June 29, 2009

COIN 101

Last night a group of armed men stormed the offices of the Kandahar attorney general in Afghanistan. Kandahar's police chief, Matiullah Qatay, and the head of the criminal investigation department, Abdul Khaliq Hamdam, were killed in the ensuing gunfight. 8 other policemen were killed and 5 wounded.

Today 41 US-trained private Afghan security guards were reportedly arrested at Kandahar military base, only hours after President Karzai's office released a series of statements. Zemari Bashary, the interior ministry spokesman, confirmed the guards worked for America.

"Armed men from one of the private security firms based in Kandahar tried to free two criminals - they attacked the local prosecutor's office," said one statement. "The police chief of Kandahar and the head of the criminal resisted them - these guards opened fire and killed them."

Toryali Weesa, the province's governor, said the group threatened the prosecutor and demanded the release of a fellow guard named Assadullah, who'd been detained for producing counterfeit vehicle documents and plates.

"President Karzai said that such incidents negatively impact the state-building process in Afghanistan and called upon coalition forces to avoid actions that weaken the government," said a statement, which called for the, "immediate handover by the coalition forces to the Afghan government of the private security guards involved in the killing of Kandahar province security officials."

American denial was automatic. "These men acted on their own," said Navy Chief Petty Officer Brian Naranjo, a US military spokesman.

"I have nothing to add to the other statements made on this incident," said CIA spokesman George Little.

Smooth. No one is suggesting that America ordered a group of its private guards to kill the police chief of Kandahar, but other errors are just as foreboding and none more than Taliban infiltration. Whether giving false reports of air-strike casualties, stealing American weapons from the police, or playing double agents in private security firms, the Taliban appears in every direction.

The Afghan government has been dealt another blow indirectly caused by America. The two governments already disagree on America's use of private security guards, which Afghanistan recognizes but have no control over. The situation naturally produces infiltration and corruption. American officials are scrambling to develop new air-strike and opium policies, but Taliban infiltration is even harder stop.

First law of counterinsurgency: don't fight an insurgency.

June 28, 2009

Hamas's Open Hand

In the immediate aftermath of his speech in Cairo, President Obama enjoyed an umbrella of goodwill. Those who found fault with his policy or questioned his sincerity were told to give the man some time and space to prove himself. But time moves fast in the Middle East and less than a month later, Obama is dealing with the consequences of his speech.

Hamas wants to talk. Maybe not in the traditional sense, but it’s showing signs of opening its hand.

Addressing supporters in the Syrian capital of Damascus, Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal spit his usual anti-Israeli venom. He ruled out recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, equating the demand to Nazism, and rejected most of what Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu outlined in his speech on Palestine.

But for the second time Meshaal held his tongue on Obama, couching neutrality in his skepticism. Last month he told reporters in Egypt, “There is a new language from President Obama, but we expect real pressure on Israelis. There are demands Israel stop the settlements but this is not the price we are after, although it's an essential step.”

Back in Damascus, Meshaal reiterated, “We appreciate Obama's new language towards Hamas. And it is the first step in the right direction towards a dialogue without conditions, and we welcome this. American's talk today, of freezing settlements, and of a Palestinian state, is a good matter, but it's not new. Many administrations spoke of freezing settlements.”

Meshaal even endorsed a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, the same position that the Palestinian Authority (PA) holds. Like the PA, Meshaal rejected a demilitarized Palestine, saying, “The state that Netanyahu talked about, with control on it by land, sea and air, is a freak entity and a big prison, not a country fit for a great people.”

Unfortunately President Obama expressed no criticism about demilitarization even though his ambassador, George Mitchell, is busy preaching a viable Palestinian state. Military equals sovereignty, as Meshaal pointed out, “More important is the extent of their [America’s] response to the rights of our people and the reality of the Palestinian state they talk about. Its borders, its sovereignty, that is why our stance of the Obama administration is still under examination.”

That Hamas is still examining Obama is a positive sign. Though clearly skeptical, Hamas seems to have withheld judgment for the time being. Obama has yet to rock the boat and until he does, he’s likely to enjoy moderate support from Hamas. Obama must capitalize by sincerely engaging Hamas with only some preconditions. His window is unlikely to stay open for long; hope and trust easily spoil in Palestine.

Hamas has temporarily ceased launching rockets and suicide bombers. Hamas and Fatah are currently swapping prisoners in an attempt to boast reconciliation, while rumors claim Hamas may soon exchange the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for Israeli-held Hamas members. As consensus builds that Hamas must be included in the negotiations for Palestine, Hamas is demonstrating it actually wants to play a positive role.

Hamas doesn’t accept Israel’s terms outright, but few Palestinians or Muslims do. Nor will it universally agree to Obama’s (and Israel’s) demands - that Hamas disarm, recognize Israel, and abide by past agreements.

But Meshaal recognized a two-state solution, which recognizes Israel despite opposition to a “Jewish state.” Egypt and Saudi Arabia have similarly opposed a strict Jewish state, revealing that Hamas isn’t so different from America's allies. Agreeing to pre-1967 borders is also an admission to abide by past agreements.

President Obama can’t expect Hamas to forfeit its arms for free. Disarming Hamas will come at the back end of a successful peace process, not at the beginning.

Taken in context, Hamas has made several positive overtures with President Obama in office. Failing to extend diplomatic feelers would be a mistake. He can’t expect Hamas to do everything he orders and shouldn’t demand that Hamas give up all its leverage before negotiating. Obama may not admit it, but he needs Hamas as much as Fatah.

Hamas is trying to open its hand. Obama shouldn’t close it. Shunning the organization after its improving behavior would send the wrong message to Palestinians and Muslims in general, and risks exposing him as a fraud.

COIN 101

Maybe America should've collaborated with Afghanistan before announcing a new counter-narcotics program. Several days after American ambassador Richard Holbrooke said the current strategy to eliminate opium is "the least effective program ever," Afghan counter-narcotics minister General Khodaidad claimed, "Our strategy's perfect."

Mr. Holbrooke is rounding the media outlining the failure of the old strategy more than details of the new strategy, but he still avoided admitting mistakes or apologizing. So we must ask ourselves, why did America deploy such a failed strategy for so long?

America's change of direction is a welcome step - if it succeeds. American officials have already believed they had the right strategy, only for it to become "the least effective program ever." Holbrooke claims the new strategy will target drug labs, traffickers, and lords while developing alternative crops for farmers. Why isn't America doing these things already if it's so obviously the right strategy? Holbrooke doesn't say.

Nor does he blink when he says all America has to do is target drug traffickers and lords. Mr. Holbrooke should take a good look at America itself, into Mexico, and realize how difficult eliminating a drug trade is in peace time. America is militarily shorthanded in Afghanistan, and by logic that extends to counter-narcotics as well.

The high demand for heroin in Europe and Asia is an entirely different problem, one America has even less influence over.

As for the crossfire of statements, did America act unilaterally and leave Afghanistan out of the loop, or do the two governments genuinely disagree on strategy? A positive is hard to find in either scenario. America still seems ignorant of propaganda effects.

June 25, 2009

Blurring the Lines

Individual drone strikes in Pakistan normally have no meaning, but the latest attack on a Taliban commander's funeral slices to the mangled bones of war.

“After the prayers ended people were asking each other to leave the area as drones were hovering,” one of the wounded, Mohammad Saeed Khan, told the AFP from Miramshah hospital in North Waziristan. “First two drones fired two missiles, it created a havoc, there was smoke and dust everywhere. Injured people were crying and asking for help. They fired the third missile after a minute, and I fell on the ground.”

Bombing a funeral, spraying girls with acid - America and the Taliban more than disdain each other, Afghanistan is full of genuine hatred. There’s no code of honor, no mutual respect, no heart. But does America want to gamble down the Taliban’s path? More than a war could be lost.

Though America is reluctant to admit, the Taliban’s cause is more legitimate than Al Qaeda’s and this difference has created skepticism for the war in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s resistance to foreign occupation is considered valid compared to Al Qaeda’s pursuit of a strict Islamic world, but the Taliban is selling its soul by bombing children, women, and clerics.

War is the realm of paradoxes and America’s cause in Afghanistan began as valid as the Taliban’s. America was attacked and nature demands a counterattack from any species. While invading a country whose government wasn’t directly involved was a precarious decision, leaving the real perpetrators free to continue plotting wasn’t a viable alternative.

