -- I've been there 17 times now. I go about every two months -- three months. I know every one of the major players in all the segments of that society. It's impressed me. I've been impressed how they have been deciding to use the political process rather than guns to settle their differences."
You can read the complete transcript of Biden's comments here.
That is not to say that blustery Vice President Cheney's comments are correct. Cheney's comments, not surprisingly, are even more outrageous. The ex-veep wants the credit for the sterling democracy that Iraq is today, failing to mention that Iraq is descending into an abyss of stolen and rigged elections, renewed violence, and possibly much worse. That doesn't faze Cheney:
"If they're going to take credit for it, fair enough, for what they've done while they're there. But it ought to go with a healthy dose of 'thank you, George Bush' up front and a recognition that some of their early recommendations, with respect to prosecuting that war, were just dead wrong. If they had had their way, if we'd followed the policies they'd pursued from the outset or advocated from the outset, Saddam Hussein would still be in power in Baghdad today."
Well. Perhaps Cheney is right that Saddam might still be in power. But many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would be alive, along with 4,000 dead Americans. Iraq would have a functioning government and an expanding economy, and Iran would not have infiltrated nearly all of Iraq's political, economic, and military institutions. And the United States would be at least one trillion dollars richer. The price of oil might be significantly lower, too.
As for Iraq, well, the March 7 elections look like they are going to follow in the pattern of Iran's and Afghanistan's, i.e., rigged. The debate over the banning of 500-plus candidates by an unelected panel headed by an Iran-linked terrorist, Ali al-Lami, is apparently over, and nearly all of the candidates have been barred from running. Among those barred are Saleh al-Mutlaq and Dhafir al-Ani, the No. 2 and No. 3 candidates in the main opposition bloc, the Iraqi Nationalist Movement, which is led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
Already, two members of Allawi's party have been assassinated while campaigning. Five bombs struck five offices of the main, Sunni-led opposition parties in Baghdad on Saturday, including Mutlaq's. Allawi, who many observers say had a credible chance of winning enough votes to lead a governing coalition after the election, has suspended his campaign, and he is mooting the idea of an election boycott. Already, many Sunni leaders are talking about a boycott.
Reports Al Jazeera:
"A secular Iraqi political coalition has suspended its election campaign over a ban on some of its candidates, as blasts hit political offices across Baghdad.
"The blasts late on Saturday, as well as the ongoing dispute over banned election candidates, have heightened tensions during the run up to Iraq's parliamentary vote, scheduled for March 7. ...
"Hours later a blast struck the political offices of Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni politician and co-founder of the Iraqiya list, who is among those barred from the election.
"Another bomb was thrown into the garden of a building used by Sunni scholars, including poll candidates, in Mansour in west Baghdad, wounding two guards.
"A third blast damaged the headquarters of the United Iraq list in east Baghdad."
"It has become clear to Iraqis that this political campaign is fake. The international community should not recognize any government that emerges from it."
Dhafir al-Ani said:
"I still don't know why I was banned. What is the charge against me?"
Yet another banned candidate, Nabil Khalil Saied, said:
"I believe that after this decision [to ban candidates] there will be no hope for any kind of reconciliation."
The banned candidates are almost entirely secular and nationalist Iraqis, who oppose Iran's heavy-handed influence over Iraqi politics, across a wide range of parties. They were banned because of spurious allegations that they were members of the banned Baath party, supporters of the Baath, propagandists for Baathist ideas, or belonged to the Iraqi military or intelligence services under the former regime. Needless to say, millions of Iraqis fall into one or more of those categories. It's a political purge, backed by violence and assassinations, aimed at preventing the opposition from getting any traction on March 7.
Feisal al-Istrabadi, a lawyer who helped draft the transitional laws that governed Iraq after the US invasion in 2003 and who served as the new government's ambassador to the United Nations, told me that there is absolutely no legal basis for the Iraqi court's decision to reverse itself and to reinstate the candidates ban. (What happened was that the ban was imposed by the Justice and Accountability Commission, controlled by Lami and Ahmed Chalabi, upheld by the Iraqi High Election Commission, then struck down by an appeals court. Then, Maliki met with the head of Iraq's supposedly independent judiciary, Midhat al-Mahmoud, along with key government officials and with members of parliament, and put pressure on the top judge, who in turn convinced the appeals court -- for political reasons -- to reverse itself!)
Istrabadi told me:
"Maliki has manipulated the judiciary into giving him what he wants. The judges got it right the first time. You can't ban candidates without evidence. You can't ban people over just allegations. ... The current regime in Iraq has coopted the regular judiciary in a way that even the previous regime did not succeed in doing for thirty-five years."
Istrabadi said that Maliki met with the chief justice, Midhat al-Mahmoud, before the appeals court reevaluated its prior ruling, before it reversed itself, and he suggested that Maliki -- for reasons purely political -- convinced, pressured, or cajoled the chief justice to make sure that the lower court changed its mind.
Chalabi, once a close American ally and confidante of neoconservatives such as Richard Perle, Daniella Pletka, and Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, blasted the United States for interfering in Iraq's election by calling for the banned candidates to be allowed to run. Said Chalabi:
"The appeal committee was submitted publicly to the pressure of foreign groups, like Vice President Biden who said when he was in Iraq (in January) that he hoped Iraqi justice will dissolve the committee of integrity and accountability. Or when the American ambassador in Baghdad expressed his wish that the Iraqi justice system will solve an inconvenient matter, the issue of the 500 candidates."
It's true that Biden and Ambassador Christopher Hill tried to work, behind the scenes, to get the ban reversed. That they failed to do so is proof that US influence in Baghdad is close to zero, despite the dwindling presence of 120,000 US troops, and that Iran's influence is gaining strength. The original ban on the 511 candidates was the result of action by Chalabi and Lami, both of whom have extremely close ties to Iran. So, too, does the Iraqi Shiite religious-political establishment.
So much for Biden's fatuous comment that Iraq is "one of the great achievements of this administration." The only question that remains is, Will the next Iraqi government be an illegitimate, strongman regime headed by a Shiite sectarian quasi-dictator with close ties to Tehran, or will Iraq be plunged once again into a cycle of violence and civil war? Or both.
Heckuva job, Bidey.
Time, once again, to review the bidding (and the state of hysteria) over Iran's nuclear program.
Let's start with the piece in the New York Times on February 9 by William Broad, a science reporter, who analyzed the import of Iran's high-profile announcement last week that it would start to refine its own low-enriched uranium (LEU) from the current 4 percent to 20 percent, for use in fuel rods for the Tehran medical reactor. Iran's announcement, widely seen as defiant, was their riposte to demands that Iran make good on its October 1, 2009, deal with the United States and other world powers in the P5 + 1 group to ship its LEU abroad. That plan would have had the uranium enriched and turned into fuel rods in Russia and France, then shipped back to Iran for use in the medical reactor.
Broad raises alarms about the Iranian decision to go from 4 to 20 percent, calling it an "act of brinkmanship in a standoff with the West" and suggesting that, paradoxically, enriching uranium to 20 percent gets Iran "almost to the finish line" in producing material for a bomb. Even though highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a weapon would have to be something like 95 percent U-235, not 20 percent, Broad quotes technical experts who argue that getting to the 20 percent level takes 90 percent of the energy needed, making it a short step to bomb-grade material. He concludes by quoting David Albright of ISIS:
"David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private organization in Washington that tracks nuclear proliferation, said the diminishing effort needed to enrich at higher levels meant Iran would need fewer working centrifuges.
