October 31, 2009

River of Propaganda

The Litani River runs deeper than normal. The fate of Lebanon, Israel, and the greater Middle East are bound to this river and what occurs south of its banks. UN Resolution 1701 forbids paramilitary forces - explicitly Hezbollah - from operating between the river and Israel’s northern border.

So how do Katyusha rockets keep landing in Israel’s backyard? If not Hezbollah then surely one of its affiliates or a rogue group, thus pinning blame on the government for failing to implement 1701. Not so, says Lebanese President Michel Suleiman. The waters are far murkier.

Exploding weapons caches and Katyusha rockets continue unabated despite 1701’s demand for total disarmament. The steady rhythm allows Israel to periodically sound an alarm and file complaints with the UN, propaganda in itself since Israel doesn’t realistically expect action. But lately some suspicious activity has Lebanon wondering if the string of explosions is too coincidental.

Naturally Hezbollah is up to its own games, storing weapons among civilian populations, overlooking smaller militant groups, and discovering “spy devices.” Hezbollah’s claim was verified by UN Special Coordinator Michael Williams, who told Reuters, “These do look like some sort of espionage device.”

"Preliminary indications are that these explosions were caused by explosive charges contained in unattended underground sensors which were placed in this area by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) apparently during the 2006 war," UNIFIL said in a statement.

Now Lebanon is accusing Israel of violating 1701.

“There is a difference between spying carried out by people who have been detected and detained,” President Michel Suleiman told reporters, “and detectors and spying equipment which have been found during last week. These spy networks discovered on Sunday, in means of spying, are a clear violation by Israel of the UN Resolution 1701, even more so than Israel routine violation of Lebanese airspace.”

That was the week before last.

This past Wednesday Suleiman alleged that Tuesday’s rocket attack on Kiryat Shmona served Israel's interests and an Israeli agent may have launched the projectile. He stressed that one “must not rule out” the possibility. Suleiman “slammed” Israel's response, saying the rocket fire is pretext "to continue its violation of Lebanese sovereignty."

The next day Lebanon's ambassador to the UN, Noaf Salaam, sent missives to Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council condemning Israel's recent artillery fire on the village of Houla, where a Katyusha rocket was fired last week. Salaam warned that Israel, “is exhibiting signs of an imminent attack,” before clarifying that Israel is laying the groundwork for future operations.

Suleiman, as general of the army, knows his way around national security and defense; busting Israeli spy networks has become a routine hobby. He carries an abundance of credibility that Hezbollah lacks so he hasn’t stepped into this affair without good reason. If he’s correct, we’re face to face with rhetorically-fused warfare.

Initial disclosure: Israel could be victim of a propaganda attack if the charges are false. Lebanon could be creating distractions from its political dispute and conspiracy is a possibility. But Israel has triggered a batch of red flags starting with the explosive devices. Israel periodically detonating Hezbollah explosives to file UN complaints and manipulate the West - a genius strategy, until it was exposed.

And beyond propaganda lies real military escalation. Manipulating the explosions into justification, Israel is expanding its intelligence gathering through spy cells and fly-overs. Israeli drones are said to be frequent guests below the Litani, with one being fired upon the other day.

Williams said the drones violated 1701 and are, “not particularly helpful at a time of obvious tension in the south." Yet they will likely increase their flights.

The Ketyusha rockets have served their purpose in encroaching on the Lebanese border. For Suleiman to allege Israel sabotages Hezbollah and that Israel is firing Ketyusha rockets at itself reveals his belief in these acts. His assumption is based partially on the growing trend and partly on the fact that Israel shells Ketyusha launch sites immediately after firing.

Israel says it wants to hit the attackers before they flee - Lebanon thinks it’s destroying evidence.

But one last coincidence breaches the word's boundary. A few hours before the latest rocket, Defense Minister Ehud Barak toured the North and praised the “nine years of calm we have had” in the region, “which were interrupted for a number of painful weeks during the Second Lebanon War.”

“I hope that we can continue this quiet,” Barak said, before warning his audience that Israel is, "preparing for other possibilities, including the possibility that you will be tested again."

Soon after he left a rocket fell harmlessly in an Israeli field, and days later Lebanon’s ambassador warned of Israeli escalation. Octopus Mountain has no certainty of the situation in Lebanon, which is exactly what all parties desired. We’ve been flooded with propaganda.

October 30, 2009

The Round Up

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bids farewell to Pakistan and heads to the UAE, Pakistan's press presents her with a spectrum of the Nation, the News international, and the Daily Times.

Not comforting for America to hear the liberal Daily Times remark, "Today, Pakistanis certainly don’t hate Al Qaeda as much as they hate the US."

From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe

Afghanistan just slipped a step closer to Zimbabwe. The mere prospect of boycotting the election sent shudders through the White House and Pentagon.

Dr. Abdullah, along with half the country, isn't confident that a runoff would be fairer than the first round. Abdullah's primary demand, the firing of Azizullah Lodin, chief of the Independent Election Commission, was rejected by Karzai and Lodin. Sources now claim Abdullah is leaning towards a boycott.

“I think there will be power-sharing," Khalilzad told CNN. "Both want power-sharing. The difference is that Karzai wanted to be first declared the winner or win the election and then offer something from a position of strength, while Abdullah Abdullah wanted to go to a second round but have a power-sharing agreement without the vote."

But Khalilzad also revealed that sources say Abdullah, "may not stay in the race. First, he doesn't have much money left. Second, I think that he thinks that, given the situation, he's likely to lose, and maybe he'll get less votes than he did in the first round, so that would be embarrassing."

Al Jazeera's Jonah Hull reports from Kabul, "His spokesman [says] that a final decision hasn't yet been made by Dr Abdullah to react to the fact that many of those conditions have not been met. We're now told [Abdullah] is in intensive meetings; he is still making up his mind."

