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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

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US-Iran Talks Start October 1

The hawks, neoconservatives, and Israeli hardliners are squealing, but the US and Iran are set to talk. The talks will begin October 1, among Iran and the P5 + 1, the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany.

Mohammed ElBaradei, the outgoing head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was ebullient, even as he urged Iran to "engage substantively with the agency," saying:

"Addressing the concerns of the international community about Iran's future intentions is primarily a matter of confidence-building, which can only be achieved through dialogue. I therefore welcome the offer of the US to initiate a dialogue with Iran, without preconditions and on the basis of mutual respect."

That's exactly the right tone and message, and it underscores that President Obama is doing precisely what he campaigned on, namely, to open a dialogue with Iran. It's an effort that began with his comments on Iran during his inaugural address, his videotaped Nowruz message to Iran last winter, a pair of quiet messages to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Leader, and Obama's careful and balanced response to the post-election crisis over the summer. Once started, the talks aren't likely to have a swift conclusion, but the very fact that they're taking place will make it impossible for hawks to argue successfully either for harsh, "crippling" sanctions on Iran or for a military attack.

That didn't stop Bibi Netanyahu, for one, from trying. Speaking to Israel's foreign affairs and defense committee today, the Israeli leader said:

"I believe that now is the time to start harsh sanctions against Iran -- if not now then when? These harsh sanctions can be effective. I believe that the international community can act effectively. The Iranian regime is weak, the Iranian people would not rally around the regime if they felt for the first time that there was a danger to their regime -- and this would be a new situation."

Netanyahu's belief in sanctions, harsh measures, and regime change was echoed by John Hannah, the former top aide to Vice President Cheney, who wrote an op-ed criticizing Obama for taking regime change off the table in dealing with Iran. Hannah utterly ignored the fact that eight years of anti-Iran, pro-regime change bombast from the Bush-Cheney administration did nothing but strengthen Iran's hawks, while Obama's softer, dialogue-centered approach to Iran helped boost the power of the reformists and their allies in Iranian politics. Indeed, it was precisely Obama's less belligerent tone that confused the Iranian hardliners, emboldened the liberals, reformists and pragmatists in Iran, and therefore did more to create the conditions for "regime change" than anything that Bush, Cheney, and Hannah did.

Nevertheless, here's Hannah:

"It is ironic, of course, that just as the Obama administration seemed prepared to write off regime change forever, the Iranian people have made it a distinct possibility. It would be tragic indeed if the United States took steps to bolster the staying power of Iran's dictatorship at precisely the moment when so many Iranians appear prepared to risk everything to be rid of it. It would also seem strategically shortsighted to risk throwing this regime a lifeline."

Hannah adds that whatever happens in the talks, Obama had better be careful not to undermine the possibility that the regime might collapse. "However engagement now unfolds, Obama should do nothing to undermine this historic opportunity."

Other, less temperate hawks have forthrightly condemned Iran's offer to negotiate. The Weekly Standard ridiculed Iran's five-page statement on opening negotiations:

"The Iranian response is a bad joke. It makes a complete mockery of the situation."

And the churlish Washington Post, in an editorial written before the US agreed to start talks with Iran, huffed that Iran's offer to talk was a "non-response" and complained that so far Obama has had no results:

"President Obama's offer of direct diplomacy evidently has produced no change in the stance taken by Iran during the George W. Bush administration, when Tehran proposed discussing everything from stability in the Balkans to the development of Latin America with the United States and its allies -- but refused to consider even a temporary shutdown of its centrifuges."

And the Post again brought up the importance of getting "tough" with Iran and pushing for sanctions, a la Netanyahu, even though neither Russia nor China will have anything to do with more sanctions. (The Europeans don't really want more sanctions either, though they say they do. And Venezuela has offered to export whatever gasoline Iran needs if, in fact, the United States tries to impose a cut-off of refined petroleum products imported by Iran.)

We can only hope, now, that the United States and the rest of the P5 + 1 will table an offer to Iran to allow Tehran to maintain its uranium enrichment program, on its own soil, combined with a system of stronger international inspections. That's the end game: not regime change, not Big Bad Wolf threats of military action, not Hillary Clinton-style "crippling sanctions," not an Iran without uranium enrichment -- but an Iran that is ushered into the age of peaceful use of nuclear energy, including enrichment, in exchange for a comprehensive settlement.

WTOP Yellow Journalism on Iran-Venezuela

Earlier this week, I lambasted Robert Morgenthau for his alarmist, fear-mongering speech at the Brookings Institution and op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, in which he suggested darkly that Iran and Venezuela were engaged in cooperation on nuclear weapons and that the two countries were secretly building ominous factories in remote areas of Venezuela. He seemed to imply a 2009 version of the Cuban missile crisis is in the works, and like some modern-day Paul Revere, he's riding to the rescue.

In the blog entry, I mentioned that Morgenthau's thesis was transmitted, in even more simplistic and alarmist form, over WTOP radio in Washington, D.C., by J.J. Green, the station's national security correspondent. After seeing my blog posting, Green helpfully sent me an audio of the broadcast, which I've transcribed below. In my mind, it's a stunning example of bad journalism. As you will see, if you bother to read it, not once do Green or the WTOP anchors express an ounce of skepticism about Morgenthau's thesis, nor do they raise an single question about it. They simply regurgitate what Morgenthau said, as if the Manhattan D.A.'s tendentious and ideologically driven analysis is the Word of God. The transcript, in italics, follows below, along with my comments:

ANCHOR 1: There's an East-West connection that's raising alarm bells in the US because of who the players are and what they might be up to. It's about Iran and Venezuela, two countries with half a century of diplomatic ties, but now those ties appear to be morphing into something more cohesive, more directed, and more threatening.

Notice how the anchor says, right up front, that the Iran-Venezuela ties are "threatening," not even bothering to mention that it's Morgenthau's opinion, not fact.

ANCHOR 2: And joining us with insights into Iran's connections in Latin America, WTOP's National Security Correspondent, J.J. Green. And J.J., this issue got a lot of attention because yesterday, Manhattan's legendary district attorney, Robert Morgenthau, talked about it in a speech at the Brookings Institution. What is he suggesting here?

A nice touch, that "legendary." Meaning, don't question what he says.

