News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
That bogus "terrorist plot" in New York has fallen from the headlines, but its pernicious impact lingers on. My earlier piece on this story, written late last week, drew a lot of comments, and a number of people contacted me about the story, too.
Here are a few updates.
First, a sensible AP story puts it in perspective, emphasizing the role of the FBI's agent-provocateur who entrapped the four men now charged in the "chilling" terrorism plot:
What happens to these cases after the media spotlight fades and the noise dies down? And are the snitches involved reliable?
"Most of these guys don't get tried," said security analyst Bruce Schneier. "These are not criminal masterminds, they're idiots. There's huge fanfares at the arrest, and then it dies off."
The New York men arrested last week were ex-convicts down on their luck. In federal court, one admitted that he'd recently gotten stoned. "I smoke it regularly," he told the judge. Not to worry, he added, "I understand everything you are saying." ...
However, court statistics show that most domestic terrorism cases never make it to trial.
And why don't then make it to trial? Because nearly every one of them is utterly bogus.
A reader of The Dreyfuss Report forwarded an interesting piece that reveals some information about the FBI's agent-provocateur in the New York case, apparently a Pakistani immigrant who'd been busted for felony fraud and then recruited by the FBI to go around searching for domestic "terrorists." He was involved in a case in upstate New York several years ago, helping to frame an Iraqi Kurd named Yassin Aref in an unrelated "terrorism" plot:
When illegal eavesdropping failed to turn up any improper activity on Yassin's part, the FBI engaged a Pakistani immigrant named Malik, who already had been convicted of 80 to 100 felonies in a scheme to market fraudulent drivers licenses, and essentially told him that the government would make all of his legal troubles go away (and cancel his scheduled deportation) if he could entrap Yassin into terrorist activity by means of a concocted "sting."
According to the fictitious plot, the government set Malik up as a supposed secret arms merchant who sold missiles to terrorist groups, particularly JEM (Jaish-e-Mohammed), which sought to liberate Muslim Kashmir from India. Malik offered to loan money to a member of Yassin's mosque if Yassin would witness the transactions for free in the Islamic tradition (as a notary does, under American law)--a perfectly legal and even praiseworthy act by Yassin, under normal circumstances.
For a proper "sting," Malik was to tell Yassin that the money for the loan came from the sale of missiles to JEM, which intended to use the missiles in an assassination in New York City. If Yassin witnessed the loan transactions with the intent to help Malik conceal the illegal source of the money for the loan, he would be guilty of several terrorist-related crimes.
But Malik did not give Yassin the necessary information for him to understand the illegality of the plot, the loan, or the witnessing. As a result, the sting never developed; instead, it became a simple frame-up by the government.
You can read the whole piece, by one of Aref's attorneys, here.
The New York Post has more details on the agent-provocateur's role in the earlier case, too:
The FBI informant in the Bronx synagogue terror plot helped convict two Albany Muslims on terror-related money-laundering charges three years ago.
Shahed Hussain, 52, an upstate motel owner, turned informant in 2002 after being busted on fraud charges while working as a translator for the Department of Motor Vehicles. The man, who had helped immigrants cheat on driver's tests, began cooperating with the FBI in a bid to win leniency in court and avoid deportation to Pakistan.
The informant then posed as an arms buyer who needed to launder money from the sale of a shoulder-launched missile to be used to kill a Pakistani envoy. His act duped Albany pizzeria owner Mohammed Hossain into laundering cash for him, while Yassin Aref, an Albany imam, acted as a witness.
Hossain and Aref were convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Several of the informant's tenants told The Post that he claims to be a "spy" for the FBI, and that he "blew out of here Tuesday night." One tenant said the cooperator was on the telephone "a few weeks back . . . telling somebody about buying guns."
Aref's lawyer, Terence Kindlon, called the informant "a liar and a sneak and a trickster."
Hossain's lawyer, Kevin Luibrand, said the informant "completely lied" to his FBI handlers about information in the Albany case.
You can read more about the new case at the New York Times blog, which also has some interesting links.
The Times also has detailed profiles of the four men accused in the latest case, all petty criminals with only the most tenuous connection to Islam and no connection whatsoever to any terrorist groups.