A senior U.S official, wouldn't comment on the likelihood of Abdullah pulling out of the election, saying, "The U.S. remains committed to working with the Afghans to conclude their Presidential election process. If the two candidates agree a solution that is acceptable to both of them, in the interests of Afghanistan and is constitutionally sound, then that is a matter for them.”

Beautiful propaganda. Not reality.

Boycott is a word US officials especially fear, and Abdullah is choosing that route if he won’t work with Karzai or resign outright. A boycott is, theoretically, a good play. If Abdullah doesn’t have the numbers or cash, extorting Karzai’s fraud could be his only means of pressure and leverage. Otherwise he could get nothing.

But his strategy would not be good for President Obama. Any delay to the runoff will set an election back until spring, spur months of negotiation, or leave the situation in a standoff, the worst of all possible scenarios, though all are deadly. The White House will do everything it can to facilitate a deal, and it may succeed, but threats loom large. Obvious actually.

These men don’t want to work together and their actions are making compromise more unlikely than ever. Karzai believes he won and doesn’t like Abdullah. “Karzai was belligerent as hell,” said one senior European diplomat. Abdullah definitely doesn’t like Karzai and already rejected a potential position, choosing to serve in the opposition instead. Abdullah knows he can’t win, that Karzai survives through pure numbers, not good governance.

It must drive him mad, to the point of doing something desperate. He isn't going to forfeit.

But Afghanistan cannot descend to Zimbabwe’s depths. Power-sharing agreements are fragile, some would say futile, when one candidate believes he won and the other believes the winner is corrupt. One fraudulent election leads to another, to months of political jostling, to conflict, and a canceled election would be cataclysmic. President Obama should have launched his troops by now if he has chosen that path. He's being militarily dictated by a runaway democracy.

Dr. Abdullah is already being tipped to boycott according to the Dawn. We eagerly await him taking the stage - Obama does not.

Quote of the Day

"We are fighting a war that was imposed on us. It is not our war, it is your war. You had a 9-11. We are having daily 9-11s in Pakistan."

- TV journalist Asma Shirazi, getting in the last shot before sending off Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Do More

She had a fair chance. Despite threatening the media and announcing her own propaganda tour, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was still well-received by the inquisitive Pakistani public. Not by everyone, but people want answers and Clinton had them.

She had every opportunity and still failed to deliver.

During an engagement with students, who the AP described as, “not hostile, but showing a strong sense of doubt that the U.S. can be a reliable and trusted partner for Pakistan,” one woman stepped to the microphone.

“What guarantee," the woman asked, "can Americans give Pakistan that we can now trust you — not you but, like, the Americans this time — of your sincerity and that you guys are not going to betray us like the Americans did in the past when they wanted to destabilize the Russians?"

Clinton responded that the question was "fair criticism, but that, “It's difficult to go forward if we're always looking in the rearview mirror. We are now at a point where we can chart a different course.”

Afterwards Shanze’ Sarfraz Cheema responded in an e-mail that Clinton, “is well-spoken and did not say anything bad, but as she was giving diplomatic answers, it did not satisfy my curiosity, and many of the students I talked to felt the same way. Most of the Pakistanis like the American [people], but they do not like the American government; and they don’t trust them because of the past. Winning the trust back is next to impossible.”

Cheema had company. Clinton left a wake of dissatisfaction across Pakistan from the big (al-Qaeda) to the small (traffic jams).

“Al-Qaeda has had safe haven in Pakistan since 2002,” she responded during a press briefing. “I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn't get them if they really wanted to. Maybe that's the case. Maybe they're not gettable. I don't know."

Her actions are nearly inconceivable because her intentions were spiteful, not some random response, and even so Clinton doesn’t get any do-overs. Another US official said Clinton's comments weren’t prepared, saying, “You've got to remember, she was a senator from New York on 9/11.”

Octopus Mountain finds it hard to believe she spent 15 hours prepping on a plane and wasn’t ready to deploy those exact lines. The truth of her statement is a separate question, and a valid one. But she intentionally stepped on the Pakistani government for its inaction against the “Quetta Shura” and TTP commanders that escaped the wrath in Waziristan, along with al-Qaeda.

And Clinton set herself up for higher failure. Trumpeting her intentions immediately raised the bar, stakes, scrutiny, emotions, reward, and fall. She came to bear peace and smile, to reflect on US errors, to listen and repair decades of damage. To go nuclear on a charm offensive isn’t good cop, bad cop, but failure to execute the mission.

“How can the U.S. at this time be so insensitive for Mrs. Clinton to speak out in public in this way?" asked a Pakistani government official. "These remarks suggest a very high degree of insensitivity."

“If we knew where Al Qaeda’s leaders were, or if we had meaningful intelligence on their whereabouts shared with us, we would act against them,” another senior official said.

Though Clinton told Pakistani journalists in Lahore, “I don’t believe in dancing around difficult issues,” the end of her tour seems to have answered only one question: that America hasn’t changed its behavior to the degree advertised by the government. al-Qaeda was the only answer she gave all day.

Beyond brushing off Mr. Cheema, Clinton repeatedly declined to comment on drone attacks, only retorting, “there is a war going on,” and reciting her al-Qaeda line again. When asked why Pakistan seemed to be the only country fighting against terrorism, Clinton noted countries like Indonesia and the Philippines are fighting al-Qaeda, But America didn’t entice Russia in any country except Afghanistan.

And war is a gift that keeps on giving.

Special envoy Richard Holbrooke revealed “we want to encourage them” in South Wazirstan, as Clinton spent an afternoon with Army Chief General Parvez Kayani. He's being modest. America is hoping the Pakistani army turns north once its finished in the south, then east. And west actually - America wants the border sealed too. First Kerry-Lugar, then al-Qaeda, now more beats of the drum.