"Mr. Albright said Iran would need only 500 to 1,000 centrifuges working for six months to enrich uranium from a level of 20 percent to that needed for a bomb, a tiny fraction of the number required to enrich to lower concentrations.
"The number of centrifuges is small enough that international inspectors and intelligence agencies would have an "extremely hard" time trying to detect the spinning machines if Iran hid them in a clandestine site, Mr. Albright said."
But how does that square with a blockbuster report in the Washington Post on February 11 suggesting that Iran's nuclear enrichment program is faltering, plagued by mistakes, and saddled with decrepit, 1970s-era technology?
The Post piece, by Joby Warrick and Glenn Kessler, a draft ISIS report and other experts reporting that the number of Iran's 8,700 centrifuges actually spinning has dropped precipitously from only 5,000 last May to 3,900 in November. The article also cites Albright, thus:
"At least through the end of 2009, the Natanz plant appears to have performed so poorly that sabotage cannot be ruled out as an explanation, according to a draft study by David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS)."
Sabotage, of course, presumably means that long-rumored effort by the United States and its allies to undermine Iran's program covertly, by sending it defective materials and software infested with bugs and glitches. "It is well known that the United States and European intelligence agencies seek to place defective or bugged equipment into Iran's smuggling networks," says the ISIS report. In any case, Iran's program is breaking down and its uranium output is dropping -- meaning, it appears, that President Ahmadinejad's intention to enrich uranium from 4 to 20 percent may be a lot harder than it looks.
The Obama administration, even as it pushed for targeted sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), seems to want to avoid raising too many alarm bells. The Post today quotes Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, saying that Iran's boasts are "based on politics, not on physics," adding: "We do not believe they have the capability to enrich to the degree to which they now say they are enriching."
The 2000's produced a panoply of villains, cretins and bunglers on Iraq and the broader Middle East. Truly, however, none of them can hold a candle to the pudgy-faced boy wonder of the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Rubin.
On March 1, six days ahead of Iraq's March 7 parliamentary election, Rubin will be a featured speaker at an AEI conference entitled: "Iraq's Elections: Progress or Peril?"
For an organization that was obsessed with Iraq for years, especially in the period before and after the 2003 U.S. invasion, when it held an endless series of "black coffee briefings" on Iraq that often featured people like Ahmed Chalabi and his confreres, the AEI has been remarkably silent on Iraq lately. Perhaps that's because AEI, and Rubin, had consensual intercourse with Chalabi for years, and now Chalabi has emerged in full blossom as a pro-Iranian villain purging Tehran's opponents in Iraq.
Yet Chalabi's ties to Tehran don't faze Rubin. In a February 1 article in his favorite outlet, National Review Online, Rubin wrote a piece so mind-bogglingly stupid that it surpasses even his past efforts at winning a place in the Guinness Moron Book of Records. While the whole world, including countless good-hearted Iraqis, expressed outrage over the McCarthyite purge of more than 500 Iraqi candidates by Rubin's comrade, Chalabi, because of trumped-up charges about ties to the deposed Arab Baath Socialist Party, Rubin cavalierly dismissed the purge. He wrote:
"After the Iraqi parliament banned 500 candidates from contesting the March 7 national elections, Vice President Joseph Biden rushed to Baghdad to urge Iraqi political leaders to reconsider. While the ban has fueled U.S. cynicism about Iraqi democracy, such cynicism is unwarranted, especially now.
"The Iraqi parliament's decision did not wipe out Sunni candidates. Even the majority Shia lists are multi-sectarian. Iraqis say the controversy is really about rule-of-law and sovereignty issues. Across the ethnic and sectarian spectrum -- and even in senior Iraqi military circles -- Iraqis consider it likely that there will be a Baathist coup attempt following U.S. withdrawal, even if they disagree about its chances of success. Indeed, it is no coincidence the current defense minister is among those banned by parliament."
You'll note that three times in those two paragraphs Rubin says that the candidate ban was imposed by the "Iraqi parliament." In fact, the ban was the nefarious work of an unaccountable body called the Justice and Accountability Commission. And the JAC is controlled by Ahmed Chalabi and one of his cronies in the Iraqi National Congress, Ali al-Lami. Rather than talk about the purge, Rubin gives credence to the nonsensical and paranoid concerns, often expressed by Iran's closest allies in Iraq, about a "Baathist coup attempt."
As Matt Yglesias, Brian Katulis, and others can attest, Rubin is notoriously thin-skinned about criticism of his bungling and ill-conceived opinions. He's prone to denouncing his critics as liars, distorters, and prevaricators, usually seizing on some mini half-truth to accuse his detractors of besmirching his reputation. So, for that reason, in this screed I am going to cite Rubin's own words exclusively to show how dumb he is. Why, exactly, the AEI allows him to pontificate from his perch there – even as AEI has let go or purged other bunglers, such as Michael Ledeen and Reuel Gerecht -- is beyond me. But they do. And he manages to appear from time to time on television as a pudgy-faced "expert" on Iraq and the Middle East.
The reemergence of Ahmed Chalabi, the Iranian-backed wheeler-dealer and charlatan who, once again, is angling to be prime minister of Iraq – yes, really! – allows us to remind ourselves about Rubin's idiocy. Last month, Chalabi, who spends a great deal of time sojourning in Tehran, and who worked tirelessly on Iran's behalf since last spring to assemble the Shiite-religious bloc, misnamed the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), for the March 7 elections, fired a de-Baathification bazooka at hundreds of Iraqi political candidates who distinguished themselves by speaking out against Iran's burgeoning influence in Iraq. One of Chalabi's stooges, Ali al-Lami – who, it turns out, had actually been arrested and detained by U.S. forces in Iraq on terrorism charges – orchestrated the McCarthyite banning of candidates for their supposed Baathist sympathies. Many of those banned had no relation to the outlawed Baath party whatsoever, while others were former Baathists who'd quit (or been expelled) decades ago, low-level party functionaries who had no responsibility for crimes committed during the Saddam era, and so on. Or else they were merely secular politicians, Arab and Iraqi nationalists, and others who have no use for Iran's increasingly heavy-handed involvement in Iraqi affairs.
Iyad Allawi, a secular Iraqi Shia who is leading a cross-sectarian electoral coalition in the March 7 vote, denounced the Chalabi-Lami ban in the strongest terms. "The justice and accountability commission is actually a secret police. We don't know who these members are or how they have been appointed. We know the main culprits." Allawi, a former prime minister, accused the JAC of "fabricating records" to smear its opponents, and he said: "The country will go into severe turmoil, I'm sure. It will cause a backlash. … This will put Iraq back in the box of sectarianism and the route to civil war."
Rubin could care less. It's hard to explain why Rubin would ignore the machinations of a blatantly pro-Iranian coalition, orchestrated by Chalabi, unless it's because Rubin remains enthralled by Chalabi, even years after Chalabi's treachery and dalliance with Iran's hard-line leaders was exposed.