JJ GREEN: He's suggesting that we should not sleep on Iran and Venezuela. We shouldn't think that they're just exercising their geopolitical rights to get together and talk business and make business and make deals. What he's saying is, that Iran and Venezuela hate the U.S., the U.S. needs to look very carefully at their financial connections, and even more carefully at what's going on out in the remote areas of Venezuela, where there've been construction projects that no one seems to really know what's going on, and he's also saying that we need to keep an eye on what's happening between Iran and Venezuela when it comes to nuclear weapons technology and things that are used to facilitate that.

Amazing. All innuendo. They "hate" the US, there are construction projects where no one knows what's going on, and it could involve "nuclear weapons technology"! Green ignores the fact that neither Iran nor Venezuela have nuclear "weapons" technology, although Iran does have a carefully monitored nuclear enrichment program that produced low-enriched uranium fuel.

ANCHOR 1: Well, in fact, Morgenthau says that he thinks that Venezuela is helping to finance and bankroll Iran secretly to help them get the money to help them continue develop nuclear weapons.

This point is especially absurd. Iran has lots of oil revenue, more than Venezuela in fact, and it certainly doesn't need Caracas' money to "develop nuclear weapons," if indeed it wanted to. Worse, the anchor says that Iran is building nuclear weapons as if it's a fact, when even the US intelligence community said that Iran halted its weapons program in 2003. Responding to this assertion, Green answers, inexplicably, with an utter non sequitur about "narco-trafficking.".

JJGREEN: Narco-trafficking is the key. Within the next couple of weeks I can guarantee that you will hear a lot more about this whole problem in Latin America. Now the big problem in Latin America is its connection to the FARC, Colombia's, uh, guerrilla movement. Uh, and there is evidence in a number of places, and Mr. Morgenthau points this out in his speech, including evidence in the GAO, that Venezuela has pretty close relations with the FARC, including giving them weapons, etc. This money is being used in part, is being laundered by banks that Iran has set up in that country, banks that can't be monitored, banks that we know have had suspicious ties to other financial dealings around the world, but it all goes back to Tehran. So what he's saying, very clearly, is that this is no time to pretend that Iran and Venezuela are not haters of the U.S.

A pastiche of complete nonsense. Green implies that laundered drug money is helping Iran build a nuclear bomb? That is so stupid and wrong that it boggles the mind.

ANCHOR 2: Do we have any indication of what the U.S. is doing to perhaps monitor the situation and try to stop some of this stuff from going on?

JJ GREEN Well, the Israelis are doing a lot. And as you can almost imagine, there's been a lot of angst and anxiety in Israel because of Iran's nuclear weapons program. And they are talking regularly about what to do about Iran. Let's make no mistake about it: Venezuela does not want a confrontation with the United States. Iran does not want one with the U.S. But together they feel like there's strength in numbers and maybe they'll find a way to beat up on the U.S. The bottom line on this is, the U.S. and its allies showing these countries that, look, we're watching you, we're keeping our eyes on you, and we have options that may include attacks, options that may include some of your neighbors turning a cold shoulder to you, and the world financial community shutting you out. And don't discount these possibilities.

Where to begin? Yes, we know there is "angst and anxiety" in Israel over Iran's nuclear program. But Green seems to relish delivering his dark warning that the US might "attack" Iran and Venezuela ("options that may include attacks") while simultaneously suggesting that Israel may take care of it for us. All of this without a shred of evidence that there is anything to this story at all! Does Green bother to call any experts on Iran or Venezuela or the nuclear issue to get a qualified or contrary or dissenting view about Morgenthau's evidence-free assertions? No. Does he raise any doubts about any of this? No--he treats it as gospel. Does Green bother to note the catastrophic consequences of an attack on Iran, involving the US in a third war in between the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan? Of course not.

ANCHOR 1: All right, J.J. I'm sure we'll be checking in on you again on this.

God forbid.

Walter Cronkite must be spinning in his grave. Unless, that is, he is secretly buried in some remote area of Venezuela's rain forest.

Door Open for Iran Talks

The drums of war are beating again over Iran, but sadly it's a representative of the Obama administration who wielded the heaviest drumstick.

Glyn Davies, the US representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), delivered what can only be called a one-sided and alarmist opinion about Iran's ongoing nuclear enrichment program:

"This ongoing enrichment activity ... moves Iran closer to a dangerous and destabilizing possible breakout capacity. Taken in connection with Iran's refusal to engage with the IAEA regarding its past nuclear warhead-related work, we have serious concerns that Iran is deliberately attempting, at a minimum, to preserve a nuclear weapons option."

And the media piled on. Even though there was nothing new -- the IAEA carefully monitors Iran's enrichment efforts, and it keeps precise track of how much low-enriched uranium Iran has accumulated -- the remarks from Davies triggered worrisome headlines across the board, from "US very concerned about Iran's nuclear program" in the Washington Post to "Iran Rejects Compromise Over Its Nuclear Program" in the Wall Street Journal to "U.S. Says Iran Could Expedite Nuclear Bomb" in the New York Times.

Of all the stories, the Times piece -- by William Broad, Mark Mazzetti, and David E. Sanger -- was the most detailed. But it added to the alarm, writing in its first paragraph:

"American intelligence agencies have concluded in recent months that Iran has created enough nuclear fuel to make a rapid, if risky, sprint for a nuclear weapon."

But then balancing that with:

"But new intelligence reports delivered to the White House say that the country has deliberately stopped short of the critical last steps to make a bomb."

Way, way down in the Times story, and barely mentioned in the breathless coverage of the Iranian nuclear issue generally, is this important caveat:

"To create a bomb it would have to convert its existing stockpile of low-enriched uranium into bomb-grade material. International inspectors, who visit Natanz regularly, would presumably raise alarms. Iran would also have to produce or buy a working weapons design, complete with triggering devices, and make it small enough to fit in one of its missiles."

In all of the hubbub over Iran's nuclear program, there are several indisputable facts: (1) Iran's low-enriched uranium (LEU) is of no use at all for building a bomb; (2) in order to make a bomb, Iran would have to process all of its LEU into weapons-grade, high-enriched uranium, a not-so-easy thing to do; (3) even so, Iran only has enough LEU for a single bomb, even it could process it into HEU, and one bomb does not an arsenal make, especially since Iran would have to test its weapon, thereby using it all up; (4) any moves to produce HEU, as the Times correctly notes, would immediately be noticed by the IAEA inspectors, setting off alarms; (5) Iran probably doesn't have the know-how at present to construct a working nuclear weapon, even if it acquired enough HEU; and (6) Iran doesn't have a missile system capable of delivering a bomb. That doesn't mean that President Ahmadinejad and some of his cohorts in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps wouldn't dearly love to have a bomb, but it does mean that the world community, including the IAEA and the P5 + 1 group of negotiating countries has plenty of time to work out a diplomatic solution to the impasse.

