News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
President Obama didn't make encouraging noises on Afghanistan yesterday, at least not if you're looking for the president to reverse course and step out of the quagmire. In his meeting with members of Congress, including the ever-impatient John McCain, the president seemed to indicate that he's not planning any cut in US forces, nor -- at least according to the New York Times -- is he planning to refocus the US effort on a narrower, counterterrorism mission:
"President Obama told Congressional leaders on Tuesday that he would not substantially reduce American forces in Afghanistan or shift the mission to just hunting terrorists there, but he indicated that he remained undecided about the major troop buildup proposed by his commanding general."
That commanding general, of course, is one Stan McChrystal, appointed by Obama last spring, who's now front and center in a military squeeze play to force Obama to escalate the war. As the Wall Street Journal editorial page notes, in a lengthy editorial called "Obama and the General":
"Around the Congressional Democratic Caucus, we're told Members refer to General McChrystal as "General MacArthur," after the commander in Korea sacked by Harry Truman."
Exactly -- and the Republican "Joe McCarthy's" in the Congressional Republican Caucus are lauding McChrystal as the hero of all Afghanistan.
It's one thing for the WSJ to editorialize thusly, but the take-the-cake editorial for today goes to the insipid Washington Post, which warns Obama to listen to (of all people) the Pakistanis! The editorial is called "Why Did Benazir Die?" and it obsequiously quotes the Pakistan foreign minister urging the United States to stay and fight in Afghanistan. Says the paper:
"It seems pretty clear that if Mr. Obama decides to abandon counterinsurgency in the name of something called 'Pakistan First,' America's best allies in Pakistan won't be happy.'
The thing is, the reason Benazir died -- murdered by the Pakistani Taliban, it appears -- is that she was killed by the very forces that Pakistan created, nurtured, armed and trained, and in some cases even commanded, through the 1990s and into the current century. By most accounts, including even General McChrystal's latest report, Pakistan is still backing the Taliban in Afghanistan. So perhaps the very last people on the planet earth that Obama ought to be listening to on Afghanistan is the government of Pakistan. In fact, I'm starting to think that anything that makes "America's best allies in Pakistan" unhappy is the right policy.
Getting out of Afghanistan, sadly, is going to require making a deal with the Taliban and its backers, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. That's a fact. We can't ignore Pakistan, of course, and we'll have to do things that strengthen the fledgling civilian government there, corrupt as it is, to reduce the power of the Taliban-loving Pakistani military and its ISI allies.
But if Obama doesn't have the political courage to slap down his COIN-crazy generals and start to reverse course, well, getting out is going to be even harder -- and it will take a lot more years.
One of the most shocking things about General Stan McChrystal's leaked "Commander's Initial Assessment" about the war in Afghanistan is how bluntly he admits that the US occupation authorities, ISAF (the NATO International Security Assistance Force), and Centcom know little about the country they've invaded.
You'd think that, as the war in Afghanistan enters its ninth year, we'd know a little about the place. But no. As McChrystal writes (page 2-4):
"ISAF has not sufficiently studied Afghanistan's peoples, whose needs, identities, and grievances vary from province to province and from valley to valley."
That's a stunner. ISAF has "not sufficiently studied" the very country its occupying? After eight years? Read on (page 2-5):
"For this strategy to succeed, ISAF leaders must redouble efforts to understand the social and political dynamics [of] all regions of the country."
He goes on (page 2-10):
"Afghan social, political, economic, and cultural affairs are complex and poorly understood. ISAF does not sufficiently appreciate the dynamics in local communities, nor how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, power-brokers, and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population."
It's incredibly arrogant that after so long the United States argues that it knows what to do in Afghanistan while, at the same time, admitting in public that it has barely the faintest idea about the country really works.
In today's Wall Street Journal, there is news that Centcom is setting up (for the first time) an intelligence shop to focus on Afghanistan. The new center, says the Journal, is "designed to help troops deepen their intelligence about the country's complex political and tribal dynamics." And it reports:
"The new intelligence center is meant to provide military and civilian officials in Afghanistan with detailed analysis of the country's tribal, political and religious dynamics. The center, at Central Command's Florida headquarters, employs about 150 troops, contractors and civilian officials."
So, where is this vaunted new "Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordination Cell"? In Tampa, Florida! I'm sure that's an excellent place to study Afghanistan.
Earlier this year, I interviewed one of the few people who actually seems to have a grasp of the complex dynamics of tribes, subtribes and clans in Afghanistan. That's Seth Jones, a RAND Corporation specialist whose new book, In the Graveyard of Empires, is a must-read, even if you don't agree with all of his conclusions. In the interview, I spoke to Jones about whether the US military and the intelligence community have a good map of the tribes and their networks. Here's that exchange:
Q. Does the United States have a map of these tribes?
Q. They don't?
A. There are maps, but especially down south, very serious micro-level maps that get down to sub-tribes and clans, relationships with criminal organizations, no. That's being built at the moment....
Q. So why is it seven years into this ….?
A. Well in some areas, like Assadabad, the PRT's [Provincial Reconstruction Teams] are there….
Q. But without this map…
A. You can't do anything we've talked about. At the very least, linking up with local Afghans. The NDS, Afghanistan's intelligence service, the ministry of interior, especially when you get into the provinces, there's an NDS chief for the province, and he's got a range of NDS operatives, they'll definitely know, because they're from the province. It also means linking up with the Afghan government, especially the intelligence service.
Q. So they're local intelligence people are actually rooted in the area and they know who these people are?
Q. So we have to trust them. We can't reconstruct a map if they've got one.
A. Yes. That is exactly what we have to do. The United States isn't in all areas. There are some United States forces in and around Qalat, along the ring road. But for the most part, in the south, in Kandahar, some Canadian forces, in Helmand, mostly British, but they're in the northern parts. So huge chunks of Farah, of Helmand, of Kandahar, northern Zabul, chunks of Uruzgan: no forces. No mapping. And this is the heart of the insurgency. So now we're sending some Marines down south. And we'll start mapping. Seven years into the insurgency.