It's useful to remind ourselves about Rubin's past love affair with Chalabi. To be sure, Rubin was not the only neoconservative whose heart fluttered when Chalabi walked into the room. Many, including ringleader Richard Perle, supported Chalabi since the 1980s, and even earlier Chalabi was a protégé of Albert Wohlstetter, the eminence grise of the neoconservative defense and national security movement for whom the AEI's 12th floor conference room in grandly named the "Wohlstetter Conference Center." Wohlstetter, who met Chalabi in the early 1970s at the University of Chicago's math department, introduced Chalabi to Perle in the mid-1980s – and the rest, as they say, is history. Even when concrete evidence emerged about Chalabi's perfidy – that is, after Chalabi was caught leaking ultra top secret information to the Iranian ambassador about U.S. eavesdropping on Iran's representatives in Baghdad – Perle and others doggedly defended Chalabi as a poor, misunderstood Arab neocon, in the mold of their favorite Arab, Fouad Ajami.
Even at the beginning, even before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Chalabi made no secret of his ties to Iran. Indeed, in the hallway outside AEI's very Wohlstetter Conference Center, during the run up to the war in late 2002 and early 2003, Chalabi himself talked to me openly about his links to Iran. At one point, I asked one of his senior aides, in the same hallway, with whom Chalabi consorted when he visits Tehran. Was he talking to President Khatami, the reformist? To the army? Who, exactly? "Oh, no," said Chalabi's minion. "We talk to the hardliners." By "the hardliners," he meant Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). All of that was known to the neocons at the time – who, of course, were the bitterest opponents of Iran then (and now) – but who seemed to ignore the Iranian ties of Chalabi and his friends, including the group that was then called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), controlled by the mafia-like Hakim family of clerics. SCIRI, now ISCI, was created at the behest of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1982, and it was formed as a unit of the IRGC. Its militia, the Badr Corps, was known as the Ninth Badr Corps of the IRGC, and it fought on Iran's side during the grinding Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
It's easy to find near-orgasmic adulation of Chalabi by Rubin during the early years of the war in Iraq. From 2002 to 2004, Rubin was an apparatchik in the Department of Defense's Office of the Secretary of Defense, where he palled around with the likes of Douglas Feith, the under secretary of defense for policy, and Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, who were fellow travelers in Rubin's Perle-generated neocon world, and who, like Rubin, were fervent admirers of Chalabi. In 2003-2004 – that is, during the early part of the war – Rubin was stationed in Baghdad for DOD, as part of the Coalition Provisional Authority, whose imperious chieftain, L. Paul Bremer, was responsible for creating the De-Baathification Commission, whose management was handed to Chalabi. It is precisely that commission, in a new form – the so-called Justice and Accountability Commission – which proclaimed the ban on Baathist sympathizers in the January 2010 decision. During this time, Rubin interacted often with Chalabi, although to this date Rubin has not provided a personal account or memoir of that period, nor described in any sordid detail his official or unofficial relationship to the Iraqi charlatan.
It's important to note that Rubin remained faithful to Chalabi even after the April, 2004, incident in which Chalabi was accused of passing secret U.S. intelligence to Iran. The inside story of that scandal has not been reported in depth by the mainstream media, but according to U.S. intelligence sources, here's what happened: Chalabi, once in Baghdad, began having regular meetings with the Iranian ambassador to Iraq. During those meetings, Chalabi blabbed to the Iranian ambassador about U.S. policy in Iraq and other matters, and the ambassador duly wrote detailed cables to his bosses in Tehran about information gleaned from Chalabi. However, what Chalabi didn't know is that the National Security Agency had broken the Iranian diplomatic code, and it was reading the texts of cables from Baghdad to Tehran from the ambassador – including the ones that involved Chalabi. Lo and behold, back at the Pentagon, Chalabi's friends such as Feith and Wolfowitz read those transcripts, and they horrified to see their friend Chalabi in deep exchanges with the Iranians. Someone – whether it was Feith or Wolfowitz, or even Rubin himself, we'll never know – warned Chalabi to stop blabbing to the Iranians. But Chalabi, ever irrepressible, told the Iranians that the U.S. had broken their code! That, too, found its way back to Washington, and Chalabi was exposed.
In May 2004, just weeks after the incident with Chalabi and Iranian ambassador, U.S. and Iraqi forces conducted a highly publicized raid on Chalabi's Baghdad compound. Rubin was shocked, and he bitterly denounced those who disparaged Chalabi. "By sending forces to break into Chalabi's house and then by holding a Governing Council member [i.e., Chalabi] at gunpoint, Bremer sought to humiliate Chalabi," said Rubin. Sounding like some outraged Islamist, Rubin accused the U.S and Iraqi troops that conducted the raid of stealing "a Chalabi family Koran," and he added:
"The inside-the-beltway rumor mongering made clear both the irrational contempt and ignorance that many professional pundits feel for any proponent of Arab democracy. Those academics, pundits, and commentators who have never met Chalabi reserve for him the greatest vitriol."
In fact, of course, many of the people who have the "greatest vitriol" toward Chalabi are people who know him very, very well, including CIA officers who were exasperated and outraged by Chalabi's history of duplicity. I've talked myself to many, many people who know Chalabi intimately, and they find him beneath contempt. Not one of them criticizes Chalabi because, as Rubin asserts pompously, they hate "any proponent of Arab democracy." They just don't like (or trust) Chalabi.
In July 2004, Rubin conducted a sycophantic "interview" with Chalabi for the Middle East Forum, an outlet run by the Daniel Pipes, a hereditary neoconservative (son of Richard Pipes, a 1970s-era Team B activist) and a gleeful provocateur who sees himself as the scourge of everything Islamist. In the interview, which deserves to be read in its entirety to glean the full majesty of Rubin's worshipful approach, Rubin allows Chalabi to gloss over and deny U.S. charges that he revealed top secret U.S. intelligence to Iran about the broken code ("Which code?" Chalabi asked Rubin. "Do they have only one code? … George Tenet instigated a witch-hunt in Washington to cover his own failures, and innocent people are being picked on."). More importantly, and more relevant to Chalabi "de-Baathification" broadside against hundreds of Iraqi politicians in 2010, Rubin eggs Chalabi on over de-Baathification, and specifically slams Iyad Allawi, in this priceless exchange:
Rubin: "The de-Baathification procedure instituted by Bremer and the Governing Council applied only to the top four levels of the Baath Party, affecting perhaps 70,000 out of two million party members. The new prime minister, Ayad Allawi, has said he will scale back the scope of de-Baathification, bringing back a number of party members who did not have blood on their hands. Could Baath party members achieve such high ranks in the Baath party without direct complicity in the system? Was de-Baathification responsible for the insurgency or insecurity? Will Allawi's plan bring calm?"
Chalabi: "De-Baathification is enshrined in the Transitional Administrative Law [TAL]. This cannot be changed without the consent of the president and both vice-presidents. De-Baathification was actually responsible for saving the lives of individual Baathists. It must be understood that one of the primary purposes of de-Baathification is to have a systematic and legal process to deal with Baathists and to prevent people from taking the law into their own hands. A great danger of ending de-Baathification is that acts of violence and retribution will take place. Bringing predatory Baathists into government certainly will not bring stability. They are only interested in establishing their control again. Bringing back Baathists will inflame the great majority of the Iraqi people."