By the now, it's maddeningly familiar. A scary terrorist plot is announced. Then it's revealed that the suspects are a hapless bunch of ne'er-do-wells or run-of-the-mill thugs without the slightest connection to any terrorists at all, never mind to Al Qaeda. Finally, the last piece of the puzzle: the entire plot is revealed to have been cooked up by a scummy government agent-provocateur.
I've seen this movie before.
In this case, the alleged perps -- Onta Williams, James Cromitie, David Williams, and Laguerre Payen -- were losers, ex-cons, drug addicts. Al Qaeda they're not. Without the assistance of the agent who entrapped them, they would never have dreamed of committing political violence, nor would they have had the slightest idea about where to acquire plastic explosives or a Stinger missile. That didn't stop prosecutors from acting as if they'd captured Osama bin Laden himself. Noted the Los Angeles Times:
Prosecutors called it the latest in a string of homegrown terrorism plots hatched after Sept. 11.
"It's hard to envision a more chilling plot," Assistant U.S. Atty. Eric Snyder said in court Thursday. He described all four suspects as "eager to bring death to Jews."
Actually, it's hard to imagine a stupider, less competent, and less important plot. The four losers were ensnared by a creepy FBI agent who hung around the mosque in upstate New York until he found what he was looking for. Here's the New York Times account:
Salahuddin Mustafa Muhammad, the imam at the mosque where the authorities say the confidential informant first encountered the men, said none of the men were active in the mosque. ...
Mr. Cromitie was there last June, and he met a stranger.
He had no way of knowing that the stranger's path to the mosque began in 2002, when he was arrested on federal charges of identity theft. He was sentenced to five years' probation, and became a confidential informant for the F.B.I. He began showing up at the mosque in Newburgh around 2007, Mr. Muhammad said.
The stranger's behavior aroused the imam's suspicions. He invited other worshipers to meals, and spoke of violence and jihad, so the imam said he steered clear of him.
"There was just something fishy about him," Mr. Muhammad said. Members "believed he was a government agent."
Mr. Muhammad said members of his congregation told him the man he believed was the informant offered at least one of them a substantial amount of money to join his "team."
So a creepy thug buttonholes people at a mosque, foaming at the mouth about violence and jihad? This is law enforcement? Just imagine if someone did this at a local church, or some synagogue. And the imam says the people "believed he was a government agent."
Preying on these losers, none of whom were apparently actual Muslims, the "confidential informant" orchestrated the acquisition of a disabled Stinger missile to shoot down military planes and cooked up a wild scheme about attacking a Jewish center in the Bronx.
The only one of the four suspects who appears to have aroused any suspicion was Payen, a Haitian native who attended the Newburgh mosque. Assistant imam Hamid Rashada said his dishevelment and odd behavior disturbed some members, said the assistant imam, Hamid Rashada.
When Payen appeared in court, defense attorney Marilyn Reader described him as "intellectually challenged" and on medication for schizophrenia. The Associated Press said that when he was asked if he understood the proceedings, Payen replied: "Sort of."
Despite the pompous statements from Mayor Bloomberg of New York and other politicians, including Representative Peter King, the whole story is bogus. The four losers may have been inclined to violence, and they may have harbored a virulent strain of anti-Semitism. But it seems that the informant whipped up their violent tendencies and their hatred of Jews, cooked up the plot, incited them, arranged their purchase of weapons, and then had them busted. To ensure that it made headlines, the creepy informant claimed to be representing a Pakistani extremist group, Jaish-e Muhammad, a bona fide terrorist organization. He wasn't, of course.
It is disgusting and outrageous that the FBI is sending provocateurs into mosques.
The headlines reinforce the very fear that Dick Cheney is trying to stir up. The story strengthens the narrative that the "homeland" is under attack. It's not. As I've written repeatedly, since 9/11 not a single American has even been punched in the nose by an angry Muslim, as far as I can tell. Plot after plot -- the destruction of the Brooklyn Bridge! bombing the New York Subways! taking down the Sears Tower! bombing the Prudential building in Newark! -- proved to be utter nonsense.
For a long time now, Obama advisers and administration officials have been repeating the idea that the Taliban and its allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan won't negotiate a deal because they think they're winning.
Now, thanks to the New York Times, we know that's not true.