Such a solution, of course, would almost definitely have to concede to Iran the right to enrich uranium, on its own soil and independently, in exchange for transparency and a strengthened regime of international inspections. In addition, I was told in Tehran by Iranian insiders in June, Iran might be willing to scale back its enrichment program, reducing the number of centrifuges it's spinning (perhaps from 4,000 to 1,000), voluntarily, in the context of a deal. So far, however, the United States has not, repeat not, acknowledged Iran's inherent right to an enrichment program, under appropriate safeguards. Yesterday, Iran put on the table its own position concerning the impasse. So far, the content of Iran's proposal isn't known, but it's widely assumed that Iran is making no concessions in advance. But neither is the United States. It's long past time that President Obama -- as Senator John Kerry has already done -- forthrightly admits that Iran has the right to enrich uranium. (So far, Obama has said that Iran has the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy, but he has been silent on enrichment.)

Meanwhile, in advance of the September showdown with Iran, the hawks are taking wing. In a short op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, three representatives of the Bipartisan Policy Center, warned about the "shortening nuclear timetable" and openly suggested that the United States ought to consider war against Iran:

"We understand the reluctance of Americans to consider confronting the Iranian nuclear threat, given their weariness from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and continued economic hardships. But after eight months of diplomatic overtures, numerous rebuffs and a brutal crackdown on its own people, Tehran's willingness to negotiate in good faith is subject to considerable doubt . Leadership will be critical, and it will require making hard, even unpopular, choices to protect the interests of our country."

To its credit, and despite the bombast from its IAEA diplomat, the Obama administration is still willing to talk to Iran. And an editorial in the Los Angeles Times this week emphasized that talking just might work. It concluded:

"Some officials in Tehran have said the government is willing to talk about some global and regional issues, but not about its nuclear program. This is worrisome but should not be used as an obstacle to negotiations. Without accepting Iran's preconditions -- or imposing its own, for that matter -- the U.S. and its partners should take the opportunity to sit down and talk. The two sides have to get to the table if they ever hope to put their cards on it.

"It would be naive to assume that negotiations are likely to be quick or easy. The likelihood of success is further clouded by the recent political upheaval in Iran, although it's unclear whether that makes Tehran more likely to negotiate in order to reduce its isolation, or less likely to make concessions because it is wounded and weak. All the more reason to start negotiating, if only to learn.

"The question that naturally follows is what to do if talks fail. While reluctant to endorse measures that would hurt average Iranians or reunite the populace in an anti-American fury, this page recognizes that tough sanctions would be the obvious next step. We also realize that if China and Russia are ever going to agree to such a thing, it will be only after a serious effort to negotiate has been made.

"So now is the time to try, without threatening consequences for failure before the two sides even sit down."

The paper makes the essential point that any talks won't be "quick or easy," meaning that all the talk from Hillary Clinton about "crippling sanctions" and from Obama about short-term deadlines for talks to succeed ought to be tossed out the window.

Robert Morgenthau's Black Propaganda

Later this week, I'll write something more detailed about the Iranian nuclear issue. It's one that doesn't lend itself to rational dialogue all the time, but today's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Robert Morgenthau, adapted from a speech he delivered at the Brookings Institution, is so far over the top that it boggles the mind.

And, apparently, Morgenthau has lost his-- his mind, that is. The intrepid Manhattan D.A. finds a new Cuban missile crisis brewing. This time, Venezuela is playing the role of Cuba, says Morgenthau, and Iran is taking on the part of Russia.

The title of the piece is: "The Emerging Axis of Iran and Venezuela." It's both creepy and conspiratorial, with almost no facts, and full of rhetoric and dark insinuations. He makes this shocking accusation:

"My office has been told that that over the past three years a number of Iranian-owned and controlled factories have sprung up in remote and undeveloped parts of Venezuela--ideal locations for the illicit production of weapons."

Get that? "My office has been told." By whom? What, exactly, did they say? Are they making weapons--or not? In the very next sentence, Morgenthau backpedals, sort of:

"Evidence of the type of activity conducted inside the factories is limited. But we should be concerned."

After blathering about smuggling, narco-trafficking, and Iranian financial dealings -- none of which has anything at all to do his big finale, even if true -- Morgenthau warns darkly:

"That means two of the world's most dangerous regimes, the self-described 'axis of unity,' will be acting together in our backyard on the development of nuclear and missile technology."


"The Iranian nuclear and long-range missile threats, and creeping Iranian influence in the Western Hemisphere, cannot be overlooked."

This is pure black propaganda. Sadly, it's getting picked up. This afternoon, on WTOP radio in Washington, a breathless report by the radio station's alleged "national security correspondent," someone called J.J. Green, idiotically parroted Morgenthau's baseless warning, hyping it even further and suggesting that the Israelis might take care of the problem for us. (If anyone can get a transcript of the broadcast, please send it to me and I will post it here.)

Obama Readies Afghan Escalation

Don't look for surprises from President Obama on Afghanistan. During the two year campaign, and since taking office, he's been consistent. For Obama, Afghanistan is the right war, and he's staked his presidency on winning it. In order to placate the liberal-left and its allies in Congress, Obama is putting out the word (from the National Security Council) that he's willing to listen to all points of view, including those who believe that it's time to cut and run. Listen, he will. Cut and run, he won't.

The big papers today are full of showdown talk. "US Buildup: A Necessity?" headlines the New York Times, citing George Will-style alternatives such as fighting Al Qaeda long distance, via intelligence, Predator drones, and US special forces. The Times likens the conflict to a "quagmire with a muddled mission," but it then cites a litany of experts from the terrorism-industrial complex explaining why the US can't scale back its commitment. The Washington Post headlines Afghanistan as a "pivotal moment" for Obama. But after raising questions about US strategy, the Post answers them, too, suggesting that the US can't back down because of "the stakes involved and the investment already made." Also in the Post, columnist Anne Applebaum stresses the importance of the war, adding: "Obama needs to cajole and convince [and] campaign, in other words, and campaign hard."

