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Bob Dreyfuss | The Nation

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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

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

Bad to Worse in Iraq

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.

Talking to the Taliban, Again

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.

Yesterday, M. Masoom Stanekzai, the Afghan official in charge of reconcilation efforts, pooh-poohed reports that the Taliban was denying that talks are underway. He said:

 "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.

 

Insulting China

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!

Two Cheers for Obama on Foreign Affairs

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.

A Manifesto: Ending the War

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.

Petraeus Gets It Wrong

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.

Iran's Power Play in Iraq

For years, I've written about Iran's untoward influence in Iraq. Now, it appears as if Iran is making a power play, using its Iraqi allies, that could checkmate US influence in Iraq and the Persian Gulf.

Back in 2003, many observers, including me, began reporting that the toppling of Saddam Hussein's government had opened the door to the expansion of Iran's power. Most of the exiles installed into power by the United States, including Ahmed Chalabi, had close ties to Tehran. Now, it's paying off.

According to Iraqi sources, the decision to ban more than 500 Iraqi politicians from running in the March 7 election has been applied on a strictly sectarian basis. Although the action is based on the claim that the barred candidates are either current or former members of the Baath party, supporters of the party, or ex-officials from the Saddam-era military and intelligence service, nearly all of those barred are Sunnis, the sources say, while many former Baathists who are Shiites have been left untouched.

If the decision, by an unelected body called the so-called Justice and Accountability Commission, could destroy the elections, upend Iraq's fledgling democracy, trigger renewed sectarian conflict, and cause the outbreak of a full-scale civil war. It's that serious.

All this while US forces withdraw from Iraq.

The Justice and Accountability Commission is heir to the old, circa-2003 de-Baathification Commission, a McCarthyite blacklisting body set up by the neocon-domination occupation authorities after the US invasion of Iraq and headed by Ahmed Chalabi, the wheeler-dealer who was the chief proponent of the war in the 1990s and beyond and who was an intimate confidante of leading neoconservatives such as Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and various American Enterprise Institute apparatchiks such as Michael Rubin, Danielle Pletka, et al. Today, Chalabi -- who spends a lot of his time in Iran, and who US military authorities believe is essentially an agent of Tehran -- is still the titular leader of the Justice and Accountability Commission, which is run day-to-day by Ali Faysal al-Lami. Lami is a sectarian Shiite politician who is running on the same Shiite religious alliance in the March 7 election that was put together by Chalabi, with the support of Iran and the backing of Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), Iran's chief Iraqi ally.

The ultraconservative Tehran Times, an Iranian daily that serves as a mouthpiece for hardliners in the Iranian regime, has endorsed the commission's decision, meanwhile describing those barred as "terrorists":

"Unfortunately, according to investigative reports, certain local Iraqi groups and individuals, who are mostly the remnants of the Baathist regime, have been complying with terrorists to wreak havoc in the country in order to prove the current Iraqi government as inefficient."

Since last summer, leading Shiite-sectarian politicians, including Chalabi, ISCI's leaders, and others, have made pilgrimages back and forth to Tehran and Qom to put together the misnamed Iraqi National Alliance, a blatantly pro-Iran Shiite bloc. For Iran, whose regime is engaged in a life-and-death struggle at home against a resurgent opposition movement and a bitter diplomatic dispute with the United States over its nuclear program, its heavy-handed actions in Iraq might be seen as a warning. Push us too hard, the Iranians are saying, and we can make life miserable for you in Iraq.

Prime Minister Maliki, who has close ties to Iran himself, has apparently endorsed the decision of the JAC, which still has to be ratified by a higher body and can be reversed by parliament. The United States, which sees its entire Iraq project unraveling before its eyes, is reportedly pushing hard, behind the scenes, to make sure that the decision doesn't get upheld. Vice President Biden, who has taken on the Iraq portfolio for the Obama administration (apparently because no one else wanted it), has called Maliki to turn the screws. But the US has less and less leverage in Baghdad these days -- and Iran has more and more.

