News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
The news from the war capitals isn't good. In Kabul, the Taliban is carrying out attacks at the very center of Afghanistan's capital, rocketing the grounds of the presidential palace, launching suicide bombs at Kabul convoys, and last week setting off huge bombs on the heavily guarded road between the US embassy and the presidential palace.
But today I'm focusing on Iraq, where today bombers set off near-simultaneous truck bombs that devasted the Iraqi foreign ministry and finance ministry, killing 100 people and injuring at least 600, on opposite sides of the Tigris River. The entire heart of the Iraqi capital is in shock. At the foreign ministry, an official told the New York Times, "The whole ministry is destroyed."
It's probably the most significant bombings in Baghdad since the attacks on the Jordanian embassy and the United Nations offices in 2003.
Separately, at least six mortars rained down on two heavily transited locations in central Baghdad, Iraqi officials said. Three mortars targeted the Green Zone, the fortified enclave in Baghdad that contains the U.S. Embassy and many Iraqi government offices.
It's impossible to overstate the significance of these attacks. While President Obama and the Pentagon are focused on Afghanistan, the war in Iraq is showing signs of heading south, and fast. It's not unexpected. Iraq's Arabs and Kurds are nearly at war along the long front that separates the Kurdish region from the rest of Iraq, especially in and around Nineveh province, whose capital is Mosul, and over Tamim province, whose capital, Kirkuk, is coveted by the expansionist Kurds. Meanwhile, the Sunni Arab minority is increasingly alienated from the regime of Prime Minister Maliki, who's staunchly refused to compromise with the demands of the opposition to his increasingly authoritarian rule. For more than a year, I've been warning (along with others) that the Iraqi resistance movement, from its nationalist core to its more perverse, pro-Al Qaeda elements, might explode again. Maybe it's started already. In any case, the Sons of Iraq, or the Awakening movement, are getting the shaft from Maliki, and they are restless.
There's another factor, too: Iran. In the aftermath of the June 12 election, the US and Iran are perched dangerously close to confrontation again, and it's not impossible that the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime in Tehran might be thinking of ratcheting up violence inside Iraq as part of its resistance to American threats of more sanctions and other pressure. This week, a rocket launcher and with dozen high-powered rockets was captured by Iraqi forces outside Basra, in southern Iraq. (Recently, several US soldiers were killed in a rocket attack on a military base in that area.)
Despite Maliki's bravado, it's unlikely that either Iraq's armed forces or its intelligence service, along with the secret Iraqi anti-terrorist unit that reports to Maliki, can handle the sort of violence that is likely to engulf Iraq as the US leaves. (That's not a suggestion that the US remain in place, of course, quite the opposite, but a simple statement of fact.) In fact, in Iraq, everything is up for grabs. It's possible that the Iraqi elections, scheduled for January, won't even take place if violence intensifies. Maliki has suggested a plan to hold a referendum in January on the US-Iraq security accord, putting the agreement up to a vote of Iraq's population; were they to reject the accord, it would force the United States to pull out all of its troops in 2010, not 2011, as planned.
The Wall Street Journal reports today that US and Syrian authorities have reached an agreement to restrict the activities of Iraqi resistance fighters and Baathists in Syria:
The Obama administration and Damascus tentatively agreed to establish a tripartite committee, with Baghdad, to better monitor the Syrian-Iraqi border as the Pentagon draws down American troops from Iraq in coming months, said senior U.S. officials.
The proposed three-way border-control assessments could boost Iraqi security and patch one of the region's most volatile fault lines. The initiative was made by a team of U.S. Central Command officers and their Syrian counterparts last week in Damascus. ...
Syria says it has detained more than 1,700 militants, blocked potential combatants from passing through the country en route to Iraq and imposed stricter border policing. Syria also appears to have cracked down on former members of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime who fled to Damascus after the Iraqi invasion.
"The Baathists have been coming under a lot of pressure in the last few months," said one senior Western diplomat. "Some have been kicked out, some have been told to shut up."
But BBC reports that the spate of violence in Iraq in the past month or so raises serious questions about Iraq's stability, and it wonders whether the attackers are merely terrorists or political players trying to send a message to Maliki:
Increased violence could in theory make it difficult for parties in the current governing coalition to claim that they have made Iraq safe again.
This has led some analysts to conclude that those behind the recent attacks are not only the usual suspects - al-Qaeda or former Baathists - but also political players who want scupper Prime Minister Nuri Maliki's hopes for another electoral victory.
For too long, Obama has pretended that Iraq doesn't exist. As I've repeatedly stated, during the campaign Obama promised to enlist the United Nations and other world powers in a major international effort to reorganize Iraq's political equation. So far, he hasn't done a thing, and he's allowed Iraq to fester under US occupation and American political tutelage, with little or no involvement by the rest of the world, including Europe, Russia, and Iraq's neighbors. Inside the White House and the State Department, it's hard to identify anyone with the Iraq portfolio, which has fallen between the cracks. It's no longer an option for the United States to slow or reverse its withdrawal, but UN and international involvement in Iraq's political reconstruction is urgently needed.
Last Friday, in the Post, Al Kamen commented wryly on the the virtual absence of any top official doing Iraq:
Also on the foreign policy front, deputy national security adviser Douglas E. Lute moved off the Iraq portfolio recently to focus exclusively on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Dennis Ross, who'd been handling Iraq at the State Department, moved over to the White House. But Ross is senior director for the Central Region. This has apparently caused some confusion about precisely who's the point person for Iraq. Ross? Foreign policy advisor Denis McDonough? National Security Council chief of staff Mark Lippert? Biden also has taken on a leading role in Iraq matters.