A passel of neoconservatives, under the leadership of the Foreign Policy Initiative -- a group founded earlier this year as a reconstituted version of the Committee on the Present Danger and the Project for a New American Century -- has written to Obama urging him to stand fast. It's ironic, since unlike 2001-2004, when they had plenty of co-thinkers inside government, this time the neocons are on the outside looking in, with few if any friends inside the White House. But that doesn't stop them from providing free advice, calling on the president to "fully resource" the war, i.e., to escalate it. In its letter, the FPI crowd, including Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, warns:

Since the announcement of your administration's new strategy, we have been troubled by calls for a drawdown of American forces in Afghanistan and a growing sense of defeatism about the war.

And they add:

There is no middle course. Incrementally committing fewer troops than required would be a grave mistake and may well lead to American defeat. We will not support half-measures that repeat the errors of the past.

There is, of course, a middle course, and that's the path that Obama (unfortunately) is likely to take. According to media accounts, General McChrystal is recommending a low-end boost of troops (circa 10,000 - 15,000) and a high-end increase of 45,000, while putting a Goldilocks middle course of an additional 25,000 US forces smack dab in the center. I'd consider it a foregone conclusion that Obama will select the middle course, leading the liberal-left to despair and angering the far right. (Put me in the despair category.)

It's health care week, so don't expect the White House to tip its hand just yet on the war. But they've asked for $68 billion for 2010 for the Afghanistan conflict (compared to $61 billion for the winding-down war in Iraq), and in his recent speeches Obama has described Afghanistan as a necessary war in defense of core US national security interests.

As an example of how absurdly apocalyptic the pro-war voices are, consider Bret Stephens in today's Wall Street Journal, who describes the war in Afghanistan as a civilizational turning point akin to the fall of the Roman Empire:

So George Will has noticed that Afghanistan is a backward place ill-suited to nation-building, and Nicholas Kristof thinks that war is a tricky, dirty business, and Tom Friedman is hedging his bets on yet another conflict he once supported but which now disturbs his moral equilibrium. Thus do three paladins of the right, left and center combine to erode support for a war that, if lost, would be to the United States roughly what the battle of Adrianople in 378 A.D. --you can look it up--was to the Roman Empire. Things did not go well for Western civilization for 1,100 or so years thereafter.

Overstated? I don't think so.

Hear that? Pull out of Afghanistan and face a thousand years of darkness.

Afghan Apocalypse, Part II

This is the second of two accounts of thinktank evaluations of the war in Afghanistan. The first was a report from the Brookings Institution on Tuesday. Today, the Heritage Foundation.

The highlight of Thursday's event at the Heritage Foundation was analyst Marvin Weinbaum's scathing review of the Afghan elections. Weinbaum, who served as a member of Barack Obama's advisory task force on Afghanistan, is a former analyst for the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). His report on the election, where he served as an observer during the vote, contrasted sharply with the happy talk from the administration and from official and semi-official Afghan agencies who presented the vote as an inspiring exercise in democracy.

It wasn't.

Weinbaum warned that the election was so grievously flawed that it may serve to further de-legitimize the regime of President Karzai. Turnout was abysmally low, with only about one-third of Afghans going to the polls, and in some districts -- especially in the Pashtun-dominated south -- perhaps between 5 and 15 percent of people voted, he said. On top of that, Weinbaum said, there is evidence of widespread fraud, and virtually all of the main opposition candidates are charging that the election was rigged. More than a thousand specific complaints have been lodged already, he said, adding that he himself saw properly marked ballots for opposition candidates that had been destroyed and left scattered along a roadside. He suggested that it's likely that evidence of fraud and vote-rigging will emerge in the coming weeks, helping to convince Afghans that the election was illegitimate.

On election day, Weinbaum noted, there were hundreds of violent attacks on polling places across the country, yet most of them went unreported because the Afghan government had insisted that the media ignore them. Observers, like himself, observed the vote almost entirely in relatively secure areas, whereas problems occurred elsewhere. He suggested that large-scale stuffing of ballot boxes and manipulation of the tallying of votes occurred.

As a result, he said, "Our entire strategy may be at stake here." Asked Weinbaum: "How can we expect to partner with a government de-legitimized by the very process by which it came to power?" He zinged the Obama administration for having lauded the electoral process, a wrong-headed judgment that will only embarrass the White House when the full details of the rigged nature of the election emerge.

A key point of the Heritage Foundation presenters, including Weinbaum, is that it is critical for the White House to shore up declining political support for the war -- which is already opposed by a majority of Americans, who've told pollsters the war isn't worth fighting. So the White House is caught between two bad options: if it continues to gloss over problems like the fraudulent election, it will develop a Vietnam-like credibility gap as the truth becomes clear. But if Obama tells the truth, an American public already soured on a hopeless war against a vaguely defined enemy ten thousand miles away, with rising US casualties and the prospect of spending hundreds of billions of dollars, is very likely to decide that it's long past time to get out.

The four panelists at the event -- Weinbaum, General David Barno, Lisa Curtis, and David Isby -- all agreed that getting out of Afghanistan would be a first-order catastrophe, but they didn't prove it to me. In fact, it's a difficult case to make. Their argument was: if we leave, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and their jihadist allies will gain influence across the region, from Afghanistan and Pakistan to central Asia and the Persian Gulf. Again, as in Vietnam, all the panelists seemed content to make Vietnam-era, domino-theory arguments that the entirety of the Muslim world is at stake. To me, that's a patently absurd argument.

Here's the reality: First, if we leave Afghanistan, the Taliban may or may not take over. Most of the Afghan population hates the Taliban, and the non-Pashtun minorities won't roll over and accept a Taliban victory even if we aren't there to fight alongside them. Second, even if the Taliban do take over, or set up a statelet in the south (consolidating areas already under their control), they may or may not invite Al Qaeda to join them. Al Qaeda already has a base, in Pakistan, and so far they've been unable to use that base to attack much of anything outside the war zone. Besides, the Taliban isn't the same thing as Al Qaeda, and they may find it politic not to re-ally with Osama bin Laden's terrorist band. And third, Taliban-style Islam and Al Qaeda-style terrorism is fast losing support among Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia, and there's zero evidence that the re-establishment of a Taliban state in Afghanistan would do much, if anything, to excite Muslims. In fact, it's easier to make the argument that radical Muslim extremists are energized by the US presence in Afghanistan and the concomitant jihad, and that a US withdrawal from Afghanistan would calm passions, not inflame them.

Those facts didn't prevent the team at Heritage -- like the team at Brookings two days ago -- from issuing dire warnings about cataclysms to come if the US doesn't prevail.