America took a legitimate cause to Afghanistan and the Taliban countered with an equal cause. Their objectives could both be impossible too. So how far does America want to mirror the Taliban? Lessons from Vietnam have thankfully been applied to Afghanistan, at least in part. Gone are massive carpet-bombing and napalming, massacres of villages, and the philosophy that guns trump all.

Correcting errors loses meaning though if other errors are committed. American officials still admit to lax air-strike rules of engagement; new rules have been established but Afghans remain skeptical. The underpaid Afghan police force is swamped in corruption. Poppy eradication has backfired by provoking Afghan villagers. And even with 21,000 fresh Marines, America will still be undermanned in Afghanistan.

This is only a partial list of mistakes that have placed America on the brink of morality, and balance is difficult to maintain. Just ask the Pakistani Taliban, who were in the same position a year ago.

The Taliban managed to keep its popularity afloat in Pakistan for seven years after 9/11. The Pakistani people, media, army, and government downplayed the threat and evil of the Taliban, bu it overplayed its advantage by invading Swat, bombing Pakistan’s largest cities into terror, and assassinating several high-level clerics.

The last drops of Taliban sympathy dried up. Now the Taliban must be eliminated.

Perched on the same edge between popularity and hatred, America decided to unleash Hellfire missiles into a funeral. Culture shock and awe. Is the Afghan War completely devoid of honor? Are funerals fair targets? Are Taliban soldiers less than animals? What would America think if the Taliban attacked the funeral of an American commander? Brutal, despicable, cowardly, evil.

Herein lie more paradoxes. Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, reportedly attended the funeral before the missiles hit. Though he escaped, the strike could be America’s nearest miss. Pakistani condemnation, already hollow, made no sense; Mehsud is the target of Pakistan’s new operation in Waziristan. America and Pakistan collaborated on the strike and they almost got him.

Strictly from a military perspective, the strike was a justifiably correct decision. The Pakistani Taliban’s head could have been cut off, leaping the war towards its conclusion. But counterinsurgency isn’t all military. The drones missed and Mehsud escaped, leaving up to 80 dead bodies in his place. While many militants, including several commanders, were reportedly killed, civilian casualties are above 40.

The Taliban might have lost their Islamic credibility, but bombing a funeral is perfect propaganda that America is at war with Islam. The vision of American drones, hovering like buzzards over a funeral, will never be forgotten. Rumors already abound that the Pakistani Taliban was breaking apart under stress; it would be tragically ironic if America’s actions became glue.

And what is the point of winning a war if America loses its soul? The ghosts of Vietnam still haunt us, Afghanistan will cause nightmares for the next century. Let’s not become our enemy.

June 21, 2009

COIN 101

The New York Times has reported that a new set of restrictions has been placed on air-strikes in Afghanistan. The U.N. says American, NATO, and Afghan forces killed 829 civilians last year. America doesn't have the benefit of the doubt in this situation and must prove itself.


Unfortunately, America has a history of not doing what it says or following its own recommendations. Officials have promised for years to reduce civilian casualties without success. Defense secretary Robert Gates recently visited Kabul and quickly contradicted himself.

“I think the key for us is, on those rare occasions when we do make a mistake, when there is an error, to apologize quickly, to compensate the victims quickly, and then carry out the investigation," Gates said.

Few Afghans believe America rarely makes mistakes. Nor did Gates apologize for or even mention the incident two weeks ago in the Shahrak district of Ghor province, which came a month after the more publicized bombing in Granai village. Gates went on to lament how the war is stalemated, but evidently not from American mistakes.

The NYT offers an additional contradiction on the Pentagon's investigation, which reported 26 civilian casualties. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission claimed at least 86 women and children were killed, as many as 97 civilians total.

"The Pentagon report did not dispute the conclusions reached by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and referred to its 'balanced, thorough investigation.'"

How the Pentagon didn't dispute the difference between 97 and 26 challenges the imagination.

June 19, 2009

High Seas Poker

The American media has a new game to play - follow that North Korean ship. The Kang Nam, flying the North Korean flag, recently left port with cargo suspected of violating the freshly stamped UN resolution 1874. Bound for Singapore, its final destination is unknown.

President Obama better put on his poker face because he’s entering a game of no-limit Texas hold 'em.

The die has been cast, there's no folding. American officials have vowed to uphold the UN resolution, which calls for boarding or escorting suspected ships to port. If Obama has actionable intelligence he must do something, anything, or pay the price of weakness.

The Kang Nam could be free of weapons, illegal ones anyway, and so one game could be void. Therein lies the first bluff, because another game would continue. The ship itself, with a history of transporting questionable material, suggests North Korea is strategically testing America and the UN.

"We intend to vigorously enforce the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1874 to include options, to include, certainly, hail and query,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen said. “If a vessel like this is queried and doesn't allow a permissive search, it can be directed into port.”

North Korea has violated countless UN resolutions and superpowers without sustaining too much punishment; its people suffer most. Since UN resolution 1874 is supposed to be the toughest yet and America has pledged to implement it, North Korea is testing Obama's reaction. He can't bluff. Letting a guilty Kang Nam pass unchallenged would be a victory for Kim Jong-il.

And to test, North Korea must provoke. Kim Jong-il might not believe the American Navy will stop the Kang Nam, board it, or direct it to port for inspection, but he must consider that outcome. Militaries prepare for the most contingencies they can think of, so what is the North Korean Navy thinking?

Last week North Korea’s Navy chief warned that his soldiers would cut the hand off those who touch their ships. North Korea’s leadership claimed any attempt, not just to board a suspected ship, but to stop it in any way would be considered an act of war. North Korean officials have promised to retaliate a thousand fold.

This is a more obvious bluff. No one is certain of North Korea’s logic, but starting a large scale war because of one shipping incident is suicidal. Hawaii isn’t likely to see any long range missiles. Bluffs have range though, and North Korea looks like it wants to fight. A sea battle between North Korean and American soldiers could become reality if the Kang Nam is confronted.

How likely that battle becomes a war is the pot of this game. What are the odds and limits, how far can America go? These aren’t Somali pirates. Can the Navy even engage a North Korean ship without drawing fire? Can it halt a suspected ship and direct its course to a port for inspection? Can American soldiers board and confiscate cargo? Could a gunfight be contained to an isolated incident, or will any interaction be an act of war?

No-limit hold ‘em breaks many people for good reason.

President Obama must expect North Korea won’t comply with his orders, leaving him few options. The best case scenario is that the ship is a decoy designed to test the American Navy. Underneath sweet bait lies poison. The ship must be avoided if possible, giving Obama more time to develop his countermeasures.

But North Korea will keep launching ships and eventually transport nuclear material as tensions escalate. Obama must halt suspected ships if he wants to prove America won’t completely back down. This action alone may lead to nothing. However, attempting to divert the ship’s course will likely trigger legitimate threats. Boarding is asking for battle and possibly war.

While nuclear war is unlikely to erupt in the event of confrontation, the odds of real hostilities between America and North Korea are increasing over time. Assuming Obama and his officials uphold their pledge, the Navy will confront the Kang Nam or another ship if it has solid evidence of wrongdoing. Both sides go all in, which means defeat for someone.

Texas hold ‘em is a dangerous game that shows incomplete information until the last moment. Information isn’t everything either. Gambling and risk are inherent to poker, and only Obama knows how much risk he can stomach.

June 18, 2009

Zimbabwe's Requiem

As Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe's prime minister, toured the halls of the White House with president Obama last week, one thought was on his mind: I need this. Not the White House but its power, the power to change reality. Power he still lacks.

Zimbabwe, “has gone through a very dark and difficult period politically,” Obama said after their meeting. “I congratulate him. Overall, in a very difficult circumstance, we’ve seen progress from the prime minister.”

Zimbabwe is still dark and difficult. Election turbulence and international attention have passed while leaving the root conflict intact. Tsvangirai is an easy choice over president and resident dictator Robert Mugabe, but beyond diplomatic support, how can America help revive Zimbabwe?

President Obama slipped a $73 million check in Tsvangirai’s pocket and wished him luck. 5,000 miles away in a dark, smokey room in Harare, Mugabe cracked a smile. He knows Tsvangirai needs a lot more than that.

A popular wave led by Tsvangirai’s party, the MDC, failed to dislodge Mugabe in the 2008 election and Zimbabwe crashed hard after years in a death spiral. Few states can sustain two fraudulent elections, a political crackdown that injured thousands, hyperinflation, 80% unemployment, 6 out of 12 million in need of food, and a cholera epidemic.

Tsvangirai is mending some areas since became prime minister in February, like inflation, food shortages, and infection, but Zimbabwe remains in a deep hole.