The Taliban is negotiating. And from the brilliant Times piece today by Dexter Filkins, we also know that what they're asking for isn't unreasonable. Here's the bottom line:
The first demand was an immediate pullback of American and other foreign forces to their bases, followed by a cease-fire and a total withdrawal from the country over the next 18 months. Then the current government would be replaced by a transitional government made up of a range of Afghan leaders, including those of the Taliban and other insurgents. Americans and other foreign soldiers would be replaced with a peacekeeping force drawn from predominantly Muslim nations, with a guarantee from the insurgent groups that they would not attack such a force. Nationwide elections would follow after the Western forces left.
If that's what the Taliban asking for, then the Taliban and the Dreyfuss Report are in precise agreement. Not on philosophy, of course. I hate the Taliban and everything they stand for. But it's time for a deal.
Unless you think that sending Zal Khalilzad to Afghanistan to run the country as President Karzai's CEO is a good idea. (If you think that's a good idea, then maybe you'd propose sending Richard Perle to be Iraq's CEO, Douglas Feith to be Israel's CEO, and -- why not? -- pick a neoconservative to be king of Saudi Arabia, too. King Michael Ledeen? None of these ideas are stupider than Khalilzad as Afghan CEO.)
FIlkins' piece -- which you have to read in its entirety -- says that the talks involve top leaders of the Taliban and its allies, including warlords Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Sirajuddin Haqqani, all of whom have had representatives involves in talks with Karzai et al.:
While the talks have been under way for months, they have accelerated since Mr. Obama took office....
The talks under way now appear to be directed not at individual bands of antigovernment insurgents -- the strategy suggested by President Obama -- but at the leaders of the large movements.
And Karzai's spokesman officially endorsed the talks:
Afghan officials said they welcomed the talks. "The government has kept all channels of communication open," said Homayun Hamidzada, a spokesman for Mr. Karzai. "This includes the Taliban and Hekmatyar."
There's no question that such talks are difficult. But the Times piece underscores the vastly different approach between (1) escalating the war, sending tens of thousands more US troops in, and developing a village-by-village counterinsurgency effort, and (2) offering to exchange a pullout of US forces for a deal.
Part of the solution lies in the United States working closely with conservative, even pro-Taliban forces in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan's Sharif brothers, who are very close to the Saudis, have already taken the lead in setting up Taliban talks with Karzai's brother and other Afghan officials.
Part of the solution involves persuading India, Iran, and Russia -- who supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance -- to accept the notion of a coalition government in Kabul. The United States might have to use some political capital with those three countries, and others, to bring them in.
But it's clear, now, that the Obama mantra -- that we can't talk to the Taliban until we've gotten the upper hand militarily -- is both wrong-headed and false.
The Post reports this morning that a team of US and Russian technical experts want to put the kibosh on US plans for putting a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic:
A planned U.S. missile shield to protect Europe from a possible Iranian attack would be ineffective against the kinds of missiles Iran is likely to deploy, according to a joint analysis by top U.S. and Russian scientists.
The U.S.-Russian team also judged that it would be more than five years before Iran is capable of building both a nuclear warhead and a missile capable of carrying it over long distances. And if Iran attempted such an attack, the experts say, it would ensure its own destruction.
They concluded that the missile system isn't important, in part, because, well, the threat isn't there:
"The missile threat from Iran to Europe is thus not imminent," the 12-member technical panel concludes in a report produced by the EastWest Institute, an independent think tank based in Moscow, New York and Belgium.
Their conclusions were reviewed by William Perry, President Clinton's secretary of defense, who is a titan of the military-industrial complex and no dove. They'll be presented to Jim Jones, President Obama's national security adviser.
It's clear that the Obama administration is quietly building the case that this provocative plan, pushed hard by George W. Bush and Co., isn't needed and won't work.
There are two angles to this story: first, it's an important step in rebuilding relations with Russia -- or pushing the famous "reset" button -- which is a big step in itself. Second, it's part of a judicious and careful Obama opening to Iran, downgrading the alleged threat from that country, and boosting chances that the opening might succeed.