Well, any of them will probably do.
Today's explosions, however, underline the point: It's not funny.
The prospects for Afghanistan's election on Thursday are murky, at best.
The Taliban are threatening to disrupt the vote in areas south and east of Kabul, where they are strong, and say that they will take reprisals against anyone who votes. "Afghans must boycott the deceitful American project and head for the trenches of holy war," said a communique from the Taliban. The Taliban, which is overwhelmingly Pashtun, is apparently counting on its ability to persuade or intimidate Pashtuns to stay away from the polls, which could doom or weaken Karzai. An excellent analysis in the New York Times by Dexter Filkins notes that the Pashtun vote is critical to Karzai's chances on Thursday:
"Five years ago, Mr. Karzai rode to an election victory on a wave of support from his fellow Pashtuns, who make up about 40 percent of Afghanistan's population."
Karzai, who is himself a Pashtun from Kandahar, the Taliban's stronghold, is working hard to get Pashtuns to the polls. Ahmad Wali Karzai, the president's brother and the wily head of the Kandahar provincial council, told Al Jazeera in an interview: "Pashtun votes are extremely important, because Pashtuns are the majority in Afghanistan. I don't think, without the Pashtun votes, no one can win."
But are the Taliban truly opposed to the election? It isn't clear. According to Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan's intelligence chief, deals have been made with Taliban commanders in "lots of provinces," the Times says, to allow the vote to proceed -- and, presumably, with Taliban-leaning and Taliban-influenced Pashtuns voting for Karzai. Saleh says that this "diplomatic effort" and "softer approach" allows the Karzai regime to appeal to the Taliban's low-level commanders and sympathizers without using violence, and he said that the accords that have been struck "show that cohesion in the command of the Taliban is broken."
Hard to tell if that's true or, on the contrary, if the Taliban can muster the cohesion to oppose the elections in the 45 percent of the country they're said to control. Personally, I have no idea. In a brilliant op-ed today, "Afghanistan's Tyranny of the Minority," Selig Harrison points out that Afghanistan's Pashtun majority is extremely unhappy with the Karzai administration because -- despite the fact that Karzai is a Pashtun -- it is dominated by non-Pashtun ethnic minorities, especially Tajiks, who control the armed forces, the intelligence service, counter-narcotics forces, and more. It's the remnants of the old Northern Alliance that control Afghanistan, Harrison reminds us, including Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and other minorities who hated the Taliban's rule during the 1990s through 2001. (The NA, you'll recall, was supported by Russia, India, and Iran, while Pakistan's ISI supported the Taliban.)
Karzai may be trying to appeal to the Pashtuns, but he's not helping his case by showering favor on thuggish, anti-Taliban warlords. His Tajik running mate, a former defense minister named Mohammad Fahim, is intensely disliked by Pashtuns. And yesterday he allowed the violence-prone Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord, to return from exile in Turkey; in 2001, Dostum was responsible for the murders of hundreds of Taliban prisoners in northern Afghanistan. By positioning himself so closely to Fahim and Dostum, Karzai is blatantly appealing for the non-Pashtun minority votes from Kabul and the northern half of the country. It's ugly ethnic politics at its worst.
Yesterday, in the only campaign debate in which Karzai took part, he took the occasion to reiterate his calls for negotiation with the Taliban, a position that seems to reflect Amrullah Saleh's comments. And Karzai, despite his Tajik and Uzbek allies, has consistently called for talks with the top Taliban leadership, not just its mid-ranking commanders and tribal leaders. Despite such calls, however, it's hard to pull off while Karzai (a) remains in thrall to the Northern Alliance and (b) seems prisoner of the US counterinsurgency effort. In the debate, Karzai said: "Afghanistan ... was totally lost. I saved it."
That, at least, is an exaggeration.
President Obama, along with his adviser on counterterrorism, John Brennan, a White House deputy national security adviser, have tried to reorient US policy away from the nonsensical idea of a Global War on Terror. So far, so good.
But then something like this.
Below are some excerpts from a ludicrous, alarmist, and absolutely useless "worldwide caution" published last month by the State Department. It's too long to include the whole thing, but I've attached here some representative excerpts that show how the State Department shamelessly uses non-specific scare tactics to worry Americans about the threat of terrorism overseas.
Maybe I'm wrong, but except in outright war zones -- i.e., FATA, southern Afghanistan, the area of Iraq around Mosul, and a few other places -- it's hard to think of any pattern of terrorism aimed at Americans recently, except for a couple of hotel attacks in Indonesia. But that doesn't stop State from this nonsense:
"The Department of State has issued this Worldwide Caution to update information on the continuing threat of terrorist actions and violence against American citizens and interests throughout the world. In some countries, the worldwide recession has contributed to political and economic instability and social unrest. American citizens are reminded to maintain a high level of vigilance and to take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness.
"The Department of State remains concerned about the continued threat of terrorist attacks, demonstrations, and other violent actions against U.S. citizens and interests overseas. Americans are reminded that demonstrations and rioting can occur with little or no warning."
Little or no warning! It goes on:
"Current information suggests that Al Qaeda and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks against U.S. interests in multiple regions, including Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. These attacks may employ a wide variety of tactics including suicide operations, assassinations, kidnappings, hijackings, and bombings."
Hear that? They "may employ" these tactics. Continuing, the State Department goes on talk about little-known incidents such as "the February 2009 kidnapping of an American UNHCR official in Pakistan" and "the kidnapping of four European tourists in January on the Mali-Niger border." (I'm sure you recall that terrifying incident.) It also includes "the kidnapping of two Canadian diplomats in Niger in December 2008 and the kidnapping of NGO workers along the Kenya-Somali border in July 2009." Ignoring the fact that these incidents too place mostly in absurdly remote areas of central Africa, State warns -- in all seriousness -- that these events "all illustrate the continuing desire of extremists to strike Western targets and perceived interests."