Pakistanis know Clinton’s true intentions by heart - “do more” - a message she spread back in public. When asked about Waziristan, she insisted that inaction against the TTP will “cede ground to the terrorists. If you want to see your territory shrink, that's your choice." She added that no, this was not a choice.

We believe Clinton got a fair chance but fell by her own hand, not the rest of her controversy. The US is hunting al-Qaeda to the death and is seeking, at least on the surface, improved relations with Pakistan. Drones are secretly approved by the Pakistani government, meaning Clinton is hovering on the edge of hypocrisy.

But over in Afghanistan, where America is falling back to 10 population centers, where the roads are no longer safe, territory is falling to the Taliban. Judging by reports of “McChrystal light” and hybrids, President Obama is looking at ceding territory. He won’t admit it, but a middle plan by definition attempts to engage the Taliban and thus accepts a certain level of influence, including over land.

Secretary Clinton shouldn’t have raised the scare of ceding territory when President Obama is risking the same outcome. Yet every layer of Pakistani society demands that Obama devise a strategy and exit for Afghanistan, the cause of their own war.

With little show in Clinton's trip, Holbrooke was forced to tell the Pakistani people, ‘I think this is one of the most important trips she has made since she became Secretary of State and I think the whole world will be watching. And I want to stress that she comes to Pakistan as a friend, not with conditions but with support for the democratically elected government and the people of Pakistan.”

Clinton must not have stressed that sufficiently - maybe she should have done more.

October 29, 2009

The Heads

Majid Nizami likes teachers. Education is the foundation of a state and Nizami believes Pakistani children should be taught what it means to be “Pakistani.” He is a proud nationalist, so the teacher workshops he sponsors sometimes turn political. Last week he used one to give his opinion that war isn’t the solution in Waziristan because it will only create more war.

He also suggested renaming the NWFP “Afghania,” justified the Baloch insurrection because they aren’t being treated fairly, and it's reasonable to conclude he opposes the Afghan war.

Nizami is Editor-in-Chief of The Nation, one of Pakistan’s biggest newspapers, and an American foil. Though the Nation stayed objective in its regular reporting, the editorial went back to back on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The front page has four reports at this moment; the Dawn and the News International are also watching her like a hawk.

She could be in for a rough ride.

Nizami is a power outside American control. Clinton has come to support Waziristan so that contrast is obvious. But Nizami opposes America, not necessarily intentionally, at every level. Denouncing the Kerry-Lugar bill at his 14th training workshop of teachers, Nizami told his audience that America, with India and Israel’s help, is trying to bring Pakistan’s nuclear weapons under foreign control.

Nizami’s ideology is deeply shaped by the Indian threat and Pakistan’s quest for a nuclear bomb. Nizami promotes self-determination, saying, “After independence, we inherited three enemies in form of India, US and Israel.” While India has its own reasons to neutralize Paksitan’s nuclear program, warned last year that the "true terrorists," America and Israel, are conspiring against Pakistan’s status as the lone Muslim nuclear power.

Nuclear weapons turn Nizami’s world-view. Without them he believes that Pakistan would’ve become a slave state for India or America at the worst, forced out of Kashmir completely at the least. He praised Dr. AQ Khan and heralded nuclear weapons as the key to Pakistan's "invincibility."

Perhaps Nizami’s power was on its fullest display during the funeral for his wife, where Pakistan’s elite payed tribute to Mohtarma Rehana Majid. He also claimed to have been certified a Mujahid by Liaqat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first prime minister. He’s like Pakistan’s Rupert Murdoch, who in fact is his enemy judging by the WSJ editorial board.

His reaction to US and India propaganda is predictable, and unchangeable. Instead of assailing Pakistan, Clinton should muzzle the American press and its nuclear weapons parroting if she's serious about promoting clarity and hospitality. Propaganda will surely continue in Pakistan if it continues in America.

Because Majim Nizami is not alone. While Daily Times publisher and Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer hailed the Kerry-Lugar Bill and supports the Waziristan operation, the other heads tilt the scale against America.

Dawn CEO Hameed Haroon shares Nizami’s caution against foreign influence, recently telling reporters, “Both Pakistan and India are competing each other to please Washington and both following its dictates... It is high time that the two governments shun their old tactics and encourage more people to contact so that the clouds of misinformation can be blown away.”

Haroon rejects being compared and conjoined to Afghanistan, putting him on a collision course with many US officials. His profession that, “Terrorism is not the ideology of Pakistan... we are suffering due to Afghanistan,” puts the blame squarely on America; Haroon is also pro-China. The Dawn has a liberal reputation and often tries to cool the hysteria, but it keeps a strict eye on US actions.

Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman’s power might limit him to a lower profile. Though the owner of Geo TV and the News International talk as much to the press, neither outlets can be described as pro-American. Geo TV is infamous for challenging Musharraf and America by extension. The News International columnists constantly question American motives, with Shireen Mazari going so far as to be removed.

US officials and News editors deny the connection, but Mazari’s last article, “Targeting Pakistan and Silencing the Critics," is dated September 3rd.

The News’ current editorial demonstrates the truth of Secretary Clinton’s quest. Her job shouldn’t be to visit Pakistan and explain what’s going to happen or what did happen. She should “learn from one another” like she told one interview and report to President Obama how to promote an equal relationship and perception between the two states. For instance, taking Pakistan’s opinion into account on Afghanistan as the blood of its soldiers and citizens is spilled across the country.

With more than a hint of sarcasm, the editorial harped, "'My visit is aimed at sending a message of all-out support for Pakistani government from Obama administration.' We are delighted to hear that Mrs Clinton, but can we now move to the real meat-and-potatoes of your visit because it comes against a backdrop of indecision on the part of the American; still feeling their way in the new Obama-shaped world of foreign policy."