On Iran, yesterday, Obama seemed to stand firm against Prime Minister Netanyahu's efforts to ring every alarm bell he could find. Despite Netanyahu, and despite coordinated calls from Netanyahu's US allies, Obama refused to set a deadline for talks with Iran, making it clear that such talks are open-ended. He did suggest that perhaps, by year's end, he might be able to make a judgment about how things are going, but that's far from the kind of short-fuse deadline that Netanyahu and the neocons want. Here's the full text of Obama's comments in that regard:
You know, I don't want to set an artificial deadline. I think it's important to recognize that Iran is in the midst of its own elections. As I think all of you, since you're all political reporters, are familiar with, election time is not always the best time to get business done.
Their elections will be completed in June, and we are hopeful that, at that point, there is going to be a serious process of engagement, first through the P5-plus-one process that's already in place, potentially through additional direct talks between the United States and Iran.
I want to reemphasize what I said earlier, that I believe it is not only in the interest of the international community that Iran not develop nuclear weapons, I firmly believe it is in Iran's interest not to develop nuclear weapons, because it would trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and be profoundly destabilizing in all sorts of ways. Iran can achieve its interests of security and international respect and prosperity for its people through other means, and I am prepared to make what I believe will be a persuasive argument, that there should be a different course to be taken.
The one thing we're also aware of is the fact that the history, of least, of negotiation with Iran is that there is a lot of talk but not always action and follow-through. And that's why it is important for us, I think, without having set an artificial deadline, to be mindful of the fact that we're not going to have talks forever. We're not going to create a situation in which talks become an excuse for inaction while Iran proceeds with developing a nuclear -- and deploying a nuclear weapon. That's something, obviously, Israel is concerned about, but it's also an issue of concern for the United States and for the international community as a whole.
My expectation would be that if we can begin discussions soon, shortly after the Iranian elections, we should have a fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they are moving in the right direction and whether the parties involved are making progress and that there's a good faith effort to resolve differences. That doesn't mean every issue would be resolved by that point, but it does mean that we'll probably be able to gauge and do a reassessment by the end of the year of this approach.
Perfect, in my opinion.
Meanwhile, the panel of experts examining the Iranian missile threat concluded that any danger to Europe, and to Israel, too, presumably, is years away:
They conclude that it would take Iran at least another six to eight years to produce a missile with enough range to reach Southern Europe and that only illicit foreign assistance or a concerted and highly visible, decade-long effort might produce the breakthroughs needed for a nuclear-tipped missile to threaten the United States.
Advice to Bibi: don't have a cow.
While Prime Minister Netanyahu was meeting President Obama at the White House Monday morning, the Zogbys -- John Zogby, president/CEO of Zogby International, a polling firm, and Jim Zogby, his brother, president of the Arab American Institute -- were a few blocks away at the New America Foundation to discuss the surprising results of an interactive poll about US attitudes toward the conflict in the Middle East.
The results suggest that Obama would have strong support for a hands-on US diplomatic effort to forge an Israel-Palestine deal, even if it means pressure on Israel.
According to the poll, when asked if the United States should "get tough" with Israel in order to back up its call for an end to settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, fully 50 percent of Americans said yes, with just 19 percent saying "do nothing," and 32 percent not sure.
Even though Americans have a high opinion of Israel (by a 71-21 margin) and a low opinion of the Palestinians (by a 25-66 margin) in terms of favorability, overall -- not just in regard to settlements -- Americans say that it's "time for the United States to get tough with Israel" by a surprising 45-44 margin.
Hiding in those numbers, however, is an overwhelming partisan gap, and that is the really striking thing about the Zogby poll. From my notes:
Asked whether the interests of Israel and the US are identical, only 28 percent of Obama voters agreed, while 59 percent disagreed. Among McCain voters, it was the reverse: 78 percent of McCain voters said US and Israel interests were identical and 15 percent said they are not.
Asked about Netanyahu, the favorability rating for Obama voters was 29-49 percent, while the rating for McCain voters was a lopsided 82-9 percent.
And on the crucial question, is it time to get tough with Israel, the gap was a veritable Grand Canyon. Among Obama voters, 71 percent agreed and 18 percent disagreed. Among McCain voters, 16 percent agreed and 73 percent disagreed.
Similar divides showed up on virtually every question asked.
What does it mean? It says that President Obama will have the support of his base, including Democrats and Independents, if he decides to force the issue in coming months with the Israeli leader. According to John Zogby, part of the reason is demographic: black voters, Hispanic voters, and young (18-30) voters are far less attached to the US-Israeli special relationship than are older, more traditional voters, especially among Christian evangelicals.