Now for the best part:
"Extremists may elect to use conventional or non-conventional weapons, and target both official and private interests. Examples of such targets include high-profile sporting events, residential areas, business offices, hotels, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, schools, public areas, and locales where Americans gather in large numbers, including during holidays."
Uh oh. They can attack anywhere, at any time, at any event! No place is safe! The Louvre? Don't go. Beaches in the South Pacific? Better stay home. A soccer game in Italy? Never. The Pyramids? Are you kidding?
And if you travel, avoid public transport! Says State:
"Americans are reminded of the potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems."
Specific to the Middle East, State really gets worried:
"Credible information indicates terrorist groups seek to continue attacks against U.S. interests in the Middle East and North Africa. Terrorist actions may include bombings, hijackings, hostage taking, kidnappings, and assassinations. While conventional weapons such as explosive devices are a more immediate threat in many areas, use of non-conventional weapons, including chemical or biological agents, must be considered a possible threat. Terrorists do not distinguish between official and civilian targets. Increased security at official U.S. facilities has led terrorists and their sympathizers to seek softer targets such as public transportation, residential areas, and public areas where people congregate, including restaurants, hotels, clubs, and shopping areas."
Get the point? No place is safe, anywhere! They might use WMD's! They love soft targets! Including -- who knew? -- "public areas where people congregate."
Seriously. Message to State Deparment warning people: get a life!
With great anticipation, I trucked over to the posh St. Regis Hotel, just north of the White House, to see Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and his team at an event sponsored by the Center for American Progress. I shouldn't have bothered.
The weird thing about the event is that in the room were literally hundreds of the Washington foreign policy elite, current and former officials, people with lots of experience in the Middle East and South Asia, and, of course, journalists, too. And Holbrooke brought with him literally his entire team, minus a few who couldn't be there: top regional experts such as Barnett Rubin and Vali Nasr, and about a dozen other members of Holbrooke's Af-Pak task force. But the session was boring, pedestrian, and so mind-numbingly simplistic that it seemed like Holbooke and Co. were talking to third graders.
And their goal was to convince us that the "civilians" involved in the Thirty Years' War in Afghanistan can rebuild that shattered nation from the ground up. They didn't convince me.
The ten members of the Holbrooke team on the stage spoke for about two minutes each, giving them time to spout a few platitudes and pass the mike. Not a soul ventured into controversy. No one made news, or said anything newsworthy. Halfway through, it was clear that Holbooke had organized this event solely for the bank of TV cameras arrayed in the back of the room, to provide a visual demonstration of the sheer brilliance of his high-wattage staff.
During the truncated Q&A segment, I asked Holbrooke about the US political clock, and whether he thought he'd be able to demonstrate any success before American public opinion turned against the war. His response, from my notes:
"We all feel the impatience of the American public and the Congress, which legitimately want to see progress in Afghanistan. That's why we've been reaching out. .... So far, at least, people seem to understand. We can't make the investments we've been talking about today without demonstrating progress. ... We have to produce results."
How soon? Holbrooke didn't say.
During the 90-minute presentation, Holbrooke and Co. mostly avoided the military questions -- the major general on him team was a no-show at the St. Regis -- and instead they concentrated almost exclusively on the civilian, nation-building aspects of US Afghanistan policy. That's controversial, too, of course, since it isn't at all clear that either US public opinion or Congress is willing to sustain a twenty- to thirty-year nation-building effort in Afghanistan. But the Holbrooke team focused on developing Afghan agriculture, building civil society, USAID programs, creating a public health system, and so on. My guess: once it's clear that Al Qaeda isn't going to attack us from Afghanistan anymore, the US is outta there, and Afghanistan might as well be eastern Congo.
John Podesta, the event's host and president of the Center for American Progress, asked the key question at the start: what are US objectives in the war and how are they defined? And he didn't get a good answer. President Obama has stated that the objective is to defeat and destroy Al Qaeda, but Holbrooke leap-frogged from that objective to the much broader one of defeating "the Talibans," and he didn't explain at all why, if America's goal is to crush Al Qaeda, we have to spend decades rebuilding the entire country. The prevailing view, it seems, is that we have to ensure that both Afghanistan and the neighboring provinces of Pakistan (the tribal areas, or FATA, and Baluchistan) are yanked by the Yanks into the 21st century. If so, that could take until the 22nd century.
Several members of the team, including counterinsurgency expert Vikram Singh, explained that we and the Afghans may have to build an entire media and communications system that can reach down into remote Afghan villages to bring an anti-Taliban message. He said that in FATA there are 150 pro-Taliban pirate radio stations, and that in large parts of Afghanistan and in FATA there is no cell phone service. True enough, I suppose, but does the mission of defeating Al Qaeda include building a entire telecommunications system in one of the poorest areas in the world. I sat there imagining discussions in Holbrooke's team about bringing broadband Internet to Waziristan and poppy-rich Helmand province.
Holbooke and Co. did make the point that they've put an end to the useless eradication program aimed at halting poppy farming. Instead, they're focused on capturing on killing high-value drag traffickers and in helping poppy farmers grow substitute crops. Lately, I've been watching HBO's "The Wire" on DVD, with its devastating account of how corruption, stupidity, and bad police flail away at cocaine traffic in Baltimore, and I imagined Jimmy McNulty busting Afghan drug lords. Maybe, if Holbrooke and Co. had spent the whole 90 minutes discussing the War on Drugs in Afghanistan, they might have had time to go into enough detail to convince me that they have a prayer. But my feeling is: Forget it! It's a joke.