General Barno, who commanded US forces in Afghanistan from 2003-2005, stressed in his presentation the importance of domestic US propaganda for the war, saying that a key to the success of the US enterprise in Afghanistan is to "rebuild popular support" for a sustained US effort. Barno's main argument was that the Taliban's strategy is to "run out the clock" -- yes, he used a football analogy! In other words, the Taliban expect that US political support for the war will force a US withdrawal before we can "succeed." (I wanted to ask him if he was aware that precisely the same analogy was used in Vietnam, that the Viet Cong and Hanoi wanted to outlast the US invasion. How ironic.) Okay so far, I guess: but then Barno moved dangerously close to the Republican right's line that anyone who doesn't support the stay-the-quagmire policy is committing treason. "The idea of an exit strategy," said Barno, "plays into the hands of the Taliban strategy." That, to me, is an outrageous affront, as if differing political views about the war are "playing into the hands of the Taliban." Barno should be ashamed oh himself! But he's not. He really believes this crap.

Similar nonsense came from Lisa Curtis, a former Capitol Hill aide now with Heritage, who said that statements about "timelines" -- presumably referring to courageous Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who's challenging Democratic party groupthink -- "encourage the Taliban." Better get on board with our plan, say Barno and Curtis, or you're encouraging the Taliban. (Needless to say, it was the far right, the neoconservatives, and the Reaganauts who spent billions of dollars to support the Islamist nutcases in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Today, they're very upset about acid-in-the-face, burka-imposing, Koran-thumping Talibans. But a generation ago, these very same acid-in-the-face, burka-imposing, Koran-thumping thugs were our anti-Soviet freedom fighters. No apologies were heard at Heritage.)

Comic relief at the Heritage Foundation event was provided by David Isby, a self-described "military expert" and apparent loony right-winger. His two gems: (1) "We need a relationship with Afghanistan like that we have with Israel." And (2) "Every mosque in Afghanistan on Friday preaches propaganda for the enemy." Leaving aside his idiotic comment No, 1, and taking up the second idiotic comment, Isby seems to believe that the problem in Afghanistan is that the people who live there are Muslims. He proposed some cockamamie idea about how America could help reinvent Islam in Afghanistan -- a proposal that, if the Taliban got ahold of it, would adorn every recruiting poster they print. (I know that they don't actually produce recruiting posters. It's a metaphor.)

Afghanistan Apocalypse

Yesterday afternoon at the Brookings Institution, four analysts portrayed a bleak and terrifying vision of the current state of affairs in Afghanistan in the wake of the presidential election. All four were hawkish, reflecting a growing consensus in the Washington establishment that the Afghanistan war is only just beginning.

Their conclusions: (1) A significant escalation of the war will be necessary to avoid utter defeat. (2) Even if tens of thousands of troops are added to the US occupation, it won't be possible to determine if the US/NATO effort is succeeding until eighteen months later. (3) Even if the United States turns the tide in Afghanistan, no significant drawdown of US forces will take place until five years have passed.

The experts at the panel were Bruce Riedel, a 30-year CIA veteran and adviser to four presidents, who chaired President Obama's Afghan task force; Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert and adviser to General David Petraeus; Tony Cordesman, a conservative military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and Kim Kagan, head of the Institute for the Study of War.

Not a single panelist questioned the goals, purpose or objectives of the Afghan war. Not one said anything about a political solution to the war, about negotiations, or about diplomacy. Not one questioned the viability of an open-ended commitment to the war. And none of them had any doubts about the strategic necessity of defeating the Taliban and its allies. Although the growing political opposition to the war was referenced in passing -- more than half of Americans say the the war isn't worth fighting, and liberal-left members of Congress are beginning to raise objections -- the panel seemed to believe that President Obama can and must ignore politics and push to expand the war when General McChrystal, as expected, recommends an increase in the the level of US forces once again. O'Hanlon, a well-connected, ultra-hawkish Democrat who backed the war in Iraq, said that the chances that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi will lead congressional opposition to the war in Afghanistan in 2009-2010 are zero. "Congress will not pull the rug out from under Barack Obama, before the mid-term elections," he asserted, calling the very idea "unthinkable" and "political suicide."

O'Hanlon, who had just returned from Afghanistan, acknowledged that McChrystal is "fully aware that, right now, America is not winning this war." But he gently scolded Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs, for saying that the war is "deteriorating." If Mullen goes around saying that in public, even after the addition of 21,000 US troops in 2009, he makes it harder to convince Americans that the war is winnable. O'Hanlon strongly favors adding yet more troops, but he didn't provide numbers on how many forces the US will need ultimately. If the United States can turn things around, "In four to five years we will be able to substantially downsize."

The bleakest account of the war came from Cordesman, Washington's resident Cassandra. He delivered a blistering assessment of the Bush administration's complete failure to pursue the Afghan war, with "almost no coherence in strategy" for seven years. President Bush, he said, didn't properly "resource" (i.e., fund) the war, kept troop levels far too low, and failed to build the Afghan National Army (ANA). In addition, he said, US intelligence was extremely poor. The Bush administration and the Pentagon lied about how the war was going, saying, for instance, that only 13 out of 364 Afghan districts were threatened by the Taliban, when if fact nearly half of the country was under siege. And he said that, even under McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry, a former military commander, coordination between the military command and the embassy is "extremely poor."

Cordesman warned that McChrystal and the NATO/ISAF command is under pressure from the White House and the National Security Council not to increase troops levels, and he warned that if "politically correct" limitations are imposed on the US war effort, "I believe we will lose this war." He blasted General James Jones, the national security adviser, for expressing White House opposition to additional troops during a meeting with McChrystal at which Bob Woodward of the Washington Post was present. Of the four panelists, Cordesman was the only one who suggested that Obama and the NSC might resist McChrystal's request for additional forces.

Riedel presented a series of alternative outcomes of the presidential election, which may or may not result in a second-round runoff election in October. He seemed gloomy about the overall election results, noting that overall turnout was held to 30 to 40 percent, and that in some provinces turnout would be far less, below 20 percent. In some areas, less than 5 percent of women voted at all, he said. And he said that President Karzai, if he wins, will emerge even more dependent than before on warlords. Indeed, amid charges of widespread fraud being leveled by leading opposition candidates, general apathy and disaffection about the vote from the majority Pashtun population, and effective Taliban-led intimidation, the election may not create any sense of legitimacy for the next government. (According to Cordesman, "Regardless of who wins, we will not have people capable of governing the country.")