Ignoring Chalabi's by-then intimate ties to Tehran, Rubin has this naïve and embarrassingly simplistic exchange with Chalabi:
Rubin: "Have you met with Iranian intelligence officials? If so, why?"
Chalabi: "I have met with intelligence officials from many countries including all of Iraq's neighbors."
That's it. No follow up.
Over the coming months, Rubin continued to defend Chalabi against charges of corruption, counterfeiting, and general malfeasance. As Chalabi worked alongside the massively pro-Iranian "United Iraqi Alliance," the coalition of Shiite religious leaders, clerics, and parties like SCIRI and Dawa, Rubin seemed blind to the heavy-handed interference of Iran and its allies in Iraq, especially SCIRI and Chalabi. Inexplicably, Rubin blithely ignored and excused the ultra sectarian character of the UIA, which was made up almost exclusively of Shiite religious parties, and which was endorsed by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, turban-wearing chief of the Najaf Marjaiya, as the crucial parliamentary elections of January 2005 and December 2005 drew near. Consider the following passage, from a piece entitled "Listen to the Iraqis," written for National Review Online in January 2005, in which he complained that Ambassador Negroponte was stiff-arming Chalabi:
"Political snubs also continue. John Negroponte, the United States ambassador to Iraq, has refused to meet with Ahmad Chalabi. Chalabi may not have survived the interagency battles in Washington, but he has excelled in the Iraqi political arena and has emerged as a leading figure on Sistani's list of Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish candidates. Professional American diplomats and intelligence analysts may approve the snub, but Iraqis say it strikes them as petulant and unprofessional."
Of course, needless to say, "Sistani's list" included damn few Kurds and Sunnis, and not many secular Shia, either! It was an all-out sectarian election campaign, widely boycotted by Sunnis. And as for Chalabi, who Rubin touted as a "leading figure on Sistani's list," well, when it came time for elections, Chalabi turned out to have a popularity among the Iraqis of something close to zero. In January 2005, Chalabi ran as part of the UIA Shiite sectarian confederation, so his unpopularity was disguised by the vote for the alliance as a whole. But in December 2005, Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress ran as an independent party and won less than 0.5 percent of the vote. His INC failed to win a single seat in the Council of Representatives, Iraq's parliament.
In a piece for National Review on December 5, 2005, Rubin praised Chalabi as a fiercely independent Iraqi patriot. The title of the piece was: "Iraq's Comeback Kid: Chalabi Keeps His Eye on the Prize." In it, Rubin scorned the CIA for disparaging Chalabi over the years, and he praised Chalabi for insisting on all-out de-Baathification of Iraq, without mentioning the fact that Iran, too, was hell-bent on de-Baathifying Iraq. "Iraqis," said an awe-struck Rubin, "have seen Chalabi hold fast to Iraqi nationalism." And Rubin concluded:
"His [Chalabi's] relevance has remained constant. Unlike those of other Iraqi figures embraced by various bureaucracies in Washington, Chalabi's fortunes have not depended on U.S. patronage. His survival--and, indeed, his recent ascent against the obstacles thrown in his path by Washington--underlines the failures of diplomats and intelligence analysts to put aside departmental agendas to provide the White House with an objective and accurate analysis of the sources of legitimacy inside Iraq."
Of course, as already mentioned, Chalabi's "legitimacy" and allegedly nationalist credentials convinced very few Iraqis to actually vote for him. Apparently, Iraqis know a charlatan when they see one, but Rubin failed to acknowledge Chalabi's utter inability to get votes.
In his interview with Chalabi for Middle East Forum, there is this hilarious exchange:
Rubin: "How come we don't see crowds of people shouting your name?"
Chalabi: "In Nasiriya, I addressed the first political rally to be held in post-Saddam Iraq. Ten thousand people came to hear us. The enthusiasm was tremendous, and the people called out for democracy and the rule of law. It was very moving to see Iraqi citizens yearning for democracy after so many years of brutality."
The "rally" that Chalabi was referring to was in the very days after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when American forces brought Iraqi exiles back to the country that many of them had not even visited for decades. Needless to say, in the months and years that passed, the only attraction that Chalabi drew as he traveled around Iraq were the bullets of would-be assassins, and if Iraqis were "shouting his name," as Rubin asked, it was as part of the phrase: "Down with Chalabi!"
Over the subsequent years, as Iran's influence in Iraq grew mightily, Rubin did take note. But in his analyses, Iran's role in Iraq was limited to covert action, through Hezbollah-like militia organizations, and through its closest ally, SCIRI, according to Rubin – and never, ever, through Chalabi or, for that matter, other Iraqi actors such as Muqtada al-Sadr and Nouri al-Maliki. In fact, Iran's influence in Iraq is comprehensive and multifaceted, involving overt and covert support for its friends, along with political, economic, and religious efforts to build ties with Iraq's Shiite establishment and with the Kurds in Iraq's north. None of this seems evident to Rubin. In February 2006, as Iraq's bloodiest phase of civil war kicked off, Rubin wrote an unintentionally funny piece in the Wall Street Journal about Iran's influence in Iraq. "Tehran," he wrote, "has a formula for success in Iraq." However, according to Rubin, that "formula" centered on Tehran's supposed plan to build a version of Hezbollah in Iraq, by using the paramilitary Badr Brigade, SCIRI's Iran-trained militia. And not once did he mention Chalabi's comfortable ties to Iran. (Only weeks before Rubin's op-ed, Chalabi had traveled to Iran for a friendly tête-à-tête with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's newly elected president.)
One aspect of Iran's support for SCIRI that was unmentioned by Rubin is the fact that special elements of SCIRI's Badr Brigade were used by Iran to carry out a lethal program of assassinations from 2003 through 2007. Perhaps that's because both SCIRI and Rubin are avid partisans of de-Baathification. Thousands of Iraqis, both Sunni and Shia, were murdered systematically by SCIRI during those years. American intelligence specialists on Iraq have told me, for instance, that scores if not hundreds of Iraqi air force pilots were murdered, one by one, in their homes, by SCIRI assassins, using lists they'd compiled from seized Iraqi government records. Countless former Baathists were killed in the same manner, gunned down in the streets of Baghdad, Basra, and other capitals. But perhaps that is the sort of "de-Baathification" that warms the heart of Rubin, Chalabi, et. al. Certainly, Chalabi is back in a firm alliance with SCIRI, Badr, and the rest.
In recent years, Rubin and written less and less about Iraq, and more about Iran, where he has emerged a leading voice in opposition to President Obama's diplomatic opening to Tehran. His understanding of Iran is weak, however. Like many neoconservatives, in the period before the June 12 election in Iran Rubin bitterly criticized and dismissed Iran's reformist opposition movement, the Green Movement, led by Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and former President Khatami. On March 25, 2009, Rubin wrote a piece called "Khatami Is Just Ahmadinejad With a Silver Tongue," in which he wrote:
"It is easy to be fooled by appearances and see Khatami as a moderate when juxtaposed with firebrand President Ahmadinejad. Alas, the differences are only of style, not substance."
Rubin has put forward a wide range of hawkish alternatives to negotiations with Iran, all centered around the premise that negotiations won't work. In a lengthy report in 2008 for a little-known group called the Bipartisan Policy Center, for a task force led by former Senators Dan Coats and Chuck Robb, Rubin laid out an escalating series of measures aimed at preventing Iran from going forward with its nuclear program.