Obama, being the cautious soul that he is, isn't likely to force a showdown, at least not anytime soon. But his meeting with Netanyahu today showed clearly that he isn't backing down to Netanyahu's bluster and fear-mongering over Iran.
It also shows that the vaunted Israel lobby is in a pickle. American Jews voted overwhelmingly for Obama, with 76 percent of US Jews voting Democratic in 2008. "American Jews are mostly in the peace camp," says John Zogby. That means the opposition to Obama will come first and foremost from the ultra-right wing of the Israel lobby, such as the allies of Likud, the Zionist Organization of America, and hard-line neoconservatives, along with their allies on the Christian right and among the Republican Party's right, including most of its congressional wing.
But middle-of-the-road, moderate, and especially liberal Jews are likely to back Obama. That's a dynamic that can isolate AIPAC, the central player in the Israel lobby. If it plays its cards wrong, AIPAC might find itself cut off from its base among pro-Israeli American Jews. So far, AIPAC -- and Netanyahu -- are hoping that they can stall Obama's Middle East peace plan until something, anything, erupts to derail it. But I think Obama is determined to press ahead.
Those who follow this space know that I've been harping on the idea of avoiding a deadline for talks with Iran.
There's no question that Israel, its allies, and various hawkish groups have given up on any idea of derailing or opposing President Obama's opening to Iran. Not because they like it, since they're doing everything they can to isolate, contain, and sanction Tehran -- but becasue there's not much they can do to stop it. So, it's clear to everyone now their tactic is to say, "OK, let's have the talks. And we'll give Iran a couple of months to cave in. Or else."
Problem is, what else? Sanctions are not, repeat not, going to work, mostly because it's not conceivable that the the United States can enlist the world in an onerous sanctions regime. (The current one is bad enough.) So once the talks are ended, and the sanctions route fails, the calls for war will escalate.
The latest suggestion that a fixed, and tight deadline -- which has been widely reported in the Israeli press -- is in today's Wall Street Journal:
The Obama administration and its European allies are setting a target of early October to determine whether engagement with Iran is making progress or should lead to sanctions, said senior officials briefed on the policy.
Reporters bugged the State Department briefer, Ian Kelly, on this today:
QUESTION: Back to Iran, there's a press report this morning that the Administration is basically going to give Iran until like, the UN General Assembly in September to respond to the U.S. dialogue – an effort hasn't started yet.
MR. KELLY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Does that coincide with your view on it?
MR. KELLY: Well, let me just say that we're not setting any deadline. We're not interested in setting any kind of specific or even notional timeline. We are, of course, monitoring very closely what the Iranians are doing, assessing progress. But it – we don't have any timeline forward. What – you know, we're not going to let this string out forever, of course, but we don't have any timetable on it.
QUESTION: They were saying the same thing. They're saying the same thing, that they are watching the U.S. Administration and waiting for signs of change in policy, so --
MR. KELLY: Well, there is a change in policy. I mean, we have – we've decided that we – we're going to – we want to – we're going to have a seat at the table, of the P-5+1 table. We've decided to engage. We've decided that the – our previous approach of isolating Iran didn't work. And so we want to give engagement a chance.
QUESTION: Well, I just – back on the whole idea of the timeline, then. This was first reported in the Israeli press over the weekend, this whole October idea. You're saying that that's incorrect?
MR. KELLY: I'm saying that we do not have any timeline.
QUESTION: Does that mean that these reports are incorrect?
MR. KELLY: I'm saying that we've decided that we want to get Iran to come back to the table and engage with us at the – on the P-5+1 process.
QUESTION: I'm sorry. Does that mean that these reports are incorrect?
MR. KELLY: I – the information I have is that we have – that there is no timetable for Iran to come back to the --
QUESTION: Does that mean that these reports are incorrect?
MR. KELLY: I am not going to pass judgment on whether or not the reports are correct or incorrect. But the information I have is that there is no specific timeframe.
QUESTION: If these reports say that you're setting an October deadline for Iran to respond and you're saying that there is no deadline, it would seem to me only logical that you could say then that these reports are not correct.