Listening to Holbrooke and Co., I couldn't help thinking that the brutalized, raped and genocide-stricken people of Rwanda and eastern Congo must be wishing that they had an Osama bin Laden of their own hiding in the central African jungles, so another US special envoy would assemble a team of nation-builders and scramble up $4 billion a month to rebuild Africa, too. It's not that we can't afford it: we can. A nation that spends $1 trillion here and there to bail out criminal banks ought to be able to find a few tens of billions a month to make sure that people in the Fourth World have vaccinations, clean drinking water, decent schools, good roads, free health clinics, and the like.
But I sure don't understand why the Pentagon needs to involved.
Last week, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, John Brennan, the White House's top adviser on terrorism, described the outlines of the Obama administration's new counterterrorism strategy. During his appearance, which drew several hundred people to the basement conference room at CSIS, I had a chance to ask Brennan about US policy toward Hezbollah and Hamas. In his response, Brennan opened the door a crack to the idea of a new US policy toward the two groups, and his comments stirred some unhappiness at the State Department. Here's are two transcripts, first, my exchange with Brennan and then the question-and-answer session at the State Department:
Q. Good morning, John. I'm Bob Dreyfuss from The Nation magazine. ... In between al-Qaida and general violent extremists, there are other organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, even the Taliban, that seem amenable to the kind of persuasion that you said that al-Qaida, the president believes, is not amenable to.
And we've discussed this in the past, and you've suggested that it might be possible to have a dialogue with Hamas and Hezbollah, and I think the president himself has said the Taliban. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about disaggregating these movements, which the Bush administration was so prone to rolling up into one, big Islamo-fascist ball of wax. Talk a little bit about how we could deal with some of the other formations that exist and whether or not it might be prudent to start talking to them, now.
MR. BRENNAN: Well, the two cases that you give, Hamas and Hezbollah, are interesting case studies. Hezbollah started out as purely a terrorist organization back in the early '80s and has evolved significantly over time. And now it has members of parliament, in the cabinet; there are lawyers, doctors, others who are part of the Hezbollah organization.
However, within Hezbollah, there's still a terrorist core. And hopefully those elements within the Shia community in Lebanon and within Hezbollah at large – they're going to continue to look at that extremist terrorist core as being something that is anathema to what, in fact, they're trying to accomplish in terms of their aspirations about being part of the political process in Lebanon. And so, quite frankly, I'm pleased to see that a lot of Hezbollah individuals are in fact renouncing that type of terrorism and violence and are trying to participate in the political process in a very legitimate fashion.
Hamas, on the other hand, started out as a very focused social organization that was providing welfare to Palestinians, primarily in Gaza. Over time, it developed an extremist and terrorist element to it that, I think, has unfortunately delegitimized it in the eyes of many, not just throughout the world, but also in the territories. And its continued embrace of violence and terrorism is something that the Palestinian people, I think, have to continue to tell Hamas leaders that this is not going to bring them what they truly deserve, which is a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel.
So you're absolutely correct. There are a number of different organizations that have both political and terrorist dimensions to it. Unfortunately, it's the terrorist dimension that, as I pointed out in my remarks, really holds the aspirations of the people. There are disenfranchised Shia within Lebanon that Hezbollah is trying to represent. But they're doing it in a corrupted and twisted manner. They're not going to help to realize those aspirations of the Shia people if they continue to embrace that violence – same thing with Hamas. And I think these aspirations of the people need to be realized, and it's not going to be through the terrorist agenda.
Q. So what do we do? What is America's role?
MR. BRENNAN: I think what we've done is to demonstrate both in Lebanon and to the Palestinians that we, the United States, are willing to engage and have a dialogue with any organizations or groups that are, in fact, dedicated to realizing peaceful solutions to existing problems. And I think those elements within Lebanon, be they Hezbollah or others, know that the United States has tried to be a very honest broker there, providing support to Lebanese institutions.
And those who shun and eschew that terrorism will, in fact, gain favor with the United States. The same thing in the Palestinian community – those Palestinians that are really going to ensure that they pursue a path towards peace that does not bring terrorism to bear are going to be partners with the United States.
In fact, as I alluded to in my question, Brennan had told me (before taking a job in the Obama administration, but while serving as Obama's top adviser on intelligence issues) that talking to Hamas and Hezbollah is the right thing to do. In his response to me at CSIS, of course, he didn't say that at all, though he hinted that both organizations might be persuaded to move away from using violence to achieve their goals, and that the United States is willing to talk to both of them if they do so.
Brennan's comments on Hezbollah led the State Department to deny that there's any change in US policy, despite Brennan's assertion that Hezbollah has political and military wings. Here's the exchange from the State Department's briefing on Friday:
QUESTION: President Obama's chief counterterrorism advisor John Brennan has said yesterday that Hezbollah started out as purely a terrorist organization back in the early ‘80s and that it has evolved significantly over time. He added that, "I am pleased to see that a lot of Hezbollah individuals are, in fact, renouncing their type of terrorism and violence and are trying to participate in the political process in a very legitimate fashion." Can you elaborate on this issue? Have you changed your policy toward Hezbollah and have you started to differentiate between its military and political wings?
MR. WOOD: Let me be very clear: Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. U.S. policy toward Hezbollah has not changed. We do not make any distinction between the political and military wings. And that is our policy. Until Hezbollah decides that it's going to change and stop carrying out the acts of terrorism and other acts that are causing instability in the region, there's no reason for our policy to change.
QUESTION: And how do you make the distinction between that and what Mr. Brennan said?