In the report, predicting that the talks will fail, Rubin proposed "prepositioning military assets" in anticipation of that failure, coupled with a "show of force" in the region. Then, almost immediately, he suggested a blockade on Iranian gasoline imports and oil exports, which would paralyze Iran's economy, followed by what Rubin called, euphemistically, "kinetic action."
That "kinetic action," a U.S. attack on Iran, would be massive, urged Rubin. Besides hitting dozens of sites alleged to be part of Iran's nuclear research program, the attacks would also target Iranian air defense and missile sites, communications systems, Revolutionary Guard facilities, key parts of Iran's military-industrial complex, munitions storage facilities, air fields, aircraft facilities, and Iran's entire naval complex. Eventually, he says, the United States would have to attack Iran's ground forces, electric power plants and electrical grids, bridges, and "manufacturing plants, including steel, autos, buses, etc." If that isn't all-out war, I don't know what is.
It will be interesting to see what Rubin and his AEI colleagues have to say at the March 1 conference. As for myself, I won't be there. In its never-ending quest to enhance democracy and free speech, AEI banned me long ago from its gatherings. Perhaps an enterprising reporter who is still in AEI's good graces will ask Rubin about his unrequited love affair for Iran's favorite Iraqi, Ahmed Chalabi.
The election in Iraq is less than a month away -- that is, if indeed it is held as scheduled on March 7 -- and things are going from bad to worse.
Last month, an unelected commission held over from the early days of the US occupation of Iraq, the Justice and Accountability Commission, issued a shocking ruling banning more than 500 candidates from taking part in the election, including a number of members of the current parliament running for reelection. That commission, successor to the old De-Baathification Commission, is controlled by Ahmed Chalabi and one of his cronies, Ali al-Lami. Chalabi, the darling of Bush-era neoconservatives, who pushed Chalabi as Iraq's leader after 2003, has long had close ties to Tehran, and in this case the ban struck at those Iraqi politicians most opposed to Iran's growing influence in Iraq.
Last week, an Iraqi appeals court seemed to overturn the ban. Its action followed a visit to Baghdad by Vice President Joe Biden, who has assumed the Iraqi portfolio for the Obama administration, and Biden pressed the Iraqis to reinstate the candidates. After the appeals court ruling, US officials congratulated themselves. "We were heartened by the decision earlier this week to reverse the deletion of the 500 names from the list for the upcoming election," said Hillary Clinton.
But not so fast. Following the court's decision, the government of Iraq -- led by a coalition of Shiite-sectarian politicians closely tied to Iran -- demanded that the appeals court decision be overruled. Ali al-Dabbagh, one of Prime Minister Maliki's closest aides, called the lifting of the ban "illegal and not constitutional." Another of Maliki's aides called for the expulsion of US Ambassador Christopher Hill, who reportedly lobbied behind the scenes to get the ban lifted. And Maliki himself blasted Hill: "We will not allow American Ambassador Christopher Hill to go beyond his diplomatic mission." Maliki began working with leaders of his coalition, members of parliament, and the top court to ensure that the Chalabi-imposed ban remains.
The US intervention in Iraqi politics reveals that, despite the presence of more than 100,000 US troops, America's influence in Iraq is fading fast -- and Iran's is growing. There isn't much that the United States can do about that. As soon as George W. Bush made the fateful decision to sweep away the Iraqi government and install pro-Iranian exiles in Baghdad, the die was cast. President Obama has no choice but to pack up and leave.
But those on the receiving end of the Iranian-inspired mischief feel betrayed and abandoned. Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, whose key coalition partner, Saleh al-Mutlaq, was banned, blasted the Chalabi commission: "The justice and accountability commission is actually a secret police. We don't know who these members are or how they have been appointed. We know the main culprits." He accused the JAC of "fabricating records." Many of the secular politicians, Sunnis, anti-Iranian Shiites, and others who oppose the Maliki government want the US to intervene on their behalf, including through covert support to their parties, but that does not seem to be in the cards -- nor would it be a good idea.
Still, the JAC action is McCarthyite in the extreme, tarring any and all opponents of the current ruling elite with being Baath party members. Secular politicians, nationalists, former Baathists with low-level positions, dissident Baathists who left the party in the 1970s (such as Allawi and Mutlaq), and many others are painted as blood-stained criminals and "Saddamists." The fact that Maliki has descended to such bitter and petty name calling signals that the prime minister has abandoned any pretense of trying to rise about sectarianism to become a national leader. For the election, at least, Maliki has thrown his lot in with the pro-Iranian clique.
Of course, there is still an election. Whether or not Iraqi voters, including the 60 percent of Iraqis who are Shiites, will but Maliki's waving of the bloody flag of Baathism isn't clear. Also, it's possible that the ban on the hundreds of candidates will be lifted, but time is running out. Ballots have to printed. Campaigning, scheduled to start on Feb. 7, has been postponed until the end of this week, if then. And the damage is done. Maliki, Chalabi, and their friends in Tehran have poisoned the atmosphere for the March 7 vote. The only question left is whether or not the dose is fatal.
Is there any chance that the logjam on negotiating an end to the war in Afghanistan is loosening up? You might think so, from the spate of reports that various parties—including the United Nations and the government of Afghanistan—are serious about reconciliation talks with Taliban officials. So far, however, the United States seems to be taking a hands-off attitude.
Let's review the bidding.
In six weeks or so, President Karzai of Afghanistan—yes, that supposedly discredited figure who stayed in power by rigging last summer's election—will convene a grand tribal council, or loya jirga, to seek a broad pact of reconciliation that, he says, is meant to include Afghan leaders of the Taliban. To the horror and consternation of US officials, who say that they support "reintegration" of the Taliban's fighters into Afghan society but oppose "reconciliation" with the Taliban as an organization, Karzai is offering to deal with the Taliban all the way to the top, including Mullah Omar, the one-eyed thug and would-be caliph who holds the loyalty of many if not most Taliban insurgents.
"There are some contacts, and contacts will continue on the local, national and broader political level, but it is too eaerly to speak about the outcome of those contacts."
A possible signal of more breakthroughs to come occurred when the UN, with US support, removed five former Taliban officials, including former Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakil, from the blacklist that placed them under sanctions. While the exact connection of these officials to the Taliban, including Mullah Omar, today is unclear, there is hope that the UN action is a step toward loosening sanctions on hundreds of other members of the Taliban, paving the way to more productive talks.
In early January, Kai Eide, the outgoing UN representative in Afghanistan—who has been all along a consistent advocate for talking to the Taliban—met with several representatives of the Taliban, although, as the New York Times reported:
Most of the important details of the meeting were unknown: exactly when and where the meeting took place; what, if anything, was agreed upon; and who represented the Taliban.
And the Times added:
American leaders have begun to search for a road that could eventually lead to a political settlement with the Taliban's leaders.
Is that true? For any talks with the Taliban to succeed, the United States will not only have to swallow the idea that top- and middle-level Taliban chiefs will be welcomed back in Afghan politics and given a share of power, but Washington will also have to put on the table a plan for withdrawing US forces from the conflict to sweeten the deal. Perhaps, President Obama's pledge to start pulling US forces out of Afghanistan by July 2011 could serve as the opening gambit to get talks with the Taliban going.