Even the neocons, other conservatives, and cheerleaders for the 2003 invasion like the editorial board of the Washington Post are alarmed over Chalabi's betrayal and the possibility that Iraq might spiral out of control. In its editorial today, the Post called Iraq's pre-election maneuvering a "cheap carnival ride," adding:

"There's not much clarity about who is behind the nasty maneuver -- but one protagonist appears to be Ahmed Chalabi, the notorious former exile leader and master of political manipulation. Now regarded as an Iranian agent by most U.S. officials, Mr. Chalabi, along with his associates, served Tehran's interests as well as his own by banning the Sunni leaders. Several of those blacklisted had recently joined cross-sectarian secular alliances that are challenging the Shiite coalition of which Mr. Chalabi is a part. ...

"Surprised by the sudden decision, U.S. and U.N. officials have been trying to moderate it. Vice President Biden, who used his influence to good effect during previous disputes over the elections, has been working the phones again."

Similar alarm bells were rung by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, whose officials, back in 2002, loved up Chalabi. An op-ed this week by two WINEP analysts concluded:

"On Jan. 7, the JAC, chaired by Ali Faysal al-Lami, a political ally of Ahmed Chalabi and a current candidate on Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress list for parliament, announced that it was seeking the exclusion of 500 primarily Sunni Arab candidates and 15 political lists from the elections due to their alleged connections to the banned Baath party. Following the commission's ruling, despite the questionable legality of its actions, neither the legislature nor the executive branch leadership have taken steps to quash this inflammatory decision. ...

"If hope is still to trump fear in Iraq's ongoing democratic experiment, the Obama administration should work urgently with the Iraqi political leadership in Baghdad to see that the JAC's legally dubious actions are overturned. While unlikely, such a reversal might be possible should the United States, the United Nations, the Arab League, and responsible Iraqi political leaders continue to apply pressure. Whatever the merits of de-Baathification, Iraq's democratic future should not be held hostage by this blatantly politicized ruling."

Strangely, or perhaps not, the folks at AEI, including Michael Rubin and Danielle Pletka, have been virtually mum on Iraq for months.

The best and most thorough analysis of the Iraq crisis comes from Reidar Visser, a Norwegian political scientist, who is one of the few analysts not to have abandoned Iraq as the world's attention shifted elsewhere. In his must-read blog, Visser writes:

"It is hard to describe this development as anything than other than complete system failure in the new democracy in Iraq. Almost inevitably, the atmosphere of the elections will now turn into a repeat of December 2005, with escalating rhetoric that can easily turn sectarian."

Holbrooke: Not Hostage to Pakistan

Last week, during an appearance by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke at the Brookings Institution, I had a chance to ask him a key question about the war, concerning the Pakistan-Taliban alliance. Oddly enough, in his answer, Holbrooke -- who is the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that discussion of how to defeat the opponents of the US in Afghanistan shouldn't be conducted "in public." Here the transcript of the exchange:

DREYFUSS "Good afternoon, Ambassador. I'm Bob Dreyfuss with The Nation magazine. ... Isn't it true that the Pakistani military and ISI is still to this day giving significant support to the very enemies that we're fighting, the Taliban, Hekmatyar, Haqqani? And that if we squeeze [Pakistan] too hard on this that they could cut off our ability to supply our forces logistically so that we're kind of hostage to the Taliban's main supporter which we depend on in order to supply our forces in Afghanistan. Isn't that the central paradox you're facing?"

MR. HOLBROOKE "This is of course a much debated question, Bob, and all I can say is you're welcome to your interpretations of what happens, but I do not believe we are hostage as you put it. It is true that well over 50 percent of our supplies into Afghanistan come in over the Khyber Pass and that's a difficult piece of logistical resupply. It's the longest logistical resupply in the history of the United States military. I've sat down with the logisticians, the logistics officers in the field and talked to them about the immense difficulties of bringing things in,although we are diversifying. But I don't see the hostage issue.

"As for the question of Haqqani and Hekmatyar groups, we are deeply concerned about the activities of these groups. The Haqqani group straddles the border and is responsible for some of the most serious events that take the lives and injure American and allied forces. There is no question about that. We have discussed this and looked for ways to deal with it and I see signs of movement forward, but I think with all respect to all of you that continued discussion of this issue in public works against the goal which I know all of you share in this room which is a reduction in the risk to our American forces in Afghanistan."