Tsvangirai repeatedly stated that Zimbabwe has no time frame. So much dirt was piled onto it that years will be necessary to excavate, and there’s no guarantee Mugabe will let him. Tsvangirai needs every last drop of help or he will fail. $73 million must be the tip of American assistance - if it reaches the right people, a big if.

Unfortunately, precise details of Zimbabwe’s status are fleeting. Past and current unrest has distorted or rendered obsolete much of its economic and social statistics. Tsvangirai recently sent his own mixed messages, but not enough to disguise reality.

Last week he told reporters that progress is, “being undermined by those that are threatened by the democratic changes contained in the global political agreement. Our state media remains partisan and prejudiced, freedom of association is not yet a right that all can enjoy. Our members continue to be the victims of political persecution... Those in government will tell you this government is walking on a thin thread.”

For whatever reason Tsvangirai was more optimistic while in Washington, telling David Frost in an interview, “There is no evidence that there is a general campaign of intimidation and violence in the country.” A few days earlier he claimed that the “period of acrimony” with Mugabe, who tried to kill him three times, is “over.”

But one minister in Tsvangirai’s party told the BBC that Mugabe’s circle is drawing up assassination lists she believes will be used in future elections.

“No-one feels safe in Zimbabwe,” Sekai Holland, Minister of the State in the office of the Deputy Prime Minister, said. “No-one - and I mean no-one. We haven't reached a ceasefire. We are still at a point where people have their guns cocked.”

It’s plausible that Tsvangirai adopted a less confrontational stance while in America, lest he give the impression of colluding with the West to neutralize Mugabe, but isn’t that what he really needs?

Tsvangirai's position is proof enough of his progress, in addition to mild political and economic improvements. Two years ago he was arrested before a rally and tortured by the Special Forces. Zimbabwe is better off now than it was and no one can expect it to spring to life again so soon after death.

At the same time, Zimbabwe cannot heal completely while Mugabe controls the army, media, and courts. Rumored to support a private militia, Mugabe will always be an obstacle for Tsvangirai and his supporters because they’re a threat, and threats are only forgotten when eliminated. The MDC is warning that the next election could be as violent as the last. If Tsvangirai’s strategy is to bide his time until then, Mugabe’s henchmen have sniffed it out.

Tsvangirai’s leadership and perseverance is admirable and he has the intellect to restore Zimbabwe if given the chance, but he will never get that opportunity with Mugabe’s amount of control. Zimbabwe is a zero-sum game. An increase in Tsvangirai’s power must come at the sake of Mugabe’s, who won’t give it freely.

What hope does Zimbabwe have? Humanitarian aid is necessary for suffering Zimbabweans, but it’s a band-aid, not the surgery that Zimbabwe requires. Foreign pressure from African states and the West failed to subdue Mugabe during the election, and another election could prove equally futile. Supporting Tsvangirai too much could trigger Mugabe's fear of the West.

That shouldn’t stop America and other countries from trying to help, but Zimbabwe needs some Voodoo.

Barring an invasion or coup, Tsvangirai is stuck with Mugabe for the foreseeable future. Power-sharing has left him a slice, better than nothing though not by much. Mugabe will continue to block Tsvangirai where he can and consolidate his power for future challenges.

Zimbabwe can’t rise from its grave as long as Mugabe sits on top of it.

June 16, 2009

Denile River

Even with a night to sleep on it, President Obama still struck the wrong tone on Palestine’s future. Palestinian officials and Arab states warned that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vision of two states is a trap, but this caused no change in Obama’s position.

While acknowledging “there were a lot of conditions” placed on a Palestinian state, "overall, I thought that there was positive movement in the prime minister's speech. He acknowledged the need for two states. What we are seeing is at least the possibility that we can restart serious talks.”

Obama may want to hit the pillow for another night.

Stressing the need to continue peace negotiations, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was quoted by the Mena news agency as saying, “I have told him [Netanyahu] loud and clear that the call for recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would complicate matters and abort the chances of peace. I even warned him that this particular call would not be met by a favorable response from Egypt or beyond.”

Beyond are Saudi Arabia, Jordan, even Pakistan, essential states America needs in its quest to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Iran won't accept Netanyahu's version of Palestine either. Palestinian officials warned that peace talks could break down if he doesn't budge. Losing moderate Arab support would cause an avalanche.

Is it coincidence or the inevitability of Obama’s position that his glorious moment at Cairo University is now being flooded with irony? His response predictably pleased one person - Netanyahu himself.

“The American response was positive,” Netanyahu told his Likud Party. “I would be misleading you to say that the way has been cleared, but our situation is better today than before.”

Because everyone was so worried about the relationship between America and Israel. Netanyahu seems clueless of his actions, adding yet another problem.

“I'm disappointed because I took a step, not an easy step,” he responded when asked about widespread Muslim disapproval. “I think this is an equitable formula for peace. It's one that enjoys enormous unity in the in the Israeli public and I think among Israel's friends and supporters abroad and the supporters of peace abroad.”

Netanyahu was referring to a Haaretz poll that revealed a 16% approval jump overnight, from 28% to 44%. The Haaretz noted that his speech hit every note: “right-wing rhetoric mixed with the desire for peace, an undivided Jerusalem, opposition to the return of Palestinian refugees, a demand for defensible borders, and the words that made the big headline - a demilitarized Palestinian state.”

Just about every position Palestinians disagree with. Now why would they be disappointed? And how long until they become jaded with Obama? Promoting unity, equality, and justice in Cairo, then returning to Washington to stand behind Israel as the Muslim world once again opposes it feels too familiar. President Obama is walking on dynamite and should tread lighter than he is.

But he went beyond approving Netanyahu by attempting to screen him from valid criticism. “I think any time an Israeli prime minister makes a statement, the immediate reaction tends to be negative on one side,” Obama said. “If the other side is making a statement, often times the reaction is negative in Israel.”

Or maybe the reaction is negative because, as Egypt’s Foreign Ministry stated, “the vision which the Israeli prime minister presented is flawed and lacks many elements.”

Undaunted, American support continued. Israel received a timely defense from an old friend, former president Bill Clinton, who told reporters at the UN, “It's just the beginning, and it's a drama that will have a few more acts.”

Clinton was so bold as to assure Palestinians, “I think on balance you should feel pretty good about it even though the conditions would be completely unacceptable to the Palestinians at the moment.”

Is Netanyahu merely bargaining, setting the bar at its highest and preparing to work down? Muslims must cling to that hope because even Clinton admitted that Netanyahu’s speech will be “a disaster” if his position is concrete. Disaster for Obama too.

Palestinians don’t need time to process Netanyahu’s demands, which have been opposed for decades. Obama must look past settlements; Palestinians want East Jerusalem, Israeli land for Palestinian refugees, rights for Palestinians already inside Israel, an army, and respect. They want the blockade lifted off Gaza.

Unreasonable maybe, but reality, not negative perception.

President Obama should beware. Denying the Palestinian, Egyptian, and greater Muslim response while shielding Israel so soon after his landmark speech is a dangerous river, full of crocodiles, and contradicts the symbolism of Cairo.

June 14, 2009


Did he really just do that? Is he crazy? If he wasn’t, why would he do it? Iran’s supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has competition. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to prove he’s the toughest man in the Middle East.

The winds of change seem to have reversed their direction. After a string of success in Cairo, Lebanon, and Pakistan, a new wave has crashed over President Obama, one created by North Korea, Iran, and Israel - company Israel would surely object to.

But if Netanyahu’s demands are sincere and not a game, his policy speech will prove to be a major obstacle towards a tw0-state solution.

“Israel cannot agree to a Palestinian state unless it gets guarantees it is demilitarized,” Netanyahu said at Bar-ll University, famous for its conservatism. "In any peace agreement, the territory under Palestinian control must be disarmed, with solid security guarantees for Israel.”

This unrealistic demand was met with praise from White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, who said, “The President welcomes the important step forward in Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech... and believes this solution can and must ensure both Israel's security and the fulfillment of the Palestinians' legitimate aspirations for a viable state, and he welcomes Prime Minister Netanyahu's endorsement of that goal.”

Is a military not included in legitimate aspirations for a viable state? The West considers the security of its citizens the first, inalienable priority of a democracy. One has to hope that Obama isn’t agreeing with a demilitarized Palestine, only a general two-state solution, because the peace process isn’t moving if Israel is serious.

Furthermore, Netanyahu claimed Jerusalem for Israel, refused to halt settlements and denied refugees the right of return, all deal breakers. Obama's approval stands in ugly contrast to the Palestinian response.