According to Arnaud de Borchgrave, the ultraconservative commentator and columnist, Obama is sending General James Jones, the national security adviser, to Pakistan to find out what kind of role Pakistan could play in ending the war. More importantly, he says that during his recent tour of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Gates came to the reluctant conclusion that ending the war means rebalancing the Afghan government in a way that takes both Indian and Pakistani interests into account, which happens to be exactly right. Says de Borchgrave:
All the talk is how to end the Afghan war, not how to win it.... For U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates, just back from India and Pakistan, a power-sharing compromise in Kabul is the only way to cut short a war that no longer has the support of the American people.
The attitude of Pakistan is, and will be, crucial. Yesterday, General Kiyani, the Pakistani chief of staff—whose command and its intelligence service, the ISI, have long supported the Taliban—suggested that Pakistan might be willing to train Afghan security forces in order to help stabilize the country. Reading the intentions of the Pakistani army and ISI are difficult, since they are notorious liars, but it just might be that Kiyani is making a serious offer here. If Pakistan does engage in training Afghan forces, it might create a dynamic in which Pakistan needs to rely less on the Taliban for influence in Afghanistan, and thus Pakistan might be willing to coax the Taliban, or parts of it, to the bargaining table.
Kiyani, speaking to reporters, said:
"We want to have strategic depth in Afghanistan, but that does not imply controlling it. If we have a peaceful, stable and friendly Afghanistan, automatically we will have our strategic depth because our western border will be secure, and we will not be looking at two fronts."
His offer to train Afghan forces is "being considered by US and Afghan officials," according to the Times, which added that "Kiyani's offer appeared to be in part driven by a desire to limit the influence in Afghanistan of India." Well, duh.
Just like Hong Kong, soon enough Taiwan -- the so-called Republic of China -- will be absorbed into China proper. It's a goner. The sheer force of China's gravitational pull will draw the island to the mainland. So what, exactly, is the Obama administration thinking?
In what can only be seen as a calculated insult to Beijing, the Pentagon is selling a huge arsenal to Taiwan -- according to The Australian, more than $8 billion worth -- following upon a $6 billion sale by the Bush administration in 2008. According to the New York Times, the sales include "60 Black Hawk helicopters, Patriot interceptor missiles, advanced Harpoon missiles that can be used against land or ship targets and two refurbished minesweepers." The Obama administration is praising its own retraint for having held off on selling advanced F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan as well, though it hasn't ruled out that in the near future, either.
Not surprisingly, China is furious. The Chinese government has officially protested the sale, freezing military cooperation with the United States and announcing retaliatory measures that apparently will include sanctions against US arms makers involved in the deal, including Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Action against Boeing could potentially be devastating to the company, which relies on enormous sales of civilian aircraft to Chinese airlines, but it isn't clear how far China would go, say, in shifting its purchases to European-made Airbus aircraft, for instance.
Writing in the Times, Helene Cooper quotes a US official who says, stupidly:
"This was a case of making sure that there was no misunderstanding that we will act in our own national security interests. Unlike the previous administration, we did not wait until the end of our administration to go ahead with the arms sales to Taiwan. We did it early."
Leaving aside the issue of why Obama and Co. take pride in "doing it early," what conceivable US national security interest involves selling a weapons package to an island which belongs to China, and whose increasingly less nationalistic and less independence-minded leaders know will eventually revert to Chinese control? The dwindling number of fierce anti-communist relics and ultra-nationalists on the island isn't able to stop the process of detente between China and Taiwan, and the successful integration of Hong Kong into China in the 1990s provides a model for the eventual resolution of the China-Taiwan talks.
Making matters worse, after having rebuffed the Dalai Lama in 2009, when he visited Washington, it appears that President Obama will orchestrate a high-profile encounter with the Tibetan leader soon, adding insult to injury in US-China relations. (The Chinese see the Dalai Lama as leader of an independence-minded religious cult in China's western province, an analysis that isn't far wrong, and they believe that the biggest national security threats to China's west are both religion-centered: the Dalai Lama and the Uighur Muslims.)
The fact remains that China's star is rising, and America's is declining. To remain relevant, the United States is going to have to abandon its pretension to economic and military dominance in the western Pacific, southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean, which will soon become a Chinese sphere of influence. China, too, will eventually become a far more important player in central Asia and the Middle East, because of its insatiable need for oil and natural gas from that part of the world.
President Obama needs China's help in dealing with Afghanistan, where China's alliance with Pakistan and its investments in Afghanistan make it an important part of the diplomatic puzzle in seeking a negotiated end to that hopeless war. Obama needs China, too, in relation to Iran, not to impose useless economic sanctions but to provide Iran with diplomatic assurances and some gentle pressure to move toward an accord over its nuclear program. And, of course, China is central to the confrontation with North Korea. In addition, on economics and the environment, China is by far the most important player after the United States. If the Obama administration thinks it can play hardball with China, pressuring and intimidating it to win its support for US policy goals, then the former junior senator from Illinois has another think coming.
Hillary Clinton is already revving up her hawkish rhetoric on China's Iran policy. Last week, during the Afghanistan conference in London, Clinton slammed China over Iran, warning Beijing that it would face diplomatic isolation if it doesn't cave in and support sanctions on Iran. And Clinton said outright that China's policy in the Middle East is built around its concerns over the region's (and Iran's) oil. Addressing China's leaders, she said:
"We understand that right now, that is something that seems counterproductive to you, sanction a country from which you get so much of the natural resources your growing economy needs."
As if the United States doesn't base its own Middle East policy on the fact that the Persian Gulf is the center of the world's oil supply!
Make no mistake -- to use one of President Obama's favorite phrases -- the United States faces a difficult and daunting foreign policy challenge over the next three years of Obama's first term.
Still, it was a pleasure to listen to a State of the Union address, especially after eight years of his predecessor's alarmist warnings and warlike thundering, in which war, terrorism, and "rogue states" went almost unmentioned.
During an hour-plus speech, the president devoted about eight minutes to foreign affairs, and much of that dealt with issues other than war and terrorism, things like negotiations on nuclear disarmament, HIV AIDS, and climate change. Even though the problems are still out there, it was wonderful to listen to a president who didn't try to scare us to death or mobilize us for some misguided military adventure.
He started the short foreign-policy portion of his speech with a slap at President Bush, who bungled the powerful, worldwide sympathy for the United States after 9/11 by launching his absurd Global War on Terror and his illegal war in Iraq. "Sadly, some of the unity we felt after 9/11 has dissipated," said Obama, adding that he wouldn't attack Bush directly for that: "We can argue all we want about who's to blame for this, but I'm not interested in re-litigating the past."
Then he ridiculed the Republican party's tough-guy attitude: "Let's put aside the schoolyard taunts about who's tough. ... Let's leave behind the fear and division."
In other words, not only did Obama criticize the "fear-and-division" strategy of the right, but he notably avoided engaging in the fear-and-division tactic himself. That alone is worth a standing ovation.