You'll note that Holbrooke ignored completely my reference to Pakistani support for the Taliban. And he said that the issue of fighters associated with Gulbuddin Hekmaytar, a leader of the US-sponsored 1980s jihad against the USSR, and the Haqqanis, heirs to another leader of that earlier Afghan war, is something best not discussed "in public."

Of course, US officials tread very carefully when dealing with the issue of Pakistan's support for the Taliban, Hekmatyar, and the Haqqanis. As I said in my question to Holbrooke, the fact that Pakistan, our key ally in the war, is also the chief supporter of our enemy, is a weird paradox. It's as if, during the war in Vietnam, we were fighting the Viet Cong in southern Vietnam while at the same time supporting the government of North Vietnam in Hanoi.

The Obama administration apparently believes that it can wean Pakistan away from its Afghan allies. It's true that some of the civilian elements of Pakistan's governing elite despise the Taliban and, like Pakistan's current ambassador to the United States, also despise fundamentalist Islam. But to Pakistan's army and its intelligence service, the ISI, the Taliban are a useful tool, and one that they are not likely to surrender. Most of Pakistan's generals and spies are not hard-core Islamic fundamentalists, of course. They're well educated, urbane, whisky-drinking, skirt-chasing military officers. But, holding their noses, they use the Taliban as a way of projecting Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan and, they hope, central Asia.

Iraq: A New Civil War?

The "good war" in Afghanistan isn't going so well, but the Obama administration may soon learn that the "bad war" -- that would be the one in Iraq -- isn't over yet.

Although President Obama has repeatedly promised to draw down US forces in Iraq to about 50,000 by August -- and to remove those forces by the end of 2011 -- it's fair to wonder if that will happen. First of all, because Iraq's upcoming parliamentary elections have been postponed from this month until March 7, and since US forces are expected to remain above 120,000 until the elections are over, the United States will have to complete a helter-skelter withdrawal, taking out 70,000 troops in just five short months, in order to meet the August deadline.

If that happens, it's likely to occur against the backdrop of spreading political chaos in Iraq, new insurgent violence, the threat of renewed civil war, and the whispered possibility of a military coup d'etat.

Last week, Iraq's Shiite-sectarian political establishment laid down a marker when a mid-level governent organ, the so-called Justice and Accountability Commission, banned more than a dozen political parties and leading political figures from the March election. The commission is heir to the old De-Baathification Commission, set up in 2003 by Paul Bremer, the US czar of Iraq, and led by Ahmed Chalabi and his cronies. Among those banned was one of Iraq's most significant players, Saleh al-Mutlaq, a secular Sunni leader and an important member of parliament, whose National Dialogue Front is a popular vote-getter among Iraq's disenfranchised Sunni populace. Mutlaq, a well-known politician, has drawn support from current and former Baathists, secular Sunnis opposed to the Shiite-sectarian rulers in Baghdad, and Iraqis concerned about the intrusive influence of Iran in Iraqi affairs.

Over the past several months, Mutlaq had helped to build a powerful opposition bloc set to challenge both Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who controls a faction of the secretive, sectarian Shiite Dawa party, and the broader Shiite alliance comprised of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr's forces, and Chalabi, the neoconservatives' favorite wheeler-dealer. That alliance was formed with the strong support of Iran, whose authoritarian leaders and radical clerics helped assemble it. ISCI, which has a paramilitary arm, the Badr Brigade, was formed in 1982 as an arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and for many years it was actually under the command of Iranian military officers. Sadr, a mercurial Shiite nationalist, has fallen under Iran's umbrella, too, and he has spent most of the past two years living in Qom, Iran's religious capital. Chalabi, despite his neocon connections, has long been suspected of having covert ties to Iran's intelligence service.

Since last year, Mutlaq has joined with other leading Iraqi politicians in a cross-sectarian, secular bloc that many Iraqis say is Iraq's only hope to escape religious sectarianism. One of his key allies in Iyad Allawi, a former prime minister and a secular Shiite, who could become Iraq's prime minister in a fair election. The Mutlaq-Allawi party, which also includes several top Sunni politicians, could form a coalition government with some of the rising new players in Iraqi politics, including the remnants of the Sunni Awakening movement and the winners of provincial elections in Nineweh, Salahuddin, Anbar, and other Iraqi provinces. According to Iraqi insiders, Allawi has been talking to the Kurds, including the powerful Barzani clan, about a possible post-election coalition. As a secular Shiite, Allawi might have some appeal in Iraq's Shiite-dominated south, too, especially in Basra.