Now, it's eight years and counting.
It's both funny and sad -- okay, mostly funny -- to watch the right-wingers, neocons, and pro-Israel hawks gnashing their teeth and nay-saying about the Iran talks. Fact is, the results of yesterday's meetings were pretty darned good, for seven hours work: the US and Iran sat down for an extended one-on-one, Iran agreed to allow IAEA inspectors to look at the Qom facility that caused all the hubbub, and Iran also acceded to a plan to ship most of its enriched uranium to Russia and France, where it will be turned into fuel rods for a reactor that is used to medical purposes. (That latter step means that Iran is getting rid of most --estimates are, as much as 75 per cent -- of the low-enriched uranium that, according to the hawks, it was storing up to make a bomb.)
Going in, the hawks screeched that talking to Iran is worse than useless. So, now that the talks have actually accomplished something? Umm--they're still useless, or worse.
The Wall Street Journal, in an hysterical editorial entitled "Springtime for Mullahs," writes:
"The evidence is overwhelming that the window to stop the world's leading sponsor of terrorism from acquiring a bomb is closing fast. If we are serious about doing so, the proper model isn't North Korea, but Libya. The Gadhafi regime agreed to disarm after the fall of Saddam Hussein convinced its leaders that their survival was better assured without nuclear weapons. Mr. Ahmadinejad and Iran's mullahs will only concede if they see their future the same way.
"This supposed fresh start in Geneva only gives them new legitimacy, and new hope that they can have their bomb and enhanced global standing too."
Or take the editorial at National Review:
"The big news out of the talks is that Iran agreed to rapid International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of its just-revealed enrichment facility at Qom and, in principle, to ship some of its existing low-enriched uranium to Russia. Although these items will be enough for the press -- and for Iran's international enablers -- to play up the positive results of the talks, neither of these moves is earth-shattering. The Iranians are masters of making concessions that they take back or water down. ... The game for Iran here is a relatively easy one -- string things along so talks continue and stiffer sanctions are forestalled."
John Bolton, the mustachioed one-man wrecking ball who served as George Bush's anti-ambassador at the UN, said:
""I'm sure the Obama administration will describe the decision to meet again before the end of October as significant. All I can say is that I'm stunned that they would call that significant, just to show that their open-hand policy is working. It's in Iran's interest to have negotiations. It buys them time, legitimacy, and reduces the possibility of sanctions. The Obama administration may say that sweetness and light broke out in Geneva, and that's the problem. It's a fancy.
"We have been through this pattern repeatedly with Iran. When some information Iran has tried to conceal comes out, it causes another round of negotiations, but no real halt to their nuclear-weapons program. It's just Groundhog Day, over and over again. ... You're never going to chit-chat Iran out of their nuclear-weapons program. Negotiations work in Iran's favor."
Over at the Weekly Standard it's relatively quiet, but Rachel Abrams did manage this snide comment:
"Nice picture of Americans and Iranians sharing a so-far-so-good moment in Geneva. Just wondering: Is Bill Burns thinking of the three young Americans being held hostage by Iranian despots as he sits there gazing across the table at them?"
And Michael Goldfarb, in the same Standard blog, snarked:
"North Korea, Iran, Israel--there has been zero progress on any of these fronts despite all the White House spin to the contrary."
In fact, as Juan Cole pointed out, President Obama made more progress in seven hours than the Bush administration made in eight years. Of course, we can't call what effect the Bush administration did "progress," unless you call the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the installation of 8,000 centrifuges progress.
Perhaps the most judicious and thoughtful neocon specialist on Iran, Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, also ratched up the negativity in an oped called "No Nixon to China Moment Here," in which -- though written before the results of the Geneva meeting were known -- he says that it's undesirable to reach a strategic deal with Iran:
"U.S. friends in the region have reason to be suspicious of the Islamic Republic. Iran wants a greater role in the region than its neighbors want it to have, and revolutionary Iran is using force to achieve that aim, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, or the pursuit of a nuclear program. The United States, as a status quo power, has little interest in helping Iran upset the regional status quo. In short, even if it were possible -- which it is not -- a U.S.-Iran strategic realignment would be undesirable."
Fact is, Iran isn't going anywhere. Will the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime survive six months? A year? Ten years? Or will the opposition manage to topple or infiltrate it or make a deal with Khamenei? We have no idea. So Obama has to negotiate with the Iran that is, not the Iran that he'd like to see, or the one the neocons would like to bring about through "regime change."
On Wednesday, several top US officials who will be leading the American delegation to the talks with Iran gave a background briefing to reporters in Geneva on their perspective for the talks. It makes interesting reading, and I'm excerpting some highlights here, with my own comments:
The central question is: Will the United States (and the P5 + 1) acknowledge that Iran has the right to enrich uranium, but under appropriate international oversight by the IAEA? Will the United States insist that Iran suspend, or freeze, its enrichment program as part of the talks? And will the United States insist that Iran does not have that right, and never will? Judging by the following exchange, the answers are: Not yet, yes, and maybe. Read on:
QUESTION: I just wanted you to clarify, you're saying suspension is the obvious confidence building measure, but you seem to leave the door open to say it's not the only one. So essentially there might be a settlement in which Iran never stops enriching.
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #1: No. I didn't say that. Suspension is something that's inscribed in five UN Security Council resolutions. It's at the center of the so-called Way Forward proposal that the 5+1 have on the table. That remains very much our goal collectively in this group.
As I said, that's not to suggest that there aren't other steps that could be taken along the way that would help build confidence in Iranian intent, but suspension, as I said, and as it's made clear in Security Council resolutions, remains our position.
QUESTION: It's non-negotiable.
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #1: As I said, it's laid out in five Security Council resolutions pretty clearly.