On Afghanistan, Obama didn't thunder about crushing the Taliban and winning "victory." Instead, he emphasized that US troops will begin to withdraw from Afghanistan in July 2011, which is the most important part of his own misguided Afghanistan policy. Here's what he said: "In Afghanistan, we're increasing our troops and training Afghan security forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011, and our troops can begin to come home." (Even David Petraeus, the ambitious general who leads Centcom, is fighting the idea that the president has set a date of July 2011.) That's not nothing: a president committed to open-ended war, or a president committed to some impossible-to-achieve "victory" in Godforsakistan, would rally Americans for war. But what Americans heard last night is: "Come home."
Ditto on Iraq. Rather than crow about the great American "accomplishment" in shattering Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, destroying nearly all of that state's institutions, and pushing it to the brink of renewed civil war once again in 2010, what Obama said was: "Make no mistake: This war is ending, and all of our troops are coming home." Note the word "all." Speaking for the pro-war, neoconservative faction of marginalized radical-right militarists, Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard complained: "Obama can't bring himself to say that we prevailed in Iraq. ... He won't say that we are grateful for [our troops'] victory in a war where defeat would have been disastrous." No, he won't -- because what America did in Iraq is a disgusting war crime, and we wouldn't have faved the possibility of a "disastrous" defeat in Iraq if we hadn't launched an unnecessary war in the first place, Bill.
Kristol also groused about the fact that Obama didn't call for the overthrow of the government of Iran. "Obama didn't allude to the possibility -- let alone embrace the prospect -- of regime change in Iran," grumped Kristol, who never met a regime he didn't want to change. But he's right. Obama didn't call for regime change in Iran, and even as Obama praised demonstrators in Iran he still called it "the Islamic Republic of Iran," signalling that he's willing to take Iran on its own terms.
Anyone reading my commentary knows that I'm a Obama critic on foreign policy, in a wide range of areas. But let's take a moment to appreciate Obama's speech last night.
How will the war in Afghanistan end?
This isn't a trick question. The answer is simple: the war will end when President Obama signs an order ending it; that is, when the president tells his commanders: "It's over." Opponents of the war -- including left-wing antiwar activists, liberal progressives, centrists, "realists," and conservative libertarians -- will have to unite to pressure, cajole, persuade, and convince Obama to issue that order.
Fortunately, in his December 2009 speech at West Point, President Obama provided the war's opponents with a tactical wedge to use in driving their point home: the president's announcement that beginning in July 2011 -- just eighteen months from now -- US forces in Afghanistan will start to draw down.
Despite his decision to add 30,000 more US troops, whose deployment won't even be complete until sometime late this year, the president has declared that not only will the United States not send additional forces to the war, beyond the circa 100,000 that is the current ceiling, but that in less than a year and a half, US forces will start to decline. The declaration of July 2011 as the start of a withdrawal -- call it a "transition" to Afghan forces, if you like -- is a statement that has to be emphasized repeatedly by opponents of the war, played, and replayed, and replayed until the media, the public, Congress, have it memorized. It has to be set in stone.
Of course, the deadline that the president set is a fuzzy one. Secretary of Defense Gates, Secretary of State Clinton, and the military have all tried to make it even fuzzier, by stating that it is "conditions-based," that is, that the number of troops who leave, and the pace of that withdrawal, will depend on conditions on the ground, especially the readiness of the Afghan security forces. To be sure, some of that -- especially their congressional testimony in December -- was couched in a way designed to mollify hawks, right-wingers, and neoconservatives in Congress, especially in the Republican party, who liked the escalation of the war but who sharply criticized the July 2011 date. The fact still stands: according to the president, the US will start withdrawing forces from Afghanistan in 18 months.
That provides the war's opponents with a tactical wedge.
Here's what that means: Let's hold Obama to his word. If indeed he intends to start drawing down forces by then, what steps is he taking to make sure it happens? Is he demanding that his diplomats and military officers start talks with the Taliban and its allies? Is he launching a regional diplomatic effort with Pakistan, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia -- along with Russia, China, and the European Union -- to seek an Afghan settlement? What are the benchmarks that have to be met between now and July, 2011? Are they being met? When the United States starts to draw down its forces, what kind of security force will remain? Will it include international peace-keepers? What kind of Afghan government will be in place in July 2011 and how will that government accommodate the ethnic and sectarian conflict, especially among disaffected Pashtuns in Afghanistan's south and east, to end the civil war?
All of these questions, and many more, are fit subjects for hearings by various committees in Congress, studies by the GAO and the Congressional Research Service, investigative journalism, reports by human rights groups and organizations such as the International Crisis Group, and studies by various thinktanks. Collectively, a crescendo of such reports, studies, and advocacy pieces will say to Obama: "OK, you told us that we'll start leaving in 18 months. Tell us what your plan is to make sure it's a real exit strategy."
The idea of forcing a president to announce an exit strategy isn't new. During the ugliest moments of the war in Iraq, many opponents of the war inside and outside of Congress -- including then Senator Hillary Clinton -- tried to compel the Pentagon to reveal its plans for an exit. Various analysts, from the Council on Foreign Relations to the antiwar movement, put pressure on President Bush to describe his plans for an exit. At that time, both the White House and the Defense Department refused, and the Republicans denounced calls for an exit strategy ("cut and run"). This time, the president himself has, in effect, set a timetable for starting a pullout, and it's not that far away.
The goal should be to end the war.
If the goal is building a movement, rather than ending the war -- that is, if the goal is to use the war as a teachable moment, to build the strength of the antiwar movement, to reform the Democratic party or take it over, to establish a viable third party as a "party of the left," and so on, fine. But that's not going to end the war. Even if any of those goals are achievable, they'll take a decade or more, and I'm not holding my breath. In any case, the war will be over by then. Building those movements is critically important, but tactically the effort has to focus on how to guarantee that President Obama shapes an order, this year, to end the war. (An interim deadline is December, 2010, when the White House will conduct a top-to-bottom review of the war.)
If the goal is adding a few more left-liberal and progressive members of Congress in 2010, Donna Edwards-style, or even the odd socialist here or there, such as Senator Bernie Sanders, well and good. But that's not going to end the war. A few dozen, or even a hundred or so true progressives in the House can't do much by themselves, say, in defunding the war. (Case in point, the failed efforts by progressives to put an end to the war in Iraq after the Democratic takeover of Congress in November, 2006.) However you count them at present, there are several score already, and we all know how effective they are. (Zilch.) By all means, it's important to support antiwar candidates in congressional races. But that's not going to end the war.
If one believes that the situation is so dire that the Taliban et al. will gain enough momentum to force a US retreat, Saigon-rooftop style, then the war will end itself. In fact, that's not going to happen. The Taliban isn't going to seize Kabul, and it's exceedingly unlikely that the Taliban can win a war of attition by killing US and NATO troops, though there's no doubt that US and NATO casualties in 2010 will be significantly higher than 2009, which already set a record for the nine-year war. Opponents of the war in Afghanistan should remember their dire warnings in January 2007 that President Bush's "surge" of forces in Iraq would lead to disaster, that the president was sending tens of thousands of additional troops into a hopeless Iraqi civil war that would grind them up. The war in Afghanistan is ugly, but if the United States wants to stay in Afghanistan at full strength for two years, or five, or ten, it can do so, as long as the political will in Washington remains and as long as the Pentagon can maintain US forces at the ready.
So the fact remains: the only way the war will end is if and when President Obama gives the order. He's the only president we have, and he'll likely be in office until January, 2017. If the war ends before then, it will be because Obama ends it.