Although Iraq's government may decide to void the ban on Mutlaq, the decision has already sparked outrage across Iraq, and the political bloc associated with Mutlaq, Allawi, and Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni leader, is threatening a boycott of the March vote. Reports RFE/RL:

"A political group including leading members of Iraq's Sunni minority has threatened to boycott national polls in March after one of their leaders was targeted for alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party.

"The 'Iraqi List,' headed by Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite, and MP Salih al-Mutlaq, an influential secular Sunni politician, blasted the decision from an independent state committee to ban al-Mutlaq from the elections."

Many other Iraqis, too, have attacked the decision to ban Mutlaq, who was accused to being too close to the disbanded Baath party. Aiham Alsammarae, a former Iraqi minister of electricity, told The Nation that if the action against Mutlaq is allowed to stand, it could push many Iraqi opposition members to renewed violence, and he said that even a new round of civil war could erupt. Alsammarae, who initially considered running for parliament as part of the Allawi-Mutlaq coalition, has instead established an independent party, the National United Front, and he expects to win up to 10 seats in the next parliament, from his home province of Salahuddin and from Nineweh, Anbar, Diyala, and Baghdad.

But Alsammarae worries that the Iraqi military, many of whose generals are loyal to Prime Minister Maliki, won't accept a new government, if Maliki loses. "Maliki has put Dawa party guys everywhere," he says. "All of the generals in Baghdad are Shia, and many of them are new generals that Maliki promoted."

Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi-born political analyst in Washington and a senior fellow at Peace Action, told The Nation that the action to ban Mutlaq could have disastrous political consequences. "It will have catatrophic results, because it will push people to fight outside the system, rather than inside the system," he says. "The upcoming March election has the potential to ignite a new civil conflict." Contary to the beliefs of many in Washington, Iraq does not have anything like the kind of stable political and military institutions that can weather such a conflict, he says, adding that the Iraqi armed forces are bitterly divided and split by ethnic and sectarian loyalties. "One brigade may be loyal to Maliki, one brigade to the Kurds, and one to ISCI," he says. "The army and the police are not loyal to Iraq."

The British ambassador to Iraq, John Jenkins, asserted that even a military coup d'etat is not out of the question. According to The National, a newspaper in the United Arab Emirates:

"A warning by the British ambassador to Iraq that a military coup was still a 'real possibility' in Baghdad has set off swirling rumours of conspiracy, and been met with wildly divergent reactions, some accusing him of scaremongering, others hoping it is a prophecy that will come true.

"John Jenkins told the Chilcot inquiry in London on Friday that democracy was far from assured in Iraq and the military could still overthrow an elected government.

"Many in Iraq believe such a development may be welcomed.

"'If there is such a military coup that eliminates the current government and it ends the Iranian stranglehold over Iraq, then the tribes will support it,' Sheikh Mohammad al Hamadani, a leading member of the tribal council in Maysan province, in southern Iraq, said yesterday. 'There are too many people and parties in positions of power that are loyal to Tehran.'"'

The British ambassador's statement was seen in Iraq mostly as a warning that a coup d'etat in Baghdad, however unlikely, would be launched by former Baathist members of the Iraqi armed forces, since most of the veteran military officers in Iraq were appointed during the era of Saddam Hussein's pre-2003 government. And it's true that many Iraqi military officers, both Sunni and Shiite, were Baathists. But the military in Iraq today is also comprised of ethnic and sectarian commanders, mostly Shiites loyal to Maliki and to the Badr Brigade, and they too might opt for an attempted coup rather than allowing the opposition to take power in March. As occurred in Lebanon after 1975, during that country's civil war, the army could splinter along ethnic and sectarian lines, leading to a protracted Iraqi civil war, a Kurdish breakaway state, and worse. That, in turn could drag Iraq's neighbors into the fray, with Iran intervening in support of its Shiite allies, the Turkish army moving in to oppose the Kurds, and Saudi Arabia and Jordan backing the Sunnis.