MR. WOOD: Well, I haven't seen a transcript of his remarks, but what I can tell you is what U.S. policy is with regard to Hezbollah.
QUESTION: But he seemed to say that there were some moderate elements that might be changing there, too.
MR. WOOD: Well, that remains to be seen whether there are or not. I'm not an expert on Hezbollah and the inner workings of that terrorist organization. But what I can tell you is that our policy has not changed.
QUESTION: But he differentiated between the two wings, between politicals and terrorists.
MR. WOOD: Well, our policy, the U.S. Government policy, remains the same with regard to – I haven't seen the remarks, but I'm sure that he was not saying that the United States makes a clear distinction between those two branches, because we do not.
QUESTION: But it certainly was opening up the door to the possibility that if certain members of Hezbollah were to renounce violence that the United States could do business with it.
MR. WOOD: Well, again, without seeing his remarks, I mean, it appears that he may have been speculating on what may happen if Hezbollah does this or that. But Hezbollah has not done this or that. They are still a force of instability in the region. And as a result, our policy has not changed.
QUESTION: Are you sure there's not a different opinion between the White House and the State Department on this? Because this is an advisor of President Obama that's talking about how, you know, there could be certain members of Hezbollah that are changing their tune, and he found it an encouraging sign.
MR. WOOD: Well, that's – again, there is – our policy is very clear on Hezbollah. The question of whether or not there are people inside of that organization that may want to take a different approach, a different track, change their stripes, that could very well be. I don't know. But in terms of dealing with Hezbollah as an organization, it is still a Foreign Terrorist Organization. It is, as I said, a force of instability in the region. And our policy has not changed.
The death of Baitullah Mehsud, if true, is a good thing for all concerned, not least for the people of Waziristan. He was an oppressive thug and a terrorist with no redeeming social value. His death came, apparently, as the result of cooperation between local, on-the-ground spies and informants, Pakistan's intelligence service, and the CIA, which operates the killer drones. It is, to me, an example of counterterrorism done right: precise targeting, little collateral damage, and high-value targets.
It does not mean the end of the Pakistani Taliban, of course. Its effect on the war in Afghanistan will be minimal, since Mehsud was primarily operating within and against the state of Pakistan and its institutions, not in Afghanistan. But it gives Pakistan an opportunity to continue the military and political battle to re-take areas in FATA, the Swat Valley, and other districts that have fallen under Taliban control, whether it uses military means, diplomacy, or a combination of both. For months now, Pakistan has been tightening the noose on South Waziristan, threatening an invasion of the tribal area to clean out Mehsud's forces, reportedly 10,000 strong, and the allied remnants of Al Qaeda there. It's unclear now whether that attack will proceed, but at the very least the threat to Pakistan from Islamist extremists has been undercut and its leadership weakened. Various intelligence analysts have been quoted to the effect that the Pakistani Taliban's leadership will be divided, confused, and no doubt wondering who betrayed them. Says Pakistan's interior minister: "His loss means there will be confusion and total demoralization within their ranks. This is a window of opportunity that Pakistan has to take advantage of."
Blowing up Mehsud doesn't contradict the policy of negotiating and deal-making with Taliban officials. (Indeed, if I were Mullah Omar, hiding in Quetta, Pakistan, I'd be thinking a lot more seriously about a deal with President Karzai right now.) Masood Sharif Khattak, a former top Pakistani intelligence official, suggested that the killing of Mehsud might provide a window for persuading leaders of the group to talk, telling the Los Angeles Times:
"It's an opportunity for the state of Pakistan to wrest the initiative from the Taliban. There must be a lot of people wanting to get out of all this. This is an opportunity to work on that, to give those people who want to give up that chance to do so."
Most analysts point out that the Pakistani Taliban can regenerate leaders, including other members of the Mehsud tribe, and that its thousands of fighters won't go away. But his death occurs in a violent, less-than-democratic culture where status and prestige aren't so easily accumulated, and so it won't be simple for the Taliban leadership in Pakistan to produce another overall leader who can command the loyalty of tribes, sub-tribes, clans, Al Qaeda-like Arab and Chechen thugs, and others. As Reuters reports:
Mehsud declared himself leader of the Pakistan Taliban, grouping around 13 factions in the northwest, in late 2007 and his fighters have staged a wave of suicide attacks inside Pakistan and on Western forces in Afghanistan.
"The loss of his leadership skills and experience would be significant," the U.S. counterterrorism official said.
"It wouldn't mean the end of the Pakistani Taliban, but it would be a true setback for them -- especially in the near term," he said.
"There are Mahsud subordinates, people like Hakimullah Mahsud, who could succeed him," said a U.S. counter-terrorism official. "As a rule, these commanders are harsh characters who have supervised suicide operations, kidnappings and other crimes.
"The real challenge for any of them would be to hold together the network of tribal groups that Baitullah Mahsud assembled," the official said. "It's not monolithic. There are serious personal and economic rivalries."
None of the candidates are likely to attain the stature that Mahsud had any time soon, experts said. And the process of selecting a new leader could exacerbate those rivalries, they said.
"As they begin choosing another leader, there will be factions forming that would definitely impact the Taliban's ability to continue fighting," said Sherpao, the former interior minister. "This is the time to win over tribal groups and people who were with Mahsud."
The Christian Science Monitor points out that the death of Mehsud followed internal strife within the Pakistani Taliban itself, making me wonder whether some insiders angry at Mehsud tipped off ISI about the leader's whereabouts:
The probable killing of a top Taliban leader in Pakistan may open up a power struggle within the fractious insurgency that Islamabad could use to divide and conquer.