If Clinton’s goal was to attract extreme attention from the Pakistani press then she succeeded flawlessly. Every paper is trailing her, waiting to see what she’ll say, waiting to critique her and maybe twist her words. But she cannot beat those who control the strings with a media tour, Pakistan is waiting to see what America will do on the ground.

Reality will shape the propaganda.

In the vein of Nizami and Haroon, Rahman’s invisible hand concluded, “The conflation of 'Af/Pak' in the minds of American strategists who may be unfamiliar with the region and its complex cultural weave has led to a 'running together' of the two nations as if they were somehow extensions of one another rather than discrete entities. In terms of policy towards Pakistan the American administration has been described as 'dithering' both on a Pakistani independent TV channel and in print. 'Dithering' we don't need at this point. 'Decisive' and 'clear' we do. Over to you, Mrs Clinton.”

Propaganda Cocktail

In a reversal of current practices, the TTP denied involvement in the Peshawar bombing in letters to the media, claiming, "their main targets are the security forces, and not innocent civilians." Pakistani officials naturally dismissed the TTP's denial as desperation.

Yet the TTP's attacks do vary. Security forces are forming the majority of targets and complex gun assaults
distinctly differ from indiscriminate bombings, which bear the signs of Iraq. The TTP, in conjunction with al-Qaeda, could be wielding a two-prong attack; al-Qaeda could also be acting independently, a grim possibility. Or we could be seeing a repeat of the Islamic University attack that was initially denied by the TTP but later claimed by commander Qari Hussein.

Now the TTP is blaming Blackwater
, mixing bombs and words to dizzying effect.

October 28, 2009


Bombs and bullets, dollars and clout, private meetings and rebellion. Propaganda is in the air. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unleashes her media blitz, she faces threats from powers outside her control in addition to America's own behavior.

Then again, maybe India is copying America. Following the attack outside the Kamra Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said he hoped the Pakistan government would, "continue to take steps to effectively secure their nuclear assets.”

Because Pakistan has never heard that one before.

Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit responded, "Such remarks are evidently self-serving and integral to India's efforts to seek unilateral advantage at the cost of regional strategic stability by its feverish militarization and working on dangerous military doctrines. Instead of finger pointing, India should accept our proposal for promoting a regional strategic restraint regime and work with Pakistan to promote strategic stability in South Asia.”

Pakistan’s nuclear program suffers from crippling ambiguity. Everyone has their own perception: terrorists stealing a bomb, conspiring with the ISI, politically assuming power, or collapsing the state. All are unlikely, though not improbable. A long-term threat, sleeper cells or political uprisings, seem to the realist possibility. The idea of al-Qaeda ripping off a bomb is not.

India acted as expected after Kamra - raise the issue and undermine perceptions of the Pakistani state. Basit said India should "stop its opportunistic propaganda against Pakistan.” India is also doing the business of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, playing the game exactly as planned, breathing life into their propaganda.

Pakistan’s nuclear program will always be part of the equation in South Asia, but offhand mentions in the US media are sheer propaganda to soften Pakistan for future American influence. India is just getting in its punches.

But India did Clinton no favor by triggering Pakistan's guard. Beyond perceived inequality between US-Indian and US-Pakistani relations, US-Indian propaganda tag-teaming will put Pakistan on the defensive. Indian propaganda is nothing new, but combined with Clinton’s Declaration of Propaganda and Pakistan comes under propaganda fire left and right.

It will defend and attack in retaliation.

US Institute of Propaganda

The US Institute of Peace is one of Washington’s most powerful think tanks, a choice spot for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to lecture government officials, outside players, and lay-people on US-Pakistani relations. For one night the US Institute of Propaganda transformed into Clinton’s personal launch pad.

“It is unfortunate that there is a lot of mistrust that has built up with respect to the United States,” she said. “And I think we saw that in some of the reaction on the Kerry-Lugar legislation, which we’d been working on and consulting with the government of Pakistan for many, many months. And the ultimate passage of it we saw as a great milestone in our relationship, and we were very concerned when the reaction was so volatile and negative.”

Clinton, overloaded by America’s own failures and the hostile environment in Pakistan, was shocked by perception and reality. But the White House has clearly had enough.

‘I think we have, as a government, not done a very good job in responding to what you rightly call propaganda, misinformation, even in some instances disinformation, about our motivations and our actions in Pakistan. That became clear to me as we were doing our review, and I saw how often there were stories in the Pakistani media that were totally untrue, but we were not responding as effectively as we need to.”

Few American official have come out swinging so hard at the Pakistani press and those harboring anti-American sentiment. Ten years of manipulation, followed by ten years of abandonment, followed by nine years of manipulation, equals a steep battle for Pakistani hearts and minds. Without discussing why anti-Americanism runs so high, Clinton outlined her plan to overwhelm reality with words.

“This is going to take time,” she insisted. “This is not something you can fix in a news cycle or by just snapping your fingers and asking people to believe you. You have to go at it day in and day out. And I was, frankly, quite surprised that we had not done much of this in an effective manner. But we’re going to remedy that.”

A startling admission in itself when every poll in the last 15 years has America down in Pakistan. Hatred reached boiling point during the Musharraf saga and though polls indicate President Obama has reduced anti-Americanism, a majority of Pakistanis still disapprove of US influence in the region. Clinton shouldn’t have been surprised in the least.

Now she’s knee-jerking the boat around.

“There’s no guarantee that people will pay more attention to what we say, but at least we’re going to be in the mix and we’re going to be in the mix every day in getting out information that can be used by those who understand that the United States is hoping to be a good partner for not just the Government of Pakistan, but more importantly, the people of Pakistan.”