The fact that it's laid out in "five Security Council resolutions" doesn't give it Biblical or Quranic permanence. In the past, at least once, Iran did agree to freeze its uranium processing, but that was long ago, when they had only a tiny number of spinning centrifuges. Now there are more than 8,000. A freeze is very unlikely.
The US officials made clear that the talks are about Iran's nuclear program, not about human rights in Iran -- or about Iran's grandiose vision of its global and regional role. That seems fine to me. Raising the human rights issue, or the results of the June 12 election and its aftermath, in which Iranian security forces brutally cracked down on the reformist, centrist, and conservative opposition to the regime, would only succeed in sending the Iranian delegation up the wall, for no good reason. Here's the exchange:
QUESTION: It doesn't sound like the U.S. government believes this is a forum in which to raise the human rights issue. A lot of people argue what happened in June in Tehran and throughout Iran has been sort of forgotten, neglected. Do you plan to raise that at all?
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #1: We've made very clear, the administration has, the serious concerns that we have about human rights, freedom of expression issues in general, particularly since the elections in Iran. We've consistently and clearly raised concerns about detained Americans, who should be released. And so we'll continue to do that and we'll continue to look for opportunities to do that.
As I said, the focus of this group has been and I think will remain the nuclear issue, but we'll continue to look for opportunities to press all of those points because I think they're very real concerns for us and for our partners.
Encouragingly, the US officials suggested that there would be a chance for "sidebars," or one on one discussions between Iranian and US diplomats. That's good news, of course:
QUESTION: Under the format that you outlined, it sounds like you're kind of expecting to be able to have a one-on-one meeting with the Iranians?
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #1: We'll see. I think there will be the opportunity, as I said, for sidebar conversations that could involve any of the 5+1 partners and the Iranians. That's the way this is laid out. So we'll see.
Worryingly, while the US officials did recognize that the talks won't be quick and easy, they did come back to the foolish notion that there needs to be some finite deadline for the talks, which makes no sense at all:
I think it's pretty safe to predict that this is going to be an extraordinarily difficult process. I doubt that it's going to be measured in terms of one meeting, although we'll see how the Iranians approach the meeting tomorrow.
The last thing I'd emphasize is that this, from the point of view of the United States, cannot be an open-ended process or talks just for the sake of talks. Especially in light of the revelations about Qom, we need to see, all of us need to see, practical steps and measurable results and we need to see them starting quickly.
I'm all for measurable results. But the talks will be judged not only by what Iran brings to the table, but by what the United States brings to the table, too. The Iranians might walk out in a huff along the way, and then come back. The US delegation might be recalled, i.e., walk out, if some dastardly insult is hurled by the Iranians. All that is circus. The real point is: there's no crisis. It isn't very urgent. The P5 + 1 has plenty of time (as the Russians and Chinese will make very clear) to settle this controversy diplomatically, and it will take as long as it takes.
The US-Iran talks start Thursday in Geneva and, while a lot of other countries will be there too -- the UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany are all part of the so-called P5 + 1 -- it's really the United States and Iran who will have to make a deal. Even the latest flareup over the secret Iranian enrichment facility doesn't change the basic fact: that Washington and Tehran, after three decades without diplomatic relations, will be talking. It's a startling and important reversal of US policy, as promised by candidate Barack Obama in 2008, abandoning the charged rhetoric of the Bush administration, which lumped Iran incongruously into the Axis of Evil in 2002 and looked aghast at the idea of negotiating with Iran.
Robert Gates, the secretary of defense, did his part yesterday to lower the temperature of the rhetoric by stating explicitly that the US does not have a military option to deal with Iran's nuclear program. He didn't exactly take the military option "off the table," as the unfortunate phrase goes, but he did say:
"The reality is, there is no military option that does nothing more than buy time. The only way you end up not having a nuclear-capable Iran is for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons, as opposed to strengthened."
Gates, of course, has long been opposed to a military strike on Iran, and a few years ago he co-chaired a Council on Foreign Relations task force on Iran that opposed the military option and called for US engagement with Iran in pursuit of a comprehensive accord. (Incidentally, if you want to read a lengthy account of why a military strike on Iran, by Israel or the United States, would be so difficult, read CSIS' Anthony Cordesman's "The Iran Attack Plan," published Friday in the Wall Street Journal.) However, like the rest of the Obama administration's top officials, including the increasingly hawkish secretary of state, Gates did emphasize that the alternative if Iran doesn't deal is a toughened regime of economic sanctions. "There obviously is the opportunity for severe additional sanctions. I think we have the time to make that work," he said.
The reality is, of course, that it's highly unlikely that truly tough sanctions will get the support of the Russians and Chinese, and so the UN Security Council is likely to pass far more milder sanctions than the "crippling" ones, such as a cutoff of Iran's gasoline supply or a shutdown of Iran's access to international finance, that Hillary Clinton wants. The more likely result, if the talks don't go anywhere by the end of the year -- and it's almost impossible to imagine some breakthrough by then -- is that the UNSC might agree to far more mild, targeted sanctions that focus on Iran's nuclear program itself. But sanctions are the "sticks" in the US arsenal, and it's unclear what the "carrots" are -- or whether the US intends to offer the key "carrot," i.e., international acceptance of Iran's inherent right to enrich uranium. (Iranians, by the way, hate the carrot-and-stick talk, and they consider it insulting and demeaning, as if Iran were a donkey.)
Howard Berman, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a close ally of AIPAC, has introduced legislation in support of Clinton's "crippling sanctions." Writing in the Washington Post, Berman warns that his bill targets both Iran's gasoline imports and its financial dealings:
"[It] provides President Obama with a mandate to increase the level of financial penalties against Iran and would prevent companies that facilitate the provision of gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Iran from doing business in the United States. Much of the world's trade is conducted through international financial transactions in dollars that must be cleared through American banks. So if the United States were to prevent any bank doing business with Iranian banks from clearing dollar transactions, the Iranian banking system would collapse. And because Iran has to import 25 percent or more of its daily demand for refined petroleum, its economy would be seriously impaired if it were denied those imports. Indeed, a credible threat of both these sanctions might provide the best chance to persuade the Iranian regime to agree to suspend its nuclear enrichment."