How do we get from here to there? It can't be done by playing the "left" game. The left, and the peace movement, simply isn't strong enough -- and it won't be strong enough in the near future, certainly not before 2017. True, the president's war in Afghanistan has alienated and angered many people who voted for him, and they're ripe for education and recruitment into the ranks of a reinvigorated antiwar movement. But ending the war means creating a coalition that includes the left, liberals, centrists, realists, oddball libertarians like the Pauls, grouchy establishment types such as Leslie Gelb, and so on, all with the idea that each component has a job to do, namely, using their influence on the White House to make sure that they get the message that the war has to end.
That message, in turn, has a number of important sub-messages included within it: that the war is too expensive, that it undermines economic recovery, that it causes civilian casualties, that COIN rarely if ever works, that the Afghan government is corrupt and unreliable, that a Pakistan-Taliban alliance is covertly operating against the US, and so on. There isn't one message that works. It takes a village of messages, and an army of messengers.
Personally, I believe that during the months-long Afghan review last fall, Obama heard some candid advice about the unwinnability of the war, in all its multiplicity. Those voices, and those opinions, need to be amplified. Again, if you want the war to actually end, as opposed to clamoring for it to end, it will be Obama who ends it.
A coda on Iraq: for all the near-genocidal ugliness of that criminal war, it didn't end because the Democrats demanded that it end. (In fact, the war in Iraq isn't really over. The United States still has 120,000 troops there, and the political situation has taken a sharp turn for the worse in advance of the March 7, 2010, elections.) But the war did calm down, and violence decreased, late in 2007. Why? There are many reasons. The neocons were ousted from the Bush administration by 2005, Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld was fired, and a more realist group replaced them; the 2006-2007 civil war eased after the Sunni Awakening emerged and Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr declared a ceasefire; Iran (which had been supporting the most violent Shiite groups) told its allies to stand down; and the Iraqi government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki negotiated a withdrawal pact with Bush. The Iraqi drawdown plan that resulted (to about 50,000 by August, 2010, and a complete pullout by end of 2011) was a Bush-Maliki agreement facilitated by the fact that the Sunni insurgency and the Sadrists seemed under control. At best, it's a shaky accord, and Iraq may very well explode later this year into a new round of political warfare pitting Arabs v. Kurds, religious Shiites v. secular Arabs, and so on. It's wrong to be sanguine about it. But at least the level of killing is down, US troops are packing their bags, and Iraq's leaders are happily orbiting Tehran and making oil deals with Russia and China.
I suggest that the war in Afghanistan will "end" in similar fashion, inconclusively. It won't be pretty. But it won't be as ugly as what we have now.
Yesterday, I had a chance to question General David Petraeus about President Obama's Afghan timetable. From the transcript that follows, you'll note that Petraeus, who repeatedly interrupted my questioning to preempt where I was trying to go, doesn't even acknowledge that the president's deadline for beginning the withdrawal of US forces is July, 2011. It leads one to suspect that if Petraeus, McChrystal, and Co. are ever going to leave Afghanistan, they'll have to be dragged out kicking and screaming.
For the record, first let me quote President Obama, from his December 1 speech at West Point, on the deadline:
"These additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011."
And Obama noted, in the same speech, that support for setting a deadline wasn't exactly unanimous:
"There are those who oppose identifying a time frame for our transition to Afghan responsibility. ... America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan."
So yesterday, at his appearance before hundreds of national security experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, I got a chance to ask Petraeus about this, during a discussion moderated by Maren Leed. During her intro, Leed asked Petraeus about the "Washington clock," i.e., the political pressure in the US for quick progress. From the CSIS transcript:
MS. LEED: I'll go right there. Bob.
DREYFUSS Good morning, General, I'm Bob Dreyfuss with The Nation magazine. I have two quick questions about Af-Pak. One is in reference to the Washington clock that Maren talked about. The president, as you know, has set a deadline of July 2011.
GEN. PETRAEUS: I think, wasn't it August 2011?
DREYFUSS August 2011?
GEN. PETRAEUS: Okay. Don't start sliding it to the left just yet. (Laughter.)
DREYFUSS: I think he was thinking about May. (Laughter.) Just, you know, not just to 'demonstrate success,' but actually, as I understand, to start a withdrawal.
GEN. PETRAEUS: Start a transition that is conditions-based of tasks from our forces to Afghan forces, again, in areas where those forces and the situation allow it. And the keywords are conditions-based. And you'll recall this whole discussion when I was in Iraq about conditions-based as well.
I might point out, by the way, that people have said, well, General, you never agreed to timelines before. I've never been a wild fan of timelines, but at times, I have indeed announced timelines myself. Again, conditions-based ones, but in September 2007, in the testimony before the four committees on Capitol Hill, I did announce, for example, that the first of the surge brigades was going to go home in December 2007 and then laid out the rough proposal for the remaining four to go home as well. But sorry, go ahead.
DREYFUSS: Well, in any case, when I read the president's comment, is that perhaps the pace or the degree of the withdrawal might be conditions-based but in fact, a withdrawal would start on that date. So my question is, what kind of plans are you making? You know, as the contingency – since it isn't that far away in military terms, what kind of plans are you –
GEN. PETRAEUS: It's quite a ways away in military terms. I mean, don't get me wrong, but I mean our focus right now, candidly, is on getting all of these forces on the ground is absolutely quickly as possible. And by the way, pay no attention to these – pay no attention to these reports that have said that you know, there's some kind of difference of opinion here on how fast to deploy.
Everybody engaged in this from the president all the way down to the lowest ranking member of the deploying forces is making an effort to getting there as rapidly as is absolutely possible. The secretary committed to the president, I did as well in the Sit Room, that we would get, again, virtually all of the combat forces on the ground by the end of August.
There is one element, a division headquarters that's not needed prior to then that will come in after that. But otherwise, all of those 30,000 will be on the ground by the end of that time. And that is something we're all pushing. By the way, we're also, obviously, watching very carefully as the U.S military and DOD are providing resources in the government to Haiti.
And so far, there's been no impact whatsoever other than the slippage of one airframe that was used to bring in the air traffic control tower, a critical piece of equipment, I think it was an An-124 airframe that did a contract down there and that just caused the 24-hour slippage of one, again, airframe's worth of kit going to Afghanistan.
Twenty-fourth MEU, the Marine Expeditionary Unit that is announced has diverted down to Haiti was going to go through the European Command in route to Central Command anyway. It was actually not intended to go on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan. It was to be the theater reserve. We also have a Marine Expeditionary Unit with several amphibs in the area.
We have occasionally put that on the ground, but relatively rarely. And indeed, that's what that force is intended to do and so far, it is still intended to do that. And if necessary, we can extend the existing force that's out there for whatever period of time is necessary until it arrives. But right now, there's no plan or necessity to do that.
You'll note, I am sure, that Petraeus admitted, frankly, that he's "never been a wild fan of timelines." He got the date wrong: it's July, not August, 2011 -- a small thing, perhaps, but you'd think the general ought to know the deadline that his commander-in-chief has set. And nowhere, in fact, did Obama state that the start of the withdrawal is "conditions-based."
Instead, Petraeus went on and on about how he's committed to getting the troops into Afghanistan quickly. And not much about getting them out on schedule.