To spread her “information,” Clinton said she is, "moving very rapidly to try to fill that void. We have a new team going into Pakistan. A Public Affairs officer may be already there. We have adopted a new approach, which is we do not leave any misstatement or inaccuracy unanswered. It may be that people won’t believe it at first, but we intend to counter a lot of this propaganda with the best weapon we have; namely, the truth. And we’re going to be much more aggressive in interacting with the Pakistani media.”

The American propaganda factory, VOA, is online and Clinton’s machine is entering the warpath, but the road is heavily mined.

First, America isn't despised out of fabrication. The high level of propaganda is generated by America’s cumulative actions in the region. History, one of Clinton’s true targets, cannot be erased and the war in Afghanistan adds another demographic incapable of being dissuaded. Anti-Americanism is so ingrained in Pakistan society that even during down years like now, when the Taliban dips to record lows, America was jolted by Kerry-Lugar - the Kill Bill.

Clinton’s approach is suspect. Certainly America needs to “not leave any misstatement or inaccuracy unanswered,” and the sooner the better. She's referring to thousands of unanswered rumors about Pakistan’s embassy, nuclear weapons, drones, and foreign contractors. That the State Department didn’t realize its problem sooner doesn’t lend confidence to their problem solving.

Octopus Mountain doesn’t expect a peaceful outcome, but we're interested to see Clinton and crew, “be much more aggressive in interacting with the Pakistani media.” America is already considered schizophrenically aggressive and silent, and deliberate aggression - a publicized American propaganda campaign - spells backlash.

How much more aggressive will America be? Anne Patterson, ambassador to Pakistan, has sparred numerous times with the Pakistani press and Shireen Mazari in particular. Special envoy Richard Holbrooke takes shots his own shots; the American press is rabidly anti-Pakistan. And on the reverse, President Obama has barely spoken to Pakistanis except through the Kerry-Lugar bill.

As innocent as a sinister bill can appear, the details contain at least three potential spoilers: demands to attack Taliban operating in Afghanistan (an emerging dispute), access to Pakistani nuclear officials, and labeling Quetta as a terrorist center. Truth or lie, Pakistanis at every level, not just the press, has reservations about Kerry-Lugar: the army, political opposition, and average citizen.

This leads to what Clinton’s strategy should be. Counter real propaganda, but remember "truth" can be subjective. Be cordial instead of aggressive, forceful, or overt, which will annoy and repel. Don’t blame others for personal mistakes and recognize the limitations of American propaganda in Pakistan. Pakistan’s propaganda is imbued with reality, thus America must change reality.

Developing an exit strategy for Afghanistan would please a large number of Pakistanis, yet President Obama is close to escalation. A lower profile is more practical and overdue; frequent high-profile meetings produce an impression of micro-managing, not friendship. Kerry-Lugar is a long shot, but demonstrable results should double or even triple aid to be channeled into the FATA. Failing to develop Waziristan in the future will render the present battle obsolete.

Clinton just landed in Islamabad and shouldn't be surprised by any blow back in the press. Change reality and she can change the propaganda. If business continues as usual then reality will crush her propaganda.

October 27, 2009

Quote of the Day

"The U.S. and its allies already have ample numbers and firepower to annihilate the Taliban, if only the Taliban would cooperate by standing still and allowing us to bomb them to smithereens."

- Andrew Bacevich, Vietnam vet and professor of international relations at Boston University, on the Taliban being outnumbered 12-1.

Awaiting the Spark

They came with rage, signs, and effigies of President Obama. Hundreds of Afghans descended on Kabul to protest the burning of a Quran by ISAF forces. All for nothing, insists US spokeswoman Captain Elizabeth Mathias.

"We did not burn a Quran,” she corrected. “It is unfortunate that the protesters believe a Taliban rumor.”

Mathias described an investigation clearing the ISAF of all rumors, stating that no forces were in the area at the recorded time of the incident. Mohammad Alim Fadayee, spokesman for the Wardak governor, and Mullah Qari, an ANA official, relayed this message to the people.

“Dear brothers, recently, the incident of burning of the Quran that happened in Kowte Ashrow, it was the actions of the enemies of Afghanistan and Islam for their private purposes," Qari said. "The enemies of Afghanistan are trying to make people go against the government in order to start riots.”

And start riots they did. Blocking road, protesters chanted death to America and Israel, and rock-throwing gave way to physical altercation. Shots were fired. Many complained of heavy-handed police. Sayed Abdul Ghafar Sayedzada, Kabul’s criminal investigation police chief, told AFP that police only aimed their guns in the air, but a doctor at Ibn Sina hospital said at least three men suffering from bullet wounds had been admitted.

Sherullah, a teenager, said from his hospital bed, “Police fired at the crowd, one bullet hit me. I was closing my shop at the time. They (policemen) were just firing. They were firing at the people.”

"We were demonstrating, we wanted to protest the burning of Koran by the foreign forces but the police came and started beating us,” a young man, refusing to give his name, said from the back of a police vehicle. Another man repeated, "They beat us up, they fired at the people."

At times propaganda can become all-powerful.

American officials are painfully learning that rumors are unstoppable when a sizable segment of the population agrees with them. Many people won’t believe the Taliban, but many will out of opposition to foreign forces. People don’t have to like the Taliban to dislike America, and this protest wouldn’t have occurred without local resentment. They're protesting America itself, not just a rumor.

Captain Mathias can blame the Taliban, but America is to blame for creating the environment. Rather than a "few bad apples" spoiling the crop, Afghanistan is dry brush awaiting a spark.

Although US and ISAF officials can’t be trusted to speak truthfully, assume that the Taliban started the Quran rumor. A cost-free attack allowed them to target President Obama himself. Bullets and IED’s nibble away at him domestically, but his burning effigy in a Kabul square brings him into the Afghan battlefield, then spits him back into the global media. A brilliant attack.