“Netanyahu's speech closed the door to permanent status negotiations,” senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. “We ask the world not to be fooled by his use of the term Palestinian state because he qualified it. He declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel, said refugees would not be negotiated and that settlements would remain."

“Netanyahu's remarks have sabotaged all initiatives, paralyzed all efforts being made and challenges the Palestinian, Arab and American positions,” said Nabil Abu Rudeinah, an aid to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. “This will not lead to complete and just peace.”

“We want both Israeli and Palestinian children to live without war,” Netanyahu said rhetorically. "We must ask ourselves - why has peace not yet arrived after 60 years?"

Apparently statements like his.

Now why would Netanyahu say what he did? Are his demands sincere? Is he trying to sabotage the peace process? Is he being pressured? Is it personal history or has he lost his mind? His actions are a combination of many factors, but none so fresh as Iran’s current unrest.

At the outset, it seemed illogical to deny Mir Hossein Mousavi, the challenger of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a fair election. Mousavi wasn’t against nuclear weapons, only Iranian isolation, and denounced the Holocaust. Presenting a kinder Iranian face to the world could actually assist Iran’s nuclear progress.

Ahmadinejad is too easy of a target, too easy to deny the world's deadliest weapons. Mousavi would have developed Iran’s nuclear program behind a smile, so why suppress him when the world is ready to pounce, especially Israel? Khamenei gave Israel exactly what it wanted, a demon to point at and tease Obama, “See, some things don’t change.”

Iran’s election fallout rattled Israel even more, emboldened its lobby and supporters in America, and fueled Netanyahu’s speech. Khamenei sent his message to America and Israel - he isn’t backing down. Netanyahu decided that neither can he, that the only realistic way Israel will be secure is if Palestinians don’t own weapons or their sky. Surely the world will understand after events in Iran.

But Netanyahu spoiled the advantage by copying Khamenei, provoking radical militants and peace advocates alike. By calling for a neutered Palestinian state, Netanyahu gave proof to Islamic militants and Abbas’ officials that Israel won’t change either.

And so Netanyahu and Khamenei dance across the Middle East like Godzilla and Rodan, dragging America underneath. President Obama is trying to play the middle man, but he must be careful not to become the monkey in the Middle East. He put himself out there though and will now face incoming fire.

“President Obama, the ball is in your court tonight,” Erekat said. “You have the choice tonight. You can treat Netanyahu as a prime minister above the law and close off the path of peace tonight and set the whole region on the path of violence, chaos, extremism and bloodletting.”

June 13, 2009

Where There's Smoke

It's beginning to look like Iran's election could get ugly. The Election Commission Headquarters released its figures showing 38 million (98 percent) ballots have been counted, a record turnout, so far with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad winning 63.81%. Challenger Mir Hossein Moussavi, a former prime minister, claimed he received 54 percent of the votes, but the ELH reported 32.67%.

Tinged with populism,
Moussavi has denounced the election, claimed that he won and vowed to challenge the results. "It is our duty to defend people's votes. There is no turning back," Moussavi said, alleging widespread irregularities.

If he actually takes to the streets Moussavi will confront the Revolutionary Guard, who's chief, Mohammad Ali Jafari, stated he would quell any "revolution." It's not in Ayatollah Khamenei's interest to have bloodshed in the streets of Tehran. He has to know that Western governments and the international media are itching to tear Iran apart, but riots seem in the cards.

Voting irregularities are probable. He may have won anyway, but no one saw a landslide for Ahmadinejad. Moussavi alleged his rallies were suppressed and his communications disrupted. Then Ahmadinejad leaps ahead. The embers of conflict are heating up. If the results have truly been tampered with, Moussavi and his followers will gain the energy to sacrifice their blood.

Moussavi better watch his back though. Iran's method is to arrest ringleaders and organizers.

Before the election President Obama said,
"Ultimately the election is for the Iranians to decide. But you're seeing people looking at new possibilities. And whoever ends up winning the election in Iran, the fact that there's been a robust debate hopefully will help advance our ability to engage them in new ways."

What if that debate is snuffed out? What will Obama do then? His power is mostly limited to words and words will have no power in Iran. And what if Ahmadinejad legitimately won? Whatever happens is an oxygen mask to those hyperventilating over Lebanon.

June 12, 2009

Allama Dr Sarfraz Naeemi Al-Azhari Killed

On the other hand, attacks like this are hurting the Taliban in ways it doesn't seem to understand. To win it must not attack now, only defend. If the Taliban left people alone and improved their lives it would already be ruling Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. What a foolish war.

Déjà Vu

Only weeks after Joint Chief of Staff Mike Mullen so boldly declared, "We cannot succeed in Afghanistan by killing Afghan civilians," only a week after the Pentagon admitted to errors during US air-strikes in the Fatah province, and days after new Afghan general Stanley McChrystal pledged to be extra cautious, a new air-strike in Ghor province has reportedly left 10 civilians dead.

The US military had targeted local Taliban commander Mullah Mustafa and his company in the Shahrak district. Initially America claimed to have killed Mustafa. "A thorough review of intelligence and surveillance supports initial reports that all killed in the strikes were legitimate enemy targets," a US army statement said.

We've heard that many times before. Now, not surprisingly, that claim appears to be false and
reports soon followed alleging civilian casualties, including 5 children. Ikramudin Rezazada, the Ghor deputy governor, said Mustafa's six-year-old son was among the dead.

"Five were children and five were adults," he said, citing local police reports. "We can confirm now that Mustafa has not been killed and he has managed to flee with three of his men."

Mustafa, having lost his son, will surely submit to America now. Nice counterinsurgency strategy.

An American denial should follow shortly as the whole incident seems to be repeating. Initial American success, counter claims by the Afghan government and locals, civilian casualties, soon to be American denial, and subsequent arguing over the truth. Is there a surer sign that America's stuck in a quagmire than futile repetition?

For all the things President Obama wants to change he seems incapable of changing Afghanistan, a place he must change the most. Not only is he challenged by the laws of guerrilla warfare to devise new strategy to prevent civilian losses, he is almost powerless on the actual battlefield; he's not involved in any of the decisions to air-strike or raid villages at night. His only real option to completely prevent civilian deaths is to leave Afghanistan.

Of course he won't be doing that for years, meaning events like these will keep happening again, and again, and again.

June 11, 2009


After a close shave with doomsday, Pakistan is overflowing with positive news. Public opinion is crashing upon militants, villagers are independently rising up to defend their land, the army has driven the Taliban out of Swat and is pressing the chase. Has Pakistan transformed into a different state overnight?

If the situation, 30 years in the making, was so bad before, it can’t be this good now. Not yet anyway.

Though the swing of opinion against the Taliban is a heartening development and boosts the army, the Pakistani people have never strongly favored the Taliban. Their hesitation of war was more a fear of Pakistani on Pakistani bloodshed, especially at the orders of America. Once the Taliban became a greater threat, the Pakistani people began to focus less on American errors. After prioritizing the threats, it’s now popular to hate the Taliban.

America must understand the difference between Pakistan fighting a war of survival and approving of American policy in the region.

Tribal militias, or lashkars, are attracting attention from the Western media and are hailed as a turning point, except lashkars have fought a low intensity conflict with the Taliban for many years without success. The recent uprising against five Taliban-controlled villages in Dhok Darra, Upper Dir, the neighboring district of Swat, is a good story, not necessarily a trend.

Having witnessed the destruction by the Pakistan army in Swat, villagers reportedly decided that they didn’t want to end up in craters too. The solution was to band together and defeat the Taliban so that the army wouldn’t touch their villages. They perceived danger either way, a poor sign for the government.

Pakistan must also be careful how much it uses lashkars to beat back the Taliban’s advances. Vigilantism is frowned upon in many countries, including America, for good reason: it’s dangerous. If the government fails to reinforce these villagers and leaves them defenseless against the Taliban, they could be sitting ducks. The use of lashkars must be coordinated, not erratic.

But Lashkars will likely have little use where the Pakistani army is headed next. Clashes around the Waziristan border have sparked for weeks, starting after Pakistani president Asif Zardari declared the tide of war would roll through Swat and into Waziristan, home of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan leader Baitullah Mehsud.

If Pakistan decides on total war in Waziristan, the destruction will be incomparable to Swat and its surrounding areas. Swat district is about 3,300 square miles and the fight was mostly contained to the central valley. South Waziristan, Mehsud’s headquarters, is almost 4,500 square miles by itself; North Waziristan adds another 3,000.