Tough, yes, but as Berman points out, the bill only provides Obama with a "mandate" to impose those draconian measures. It doesn't force him to do so. And so far, Berman, in spite of pressure from AIPAC, has refused to push his bill through Congress all year. And he isn't thrilled about the idea of doing anything that might disrupt the president's ongoing diplomatic effort. It's an enabling measure only, although its passage by Congress would hurt, not help, by inflaming passions on both sides and providing Iranian hawks with yet more leverage to sabotage the talks.
Speaking for the neoconservative alliance of hawks, Israeli hardliners, and outright kooks is Eliot Cohen, writing in the Wall Street Journal today. Cohen argues that neither diplomacy nor sanctions will dissuade Iran from pursuing the bomb:
"The U.S. government has hoped for a middle course of sanctions, negotiations and bargaining that would remove the problem without the ugly consequences. This is self-delusion."
And he adds:
"Pressure, be it gentle or severe, will not erase that nuclear program. The choices are now what they ever were: an American or an Israeli strike, which would probably cause a substantial war, or living in a world with Iranian nuclear weapons, which may also result in war, perhaps nuclear, over a longer period of time."
Like many neocons, Cohen seems to feel that the military option is unworkable. Israel, he says, isn't capable of dealing a knockout blow to the Iranian program, and an American strike would "probably lead to real warfare in the Persian Gulf, disrupting oil supplies and producing global responses." So Cohen falls back on the tired old regime-change strategy:
"It is, therefore, in the American interest to break with past policy and actively seek the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. Not by invasion, which this administration would not contemplate and could not execute, but through every instrument of U.S. power, soft more than hard."
Cohen blithley ignores the fact that it was precisely President Obama's policy of offering to talk to Iran that helped to spark the Green Wave opposition movement in Iran. If "regime change" does come to Iran in the next year or two (or longer) it will be that opposition movement -- the very reformists and pragmatists who were disparaged and despised by the neocons until June 12! -- manages to get the upper hard. If Cohen's regime-change-via-America policy were to be adopted, it would vastly strengthen the Iranian hawks and undercut the very opposition it would be designed to help.
Unfortunately, what Cohen, like the rest of the hawks, wilfully ignores, and what it isn't clear that the Obama administration gets, is that the US can't just bluster and threaten Iran with sanctions to get its way. Negotiations succeed when both parties, not just one, can claim victory. To succeed, the United States is going to have to put on the table an offer to accept Iran's nuclear enrichment program, without calling for a "freeze" or the dismantling of the whole thing. In exchange, Iran is going to have to accept strict and intrusive international oversight and inspections of its facilities, to ensure that it doesn't have a military dimension. That's the deal that will work. Anything less just ain't happening.
It isn't clear why, exactly, the United States and its allies revealed today what they know about a secret uranium enrichment facility in Iran. The New York Times, which broke the story, says:
"American officials said that they had been tracking the covert project for years, but that Mr. Obama decided to disclose the American findings after Iran discovered, in recent weeks, that Western intelligence agencies had breached the secrecy surrounding the complex."
What "Western intelligence agencies" did to breach the secrecy isn't stated. But the revelation is devastating for Iran, guaranteed to raise suspicions about Iran's intentions, inflame the passions of bomb-Iran hawks, and vastly complicate the talks between Iran and the P5 + 1 world powers scheduled to start on October 1.
Iran has informed the IAEA about the new facility, into which, the IAEA says, no nuclear material has yet been introduced, i.e., the site is not operational. Of course, it isn't surprising that Iran might build a hardened facility more impervious to military attack, given the drumbeat of warnings that the US and/or Israel might launch an assault on Iran's scattered nuclear installations. But the existence of the previously unreported facility, combined with Iran's apparent efforts to conceal it from the IAEA and the world community, will only add heft to charges that Iran is covertly seeking a military nuclear capability, i.e., an A-bomb.
That latter possibility is at the center of the new revelations, since it suggests that Iran might be seeking to construct a facility in which it could secretly enrich its low-enriched, fuel-grade uranium into high-enriched, weapons-grade material.
According to the Times, the facility is built into a mountainside near Qom, Iran's religious capital, and is designed to handle 3,000 centrifuges, i.e., about half of what Iran already has installed in its Natanz site. Worryingly, Obama said, without elaborating:
"The size and type of the facility is inconsistent with that of a peaceful facility."
Presumably, though it isn't known, Obama and the Western allies briefed the Russians and the Chinese about the secret facility, as part of their effort to win support for a unified position on Iran that might include a new round of UN Security Council sanctions if the talks don't make progress. French President Sarkozy has warned explicitly that Iran must face new sanctions by December.
The Russians have been dropping hints since last week that they'd be willing to consider new sanctions on Iran. So far, that message has been conveyed by President Medvedev, though (as Fox News reports) it hasn't been echoed by Vladimir Putin yet. It's been widely reported since last winter that Obama and the Russians had discussed an off-the-record quid pro quo: cancellation of the missile defense system in eastern Europe in exchange for Moscow's support on Iran.
Speaking to students in Pittsburgh, Medvedev said:
"I don't consider sanctions the best way to achieve results on Iran ... but all the same, if all possibilities to influence the situation are exhausted, then we can use international sanctions."
Still, analysts tell The Dreyfuss Report that while Russia and China might go along with another round of sanctions, it's extremely unlikely that they'd accede to draconian measures such as a prohibition on gasoline and refined petroleum products to Iran. Instead, they say, Moscow and Beijing would only accept far more moderate and targeted sanctions aimed specifically at Tehran's nuclear industry.
Gordon Brown, at Obama's side in Pittsburgh, said:
"The level of deception by the Iranian government, and the scale of what we believe is the breach of international commitments, will shock and anger the entire international community. The international community has no choice today but to draw a line in the sand."