The protest in Kabul may be more than it seems too. Mathias and Afghan officials attributed it to the rumor, but the protest was reportedly well-organized by students and in conjunction with another protest across the city. Haroun Mir, head of Afghanistan's Centre for Research and Policy Studies, doubted they were “spontaneous eruptions of anger.”

“Getting people onto the streets in Afghanistan is very difficult, it takes quite some organizing, especially two days in a row,” he said. “Someone wants to send a message to the Afghan government and to coalition forces in Afghanistan. People in Kabul have always been in favor of the coalition presence in Afghanistan. So this is not spontaneous by Kabuli people.”

That someone could be the Taliban, starting rumors in the countryside then organizing protests in the capital through its student followers. Mir speculated, “If it continues for a few more days we will see that it is not spontaneous and there is some political agenda behind it. And then we will have a clearer idea of who is behind it and what political signal they want to send.”

The signal is clear - a burning President Obama.

The Taliban has scored a lopsided victory. Foreign assurances and investigations lose their power when people fundamentally oppose foreign influence. Captain Mathias lamented America’s inability to effectively counter enemy propaganda with a tinge of defeatism. Dead US soldiers stay in the news for a minute, but protests and their propaganda direct a firestorm towards the highest political targets. Not a penny is required.

American officials demonize in public, but they might secretly marvel at the Taliban's efficiency.

October 26, 2009

The Viceroy Strikes Back

He came loaded and ready to fire. Hamid Karzai might have kept his guns locked had Fareed Zakaria not cornered him, but left with no choice, Karzai unleashed a time-honored barrage.

Karzai appeared in good spirits at first. Prepared with the same answer for any election question, he stressed, “All that was said was mostly wrong. There were some mistakes, there were some incidents of fraud. But the election as a whole was clean, and as a result was clear.”

He claimed to have been, “defamed," quipping, "The news items on the fraud were so many and widely repeated that even I began to believe as if indeed that much fraud was there and began to doubt the election.”

Good one. Zakaria let the issue go, moving on to Karzai’s perception as an American puppet. Zakaria asked the first of many questions related to Karzai’s falling popularity with Pashtuns, who see him as corrupted with foreign influence. Karzai defended himself and his people several times, then Rahm Emanuel came up.

Grilled on the White House chief of staff’s doubts of the Afghan government, Karzai cooly replied, “Is the United States a reliable partner with Afghanistan? Is the West a reliable partner with Afghanistan? Have we received the commitments that we were given? Have we been treated like a partner?”

Karzai deployed his propaganda trinity, defining partnership with America as, "where Afghan lives are respected, where Afghan property is respected, where the Afghan traditions are respected, where we know the direction we are moving to, where we are results oriented, where we understand each other.”

“Partnership is a two way street,” he said, “not a one way street.” Emanuel must be grinning, Obama frowning, Republicans suppressing their complacency, a gleeful Taliban in the distance.

Slicing the fat off Karzai’s propaganda, he has a legitimate gripe with Washington. He’s going to get swallowed by the insurgency without reinforcements at the military and civilian levels, watching security break down day by day and waiting for what General McChrystal calculated in August.

“General McChrystal’s recent report, the strategy he put forward, is the right one because it protects the civilian population," said Karzai, "and that is exactly what we must do."

Two can play the pressure game. And the blame game. Asked by Zakaria if “moderate” Taliban can be “weaned” off the hardcore movement, Karzai said this plan wouldn’t work because, “we are constantly attacking them... they are not secure in their homes and their villages.” He said America must end “the general feeling that all Afghans are Taliban.”

The dialogue rumbled further down hill. Zakaria presented Karzai with a Thomas Friedman quote on Afghanistan's failed government. Karzai, in a mini propaganda battle, countered, “I guess Mr. Friedman was angered” by an ECC official resignation and that “I understand his angle.”

Zakaria pressed for an answer and a visibly irritated Karzai responded, “I think it’s not going to serve anyone in America or NATO to try to make scapegoats out of the Afghan government, the Afghan people, I think we all need to recognize that we’ve made mistakes.”

Pressed again, “I have received votes from all around the country, in fact the trouble between my government and myself and our allies have been these blind bombardments of our villages, attacks on our people at night, raiding their homes, arresting them and putting them in prison, so the Pashtuns have been hurt a lot in this war on terror and they expect their president to defend them and speak to them.”

Defend them Karzai did, in his own way. He also put the hurt on President Obama and his staff.

Emanuel seems to be the natural target, and given Obama’s history with Karzai, their relationship could genuinely be souring. Daniel Korski reported that Karzai is “currently refusing to see Holbrooke at all.” He already believes he won and believes he’ll win the runoff, so questioning the outcome means questioning Karzai. Unwillingness to commit to the next Afghan government is abandonment. Deliberation means nothing to him.

You think I'm the problem? I'm the problem because you're the problem. In Karzai's head he’s under attack from every side, so he came to Washington and fired back at his targets.

Quote of the Day

"We all see the appeal of a limited counter-terrorism mission, and no doubt it is part of the endgame, but I don't think we're there yet. A narrow mission that cedes half the country to the Taliban could lead to civil war..."

- Senator John Kerry, advocating a modest, "narrow" strategy after denouncing General McChrystal's "nationwide" counterinsurgency

October 25, 2009

Guerrillas Being Guerrillas

Hamas completely lost the Gaza war, according to the always objective Israeli government. Yoram Cohen, former deputy director of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency, recently released a co-authored report with Jeffrey White that collapsed every front of Hamas’s military capabilities.

“Despite attempts to put a positive image on its performance during the operation, the actual course of the fighting reveals a different story: Hamas ... accomplished little militarily, and their only real success was the continuation of rocket fire into Israel - which declined after three weeks of combat," the authors write.