That automatically means more Pakistani soldiers, bombs, money, refugees, and time. How long can Pakistan's ailing economy fund a counterinsurgency?

The Pakistan army will certainly face stiffer resistance in Waziristan than in Swat, which was taken over only recently by an estimated 4,000 militants. While the Taliban wants to expand, it might not have seriously intended to control Swat the way it did - its advances may have even surprised itself. The Taliban could always melt out of Swat and back to the Afghan border.

They won’t run in Waziristan, where the
Pakistani army is restrained to its bases. For years Mehsud has been building his army in South Waziristan, a state within a state, and was adroitly organized by 2006 according to the Pakistan government. As a tribal chief, he also has more control over the local population.

In sharp contrast to Swat, where he holds less political sway, Mehsud reportedly commands up to 30,000 loyal fighters digging in to fight until the end. If about 15,000 Pakistani soldiers are still engaging 3,000 militants in Swat, 1,000 having been killed, the army will technically need 112, 500 soldiers for Waziristan. Academic, but 30-50,000 Pakistani soldiers have failed numerous times.

Tens of thousands of militants are tunneling into the surrounding agencies at this moment.

Pakistan's positive atmosphere won’t last without equally lasting results. The Swat operation was a success because it succeeded. Had the government failed, it would be facing extreme popular pressure to form another strategy. War in Waziristan will make Swat look like a practice spar and retest the patience and mood of Pakistan.

Momentum is fleeting. If the Pakistan army retreats from Waziristan, its tactics and strategy will once again be scrutinized, as has happened throughout the decade. Public approval could sink and quickly shift the focus - and blame - back to government failures and America’s flawed strategy in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani government has made clear that Waziristan is its end game, and theoretically America’s too since it claims Pakistan is the real problem. Therefore Pakistan’s army must not enter Waziristan until 100% committed, organized, and equipped for a long, brutal war against what will be its toughest foe. The government and army have almost no margin of error compared to Swat.

Airtight strategy must be comprehensively debated and implemented; stalling or failing in Waziristan isn’t an option.

June 10, 2009

Reconciliation Before Statehood

Faction strife and conflicting ideologies between Palestinians will prevent any resolution between Israel and Palestine. President Obama is racing to create two states, but he should first consider patching the tears between Hamas and Fatah.

A two-state solution is unlikely without Palestinian unity.

Obama indirectly admitted as much by appealing for all Palestinians to renounce violence. Not mere comfort for Israel, Obama knows that those who support armed resistance cannot be isolated and excluded from a Palestinian state. Palestinians must be engaged in total.

That means engaging the organizations they support. Three options have a chance at restoring Palestinian unity; defeating Hamas militarily, marginalizing it politically in an election, or sincere negotiations. Elimination or assimilation.

The military option has lost all credibility in eliminating Hamas and its followers. Since President Obama told Palestinians that violence is a dead end, America along with Israel must live by that same principle. Multiple wars in Gaza have proven their futility and the blockade has failed to stop the flow of arms.

Another war would be disastrous and pointless, while the blockade only slows the bleeding. These aren’t solutions.

If Israel and America realize this but still refuse to engage Hamas diplomatically, resolving the deadlock will take a national election. If Hamas is so unpopular, let the people throw it out and unify themselves with Fatah. The problem is that Hamas could have 25% of the vote. Many Fatah followers are also disenchanted.

An election isn’t likely to produce stability by itself.

America doesn’t want to validate Hamas with diplomatic relations, but in reality the two sides are already talking through movements and statements. Obama may even be forced to officially broker with Hamas now. It has been so receptive, comparatively speaking, to Obama’s speech in Cairo that refusing to negotiate could reflect the blame back on Obama.

That could be Hamas’s plan, but Obama can’t extend his hand then pull it back. Hamas and America need to reconcile as much as Hamas and Fatah in order to advance the peace process.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal recently made his own trip to Egypt for the first time in months, meeting with intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Meshaal stated that Fatah raids on Hamas members in the West Bank have strained the dialogue, but he left the door open.

“What is happening in the West Bank cannot be accepted," Meshaal after meeting Suleiman. “We will pursue our policy in cooperating with the Egyptian efforts to reach a real reconciliation, but the most difficult obstacle hampering reaching a Palestinian reconciliation is what is happening in the West Bank.”

Of course Hamas has arrested its share of Fatah members. Egypt should immediately push for a ceasefire on both sides.

But Meshaal further intimated that Israel pressured Fatah to crack down. “Everyone knows that the obstacle is Israel,” he said. “Hamas is keen on achieving reconciliation with Fatah. But these obstacles must be removed so as to create a better atmosphere between the two parties.”

Hamas always plays hard. Meshaal extended his own hand to Obama while driving a wedge between him and Israel: “There is a new language from President Obama, but we expect real pressure on Israelis. There are demands Israel stop the settlements but this is not the price we are after... although it's an essential step.”

President Obama should attack here first since he deliberately created the issue of settlements to barter with. A grand bargain is unrealistic; one issue should build on the next. Hamas won’t drop its arms for a settlement cap. Instead, America should attempt to trade a settlement freeze for Hamas’ recognition of Israel. Note this doesn't mean a "Jewish state."

The exchange could be immediate and is realistically, not abstractly, connected. Freezing settlements is an initial step towards recognizing the state of Palestine. Meshaal said his ultimate goal is a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders; if he’s is ready to accept that state, he necessarily accepts an Israeli state. He would then have to say so publicly.

From Israel’s perspective, existential and diplomatic recognition is a similar first step, and a good price for halting settlements. It won't get a "Jewish state" from Hamas, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia.

By directly negotiating and achieving a pragmatic goal, relations on all sides could begin to improve. Success breeds success. America and Israel would have less reason to isolate Fatah from Hamas. The blockade could potentially fall if Gilad Schalit is released, allowing Gaza and the West Bank to integrate and attempt to build a consensus. The point is to deal directly with Hamas to understand exactly how to end the conflict.

All hypothetical, but if the Palestinian territories stay divided, its people will too.

June 9, 2009

Muddy Water

The positive response to President Obama's speech in Cairo is evident across Pakistan's newspapers, and somewhat surprising after their harsh reporting on the missteps of American officials. Obama's words sounded sweet despite few details on Afghanistan and Kashmir's widely noticed omission. Pakistanis desperately want change.

But they aren't confused why Kashmir was left out.

India, through its power and lobby, has gracefully (some would say sinisterly) wrapped itself around Obama's circle, so much that he can't move on Kashmir. The latest American official to feel the pressure is Bruce Riedel, who recently stated, "I don't think that the Obama Administration intends to meddle in Kashmir." He's currently taking fire in the Pakistani press.

Those who believe Obama would realistically enter Kashmir negotiations weren't paying attention. He never talked about Kashmir until several days before the election and never campaigned on it like Palestine, so it's not surprising if he stays on the sideline.

India has made clear that it's in charge. Israel doesn't have that leverage.

But what to make of Mr. Riedel, one of Obama's South Asia and counterinsurgency "experts"? Judging by his actions, it's unclear what makes him so proficient in guerrilla warfare. Only a week ago Riedel published an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, a crafty defensive offensive against Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Though he appears to defend Pakistan's arsenal, Riedel's article sparked more than a few counter-responses in the Pakistani press.

Two concerns rose above the rest. First, American policy towards Pakistan hasn't, "oscillated wildly over the past 30 years between blind enchantment and unsuccessful isolation," as Riedel claimed along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Rather, this policy unfolded roughly as designed.

America was distracted from South Asia in the 1990's, but the plan was to use Pakistan then leave when that use ran out. American officials knew the plan when they returned after 9/11 and when General Musharraf resigned. The plan was stupid and insular, but not wild. The difference now is that this unbalanced system totally collapsed.

Riedel was also criticized for saying, "It is in Pakistan’s interest to get into the arms control debate on its own terms. Islamabad should put the no-first-use pledge back on the table with India, and it should sign the CTBT without demanding Indian adherence first... If it wants to get into the global arms control architecture and get a deal like the one India has gotten, Pakistan needs to show that the days of A.Q. Khan, Kargil and Mumbai are over for good and that it is addressing all the challenges it faces."

But the attitude is reversed in Pakistan. It shouldn't have to sacrifice to India just to "get into the debate" and America is who needs to prove itself. The press still debates America's true intentions. President Obama and his staff may be underestimating the history between India and Pakistan. Instead of simply telling Pakistan that India isn't a threat, relieve the tension between them by addressing Kashmir, poverty, and political representation.