Baitullah Mehsud unified more than a dozen militant factions two years ago, putting them under his umbrella as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). But as recently as late June, Mr. Mehsud faced a serious revolt within his own Mehsud tribe – one he put down by assassinating its leader.
The New York Times backgrounder on Mehsud provides some important insights into where he came from, making it clear that he was a long-time, minor cog in the Taliban movement in Afghanistan until 2001, when the US invasion forced him to retreat to Pakistan (along with Al Qaeda) and set up shop in Waziristan. I'd urge you to read the whole piece, but here's a salient excerpt:
Mr. Mehsud was once a minor figure in the small Shabi Khel branch of the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan, an inhospitable mountainous territory that fiercely resisted efforts by the armies of the British empire to conquer it. The son of a prayer leader, he had a basic religious education where he grew up in Miram Shah, the capital of North Waziristan. It was probably there that he was first recruited to fight in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban during their period in government in the late 1990s.
He served with the Taliban at the Kabul airport, according to a senior Afghan security official. After the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, he returned to his native Waziristan, accompanied by thousands of Afghan Taliban and hundreds of foreign Qaeda fighters who settled in North and South Waziristan.
As the Pakistani Army began operations in Waziristan in 2004, Mr. Mehsud was promoted by the Taliban leadership to command the fighters from the Mehsud tribe. ... He quickly expanded his forces and power, and by December 2007 he had been named the leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban, the umbrella movement that commands most of the Taliban groups throughout Pakistan's tribal areas and the adjoining Swat Valley.
It's important to remember that this is complicated stuff. Mehsud was responsible, it seems, for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto upon her return to Pakistan, and at the same time he had engaged in peace talks and deals with the government of Pakistan. He may have had covert lines out to Nawaz Sharif, Bhutto's chief rival in Pakistani civilian politics, and he certainly had long-time connections to ISI itself, which created the Taliban in the early 1990s when Mehsud was a teenager. The links between the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan Taliban are murky at best, and the same goes for the nature of the alliance between the two Talibans and Al Qaeda, or what's left of it. In the end, this has more to do with politics in Pakistan than the war inside Afghanistan, but it's loo late to separate those two conflicts now: they've merged into one.
A intensified crackdown in Iran in the next few weeks and months might make the post-election repression of Iran's opposition movement so far look mild. Now that President Ahmadinejad has been sworn in for a second, four-year term, it's widely expected that he'll unleash the full fury of the country's security forces, Islamic courts, and paramilitary groups against protesters and opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mohammad Khatami, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, and Mehdi Karroubi.
Last week, promising as much, Ahmadinejad made the threat explicit during a speech in Mashhad:
"Let the swearing-in ceremony occur. Then we will take them by the collar and slam their heads into the ceiling."
The religious right and hardliners are already calling for the arrest, trial, and possible execution of Mousavi, Khatami, et al. Hossein Shariatmadari, the hardline editor of Kayhan, who is widely seen as a spokesman for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Leader, called the reformist leaders and their allies "corruption on the earth," a term of art within Iran's version of Shiite Islam that suggests the need for capital punishment. He wrote:
"Their unforgivable criminal activities include the killing of innocent civilians, creating unrest, and cooperation with enemies and foreigners. If these persons are not brought to justice and only the middlemen are prosecuted, a safe margin will be created for them to continue their instigation of sedition."
Iason Athanasiadis, the journalist who was arrested and detained in Iran after June 12 and subsequently released, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, quotes several leading mullahs calling for the crackdown to be extended to the leaders of the opposition:
"'Through Israel, America, and England, they are trying to arrest the progress of the Islamic Revolution and subvert it,' Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Akbar Qoreishi, the representative for West Azerbaizan province told the hardliner-aligned Fars News Agency on Wednesday. He attacked opposition leaders as being the 'cause of suffering of the Iranian nation' and called for their trial 'without any leniency.'
"Hojjat ol-Eslam Qasem RavanBakhsh, the political editor of a conservative weekly, called Rafsanjani 'the first chief of the unrest' in a comment to the hard-line Raja News. In addition, he asked why individuals who were less involved been arrested while those who commanded the revolt safely remain in the periphery."
And he quotes Houchang Hassan-Yari, professor of international relations at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario:
"The crackdown will continue over the next few months and will be extensive and ruthless. No one will be immune from repression...The line is traced and camps chosen."
On Tuesday, the editor of Mousavi's web site was arrested and his computer was seized. The show trial of more than 100 opposition leaders continues. And Tehran resembles an occupied city, with thousands of armed troops and paramilitary forces controlling the city's squares and main boulevards to prevent protests. But protests continue, in the streets, and in the halls of power. The swearing-in ceremony for Ahmadinejad was boycotted by many conservatives, moderates, and reformists, and the Mehdi Karroubi, a reformist cleric who ran against Ahmadinejad in the June 12 election, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times:
"Neither Mousavi nor I have stood back. We will continue our protests. We will never work with this government. We won't damage the government, but we will criticize its actions."
Problem is, Ahmadinejad may find it exceedingly difficult to form a functioning government, because of opposition in Iran's parliament to his choices. And if the regime does crack down harder on the opposition, including arresting its top leaders, that could lead to even greater dissent. Within two institutions, in particular -- Iran's clergy and among commanders of the Revolutionary Guard -- there may be far greater resistance to Ahmadinejad than is known. And if either of those institutions begins to crack, watch for signs that Ayatollah Khamenei might decide that dumping Ahmadinejad is necessary. In a report carried by Reuters, Alireza Nader, a top RAND Corporation Iran analyst suggests as much:
"Ahmadinejad scorns his critics, but several analysts abroad have speculated that he might be removed by the Supreme Leader or impeached by parliament before completing his four-year term.