Going into detail, “The casualties, the economic damage and even the psychological damage caused by the rocket fire during the operation never reached the levels expected by Hamas.” The authors also deride Hamas’s leadership for going underground and losing control of the military.

Then in the lowest dig, “Hamas had planned to stand and fight, but the Iz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades proved unequal to the task... and consequently they failed to match the public image Hamas had tried so hard to present of stalwart, proficient Islamic warriors.”

All good points in conventional warfare, but they miss the point in guerrilla warfare.

Israel perceives Hamas rocket fire as a mortal threat, but to Hamas they are merely symbolic, an act of defiance, big kid rocks. They aren’t meant to kill or do significant damage, that's just a bonus. Psychological damage wasn’t the goal either because the fear was contained locally. Hamas’s true target was another act of defiance, the psychological impact of surviving, of keeping Israel locked in war.

To chastise Hamas leadership for disappearing similarly rests on the assumption that Hamas’s primary goals were military objectives, not propaganda based. Israel's criticism of Hamas is somewhat perplexing. Israel ridicules guerrillas for being guerrillas - for going underground, hiding in urban environments and behind civilians, falling back, running, hiding, being militarily defeated.

The same type of resistance cannot be expected from both Hamas and Hezbollah, a frequently compared tandem. Maybe Hamas did plan to stand and fight, but the door remains open for a trap. Hezbollah tries to present stalwart, proficient, Islamic warriors in order to portray the Israeli army as weak. Hamas appears to be the reverse, goading Israel into overwhelming force. Hezbollah always wants to look strong, Hamas the weak and strong, victim and victor.

Hamas was obviously crushed during the Gaza war, but Israel’s military domination plays into the Palestinian’s hands on the international stage.

The report notes, almost brags, “the IDF undoubtedly could have destroyed Hamas' military capabilities.” Hamas poses no ability to destroy Israel’s military capabilities and can barely leave a scratch. This is the reality, but perception is eroding it.

Unless a drastic turn drops the Goldstone report on the UN Security Council, the March session of the UN Human Rights Council will put a year between the war and the war report. Factor in another delay, maybe an indefinite postponement, and the same objections will periodically erupt for years if the Goldstone report isn’t properly addressed.

Goldstone has become a trigger word for Israeli aggression.

The conclusion to the Gaza war is: who cares who won the Gaza war? Everyone knows Israel conquered the ground, sea, and air - that’s the problem! Israel’s dismantling of Hamas, along with swaths of Gaza, evokes disgust more often than praise. Israel’s victory brought no prize; the international community is hounding it, allies like Turkey are turning on it, negotiations remain frozen along with the Palestinian position.

Israel can have the “victory," Hamas never wanted it in the first place. Victory on the military battlefield was impossible, but Israel is taking real damage on the propaganda battlefield.

Propaganda Wars

The world is swarming with so much propaganda that we've decided to hold a week-long propaganda joust. Let the battle commence between the pen and the gun, between perception and reality. Propaganda Wars: Shark Week meets politics and war.

October 24, 2009


He almost bit his tongue off. Asked for comment on former vice president Dick Cheney, Vice President Joe Biden started, “Who cares what-” before halting. “Yeah, yeah, I can see the headline now. I'm getting better, guys. I'm getting a little better, you know what I mean?”

Cheney had remarked the other day, “Having announced his Afghanistan strategy last March, President Obama now seems afraid to make a decision, and unable to provide his commander on the ground with the troops he needs to complete his mission. The White House must stop dithering while America's armed forces are in danger.”

“I think that is absolutely wrong,” Biden replied. “I think what the administration is doing is exactly what we said it would do.”

Whether this claim is accurate is another story. Obama is sort of doing what he said he would do. “Two combat brigades” have come and gone, more could be headed to battle, and many officials now stalling were optimistic in March. Biden is right on one account - he doesn’t have to care what Cheney thinks. But Obama does have to care about what his current allies think.

Across the pond at a NATO meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia, 28 defense ministers affirmed General McChrystal’s strategy in Afghanistan.

“What we did today was to discuss General McChrystal’s overall assessment, his overall approach, and I have noted a broad support from all ministers of this overall counterinsurgency approach,” NATO’s secretary-general Anders Fogh Rashmussen said. “What we need is a much broader strategy, which stabilizes the whole of Afghan society, and this is the essence in the recommendations presented by General McChrystal. This won’t happen just because of a good plan. It will also need resources - people and money.”

Disrupt, dismantle, and destroy al-Qaeda this is not.

Defense Minister Robert Gates, looming in the background, would only say, “For this meeting, I am here mainly in listening mode... Clearly one of the things that I think the president is expecting from me is to bring back the views of our allies on some of these issues.”

The NYT noted that Gates “kept his views about additional troops close to his vest,” except everyone else’s cards are on the table, meaning his can be read too. After admitting, “many allies spoke of positively about General McChrystal’s assessment,” Gates said it was “vastly premature” to predict whether Obama will deploy more troops.

Providing backup, special envoy Richard Holbrooke insisted, “In no way, shape or form are the president’s options constrained.”

But the reality is more troops are vastly overdue and Obama is constrained to a single option.

First, as the NYT again reported, Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen and CENTCOM commander David Petraeus have endorsed General McChrystal’s strategy, aligning the Pentagon’s opinion. Only Gates remains publicly uncommitted, though he has expressed the necessity of more forces, just not how many. Gates’ tentatively could be due in part to his CIA role in Afghanistan.

He’s certainly in an unusual position of fighting what he helped create.

As for Afghans, presumptive president Hamid Karzai has backed McChrystal’s strategy along with several other high-ranking officials, and Dr. Abdullah admitted the need for more troops as well. The Afghan position roughly is the acceptance of more troops, simply based on how bad security is.

Kai Ede, the UN’s point man in Afghanistan, also attended the NATO meeting and supported McChrystal, acknowledging, “I do believe, yes, that additional international troops are required.”