Averting a crisis means being objective. Ongoing statements like Mr. Reidel's have branded him - and by extension the Obama administration - with a pro-Indian bias in Pakistan.

Not good for the co-architect of Obama's new strategy in Afghanistan, a strategy which itself received tepid reviews. Why is Mr. Riedel speaking for Obama in Pakistan and on Kashmir anyway? He doesn't appear to understand propaganda effects as well as he should.

And Mr. Riedel isn't Obama's only counterinsurgency "expert" taking heat in Pakistan, the center of the counterinsurgency universe. David Kilcullen is periodically mocked for his prediction that in six months Islamabad could collapse and al Qaeda will steal the nukes.

General David Petraeus is still jeered for his dire prognosis of "two weeks." Even if Petraeus didn't make such a statement, as he claims, what does it say about America's propaganda efforts that some Pakistanis still believe he did?

Add these problems to US envoy Richard Holbrooke, who’s being lampooned in cartoons, along with ambassador Anne Patterson, not so popular herself, and one wonders what is actually happening in Pakistan. Is this the best image America can project to the Pakistani people?

Last week Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit said in his briefing, "We consider this a malicious campaign against Pakistan which in our view is contrary to facts. It is counter-productive to the collective objective of defeating militants and terrorism and also raises serious doubts in the minds of the people of Pakistan about the ... objective of those engaging in negative propaganda."

President Obama's words are clear but his officials are muddying the water. While his reputation is still golden his officials appear to be coal, and their actions are outpacing his words. How long before they tarnish Obama's reputation in a war theater that he now owns? Or are they acting on his orders?

We probably aren't supposed to know.

June 8, 2009


Several days before President Obama spoke in Cairo, Osama bin Laden released a counter message in which he, among other things, blamed Pakistan's refugee crisis on America.

To which US special envoy Richard Holbrooke replied, "The idea that anyone is responsible for the refugee crisis other than al-Qaeda and the Taliban and the other people that have caused such tragedy in Pakistan is ludicrous. This entire problem began with al-Qaeda and its associates and everybody in the world knows that. It's silly indeed to respond to such a ludicrous charge.”

But it’s Holbrooke who looks ludicrous in the Pakistani press.

"The Special Envoy was back on a three-day visit,” read an editorial in The Nation. “Increasingly he looked and acted like a viceroy. What a picture it was to watch him fielding questions from the media with President Asif Zardari solemnly standing next to him and Messrs Qureshi, Qaira and Rehman Malik obediently, in attendance.”

Mr. Holbrooke had visited Pakistan to survey refugee camps in Swat Valley and provide physical proof that America sincerely cares about Pakistan. He pledged an additional $200 million dollars in humanitarian aid on top of the $300 million America’s already donated. Pakistanis are grateful to receive this assistance, but they feel that America owes it to them.

“Oh and Uncle Holbrooke, thank you for the 200 million dollars,” quipped Shakir Husain of the News International. “Much appreciated.”

Mr. Holbrooke would be wise to understand that sentiment, and also the obviousness that his very presence is proof that America feels responsible behind closed doors.

Unfortunately, his denial of blame is the least of his problems. His interaction with Pakistani president Asif Zardari provoked howls of indignation.

“It was ridiculous for the president to present himself at Holbrooke’s press conference,” writes Ejaz Haider in the Daily Times. “It was shameful to see him standing in between the American envoy and his own foreign minister, looking like an aide.”

Mr. Holbrooke didn’t seem to sense the hostility, or else he did when he appealed, “I hope people of Pakistan will understand our country’s leading role in responding quickly in this hour of need. President Obama is personally involved in it as US really cares for Pakistan.”

Desperation is difficult to conceal though, and attracts the sharks. Ghazi Salahuddin wrote in the News International, “Holbrooke repeatedly underlined the dominant US share in humanitarian assistance given to Pakistan and seemed anxious for its appreciation by the people of Pakistan.”

The taunts intensified. Shakir Husain observed, “By the looks of it Mr Holbrooke spends as much time in Pakistan as President Zardari, and definitely much more time than ex-president Musharraf. Maybe we should just give him a Pakistani passport to make his life easier at the immigration counter?”

Already losing popularity, Holbrooke dug his hole still deeper. The Nation reported, “When asked at a press conference at Islamabad on Friday that the US was not respecting Pakistanis' sentiments against these drones, Mr Holbrooke maintained that not a single Pakistani, official or member of the civil society, had mentioned the issue to him.”

But it turns out Pakistani officials had mentioned drone attacks, most notably prime minister Yousaf Gilani, and he isn’t happy with Holbrooke.

“We are strongly against these attacks because they are against our strategy of segregating peace-loving tribal people and militants,” said Gilani, who made clear that the attacks were brought up. “We have asked the US to provide Pakistan the technology and the possession of drones so that in case of credible intelligence, we ourselves can take action.”

Amazingly Mr. Holbrooke’s troubles don’t end here. He also drew criticism for wooing opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and is accused of softening Sharif’s position on drones. America doesn’t appear to have learned from Musharraf because Sharif is now taking fire for his tacit silence, so much that the chief of his party, the PML-N, wrote an editorial assuring his opposition to drone attacks.

These events are disturbingly simultaneous to President Obama’s speech in Cairo. If what Obama said is true, it’s hard to imagine he would favor the image Mr. Holbrooke’s projecting in Pakistan. Only recently General David Petaeus claimed, “anti-US sentiment has been increasing in Pakistan.”

Now why could that be?

President Obama must realize that American officials are too close to the fire and should pull them back. There’s no reason they can’t work quieter and a little more hands off, it may even help them succeed. They should also be more truthful if America wishes to be trusted again.

June 7, 2009

Waiting to Exhale

President Obama is breathing a sigh of relief as Lebanon's election results are counted. In a record turnout, the Western-backed March 14th coalition has won at least 67 of 128 seats for a 52% majority. Another 3 seats are expected, leaving the original balance as it is - 71 to 57.

Hezbollah has conceded defeat while March 14th supporters celebrate what they consider Lebanon's first free election in decades.

Lebanon is full of hybrid winner/losers. The March 14th coalition retained its advantage but failed to pull away from Hezbollah. Israel dodged a bullet but could still battle Hezbollah at any moment. America is relieved that it won't have to wrestle over assistance, but made strategic errors with visiting officials.

Hezbollah failed to increase its seats but also held on to the power it has. Though failing to step forward, Hezbollah hasn't suffered a setback. Iran and Syria maintain a powerful proxy even though their interference likely weakened Hezbollah's chances with moderates and swing voters, and also scared away votes of their Christian ally, Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).

For it's part Hezbollah is saying the right things. Firmly entrenched in Lebanese politics, the final phase of guerrilla warfare, Nasrallah has no reason to create unrest, not until his army is challenged militarily. Hezbollah might lose its veto, but Israel is not going to get its wish; the Lebanese army will not disarm Hezbollah.

Hassan Fadlallah, a Hezbollah MP, told the AFP, "What matters to us now is that Lebanon turns a new page, one based on partnership, co-operation and understanding... Whoever wants political stability, the preservation of national unity and the resurrection of Lebanon will find no choice but to accept the principle of consensus."

Michel de Chadarevian, from the FPM said, "Even if we had won we would have formed a national unity government.

The Lebanese people have been allowed to speak, even if they're backed by foreign shadows. Sounds like a good day in Lebanon, though failing to move either way means that Lebanon will likely remain deadlocked and explosive. The current is swift and Lebanon's gone. The world has already shifted its attention to Iran's presidential election on June 12th.

June 6, 2009

The UN Challenge

Ban Ki-moon told the UN Security Council on Friday, “Whenever and wherever there are credible allegations for the violations of international humanitarian law there should be a proper investigation. I'd like to ask the Sri Lankan government to recognize the international call for accountability and full transparency.”

Ban is taking a risk, albeit a necessary one, by calling for an investigation in Colombo. Evidence of war crimes is likely to be found on both sides. The Tamil resistance shouldn't be prosecuted if the government is exonerated, for this inequality would negatively contribute to reconstruction and reconciliation. Ban will also run into a wall with the Sri Lankan government.

During a speech in May, Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa declared, "It is my duty to protect the people of this country. I don't need lectures from Western representatives."

Rajapaksa further demonstrated how interconnected the geopolitical world is: "We have seen how Afghanistan is bombed. Those who come to preach to us [have] seen how Afghanistan is bombed. It must be made clear that before accusing others, you must have the strength to know what you do yourself."

Doubtful that America predicted it would lose credibility in Sri Lanka because of Afghanistan, but that’s another story.