Admiral Mullen: No Attack on Iran

Yesterday, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a rare public appearance to speak about America's challenges in the Middle East. For his venue, he chose the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the main thinktank in Washington for the Israel lobby. His audience was at least a couple of hundred strong, with a bank of at least ten television cameras.

During his appearance, his hosts -- in the form of Rob Satloff, the executive director of WINEP -- pressed him to lay down a marker on Iran, which is the chief preoccupation of the lobby. However, contrary to some news reports and blog accounts of Mullen's comments at WINEP, the admiral clearly backed away from anything that sounded like a military threat, and it was clear throughout his entire remarks that Mullen, and the US military, is exceedingly averse to an armed confrontation with Tehran.

That's not the take, for instance, from the Jerusalem Post which headlined its article breathlessly: "US preparing for possible Iran conflict." The JP decided to emphasize Mullen's mundane comment that the United States has a contingency plan to go to war with Iran, ignoring the obvious fact that the Pentagon has contingencies for many unlikely and even unthinkable actions, and the pape downplayed Mullen's repeated comments that the Pentagon is trying to do everything it can to avoid a conflict with Iran.

In his prepared remarks, Mullen compared Iran to Pakistan in an intelligent way, i.e., he noted that because of the overt hostility between the United States and Pakistan from 1990 to 2002, over its nuclear program, the two countries developed an animosity and lack of trust that he is working to overcome. Then he compared that to Iran, in regard to which the US has suffered from three decades of hostility, and he made it plain that the goal of the United States must be to work to overcome those bad feelings and suspicion, too. Here is the text:

"And then when I come back to Iran, we haven't had a relationship with Iran since 1979. And so building that kind of relationship, and what does that mean -- and I speak to the difficulty of the other relationships and look at what thirty years potentially can do. So there's an awful lot of both concern, potential and, I think, focus, that needs to be sustained with respect to Iran and that part of the world. And we have great friends in that part of the world -- allies who've supported us and who are very anxious to continue to support us and to see stability there, particularly in the Gulf area, and not see it break out into any kind conflict."

When Satloff pressed him on Iran, Mullen added:

"When asked about striking Iran, specifically, that ... has a very, very destabilizing outcome. ... That part of the world could become much more unstable, which is a dangerous global outcome, much less regional, for the world we're living in right now. ... That's why one of the things that I think it so important is that we continue internationally, diplomatically, politically -- not just we, the United States, but the international community -- continue to focus on this." 

Mullen did say, point blank, that he believes that Iran has the strategic intent to develop a nuclear weapon. "I believe they're on a path that has a strategic intent to develop nuclear weapons, and have been for some time. And as I've said in more than one forum, I think that outcome is potentially a very, very destabilizing outcome." Whether you believe that Iran is in fact conducting a clandestine program to manufacture and deploy a nuclear bomb, or whether you believe it is seeking merely to develop the capability to assemble a bomb quickly (often described as the "Japan option," referring to Japan's ability to do so), it's clear that for the current Iranian leadership, particularly the militant Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, indeed sees Iran's nuclear research in less-than-peaceful terms. In other words, for the IRGC Iran's enrichment program has very little to do with the idea of civilian power plants.

But Mullen, I believe, probably recognizes that the job for the United States in coming decade will be to contain and deal with a nuclear Iran, not to go to war to prevent it from acquiring that capability. And, like the rest of the Obama administration, Mullen supports a diplomatic effort. Whether a diplomatic approach can succeed isn't clear. To be successful, President Obama has to place on the table, at least behind the scenes, an offer to allow Iran to own and operate a uranium enrichment program, as long as Tehran accepts onerous international supervision. So far, even while engaging Iran diplomatically, Obama has stuck with the failed Bush policy of demanding an end to enrichment, and there's little indication that they've told Iran quietly that the US bottom line is that Iran can have an enrichment program. My own reporting supports the notion that many US administration officials do understand that there's no going back for Iran's enrichment program. (See "Talking with Tehran," from The Nation, last October.)

You can read the whole transcript of Mullen's event here.

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