But Riedel's more apocalyptic point came in response to a questioner who wondered why the war is important. If we lose in Afghanistan, or if we withdraw, it will trigger a victorious war dance throughout the Muslim world by radicals and militants, he said. Riedel portrayed the stakes in the war as nothing less than dealing a fatal blow to jihadism. "The triumph of jihadism, in driving NATO out of Afghanistan, will resonate throughout the Muslim world," he said, comparing it to the belief among many Al Qaeda and Taliban types that the defeat of the USSR in Afghanistan in the 1980s led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nowhere did Riedel suggest that there is a middle ground between crushing the Taliban and an outright Taliban victory over the United States, say, by reaching a political solution brokered by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other outside parties with large sections of the Taliban leadership. Nor did any of the panelists suggest that it's possible to split Al Qaeda and the most extreme elements of the anti-Western forces in Afghanistan-Pakistan away from other Islamists, such as the Taliban's core leadership and guerrilla chieftains such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former US and CIA ally in the 1980s, who is now a key ally of the Taliban.

Martin Indyk, who runs foreign policy for Brookings, asked Riedel if reality, so far, clashed with the plan that he helped draw up for Obama earlier this year. No, said Riedel. He said that Obama had inherited a disaster in Afghanistan from the Bush administration."Trying to turn that around overnight is an illusion," he said. (He failed to note that in trying to turn it around, Obama is turning it in the wrong direction, i.e., toward escalation rather than de-escalation.) "Anyone who thinks that in 12 to 18 months we're going to be anywhere close to victory is living in a fantasy," Riedel said. He did leave open the possibility that the conflict is now unwinnable, and that the US escalation is "too little, too late." But, like the rest of the panelists, Riedel suggested that there is no alternative to victory.

Sadly, like Richard Holbrooke, who two weeks ago told a Washington audience that he can't define victory, none of the panelists bothered to explain what victory might look like either -- only that it will take a decade or more to get there.

'Iraq Will Be A Colony of Iran'

Iraq's Shiite religious parties, most with ties to Iran, have reestablished a political bloc called the Iraqi National Alliance. Among its founders are Ahmad Chalabi, the revered darling of US neoconservatives such as Richard Perle and Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute; Muqtada al-Sadr, the brooding, mercurial mullah who has mysteriously retreated to Qom, Iran's religious capital, for quick-study lessons on how to become an ayatollah; and, of course, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, one of the founders of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which has changed its name but not its spots. SCIRI, the anchor of the new coalition, is now called the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), but it still acts as an arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which founded it in 1982, and its paramilitary Badr Brigade -- also a part of the new Iraqi alliance -- is a terrorist unit that operates pro-Iran death squads in Iraq.

Let's sort this out.

First of all, although Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has so far opted not to join the pan-Shiite religious alliance, American Pollyannas who see Maliki as a nationalist, pro-American ally are wrong. Like the new INA alliance, Maliki is in thrall to the Iranians, too, only slightly less so. His secretive, cult-like Dawa Party -- which has split and split again -- provides nearly all of his inner-circle allies and advisers, and according to Iraqi sources Maliki is heavily vested in ties to Iran and its intelligence services. He shrewdly, though unconvincingly, positioned himself and his new party, State of Law, as a pro-unity, nationalist party during the January provincial elections, but although Maliki tried to find allies among secular Iraqis, religious Sunnis, and Kurds, nearly all of his votes came from Arab Shiites. He got votes from Iraqis who were unhappy with their country's religious-right drift and who rejected ISCI and its allies, in part by lavishing patronage to newly created tribal councils in the Shiite-majority provinces. As a result, Maliki has been riding high of late, and a well-placed former Iraqi official told me that Maliki felt strong enough to tell the founders of the Iraqi National Alliance that he'd refuse to join unless they let him run the show, with a guarantee that he'd be reelected as prime minister if the Alliance wins a majority in the January, 2010, election. Maliki may or may not have overestimated his strength, but in any case he may decide to join the Alliance at a later date -- or, alternately, he might join them after the election in a coalition government. In either case, Iran will be the big winner, especially as US forces move out.

A remarkable piece by David Ignatius in the Washington Post describes how, behind the scenes, Iran is using its intelligence service and its ties to Maliki to increase its influence:

"Iran's links with Maliki are so close, said this Iraqi intelligence source, that the prime minister uses an Iranian jet with an Iranian crew for his official travel. The Iranians are said to have sent Maliki an offer to help his Dawa Party win at least 49 seats in January's parliamentary elections if Maliki will make changes in his government that Iran wants."

According to Ignatius, forensic evidence from last week's truck bombings in Baghdad reveals that Iran or its agents may have been behind the devastating attacks that blew a hole in downtown Baghdad last week:

"Forensic evidence points to a possible Iranian role, according to an Iraqi intelligence source, [who] said that signatures of the C-4 explosive residues that have been found at the bomb sites are similar to those of Iranian-made explosives that have been captured in Kut, Nasiriyah, Basra and other Iraqi cities since 2006."

Ignatius also reports that Gen. Mohammad Shalwani, the head of Iraq's intelligence service, quit last week, "because of what he viewed as Maliki's attempts to undermine his service and allow Iranian spies to operate freely." As a result, key members of the intelligence service are "fleeing for safety in Jordan, Egypt and Syria -- fearing that they will be targets of Iranian hit teams if they remain in Iraq." (Note: the Iraqi intelligence service, largely established by the US CIA after the invasion, built a professional cadre of spies and intelligence officers, but it was undermined by parallel intelligence services created by Maliki, with Iran's assistance.)

The new Iraqi National Alliance is designed to replace the old United Iraqi Alliance, the bloc of Shiite religious parties that emerged as the dominant vote-getter in the 2005 parliamentary elections. (The UIA was assembled with the blessing of crusty old Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Najaf, the bearded mullah who decided that Iraq's religious Shiites ought to run together. So far, Sistani has shown the good sense to stay out of politics this time around, but my guess is that he's quite busy behind the scenes trying to mend fences between Maliki and the new alliance.)

Not surprisingly, the new alliance has committed itself to upholding the primacy of the Shiite religious leaders of Najaf and it has included in its platform various conservative, moralistic planks that would warm the hearts of the American Christian right and other preachers like Bill Bennett. And, of course, it has declared that it will "not establish relations with the Zionist entity." (That would be Israel.)