Expect the pressure on Iran from hawks, neocons, and Israeli hardliners to ratchet up to the highest level now. Perhaps, hardliners in Iran -- above all, President Ahmadinejad -- are counting on exactly that to strengthen their position at home, still challenged by reformists, oppositionists, pragmatists, and many leading members of the clergy. Why else would Ahmadinejad reiterate his outrageous Holocaust-is-a-myth rhetoric on the very eve of his UN visit, if not to raise tension levels? And Bibi Netanyahu, his opposite number, responded in typical knee-jerk fashion, waving a copy of the German plans for Auschwitz's crematoria and gas chambers during his UN speech, adding that Iran represents the "marriage of religious fundamentalism and weapons of mass destruction." And he said:
"The most urgent challenge facing this body today is to prevent the tyrants of Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons."
FOR FURTHER READING Here's a partial text of a background briefing by "senior administration officials" on the secret Iranian facility:
It was evident to everybody, both the United States and our allies, that if the Iranians wanted to pursue a nuclear weapons option the use of the Natanz facility was a very unattractive approach; because the IAEA inspectors were there, it would be noticed if Iran tried to produce weapons-grade uranium at that facility, or if they expelled the IAEA inspectors, everybody would assume that they were converting the facility to produce weapons-grade uranium.
So the obvious option for Iran would be to build another secret underground enrichment facility, and our intelligence services, working in very close cooperation with our allies, for the past several years have been looking for such a facility. And not surprisingly, we found one. So we have known for some time now that Iran was building a second underground enrichment facility. And as the President mentioned this morning, it's located near the city of Qom, a very heavily protected, very heavily disguised facility. We believe that it's not yet operational. We think it's most likely at least a few months, perhaps more, from having all of the centrifuges installed and being capable of operating if the Iranians made a decision to begin operating it.
Our information is that the facility is designed to hold about 3,000 centrifuge machines. Now, that's not a large enough number to make any sense from a commercial standpoint. It cannot produce a significant quantity of low-enriched uranium. But if you want to use the facility in order to produce a small amount of weapons-grade uranium, enough for a bomb or two a year, it's the right size. And our information is that the Iranians began this facility with the intent that it be secret, and therefore giving them an option of producing weapons-grade uranium without the international community knowing about it.
Now, as I said, we've been aware of this facility for several years; we've been watching the construction, we've been building up a case so that we were sure that we had very strong evidence, irrefutable evidence, that the intent of this facility was as an enrichment plant. We also learned that the Iranians learned that the secrecy of the facility was compromised. So they came to believe that the value of the facility as a secret facility was no longer valid. ...
Fairly recently -- and recognizing that they might then choose to disclose the facility themselves, we worked with our allies -- the U.K. and the French -- to put together a briefing, an extraordinarily detailed briefing, for the IAEA, because we anticipated that we would need to provide that briefing to the agency so that they would be able to conduct a proper investigation -- not just of the facility itself, but of the support facilities that are producing materials and equipment for this facility, what the Iranian decision-making process and intent was to build this facility. ...
Now, earlier this week, as President Obama said, we learned that Iran sent a letter to the IAEA which in very vague terms disclosed that Iran was constructing a "pilot-scale enrichment plant" designed to produce 5 percent enriched uranium, and that the Iranians would provide additional information in the future as appropriate. Well, based on that letter, we felt it was important that we proceed quickly to brief the IAEA so that they can conduct an adequate investigation. And as the President said, we carried out that briefing in Vienna yesterday. And the IAEA, I'm happy to say, is following up very vigorously. You can ask them, of course, but my understanding is that they're seeking access to this facility as soon as possible. And no doubt they will be reporting to the Board of Governors on the results of their investigations.
Now, we think, as the President said, this is another example, if we needed one, to remind us that the history of Iran's program is very disturbing. The Security Council -- several Security Council resolutions since 2006 has demanded that Iran suspend all enrichment-related activities. This program is obviously a violation of that -- of those Security Council resolutions.
The safeguards agreement between Iran and the IAEA requires Iran to declare nuclear facilities as soon as they begin construction. Now, in March of 2007, Iran unilaterally said it did not feel bound by that element of its safeguards agreement. And we know construction of the facility began even before the Iranians unilaterally said that they did not feel bound by that obligation.
So clearly this is inconsistent, in my view; obviously a violation of their safeguards agreement. The IAEA will obviously be investigating that and making a report to the Board of Governors as they pursue their investigation.
One last thing I want to say. This was very sensitive intelligence information. But nonetheless, in order to build a coalition with the P5-plus-1, we are taking the extraordinary step of sharing as much of the information as we can with the other countries that are part of this group -- the Russians, the Chinese, and the Germans. And they are studying that information. We'll be engaging with them. I think that it will benefit our diplomatic efforts to once again reveal that Iran is carrying out nuclear activities in secret in violation of their international obligations.
And I think you've seen that our strategy has already begun to bear fruit. As you all know, in the meeting earlier this week between President Obama and President Medvedev, President Medvedev talked about the possibility of needing to use sanctions if diplomacy failed. President Obama and President Hu also had extensive discussions on the question of how to deal with Iran, and obviously the October 1st meeting of the P5-plus-1 in Iran is going to be a critical test of Iran's intention. ...
I'm just going to mention a few things about the diplomatic track. As I'm sure most of you know, in April of this year, the P5 countries, the permanent members of the Security Council, and Germany, met in London to address the diplomatic track. They reaffirmed the proposal that's been on the table for quite a while since June 2008, and they called on Iran to begin engagement, to begin direct negotiations.