Ban Ki-moon will be lucky to get an investigation team into the country, let alone conclude its inspection, analyze the results and punish those found guilty. Sri Lanka’s response to war crimes allegations is common though; Israel recently gave Ban the same cold shoulder by denying visas and entry to South African judge Robert Goldstone. He and his 15 member UN/HRW investigation were forced to enter Gaza through Egypt. Israel says it won't cooperate in any way, just like Sri Lanka.

Since Sri Lanka and Israel already mirror each other, Ban should demand the same from Israel as he is from Sri Lanka - “accountability and full transparency.” Doing so would create a great challenge for the UN. As a result, the world could witness a test in comparative geopolitics. Not comparative in the traditional sense, but the comparison of how two states are treated by the global community.

The future will bring its judgments, innocent or guilty. What is known right now is that Israel has an aura of protection that Sri Lanka doesn't. While American officials attempted to stall an aid package to Colombo, Israel faced no consequences for its heavy-handed tactics in Gaza and Lebanon, where war crimes allegations still echo. Scrutinized by many Muslim states, the perception of a double standard damages Israel, America, and the UN.

Earlier this week, Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah told the Jakarta Post, "We are not trying to compare the situation in Sri Lanka and that of Gaza. But we see the calls for rights probe are political. Why did they reject or respond unenthusiastically to the initiation of rights violations investigations into Israel's assault on Gaza."

Faizasyah wondered what many Muslims are already thinking.

Ban would thus be wise to pursue each investigation with equal vigor and judge the results with equal justice. Israel and Sri Lanka are equal states, the Palestinians and Tamils equal people. No more covering up evidence; Ban should make a full release of the UN’s findings in Gaza and Sri Lanka.

But ultimately Ban’s dilemma may end up on President Obama's desk, being a big UN supporter himself, and he could turn it into advantage or disadvantage. His administration has sent its first message by pushing for an investigation in Sri Lanka while staying silent on Gaza. His speech in Cairo was greeted with the same reaction in every Muslim state - nice words, now back them up. War crimes could be his first real test.

Every strategy Obama discussed in his speech will take time to unfold. Israel and Palestine won't be solved for years, neither will Afghanistan, Iran is years from nuclear weapons, Africa will keep violently churning. Meanwhile Goldstone's report on Gaza comes in August and offers a clear view of the UN and America's notion of justice.

If a report on Sri Lanka follows soon after, the UN, specifically America, must ensure that equal treatment is given to both war zones. In the aftermath of his speech, President Obama can't afford to marginalize the Palestinians any more than they already are.

June 4, 2009

Listening for Shadows

Let's begin at the top and slide down hill. Almost everything President Obama said in his speech at Cairo University was good for the Muslim world to hear. He had to speak of Muslim history, of East and West embracing each other, and of understanding each other through religion. Theoretically he could have said anything, but Obama's options were actually limited. It had to be a lovefest.

His speech was also standard compared to expectations, unreasonably high as they were, and glossed over many critical details with cliches. Of course there was only so much he could say, but Obama never really rocked the boat. Here in America, conservative pundits skewered Obama's position on Palestine. Some returned to the unrealistic argument that the Palestinians are to blame for their own problems. Even if this argument is true, which the author doesn't believe, it does nothing to advance the peace process.

The argument over settlements in the West Bank seems to be contrived pressure on Israel when in fact there is none, and also serves as a flimsy bargaining chip with Hamas. Obama states:

"Hamas does have support among some Palestinians," Obama stated, "but they also have to recognize they have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, recognize Israel's right to exist.

At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.

And Israel must also live up to its obligation to ensure that Palestinians can live and work and develop their society. Just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel's security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank. Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be a critical part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress."

Obama is looking at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an equation to balance; good in theory, difficult to realistically apply. Hamas is being asked to do three things: end violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist. These demands can be extrapolated over the entire Palestinian resistance.

In return, Israel must permanently end settlement expansion, lift the thousands of roadblocks in the West Bank, and dismantle the blockade of Gaza. On the surface this trade may seem equal, but reality demands more from the Palestinians.

In sharp contrast to his speech at AIPAC, where he issued proclamations on Jerusalem’s ownership, the Holy City was found only once in Cairo: "Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra."

Translation: Israel will allow free worship during its control of Jerusalem. Palestinians also want an apology in exchange for their blessing, which Israel is reluctant to give.

President Obama claims "to speak the truth as best I can," but he swept Jerusalem, the crown jewel of the conflict, under the rug. Afghanistan received surprisingly similar treatment. After running down a list of the Muslim world's most basic inventions, incredible as some of them are, he spoke of each conflict's history.

Except Afghanistan, which disturbingly was Obama's Bushiest moment - 9/11, 9/11, 9/11. Not a word of America's past history or blunders in the region. Pakistan got two sentences, both about America's aid package that everyone already knows of. Not a word on Kashmir.

Obama's policy is strongest on Iraq, though withdrawing all American troops by the 2012 deadline could be problematic. He must be ready to react to any delay.

Obama committed his most serious errors with Iran. I don't believe, as many American pundits apparently do, that Obama's reference to the CIA planned coup in 1953 was an apology, groveling or a sign of weakness. It's the truth.

But the only other thing he could think of was the hostage crisis in 1980. If he wanted to demonstrate that America's leadership has truly changed, he would've been more creative with his references. An apology to the flight victims of Iran Air Flight 655, for instance, would have captured Iran's attention.

It would have been political suicide at home though, and Obama’s stance on Iranian nuclear weapons is no safer. His argument appears to be a nuclear free world - starting with Iran. That won't persuade one Iranian atom.

And while Obama speaks of rebuilding trust with Iran, American and Israeli covert operations in Iran are becoming common knowledge. Already a truism outside America, this is the main reason why Obama's peace overtures sound so hollow to Iran. Iran will undoubtedly play gracious so long as Obama does, but it also knows his words juxtapose with the movements of American and Israeli operatives.

President Obama's speech was less than expected. A good start? Sure. Praising Islam’s virtues is a good thing to do as an individual and is the right message from America, and seeking common ground is the correct long-term strategy. Everyone gets it, Bush is gone. It's a new day.

But Obama's hands were also tied, his statements often general and simplistic, and reality blocks his rhetoric at many points. He was almost too cool. Even if he wanted to show more passion, he was constrained by political backlash at home.

Critics of Obama's critics rebuke the notion that words are useless. Give him a chance to act they say, and rightfully so. But Obama has already taken action and he can be judged on that. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak's unannounced visit before Obama left for Cairo, sending Joe Biden to Lebanon, deep interference in Pakistan while tag teaming with India, CIA agents in Iran, Jerusalem under Israeli control...

This is reality, not words, not conjecture. These are shadows of Obama's true policy.

June 3, 2009

COIN 101

Finally a long awaited admission of guilt by the American government. A military investigation revealed that on May 4th, American troops broke protocol while commencing their bombing runs on the Bala Buluk district of Fatah province in Afghanistan. In particular, one warplane doublebacked but failed to reconfirm its target. American officials admitfewer civilians would have died if the rules of engagement had been followed.

Afghan officials claim over 100 civilians died in the attack. America has admitted to 30, while a separate UN investigation concluded roughly 60.

This incident is bad enough in isolation. For years the American military has told the Afghan people that it takes every precaution to limit civilian casualties. The facts speak otherwise as events like Bala Buluk and Azizabad continue to occur, as if unstoppable. Though civilian deaths have been avoided in numerous attacks, guerrilla warfare is not a scale; good actions don't negate bad actions. These errors are simply unacceptable and American promises to do better ring hollow with each dead body.

But everything is interconnected in guerrilla warfare, as the bombing of Bala Baluk demonstrates. At the time of the attack, President Obama was readying the White House for Afghan president Hamid Karzai and Pakistani president Asif Zardari. Instead of staying on message the debate was sidetracked by the news, turning the trilateral summit into damage control.

Here we are a month later, with these new reports surfacing the same day as President Obama's speech at Cairo University. Terrible timing once again. His message to the Muslim world has been hijacked before he takes the stage. He can spin his golden rhetoric, but it won't change the ground in Afghanistan. Actions speak louder than words.

The original attack and reports detailing its errors are both military and propaganda failures, suggesting that America's counterinsurgency strategy still has deep flaws. And America's explanations have holes too.

American officials tried to bounce the blame back on the Taliban for putting civilians in danger. They claim that the Taliban fired from civilian buildings in order to provoke an air strike. The Taliban most certainly could have done so and they share the blame, but has America has forgotten that it's fighting a guerrilla war? These are guerrilla tactics and they clearly work because America fell into the trap. Who's fault is that?