Notably, the two most powerful leaders of the Alliance are in Iran: Sadr, who's in Qom, and Hakim, stricken with cancer and being treated in a Tehran hospital. It's important to note that top Iranian officials, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Leader, have been pushing hard (and openly) to reconstitute the Shiite religious alliance in Iraq for the 2010 elections. Hakim's condition has lately taken a turn for the worse, but his family is still the most powerful force inside ISCI and, now, the Alliance, and his son Ammar al-Hakim may emerge as ISCI's official new leader. If Ignatius is right, and the Iranian agents or their allies were responsible for the truck bombs that devastated the Iraqi foreign ministry and the finance ministry last week, then perhaps that was a not-so-subtle warning to Maliki. In any case, the bombings have weakened Maliki at a critical moment, shredding his image as a law-n-order prime minister and making him look ridiculous for having asserted too quickly that Iraq is in good hands.

In light of the role of Chalabi in the Alliance, let's pay attention closely to the reaction of his former Washington allies, such as Perle, Pletka, Douglas Feith, and Paul Wolfowitz. Among the most militant advocates of Israel, they can't be happy about Chalabi signing on to a bloc that opposes the "Zionist entity." Among the most vocal denouncers of Iran, they can't be happy about Chalabi's role in helping to assemble an overtly pro-Iran bloc in Iraqi politics. My guess is they'll be silent.

The electoral prospects of the new Alliance are questionable. Like the former UIA, the members of the INA are a disparate and quarrelsome bunch, and many of the lesser components will chafe under ISCI's likely bossy role. More nationalist formations like Sadr's bloc and Fadhila, a Sadrist offshoot strong in the south of Iraq, may resist ISCI's dominance. And all of them will have to overcome the fact that many Iraqis are sick and tired of Shiite religious claptrap (and of Iran). Perhaps that explains why Maliki is staying out of the Alliance so far: the prime minister can run once again as a born-again nationalist, with his tribal council support, while the Shiite religious bloc scoops up the easy-to-command votes of rural Shiites who think they're voting for Allah. Perhaps in order to downplay its role, and Iran's, ISCI has allowed Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a member of an anti-Maliki faction of Dawa who served as prime minister before Maliki, to lead the new Alliance. But Jaafari is hardly a political power, and -- unlike Sadr and ISCI's Badr -- he has no men with guns.

Needless to say, it's way, way too late for President Obama to do anything about this, though he ought to keep his promise to involve the international community in a last-ditch effort to rebalance Iraqi politics away from dominance by the Shiite religious parties. Still, as I've been writing for years, Iran has the upper hand in Iraq. As Ignatius reports:

"Should the Americans try to restore order? The top Iraqi intelligence source answered sadly that it was probably wiser to 'stay out of it and be safe.' When pressed about what his country would look like in five years, absent American help, he answered bluntly: 'Iraq will be a colony of Iran.'"

True, that.

Washington Post Flops

This is a media rant. I'm not one of those people who are constantly berating the media (the so-called "mainstream media") for their failings. However, for quite a while I've been watching the spiraling downward of the Washington Post coverage of international affairs. But today they hit a new low.

The Saturday, August 22, edition of the Post contains not a single article -- count 'em, zero -- on anything relating to the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, or the ongoing crisis in Iran.

By way of contrast, the New York Times carried a page one piece on the aftermath of the election in Afghanistan, a lead piece in its international section on the Iranian crisis, focusing on President Ahmadinejad's problems in assembling a Cabinet for his second term, and a lengthy piece sorting out the pieces left over from the enormous bombings that devastated downtown Baghdad on Wednesday.

These three pieces are not fluff either, but hard news stories contained information that the Post simply ignored.

It gets worse. The Post did manage to scrounge up a story on the release of the Lockerbie bomber to Libya, but the entirety of the story focused on US and British outrage over the release, which Obama called "highly objectionable." The Times carried a far longer piece that actually reported the news, namely, that British observers and analysts are making concrete charges that London supported the freeing of the prisoner in order to facilitate oil deals with Libya. In contrast to the Post, which contented itself with regurgitating official outrage that a terrorist is once again loose, the Times piece, by John F. Burns, had this gem:

On Friday, Lord Trefgarne, chairman of the Libyan British Business Council, said Mr. Megrahi's release had opened the way for Britain's leading oil companies to pursue multibillion-dollar oil contracts with Libya, which had demanded Mr. Megrahi's return in talks with British officials and business executives.

You might say, well, who cares? Don't most people get their news from the Internet these days? In fact, it does matter. Hundreds of thousands of people wake up to the print copy of the Washington Post in the morning, and they don't deserve incompetent editing and reporting. The Post international section has been shrinking, and since they moved their entire business section inside the A section earlier this year, the hole for non-business news seems to have shrunk. The right-wing Washington Times would dearly love to pick up the slack, but their often biased, slanted, and jingoistic reports, filed by hard-right ideologues such as reporter Eli Lake, aren't trustworthy enough to rely on. Even so, the Washington Times has broken some stories lately, especially on Iran, thanks to a commitment to Iran from editor Barbara Slavin and on-the-scene reporting from Iran and Turkey by Iason Athanasiadis. In any case, the Washington Times circulation is minuscule compared to the monopoly-like Post.

Oh, yes. Headlining the Post world coverage Saturday? "Turkeys in Chile Found to Have Swine Flu." Now there's a scoop! Next, maybe, "Chili in Turkey Found to Have Swine Meat"?

Fixing Afghanistan

Some thoughts on Afghanistan, now that the election's come and gone.

I don't usually find inspiration in the pages of the Washington Times, are rarely if ever in the writings of Tony Blankley, the former spokesman for Newt Gingrich, but his recent column on the mess in Afghanistan struck me as intelligent and provocative. It's called "Empower the local tribal chiefs," and it makes sense to me. Blankley says that the United States is fast making enemies in Afghanistan of the very tribesmen who expelled the USSR, and he makes this essential point about the faulty thinking behind US strategy there:

"It would appear that a policy that calls for substantially increased troop strength for both the American and Afghan forces implies a policy that aspires to build a strong central government in Kabul capable of permanently suppressing the Taliban. But the long history of Afghanistan suggests that, unlike Iraq (or Japan and Germany after World War II), Afghanistan is not likely to accept a strong central government."

Blankley, whose right-wing credentials are impeccable, adds:

"We are not hated quite yet. But we need to leave soon, or we will be."

He suggests that we simply buy up the poppy crop (cost: $2 billion to $3 billion), stop "trying to prop up an inevitably corrupt and feeble Kabul central government," and "support the tribes that have cheerfully and courageously driven out all foreign intruders for thousands of years, not try to build a national government that they will equally cheerfully massacre." I'm not sure what Blankley means by "support" them, since it appears to me that the most effective thing we can do is leave them to their own devices. But he's on the right track that if the choices are either to spend decades, and hundreds of billions of dollars, creating a democratic Valhalla based in Kabul, or start winding down our presence while allowing some sort of province-by-province, warlord-based (and in the south, Taliban-leaning, Pashtun) local fiefdoms to emerge, then I'd pick Option Two.