There was a lot of support for the policies of the new Obama administration for having a tough, direct dialogue with Iran. So this offer was made repeatedly. The Iranians refused to meet, refused to accept this offer. The President has been making clear for quite some time that it's important for the international community to take stock of the situation, and he specifically talked about September and the beginning of the U.N. General Assembly when world leaders would be coming together to evaluate Iran's seriousness in addressing the concerns of the international community. I think Iran was feeling the pressure that was being put on them, and they agreed to hold a meeting of the P5-plus-1 countries on October 1st in Geneva.
This is going to be a critical opportunity for Iran to demonstrate that it's willing to address the very serious concerns that have been raised about its intentions in the nuclear area.
I think all P5-plus-1 countries are united. Two days ago in New York, foreign ministers of those countries issued a strong statement. They demonstrated that they are unified. They reaffirmed what we call a dual-track policy, engagement on the one hand but pressure and sanctions if Iran does not negotiate seriously.
So October 1st will be a serious test of Iran's willingness to address these concerns, and as a result of the initiative taken today to reveal this previously undisclosed site, this matter will be on the agenda of October 1st. Iran will be pressed to cooperate with the IAEA's investigation of this very disturbing situation.
We hope that there will be tangible progress. But it's up to Iran. It's up to Iran to respond in a concrete way to the offers that are on the table and to address the concerns of the world community.
Yesterday morning, at a meeting of the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative, a former top US military officer suggested that General Stanley McChrystal might resign from his post if President Obama doesn't go along with his pending request for more troops for Afghanistan.
Brig. Gen. Mark T. Kimmitt, a former Bush administration official and Centcom officer, in answer to a question from the panel's moderator, said that he hoped that the differences between the White House and its generals didn't escalate to such a dramatic level. But, he said, if Obama doesn't give McChrystal the resources he needs, then the four-star general might quit. "Most commanders would offer their resignation" if they perceive that the commander-in-chief isn't giving them what they need, he said. In that case, McChrystal might have to say: "I'm not capable of doing it. Maybe somebody else is."
At the conclusion of the panel, I asked Kimmitt about his comments, and he emphasized that he isn't predicting that McChrystal might quit. McChrystal, he said, is presenting Obama with three choices: a maximum option, that would involve up to 40,000 more troops, a middle option, and a low option. Under all three, Kimmitt said, McChrystal believes that he can do the job. On the other hand, if he doesn't get the low option, probably something like an additional 15,000 troops, the general might consider quitting.
Needless to say, the resignation of McChrystal, who's been elevated to near-hero status by the Republican right, would be a frontal challenge to the White House. So far, in a sign that the White House isn't playing patsy for the military, the administration has resisted bringing McChrystal back to Washington to testify, Petraeus-style, before Congress. And they've downplayed the significance of McChrystal's role, saying that his input is just one of many sources that are providing information to the White House as it considers the next phase of its failing Afghanistan strategy.
At least one report today suggests that Obama might refuse to support additional forces in Afghanistan, instead relying on targeted Predator-type attacks on Al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan:
"President Barack Obama's strategy against al-Qaida may shift away from more troops in Afghanistan and toward more drone strikes against terrorist targets.
"As the war worsens in Afghanistan, Obama could steer away from the comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy he laid out this spring and toward a narrower focus on counterterror operations.
"Two senior administration officials said Monday that the renewed fight against al-Qaida could lead to more missile attacks on Pakistan terrorist havens by unmanned U.S. spy planes. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because no decisions have been made."
The Wall Street Journal reports today that the administration has ordered McChrystal to delay submitting his call for more forces:
"The Pentagon has told its top commander in Afghanistan to delay submitting his request for additional troops, defense officials say, amid signs that the Obama administration is rethinking its strategy for combating a resurgent Taliban."
And the paper adds:
"One senior administration official involved in Afghan policy acknowledged that the White House and Gen. McChrystal's headquarters may not yet be on the same page on the way forward in Afghanistan.
"But the official said Mr. Obama needs to take a much broader view than the Afghan commander when deciding whether to send more forces.
"'Stan McChrystal is not responsible for assessing how we're doing against al Qaeda,' said the senior administration official. 'He's not assessing how the Pakistani military is doing in its counterinsurgency campaign. That's not his job. So Stan's report is a very important input into this overall strategy, but it's not the only input.'"
The New York Times, in its news analysis piece today, notes that McChrystal is a potent force:
"Even as the president expresses skepticism about sending more American troops to Afghanistan until he has settled on the right strategy, he is also grappling with a stark reality: it will be very hard to say no to General McChrystal."
But, like the Journal, the Times notes:
"Administration officials said that the general's assessment, while very important, was just one component in the president's thinking."
It's clear that, for Obama at least, the catastrophic election in Afghanistan is a game-changer. Now, not only is the US fighting an uphill battle in Afghanistan, but it's fighting on behalf of an obviously corrupt, unrepresentative government that is hardly a model of democracy.
In fact, however, no democracy will be unfolding in Afghanistan anytime soon. As we exit, we'll have to leave that country to the tender mercies of its warlord-ridden, tribal based fiefdoms, including the pro-Taliban ones, and let them fight it out. As I've written before, Obama will have to sit down with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan, and ask them to use all their influence with the Taliban to get them to make a deal, at least one that excludes Al Qaeda from the mix. They'll have to sit down with Russia, India and Iran to get them to persuade their friends and allies, including the non-Pashtun Afghans that made up most of the Northern Alliance, to cut a deal with the pro-Taliban Pashtuns. And it will have to bring China into the package, too. It's a huge and complex diplomatic undertaking, and it will require the United States to give each of those countries some concessions in other areas, a price that they can extract for cooperating with Washington on its Afghan exit.
Contrary to my own expectations, President Obama seems to be hesitant about announcing yet another escalation in Afghanistan.
General McChrystal has thrown down the gauntlet, saying that he needs more troops in the coming year or else the war "will likely result in failure." In his 66-page report, he added:
"Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term (next 12 months) -- while Afghan security capacity matures -- risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."