"'It is too early to tell if Khamenei will sacrifice Ahmadinejad,' Nader said. 'He has staked his authority and even legitimacy on the Ahmadinejad presidency. Nevertheless, Khamenei may be compelled to act if he faces much more serious pressure from hardliners within the political system, especially elements of the Revolutionary Guards.'"
A multi-billion dollar mystery is unfolding in Iraq, and it may reach to the highest levels of the Iraqi government.
It involves what the New York Times calls an "extremist Shiite group" that has now reconciled with Prime Minister Maliki and his regime. The group is responsible for the kidnapping and murder of five British contractors who, according to the Guardian, were installing a sophisticated financial tracking system in Iraq's ministry of finance in 2007.
The story so far:
Today, the Times reports:
"An extremist Shiite group that has boasted of killing five American soldiers and of kidnapping five British contractors has agreed to renounce violence against fellow Iraqis, after meeting with Iraq's prime minister.
"The prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, met with members of the group, Asa'ib al-Haq, or the League of the Righteous, over the weekend, said Ali al-Dabbagh, a spokesman for the prime minister, confirming reports. 'They decided they are no longer using violence, and we welcome them,' he said in a telephone interview.
"Mr. Dabbagh first revealed the negotiations in remarks on Monday to Al Iraqiya, the state television network. 'We have reached an agreement to resolve all problems, especially regarding detainees who do not have Iraqi blood on their hands,' he said. He did not say anything about British victims of the group."
In other words, Maliki met with a bunch of Shiite terrorists, welcomed them with open arms. Why would he do that?
In addition, the Times reports, the terrorists have a "liaison to the government." By coincidence, his name is also Maliki, and he wants to get into the government's favor and take part in the "political process":
"Salam al-Maliki, the insurgent group's liaison to the government, said in a telephone interview that the group had not renounced fighting the Americans. 'Of course we want to get into the political process, because circumstances have improved, and the United States is out right now,' said Mr. Maliki, who is not related to the prime minister. 'We told the government anyone who has Iraqi blood on their hands, you should keep him in jail. We are only fighting the United States.'"
The Guardian, in a related story, suggests that the kidnapping of the five Britons was carried out with government collusion by a team of 80 to 100 men, dressed as Interior Ministry police officials and driving a convoy of 19 white SUVs. Here's the Guardian story:
"An investigation into the kidnapping of five British men in Iraq has uncovered evidence of possible collusion by Iraqi government officials in their abduction, and a possible motive – to keep secret the whereabouts of billions of dollars in embezzled funds.
"A former high-level Iraqi intelligence operative and a current senior government minister, who has been negotiating directly with the hostage takers, have told the Guardian that the kidnapping of IT specialist Peter Moore and his four bodyguards in 2007 was not a simple snatch by a band of militants but a sophisticated operation, almost certainly with inside help. Only Moore is thought still to be alive.
"Witnesses to the extraordinary operation which led to the abductions have also told us that they have been warned by superiors to keep quiet."
And this crucial piece:
"Moore was employed to install a new computer tracking system which would have followed billions of dollars of oil and foreign aid money through the ministry of finance. The 'Iraq Financial Management Information System' was nearly complete and about to go online at the time of the kidnap.
"The senior intelligence source said: 'Many people don't want a high level of corruption to be revealed. Remember this is the information technology centre [at the ministry of finance], this is the place where all the money to do with Iraq and all Iraq's financial matters are housed.'"
The Times story, which notes that the terrorist group also killed five US soldiers, says that the five British contractors were seized in retaliation for the detention of some of the group's leaders, after the killing of the Americans. But that makes no sense. Why would they organize and carry out a 19-SUV, 80-person raid on the finance ministry just as retaliation? And could this group have done so? As the Guardian points out, only a government agency could have pulled off the attack.
You can watch a 12-minute video on the case at the Guardian site.
Curiously, the Times report adds: "American military officials say the group is supported by Iran."
I tried getting some background on the League of the Righteous, and I found a posting on the Long War Journal about them, including alleged ties to Iran's Qods Force, the arm of the Revolutionary Guards.
There's more background here, too, at the Long War Journal.
As Roger Cohen's lengthy, analytical piece in the New York Times Sunday magazine described, the Obama administration hasn't quite figured out how to respond to the continuing turmoil in Iran.
Troubled we should be over the report, also in the New York Times (by David Sanger), that the Obama administration is actively considering the imposition of an embargo on gasoline and refined petroleum products for Iran if the regime doesn't accede to talks with the United States and the West by September:
The option of acting against companies around the world that supply Iran with 40 percent of its gasoline has been broached with European allies and Israel, officials from those countries said. Legislation that would give Mr. Obama that authority already has 71 sponsors in the Senate and similar legislation is expected to sail through the House.
The talk from members of Congress reminds me of what senators and representatives said back in 2002, when they approved the Iraq war resolution that President Bush used to launch the March, 2003, illegal invasion of Iraq. At the time, they -- including Hillary Clinton -- said that they were not voting for war per se, only for empowering the president to go to war in the unlikely event that was necessary. Many of the liberals who voted for the 2002 resolution justified their vote by saying that giving the president war powers would make it easier to negotiate with Iraq. Flash forward to 2009. Here's Senator Chris Dodd:
"Our job is to arm the president with a comprehensive set of tough sanctions designed to ratchet up pressure on the Iranian regime."
In the real world, things in Iran are getting uglier and, in my opinion, talk of a gasoline embargo and "crippling sanctions" (viz. Hillary Clinton) can only make things worse.