MR. KELLY: Well, you know, as I said yesterday, I really don't like to lie, I'll just say. (Laughter.) Okay? And then we're going to move on, okay?
QUESTION: Yesterday, you didn't --
MR. KELLY: There is no deadline for talks, okay?
Got that? No deadline for talks. Amazing, isn't it, that the hawks are pushing for a deadline on talks that haven't even started yet. Yes, the P5 + 1 talks will resume, soon. But the real talks, the US-Iran dialogue that Obama wants, might not have even started by October.
Here's what I wonder: If an Iranian journalist came to the United States, deliberately let his reporter's credentials expire, took a job working for an important US agency that handles confidential or classified material, and then secretly copied one of those documents out of "curiosity," do you think he would have been released by an appeals court? Or do you think that he might have received, say, eight years in prison for espionage?
Roxana Saberi is a very lucky woman. As the Independent reported, not only did she copy a secret Iranian document about the war in Iraq, but she also visited Israel:
A joyful Roxana Saberi yesterday thanked those who helped win her release as her lawyer revealed his client had been convicted of spying in part because she had a copy of a confidential Iranian report on the war in Iraq.
Ms Saberi, a freelance journalist who was freed on Monday after four months in prison in Tehran, had copied the report "out of curiosity" while she worked as a freelance translator for a powerful body connected to Iran's ruling clerics, said the lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht.
It turned into a key part of the prosecution's case against Ms Saberi during her secret, closed-door trial in mid-April before an Iranian security court, Mr Nikbakht said. Prosecutors had also cited a trip to Israel that Ms Saberi had made in 2006, he said.
More will come out on this story, I suppose. The same newspaper reports:
Ms Saberi had admitted that she had copied the document two years ago but said she had not passed it on to the Americans as prosecutors had claimed. ... Ms Saberi also told the appeals court that she had engaged in no activities against Iran during her visit to Israel.
According to Reuters, the document in question was a report prepared by the Center for Strategic Research in Tehran.
Hillary Clinton, celebrating her release, said: "We continue to take issue with the charges against her and the verdicts rendered, but we are very heartened that she has been released."
It's comforting to take the whole story at face value, and to assume that Saberi was a naive and innocent bystander in a power struggle between moderates and hardliners in Iran, of course. President Ahmadinejad intervened in the case, seemingly pushing for leniency and fairness. At least one observer in Iran, Ibrahim Yazdi -- who is no fan of the hardliners, though he served as foreign minister in the early days of the Islamic Republic -- told the Times
"Mr. Ahmadinejad wants to take serious steps towards improving ties with the United States before the elections. If he succeeds, it would be to his interest."
It's certainly possible that those who orchestrated her arrest did it to undermine or sabotage the diplomatic dance between Iran and the United States. Because Iranian politics is so opaque, it's impossible to know anything about what happened behind the scenes to free Saberi -- or to conclude who, exactly, were the winners and losers in Iran, if any. At the very least, Saberi's release -- especially in view of the fact that the charges against her may not have been entirely fabricated -- could be a good omen for US-Iran relations.
And a bad omen for Bibi Netanyahu, who is busily preparing his visit to Washington next week. Netanyahu will argue, no doubt, that Obama's opening to Iran won't work, and he'll demand a short deadline before reverting back to the big-stick policy of sanctions and threatened military action.
UPDATE Vali Nasr, an adviser to the State Department in [Richard Holbrooke's]office, is in Tehran, according to Iranian reports confirmed by Iran's foreign minister. Supposedly his trip is about the Saberi case, but of course it's a much more positive sign that something limited to just that.
UPDATE II According to Barbara Slavin, an editor at the Washington Times who talked to Nasr, he is most definitely not in Iran.
The war in Afghanistan has been overshadowed in recent weeks by the crisis next door in Pakistan, but no more. Secretary of Defense Gates has fired the US commander there, General David McKiernan, and replaced him with a counterinsurgency specialist with a spotty track record, General Stanley McChrystal. It's the first time a wartime commander was fired since Harry Truman got rid of General Douglas MacArthur in the Korean War.
Don't expect any quick improvement on the battlefront.