But Obama suggested yesterday, during his marathon round of Sunday interviews, that he may not be ready to write McChrystal the blank check that he wants. Obama said that he "is not going to be driven by the politics of the moment," and he said that before he'll add more troops he wants to make sure that the strategy is correct. He said, on CNN:
"Right now, the question is, the first question is, are we doing the right thing? Are we pursuing the right strategy? When we have clarity on that, then the question is, O.K., how do we resource it?"
On CBS Face the Nation, Obama said:
"Whatever decisions I make are going to be based first on a strategy to keep us safe, then we'll figure out how to resource it. We're not going to put the cart before the horse and just think by sending more troops we're automatically going to make Americans safe."
And he reiterated the key point that his objective in Afghanistan is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda -- a goal that, according to many observers, is already accomplished -- rather than to rebuild, or rather build, a nation where none exists.
Under the headline, "Obama Questions Plan to Add Forces in Afghanistan," the Wall Street Journal reports:
"President Barack Obama on Sunday voiced skepticism that more troops would make a difference in Afghanistan, suggesting he might not rubber-stamp military officials' expected request to send more forces to that country. ... Mr. Obama's comments suggested that the White House could be reassessing its strategy in Afghanistan, ahead of an expected request for more troops from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander there. ...
"Recent polls have shown declining support in the U.S. for the Afghanistan war. Mr. Obama has said that while he doesn't favor an open-ended war in Afghanistan, he has no deadline for withdrawing forces and won't base his decision on 'the politics of the moment.'"
Already, Republicans are warning that Obama had better follow the military's advice, or else. In fact, the president can afford to cross swords with the GOP troglodytes, but what he can't afford is to alienate his own Democratic party base, which has overwhelming rejected the war. (Polls show Democrats are strongly opposed to the war in Afghanistan.)
The right-wing regimes of the "new Europe" -- that is, the post-Soviet governments in eastern Europe that emerged, during the Bush administration, as the staunchest backers of American empire -- are yelping over the decision by the Obama administration to cancel Bush-era plans to build a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
For Obama, who was never enthusiastic about the plan, it's a strong indication that he's serious about rebuilding relations with Russia. And the decision may have implications for Iran policy, too.
In an article entited: "U.S. to Shelve Nuclear Missile Shield," the Wall Street Journal reports today:
"The White House will shelve Bush administration plans to build a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, according to people familiar with the matter, a move likely to cheer Moscow and roil the security debate in Europe.
"The U.S. will base its decision on a determination that Iran's long-range missile program has not progressed as rapidly as previously estimated, reducing the threat to the continental U.S. and major European capitals, according to current and former U.S. officials. The findings, expected to be completed as early as next week following a 60-day review ordered by President Barack Obama, would be a major reversal from the Bush administration, which pushed aggressively to begin construction of the Eastern European system before leaving office in January...
"But the decision to shelve the defense system is all but certain to raise alarms in Eastern Europe, where officials have expressed concerns that the White House's effort to ‘reset' relations with Moscow would come at the expense of U.S. allies in the former Soviet bloc."
Predictably, the neoconservative Weekly Standard is outraged, calling it a "complete capitulation to Russia's Vladimir Putin," and adding:
"The consequences of this action in Eastern Europe, especially in Ukraine and in other countries that feel vulnerable to Russian power, will be disastrous. It is a major American retreat in the face of Russian bullying. And we will get absolutely nothing for it."
The Standard does pick up on the link to Iran, saying that:
"The Obama administration, which is appeasing Russia in the hopes that Moscow will help put pressure on Iran, has made this mammoth concession just a few days after Moscow declared that it had no intention of supporting sanctions against Iran."
It's true that, earlier this week, President Medvedev of Russia hinted that Moscow might not look unfavorably on new sanctions against Iran, saying:
"Sanctions are not very effective on the whole, but sometimes you have to embark on sanctions and they can be right."
And earlier this year, there were reports that Obama was seeking to obtain a quid pro quo from Moscow, offering to cancel the missile defense system in exchange for Russia's support on Iran. It's unlikely, however, that Russia will go along with truly harsh sanctions against Tehran, despite Medvedev's comments. More likely, the Russian president was trying to make Iran a bit more nervous as it enters talks with the P5 + 1, which includes both Russia and the United States.
At the American Enterprise Institute, too, Gary Schmitt is unhappy:
"It looks like not only have we hit the reset button when it comes to Russia, but now with our friends in Central Europe--except this time, it's a big fat 'no thank you' for your willingness to stick your neck out to protect allies."
The London Times flips out:
"Vladimir Putin could be forgiven for having a celebratory shot of vodka with breakfast this morning at news that President Obama plans to abandon America's missile defence shield in Eastern Europe.
"His implacable opposition to the project has paid off, leaving the Kremlin emboldened in its drive to re-establish a strategic 'sphere of privileged interests' over Russia's former Soviet satellites.
"By trading the loyalty of Poland and the Czech Republic to satisfy Russia's security concerns, the United States is signalling that it no longer contests Moscow's right to assert its interests in Eastern Europe."
And it adds:
"For Mr Putin, the lesson of today's decision is clear. Intransigence pays dividends because the US and the European Union lack the patience or determination to face Moscow down. That is a lesson that send alarm bells ringing in the corridors of power of Russia's former Soviet dominions."
The truth is that the decision to put a missile defense system was both stupid and needlessly provocative. Stupid, because the system doesn't work and because the threat from Iran is nonexistent. And provocative, because it was part of the Bush administration's neo-Cold War effort to bolster and expand NATO, pressure Russia militarily in south and central Asia, back adventurist states such as Georgia, and otherwise poke the Russian bear with sharp sticks. Obama wants cooperation with Russia -- on energy policy, on Iran, on terrorism, and above all on disarmament and de-nuclearization -- and he's willing to put his money where his mouth is.
On Iran, the issue is not whether Russia will join in imposing sanctions on Iran, but whether Russia will join the United States is trying to solve the problem diplomatically. The plain fact is that it will be exceedingly difficult to get Iran to agree to a deal over its uranium enrichment program without Russia's strong diplomatic involvement.