Over at the AfPak Channel, an interesting debate between Steve Walt and Peter Bergen is underway. A few days ago, Walt -- the ultimate, thoughtful realist and co-author of The Israel Lobby -- made the admirable point that there is reason to question the almost universally acceptable notion that we have to fight in Afghanistan because that country would otherwise become a "safe haven" for terrorists and Al Qaeda, who would then attack us again. (His piece was called "The Safe Haven Myth," and you should read the whole thing.) In it, Walt suggests that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are not the same thing, that the Taliban has no interest in "following us home" or attacking targets abroad, and that even if Al Qaeda could reestablish itself in Afghanistan, it would still have to operate underground, under constant threat of US attack. And he adds:

"The 9/11 plot was organized out of Hamburg, not Kabul or Kandahar, but nobody is proposing that we send troops to Germany to make sure there aren't 'safe havens' operating there. In fact, if al Qaeda has to hide out somewhere, I'd rather they were in a remote, impoverished, land-locked and isolated area from which it is hard to do almost anything."

That piece was lambasted by Peter Bergen, and then Walt replied. Bergen, who's grown increasingly hawkish on Afghanistan, says that indeed the Taliban and Al Qaeda are two sides of the same coin, and he endorses President Obama's "Do It Seriously approach" -- otherwise, Al Qaeda will be back in the saddle and plotting attacks against us again. In fact, he argues that the Taliban itself has changed from an Afghan-only group to a terrorist-with-global-reach organization:

"The Taliban were a quite provincial group before 9/11 but since then they have adopted Al Qaeda's worldview and tactics and see themselves as part of a supposedly global jihadist movement."

So the alternative, for Bergen and for supporters of the president's policy, is to spend huge amounts of blood and treasure over decades to extirpate the sprawling Taliban movement and its allies, not just Al Qaeda. Obama, of course, has sometimes tried to stress that America's goal in Afghanistan is to root out and destroy Al Qaeda, and he's proposed some form of dialogue with the Taliban, at least with its "reconcilable" elements. But if the Taliban and Al Qaeda are both worldwide terrorist plotters, then America's goal in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) means eliminating not just a terrorist band with a few hundred members but a massive, and growing, movement of tens of thousands.

As Walt says, in response:

"Bergen thinks the threat is very, very serious, and he is admirably candid about his willingness to spend hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade or more to try to ward it off. He also believes that a large U.S. presence in Afghanistan is the best way to do that, while skeptics tend to think that reducing the U.S. military role is a better long-term bet."

And his conclusion:

"The real questions to ask are: 1) how much blood and treasure are the United States and its allies willing to invest in Afghanistan, and 2) is the way we are currently investing those lives and money are going to make things better or make them worse? Bergen thinks the danger is bigger than I do -- so he's willing to spend a lot more -- and he thinks a combination of counter-insurgency against the Taliban and massive external assistance to strengthen the central government is the best way to head his nightmare off. I have no objection to our using special forces and other assets to go after al Qaeda wherever it might be, and I don't object to foreign aid programs designed to repair or improve Afghanistan's woeful infrastructure (building roads and expanding electrical grids is something we do know how to do, whereas designing a legitimate and minimally effectve central government are tasks we seem singularly ill-prepared for). So I'm with those who believe that trying to 'defeat' the Taliban and create a strong central state in Afghanistan is a fool's errand."

Ultimately, we all have to face the fact that we're going to have to sit down and talk turkey with the Taliban. Ugly as it seems, we might have to sit across the table from some fairly unpleasant characters, from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to, perhaps, one-eyed Mullah Omar himself. Even if those top-level commanders prove impossible, we'll be chatting amicably with other, lesser chieftains who are nonetheless equally unpalatable. For all his faults, President Karzai seems prepared to do exactly that. His brother, along with Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, did in fact spend a fair amount of time talking to top-level Taliban officials in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in talks that were facilitated by Great Britain and France. Kai Eide, the UN representative in Kabul, has said explicitly that talking with the Taliban's top leadership is critical. Earlier this week, Eide told the New York Times:

"You have different views, those who believe you can do it locally, from province to province, district to district. I don't think that is the case. I think you have to have a wider process."

It seems like Karzai gets this, and it seems like his US backers don't get it. Karzai has come under criticism from right-wingers and lefties alike for his alliances with warlords, chieftains, thugs and thieves, but I'm not sure I get the point of that criticism. Who else is left in that godforsaken country but folks like that? The Wall Street Journal, in its editorial this week on the Afghan election, blasted Karzai for his "political dalliances with religious extremists" and his "feckless denunciations of coalition forces." On both cases, though, I'm with Karzai. His "dalliances" with Pashtun thugs and pro-Taliban chiefs may be exactly what saves Afghanistan from unending civil war, provided that Karzai (or his successor) can get Uzbeks, Hazaras, and Tajiks to buy in to a deal with the Pashtuns and the Taliban.

I can't read Karzai's mind, and I don't know what his strategy really is. Certainly, because his electoral base is centered on the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, his support for talks with the Taliban and his "dalliances" with the religious right may be mere electoral posturing. Of course, it's unlikely that Karzai, with all his erudition, sophistication, and Westernized modernism, can be the rallying point for a brutalized nation with no functioning economy, no middle class, and a perverse allegiance to warlordism. If he can't, he'll fall. But as Blankley says, there may be no real alternative to a vastly decentralized Afghanistan. In the end, it may be ruled by the likes of Muhammad Qasim Fahim, the Tajik warlord; Haji Muhammad Moheqiq, a Hazara chieftain; the thuggish Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek militia leader responsible for the murder of hundreds of Taliban; and people like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a pro-Taliban Pashtun hiding in Pakistan who operates a network of fighters in east Afghanistan near Kabul. Or, in what would be a better outcome, Afghanistan's tribal elders -- some of whom are just as bloody-minded, others just self-interested -- might come up with a loose federation of Afghan districts and provinces that can forge enough stability to allow for economic rebuilding. (Actually, it's just "building," since there's little to "rebuild.")

It's incredibly depressing, and hugely complicated. But I'm still waiting for the political strategy for Afghanistan to emerge from Washington. So far, all the talk is about counterinsurgency.

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