A smart commentary on the dual crises in Afghanistan and Pakistan came from Selig Harrison, a longtime expert on Asia at the Center for International Policy, in yesterday's Washington Post. He raises the critical issue of ethnic Pashtun support for the Taliban. Pashtuns make up about half of Afghanistan's population and dominate the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan. Even though most Pashtuns don't support the Taliban or their extremist ideas, the Taliban are nearly entirely Pashtun in both countries. The US war effort, including air strikes in Afghanistan and drone attacks in Pakistan that kill civilians, are inflaming Pashtun sentiments, and driving Pashtuns and Taliban together.
Harrison ends his piece on this ominous warning:
In the conventional wisdom, either Islamist or Pashtun identity will eventually triumph, but it is equally plausible that the result could be what Pakistani ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani has called an "Islamic Pashtunistan." On March 1, 2007, Haqqani's Pashtun predecessor as ambassador, the retired Maj. Gen. Mahmud Ali Durrani, said at a seminar at the Pakistan Embassy, "I hope the Taliban and Pashtun nationalism don't merge. If that happens, we've had it, and we're on the verge of that."
Meanwhile, writing in the Saudi Gazette, a former CIA station chief in Kabul, Graham Fuller, has a related piece worth reading in its entirety.
Fuller is an expert on political Islam, and a recurrent thesis in his recent work is that moderate Islamists are the antidote to radical and extremist Islamist movements.
The Taliban represent zealous and largely ignorant mountain Islamists. They are also all ethnic Pashtuns. Most Pashtuns see the Taliban -- like them or not -- as the primary vehicle for restoration of Pashtun power in Afghanistan, lost in 2001. Pashtuns are also among the most fiercely nationalist, tribalized and xenophobic peoples of the world, united only against the foreign invader. In the end, the Taliban are probably more Pashtun than they are Islamist.
He writes: "US policies have now driven local nationalism, xenophobia and Islamism to combined fever pitch." His prescription is to reduce the pressures that are inflating Pashtun nationalism and xenophobia:
Only the withdrawal of American and NATO boots on the ground will begin to allow the process of near-frantic emotions to subside within Pakistan, and for the region to start to cool down. ... Sadly, US forces and Islamist radicals are now approaching a state of co-dependency.
Fuller also adds his voice to those who assert, like me, that changing Afghan culture won't happen overnight. And in any case, doing so isn't the job of the United States. It certainly isn't the job of General McChrystal.
Last Thursday, in what was billed as his very first on-the-record address, Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, spoke to the 2009 Soref Symposium organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. WINEP, of course, is the chief thinktank for the Washington-based Israel lobby.
And in his talk, Gen. Dayton delivered an important warning.
First, the background. For the past three and a half years, Dayton has lived and worked in Jerusalem and across the West Bank, overseeing the creation of three Palestinian battalions of troops, hand-picked in the West Bank, trained at an academy in Jordan, and then deployed in the occupied territory.
The three 500-man battalions are intended to grow, to as many as ten battalions. Their mission, he said, is to "create a Palestinian state." Recognizing that many in the WINEP audience were not exactly enamored with the idea of an independent Palestine, Dayton told his audience: "If you don't like the idea of a Palestinian state, you won't like the rest of this talk."
From the detailed description provided by Dayton, it's clear that the Palestinian forces he's enabling could certainly be accused of carrying out the self-policing of the West Bank for the Israelis. Because the West Bank is, after all, occupied by Israel and riddled with illegal settlements besides -- plus beset by a surrounding wall, 600-plus intrusive checkpoints, and a network of Jews-only highways -- the Palestinian troops are utterly at the mercy of the Israelis. Each recruit is vetted by US security forces (i.e, the CIA), then vetted by Shin Bet, the domestic intelligence arm of Israel, and then by Jordan's super-efficient intelligence service, before they begin their training in Jordan. Dayton made it quite clear that the Palestinian units thus trained are primarily deployed against two targets in the West Bank: against criminal gangs, and against Hamas.
So far, they've received $161 million is US funding.
Dayton described how, during the Israeli assault on Gaza last December and January, the West Bank remained quiet -- even though some analysts were predicting an upsurge of sympathy for Hamas, which controls Gaza, along with violence, even a third intifada. "None of these predictions came true," said the general, who added that the Palestinian battalions allowed peaceful demonstrations of solidarity with Hamas, but kept the lid on violent actions. Israel, he said, "kept a low profile," and not a single Palestinian was killed in the West Bank during the three-week carnage in Gaza.