President Obama deserves high praise for this action.
UPDATE From the text of the White House announcement this morning:
"The United States ... will be testing and updating a range of approaches for improving our sensors for missile defense. The new distributed interceptor and sensor architecture also does not require a single, large, fixed European radar that was to be located in the Czech Republic; this approach also uses different interceptor technology than the previous program, removing the need for a single field of 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland. Therefore, the Secretary of Defense recommended that the United States no longer plan to move forward with that architecture. ...
We also welcome Russian cooperation to bring its missile defense capabilities into a broader defense of our common strategic interests."
One of the most intelligent and thoughtful comments on Afghanistan so far comes from Paul Pillar, the former chief analyst for the US intelligence community and a renowned expert on terrorism, who writes in today's Washington Post that the real issue in Afghanistan is: What is a "terror haven"? Pillar's argument ought to be required reading for anyone thinking about what "success" in Afghanistan means, since the chief fall-back argument for anyone who supports a long-term counterinsurgency strategy there is that the United States cannot allow the country to become a safe haven for Al Qaeda.
"The debate has largely overlooked a more basic question: How important to terrorist groups is any physical haven? More to the point: How much does a haven affect the danger of terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, especially the U.S. homeland?"
And he answers his own question:
"The answer to the second question is: not nearly as much as unstated assumptions underlying the current debate seem to suppose."
Instead, he says, would-be terrorists can use globalization and Internet technologies to plan, organize, and train from anywhere. He points out that preparations for 9/11 "took place not in training camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States." And, most important, he says:
"Al-Qaeda's role in that threat is now less one of commander than of ideological lodestar, and for that role a haven is almost meaningless."
Pillar's argument makes a bulls-eye on the central issue for Afghanistan policy going forward. If the US goal there is to create a strong, democratic state with a modern army, a centralized government, and a growing economic infrastructure, then, yes, it's a generational project that will necessarily require a heavy-handed US military presence. But if the US goal is simply to prevent 9/11-style attacks on the United States by Al Qaeda and its allies, then it's hard to argue for a counterinsurgency strategy a la General McChrystal. Earlier this year, President Obama seems to have initially defined US goals in the more limited sense, that is, as an anti-Al Qaeda program. Since then, however, under pressure from the US military and hawkish advisers, Obama's "limited" counterterrorism apporach to Afghanistan has morphed dramatically into a much larger, and more open-ended, counterinsurgency and nation-building approach.
In any case, says Pillar, comparing the unfounded assumptions about Afghanistan-as-terror-haven to the Vietnam-era domino theory:
"The Obama administration and other participants in the debate about expanding the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan can still avoid comparable error. But this would require not merely invoking Sept. 11 and taking for granted that a haven in Afghanistan would mean the difference between repeating and not repeating that horror. It would instead mean presenting a convincing case about how such a haven would significantly increase the terrorist danger to the United States. That case has not yet been made."
Meanwhile, growing doubts about US Afghan policy are coming not only from congressional Democrats, such as Nancy Pelosi and Carl Levin, but from Republican-leaning realists, too. A letter to Obama from a group that might be called "the Project for Another Type of New American Century" -- an ad hoc group that includes representatives from the New America Foundation, the Cato Institute, and other moderate and libertarian-minded thinkers -- says:
"We are concerned that the war in Afghanistan is growing increasingly detached from considerations of length, cost, and consequences. Its rationale is becoming murkier and both domestic and international support for it is waning. Respectfully, we urge you to focus U.S. strategy more clearly on Al Qaeda instead of expanding the mission into an ambitious experiment in state building."
The letter, circulated in part by Steve Clemons' blog, the Washington Note, echoes the point made by Paul Pillar about alleged safe havens:
"The rationale of expanding the mission in order to prevent 'safe havens' for Al Qaeda from emerging is appealing but flawed. Afghanistan, even excluding the non-Pashto areas, is a large, geographically imposing country where it is probably impossible to ensure that no safe havens could exist. Searching for certainty that there are not and will not be safe havens in Afghanistan is quixotic and likely to be extremely costly. Even if some massive effort in that country were somehow able to prevent a safe haven there, dozens of other countries could easily serve the same purpose. Even well-governed modern democracies like Germany have inadvertently provided staging grounds for terrorists. A better strategy would focus on negotiations with moderate Taliban elements, regional diplomacy, and disrupting any large-scale Al Qaeda operations that may emerge."
You can find all the signers of the letter at Clemon's blog posting.
Of course, by signing the letter, Clemons underlines his disagreement with his New America Foundation colleague, Peter Bergen, a principal exponent of the idea that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are in cahoots to reestablish the pre-October 2001 terrorist safe haven in Afghanistan. Bergen is a believer in the "protect the population" theory of counterinsurgency in the Afghan context, though he's skeptical of the idea that the US political system will allow the dispatch of additional troops.
But last month, in response to a piece by Stephen Walt -- one of the signers of the "realist" letter -- who'd criticized the "safe haven myth," Bergen wrote a response for the Foreign Policy AfPak Channel that said, in part:
"If the Taliban did come back to power in Afghanistan, of course they would give safe haven to al Qaeda. ... The idea that Afghanistan is not an ideal place from which to launch anti-American attacks is simply absurd.
"The idea of attacking iconic targets in Washington and New York was first hatched in Afghanistan in 1996; the coordination of the attacks took place in Afghanistan over the next several years; the pilots were given their specific orders about target selection and their duties by the leaders of al Qaeda when they travelled to Afghanistan in 1999, and all 15 of the ‘muscle' hijackers passed through al Qaeda's Afghan training camps."
So Bergen backs Obama's escalation strategy for Afghanistan. He's not alone. It's still the consensus view among national security specialists in Washington, at the Pentaton, among thinktanks (including those who've been co-opted into being part of McChrystal's "advisers' group"). But it's fast losing political support.