Even more problematic is the discrepancy of death tolls between Afghanistan, America, and the UN. Beyond signaling disarray on their part, the Taliban is still clearly in control of information. How does the death toll become so high? Either Taliban agents or supporters in the government, in the police and army, in the press, in the villages. America has no one to manage information except at its bases.

America is always behind. Body counts automatically come out high leaving America at the immediate disadvantage of chipping them down, through flimsy excuses like the Taliban grenading houses (which American officials later dropped) or technical jargon like military satellite video. Few Afghans are privy to this evidence. They're left only with the memory of an American air strike that killed dozens fellow Afghans.

Now they remember these deaths could have been prevented.

Many of America's problems aren't flaws or aberrations either, but a manifestation of guerrilla warfare. Counterinsurgency is difficult enough when executed perfectly. Commit errors and failure is inevitable.

Protectionism: Bad for Diplomacy Too

Israel can breathe easy. Diplomatic skirmishing over Iran and settlements in the West Bank is no big deal, President Obama said so himself. Contrary to a New York Times report that his administration is considering a tougher stance against Israel, America has no plans to change the relationship.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak stopped by the White House today to make sure of that, Obama's last meeting before he left for Cairo.

Unfortunately for the Middle East peace process, disagreement between America and Israeli would be more productive than maintaining the status quo. Competition breeds innovation. It is precisely America’s incontrovertible support of Israel that infuriates so many Muslims and Muslim states, from Morocco to Pakistan to Indonesia.

That’s why the recent New York Times report carried a glimmer of hope for those who sympathize with the Palestinians. At last America would use its leverage with Israel - economic assistance, weapons contracts, diplomatic protection - to forge a fair two-state solution, one with a chance of enduring the centuries.

But it was nothing more than a dream. A real rift never existed and there will be no fundamental change to the system. Obama isn’t the first president to disagree with Israel’s actions in Palestine yet keep the relationship as is, but he must realize that he has already dashed many hopes.

Not the hope of ill treatment against Israel, but of unbiased relations equal to America’s other allies and Muslim states.

In reality few of America’s punitive designs would succeed in altering Israel’s behavior. Israel still welcomes American assistance, but the two states have worked for years on minimizing economic hand outs as Israel’s economy diversified into the most sophisticated market in the Middle East.

The American flow of high-grade weapons technology to Israel stands in the same position. Israel could always use more weapons from the most advanced arms manufacturer in the world, but Israel has also built its own robust military-industrial complex. While cutting off American dollars and bombs would sting, Israel would retain the ability to defend itself.

But an unnamed American official mentioned one option that could pressure Israel where it hurts. Again, the goal is not to treat Israel poorly, only fairly in comparison to the rest of the region. Israel has grown too comfortable in its relationship with America and gives the impression that it’s in control, as evidenced by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s repeated refusal to halt settlement expansion and his claim over Jerusalem.

This could change if America repositions its protectionist stance with Israel in the UN, and the perfect opportunity has been presented.

Richard Goldstone, a South African judge, entered Gaza earlier this week with the mission of investigating possible war crimes committed by Israel and Hamas. His 15 member team, appointed by the UN, will have a week to survey the destruction before presenting its findings in August. Whatever is found must see the light of justice.

Both Israel and Hamas likely committed war crimes during their war in January. Israel despises being lumped together with Hamas, but its response, however justified from Hamas rockets, was as disproportionate as it was counterproductive. Assume that Hamas committed war crimes. This doesn’t give Israel the right to respond in kind, nor should it want to stoop to the level of a terrorist organization.

The usual argument, made by Obama and Tony Blair among others, is that no democracy would stand idle as rockets rained on its cities and people. This argument is flawed though. Most countries would react, but every reaction isn’t necessarily correct. Israel initiated a counterinsurgency with massive air bombardment and left Gaza in ruins for the world to view.

An eye for an eye makes the world blind.

If Israel didn’t break or bend the international laws of war, it certainly ignored the laws of guerrilla warfare. Except for slowing the fire of rockets and attracting a modicum of Muslim criticism towards Hamas, Israel failed to achieve its self-stated objectives of removing Hamas, permanently ending rocket fire, and destroying Gaza’s extensive tunnel system. The battle never ends in guerrilla warfare and Israel has been harassed by war crimes allegations that it can't keep running from.

Whether Israel committed war crimes during in Gaza is for Goldstone’s team to conclude. What is known though is that Israel’s only line of defense in the UN is America, and now is the time to apply pressure. Israel cares little for the UN, but loosening America’s absolutist protectionism would demonstrate to the world that it’s serious about promoting equality in the Middle East and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And maybe the message would get through to Israel too.

June 1, 2009


Poor Lebanon. Try as it does, struggle after struggle keeps blocking its progress. Lebanon is a hard luck kid, skilled and ambitious but plagued by misfortune. Another wave of foreign hegemony approaches just as it was getting back on its feet.

D-Day is almost here.

Lebanon, a continual theater of world war, is holding its highly anticipated parliamentary election on June 7th and regional power is for the taking. Beirut has already seen its share of pre-election action with more to follow. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton visited last month and Vice President Joe Biden dropped by the other day for tea.

After meeting with Lebanese president Michel Suleiman, Biden insisted, “I did not come here to back any institution or political party.” At the same time he added, “The US will evaluate the shape of its assistance program based on the composition of the new government and the policies it is advocating.”

America increased its military and economic aid to Lebanon by several billion dollars following the July War in 2006. Biden’s reference to Hezbollah implied that America will cut off economic assistance if the designated terrorist organization wins a majority in parliament. Israel has delivered a similar message, claiming it will consider Lebanon an enemy if Hezbollah gains control of the government.

So goes support for democracy in the Middle East.

It’s difficult enough to hold an election in Lebanon under normal conditions. Fractious division can be found in every neighborhood - those for and against Hezbollah. Further rifts between Muslims have increased tensions in addition to militarized Christian elements, all consolidating their power for June 7th.

The world is rough though; external fuel will be dumped on this fire until the polls open. Israel is simulating war games throughout the week, its so called “Doomsday scenario.” Shlomo Dror, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said, “The Second Lebanon War revealed that the home-front was not well prepared for war and citizens found it hard to adapt to the special situation.”

Israel claims that simulating a Hezbollah-Iranian attack days before Lebanon’s election is coincidental.

As the war games finish, another visitor will sweep through the region two days before the election. President Obama is set to deliver a speech on American-Muslim relations at Cairo University, 360 miles from Beirut, and he will certainly mention Lebanon by name or through innuendo. More timing too coincidental to be coincidence.

American and Israeli pressure alone is enough to distort Lebanese democracy, but these shock waves are compounded by Syrian and Iranian interference. While Syria used to be a primary actor, its influence has been eclipsed by Iranian hard and soft power. Iranian influence in Lebanon is a much more realistic threat to Israel than a warhead.

Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, recently emerged from hiding (from the Mossad) to address his followers via video link. Cause of celebration: the ninth anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal in 2000 after 22 years of occupation. Never one to back down, Nasrallah’s bravado lived up to his reputation.

Beginning with Biden and Clinton, he warned their visits raised, “strong suspicion and amounted to a clear and detailed interference in Lebanon's affairs.” In a jab at Biden’s limitations on aid, Nasrallah told the crowd in Baalbek, “The Islamic Republic of Iran, and in particular Ayatollah Khamenei, will not hold back on anything that will help Lebanon be a strong and dignified state, and without conditions.”

“Israel is preparing itself and Lebanon is not taking concrete action to strengthen the army and arming it, or even to adopt a defensive strategy,” Nasrallah said unabashedly. “On the contrary, they are working on eliminating the element of strength that achieved victory in the 2006 war. Who can secure these weapons for Lebanon? Vote for the opposition [Hezbollah] and I will point you in that direction.”

Nasrallah then pointed east, towards Iran.

Realistic solutions for Lebanon are scarce. The situation has been brought to such brinkmanship that neither America, Israel, or Iran can blink. All have made clear that they aren’t leaving Lebanon regardless of the election’s outcome. Hezbollah’s permanence intertwines with Israel to ensnare America and Iran. No one could abort even if they wanted to.

Ideally, Lebanon should establish itself as the Switzerland of the Middle East, an obvious dream. Instead its people are being exhausted by outside forces competing at the host’s expense. As long as Lebanon serves as a battleground for the rich and powerful, it will never experience true democracy and thus never stabilize.