Yesterday, as the regime trotted out more than 100 opposition leaders for a televised show trial, accusing them of trying to organize a revolution, Tehran's chief prosecutor said that Iran might also arrest and bring charges against anyone who argued that the trial itself was illegitimate. Both former President Khatami and former Prime Minister Mousavi, the chief reformist candidate in the June election, have openly criticized the trial. Mousavi has accused the regime of using "medieval torture" against the prisoners, and he said:
"The one thing we can conclude is that the organizers of this show trial have stooped so low that they lack all reason and credibility."
But the hardliners are threatening protesters and oppositionists with death. Kayhan, the right-wing daily that serves as a mouthpiece for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Leader, has called for executing the leaders of the reformist movement, and it has demanded the arrest of Khatami and Mousavi. Key leaders of the hardline faction in parliament are ratcheting up the rhetoric, too, according to the New York Times. Hamid Resaee, one MP, said: "Today's confession has opened the way to dealing with the leaders of the unrest. There is no longer any reason to tolerate or compromise." Said another, a cleric named Elias Naderan: "Those within the inner circle who managed the unrest must be put on trial. We shouldn't chase after weak, second-class figures with no influence."
Meanwhile, Khamenei has officially endorsed Ahmadinejad's second term, and Ahmadinejad will be sworn in on Wednesday in a ceremony that is likely to spark new protests. Nearly all of the centrist and reformist opposition is likely to boycott the inauguration, along with many conservatives who oppose Ahmadinejad as well. The kiss-kiss between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad papered over a dispute between the two regime chieftains last week over the appointment of a deputy by Ahmadinejad that the Leader disapproved of and the sacking of Iran's intelligence minister. Still, it isn't clear that the troubles between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are over, and it isn't even clear which of them is on top in the current crisis. At the very least, Ahmadinejad is going to have a very difficult presidency, with members of parliament and the Leader questioning his appointments and key decisions.
Robert Gates, Jim Jones, and other US officials traipsing in and out of Israel this week have told Israeli officials to stop "ranting and raving" about Iran for, oh, about eight more weeks.
Eight weeks! According to Haaretz, the liberal Israeli daily, that's how much time they're willing to give Iran to start talking. Let's hope that Iran does start talking by then, but if they don't, well, then it'll take longer. But the Obama administration seems set on tougher sanctions after that.
Perhaps the most unintentionally hilarious part of the Haaretz report is that Jones and Co. told the Israelis about the progress of Joe Liberman-sponsored sanctions legislation in the US Senate. Said the paper:
"Jones and his team reported that a bill by Senator Joe Lieberman to curb sales of refined oil products to Iran is almost complete, and 67 senators have already signed it."
Just a guess, but I think top Israeli officials are well aware of what the vaunted minions of the Israel lobby are doing in Washington. In fact, yesterday the Senate passed a bill that gets that sanctions ball rolling, according to Reuters:
"To pressure Tehran to give up its nuclear program, the U.S. Senate has voted to ban companies that sell gasoline and other refined oil products to Iran from also receiving Energy Department contracts to deliver crude to the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve."
According to Haaretz, the new sanctions under consideration by the administration include a ban gasoline and refined petroleum imports by Iran:
"New sanctions would mainly aim to significantly curb Tehran's ability to import refined petroleum products. Despite its huge crude oil reserves, Iran has only limited refining capacity, so it imports large quantities of refined products such as gasoline."
"The Americans are proposing financial sanctions such as banning insurance on trade deals with Tehran, which would make it difficult for Iran to trade with other countries. They also want to impose sanctions on any company that trades with Iran and use this to pressure other countries, mainly in Asia, to resist making deals with Iran.
"In the next stage, the Americans will consider even harsher sanctions, such as banning Iranian ships from docking in Western ports and, as a next step, banning Iranian airplanes from landing in Western airports."
Yesterday, in Tehran, thousands of demonstrators once again clashed with police, the Guard, and the paramiltary Basij, and authorities intervened to prevent Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the two reformist leaders, from speaking to the crowd. (Interestingly, according to CNN, some of the events -- including the gathering at the cemetary in south Tehran -- were shown live by state-run Press TV.)
It isn't clear whether a shutoff of Iran's gasoline imports could be accomplished, and if so, how. Russia is unlikely to go along. Ditto China. Ditto the United Arab Emirates, which is important since Iran imports a great deal of its gasoline via shipments through Dubai. Would the US and NATO enforce a blockade? Doubtful, since that means war. Would the US take European oil companies to court? That seems unlikely too.
But the real question is: Why sanctions? It's extremely unlikely that Iran would soften its stance on the nuclear issue because of more sanctions. So then, what effect would sanctions have on the protest movement in Iran? It's possible, I supposed, to argue that hardships imposed by tougher sanctions would galvanize the movement into stronger actions. But it seems far more likely that sanctions will have the opposite effect, spurring the regime to even tougher repression against a Bush-like foreign threat, while pushing Iran into closer alliance with Russia, China, and other not-so-friendly competitors of the United States.
Meanwhile, in a separate commentary in Haaretz, Amos Harel writes that the US is still giving Israel the "red light" on attacking Iran, but he suggests that Israeli treats are useful for Obama: "They allow Obama to wave the Israeli stick at the Iranians as part of his effort to get the Iranians to agree to a dialogue, and possibly even to concessions." Ominously, he reports on a US-Israeli joint exercise in Nevada:
"The talks on the matter opened just after a joint American-Israeli exercise at Nevada's Nellis Air Force Base. It was dubbed Red Flag, and included training on the in-flight refueling of Israeli jets by American airplanes. ... The American Air Force published a feature about the joint Nevada exercise on its web site. It reported the participation of a squadron of F-16i ('Storm') jets, the new model that will bear the brunt of long-range target attacks should the need arise."