Most of the work he's done, Dayton said, occurred in the West Bank after the June, 2007, Hamas takeover in Gaza. "What we have created are 'new men,'" he added.
Now for the warning. Recognizing that by organizing and training thousands of Palestinian troops, professionally led, he is creating in effect a nationalist army, Dayton warned the 500 or so WINEP listeners that the troops can only be strung along for just so long. "With big expectations, come big risks," said Dayton. "There is perhaps a two-year shelf life on being told that you're creating a state, when you're not." To my ears, at least, his subtle warning is that if concrete progress isn't made toward a Palestinian state, the very troops Dayton is assembling could rebel.
Dayton was responding to a question from Paul Wolfowitz, the neoconservative former deputy secretary of defense, who now hangs his hat at the neocon-dominated American Enterprise Institute. "How many Palestinians see your people as collaborators?" Wolfowitz asked. In answering Wolfowitz, the general acknowledged that Hamas and its sympathizers accuse the Palestinian battalions of being "enforces of the Israeli occuption." But he stressed that each one of them believes that he is fighting for an independent Palestine. The unstated message: the United States and Israel had better deliver. Thus the two year warning. Which, to me, sounds spot on with the Obama administration's timetable.
One more thing: General Dayton signed up for another stint in the West Bank. And how long did he agree to serve? Yes--two years.
The following news item was written for TehranBureau.com.
At a hearing today at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Senator John Kerry, former top State Department official Nicholas Burns delivered testimony that can only be described as a back-handed endorsement of President Obama's outreach to Iran.
During President Bush's second term, Burns was undersecretary of state for political affairs, and he handled the Iran file. A career diplomat and a noted realist, who would have been one of those opposed to Vice President Cheney's war-mongering on Iran at the time, Burns is on record supporting diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran. In his testimony, he said: "It could actually work." But he didn't sound convinced.
In response to questions from a few senators who attended the hearing, Burns loaded his endorsement of Obama's Iran policy with so many caveats and warnings that it made it sound nearly hopeless. Worst of all, echoing many neoconservatives, Burns said that talks with Iran – if they occur – must be held to a strict, and short deadline. How long? "Two months," he said. "We have to impose a timetable." If the talks are – horror of horrors! – "open-ended," then Iran "can run out the clock."
No one who supports talks with Iran believes that two months will be enough to decide the shape of the table, never mind long enough to reach a successful conclusion.
If the talks fail, and Burns left no doubt that he's skeptical that they will succeed, then the United States has to work in concert with Russia and China to impose what Burns called "draconian" sanctions on Iran. And, he said, Washington will also have to keep the military option on the table.
Burns supports enlisting Russia and China in the effort to make a deal over Iran's nuclear program, its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and its influence in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, he said, any talks with Russia and China require the United States to get, "in advance," a commitment from Moscow and Beijing to isolate Iran economically if the talks fail. And he said that "it makes sense to keep the threat of force on the table" because "it's a language [Iran] understands."
Dennis Ross, his friends at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Michael Rubin and his friends at the American Enterprise Institute, couldn't have said it better.
None of the senators raised any objections to Burns' perspective. Does it make sense to tell Iran they have two months to put up or shut up? No one asked. If the talks fail, is there a realistic use of military action that wouldn't result in a catastrophe? No one asked. Isn't Iran years away from having a nuclear bomb, and don't they lack the ability to deliver a weapon? No one asked that, either. And why should we expect Russia and China, both of whom have significant economic interests in trade with Iran, to join a United States-led regime of harsh sanctions? No one asked.
The only drama of the day came from Senator Jim Risch, a Republican from Idaho – admit it, you've never heard of him – who seemed enthusiastic about the idea of an Israeli attack on Iran. "Don't the Iranians understand that Israel won't allow them to possess a nuclear weapon, one way or the other?" he asked, with "the other" clearly meant to imply an Israeli raid on Iran. Burns responded: "The United States is right to take the lead here." I didn't hear Burns say: "I hope Israel isn't crazy enough to bomb Iran, but the United States will have to make it clear to Israel that we won't support such an attack." I didn't hear it, because he didn't say it.