Europe is the next to last planet. Gates relayed, “There were a number of allies who indicated they were thinking about, or were moving toward, increasing either their military or their civilian contributions, or both, and I found that very heartening.”

“It is my ambition that we will support the overall approach set out by General McChrystal,” Rasmussen said, “because I believe it is the right long-term solution for Afghanistan.”

The only question, then, is whether Obama believes it is the right long-term solution for Afghanistan. Since he already ruled out withdrawal we can conclude he does believe, regardless of the final strategy, that more troops are necessary and that he’s going he’ll need lots of them.

NATO is more disjointed than its unanimity emphasizes. Rasmussen confessed, “I have noted a broad support from all ministers on this counter-insurgency approach, but without discussing the resource implications of these recommendations.”

The UK, under heavy domestic opposition, announced a paltry 500 soldier increase. French President Nicholas Sarkozy quashed his request completely. German Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung said Germany is likely to hold its 4,500 troop ceiling when it renews a parliamentary mandate in December. Italy wants out and Canada is due to withdraw by 2011. Holland is leaving Uruzgan province to Australia, who’s under its own pressure to withdraw.

Who else does that leave? Dutch Defence Minister Eimert van Middelkoop stated the obvious: "I think most countries are waiting for the American decisions."

Biden should forget Cheney because greater powers oppose him. Some may consider making predictions “vastly premature” before Afghanistan's runoff, but the planets are aligning for war in plain view.

Quote of the Day

"Transform Iraq and it will impact the whole Arab-Muslim world. Change Afghanistan and you just change Afghanistan."

- Thomas Friedman, failing at hyperbole.

Déjà Bajuar

US officials better have examined how different Bajuar 2009 is from Bajuar 2006 before authorizing today’s drone strike. The tone from Pakistan doesn’t appear to indicate a significant change.

The story from Chuhatra village is that a missile struck the home of a local Taliban commander. Abdul Malik, an official in the region, reportedly told Reuters, “The missile hit home of Maulvi Faqir and we have reports of 10 dead.” Mohammad Jamil, a government official, then revised the death toll to 22 and pegged the target: Faqir Mohammad, TTP commander in Bajuar, who escaped.

The story from Islamabad? Qamar Zaman Kaira, the federal information minister, said during a press briefing that Pakistan has no military agreement with America. Major-General Athar Abbas, the Pakistani military spokesman, simply stated, “We do not want any assistance or interference from outside.”

Alan Fisher, Al Jazeera's correspondent on the scene, reported, "What the army is saying is there was no drone attack there - what it was, was explosives parked in a vehicle near the house and they went off, destroying three houses in the village and killing a number of people. The army say they have kicked out all foreign influences and this is an operation being conducted solely by the Pakistani military.”

What point has Abbas in lying? American dollars, weapons, equipment, and hegemony ooze from every Pakistani unit. One of several US military officials to speak about the relationship disclosed, “We are coordinating with the Pakistanis. And we do provide Predator support when requested.”

Maybe Abbas was referring to unrequested Predator support, which he’s well acquainted with. His reaction would make more sense in that context. Chuhatra won’t be as bad as Damadola, but it’s still a true fit to the pattern.

January 13, 2006. Eid al-Adha, a Muslim holiday, ended in death when four Predators fired up to ten missiles on a small compound, leveling three houses and leaving 18 dead. The target, al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zaqahiri, escaped a dinner he was attending, causing Pakistan to denounce the attack and America to al-Qaeda agents were killed.

Only civilians were found to have died in the attack when the dust settled. Mahmood Shah, Pakistan's security chief for the region at the time, said US and Pakistani officials first thought the strike's timing was “slightly off.” Now he thinks Zawahiri and the others were never there, revealing, “I just think the information was not correct.”

Local people, enraged by the truth, sparked a swift reaction from government officials, but they were both overwhelmed by another truth. Senator John McCain reportedly said after the strike, “It's terrible when innocent people are killed; we regret that. We apologize, but I can't tell you that we wouldn't do the same thing again.”

Up to five missiles struck a madrassa in Chenagai, Bajuar, on October 30th, 2006. Again Ayman al-Zaqahiri was the alleged target, again he escaped (or wasn’t even there), leaving a purported 70-80 people dead. Casualties consisted mainly of students who were returning from the Eid ul-Fitr holiday.

Damadola's reaction repeated itself: local protests and political condemnation. The Taliban, who held a rally only days before, were equally furious; a suicide bomb followed. Faqir Mohammad had his hands in the Damadola revolt and once again sunk them into Chenagai, leading the call for militancy and anti-Americanism.

Faqir eventually worked his way up the TTP partially through these two events to the point that he’s now the target. America will be lucky if he doesn’t use the attack as a another stepping stone.

Unfortunately no conclusions can be drawn with certainty. America appears to have caught a break, or acted on good intelligence, because the dead are all said to be Taliban, an improvement over civilians. Of course, that was the story last time. The local reaction is one indicator to watch.

The Pakistani army is another. Rapid denial usually equals cover up, as does repeated denial. Days ago an al-Qaeda commander was “accidentally blown up” by a car bomb - is this a new excuse for drone strikes? Obviously Pakistan and America are collaborating militarily, meaning Pakistan could be covering. They seem nervous and they don’t need an uprising in Bajuar.

Faqir is a third harbinger. Will he lash back or lie low? He might raise a political cry if civilians were killed; dead Taliban likely means a trip to the underground.

Meanwhile America will keep plowing away regardless of the outcome. With one strike on Hafiz Gul Bahadur and now one on Faqir, America is trying to contain what the Pakistani army cannot. US officials eagerly tout a reinvented relationship as Pakistani officials deny one, making their collaboration difficult to detail. They’re working together, but it’s feasible that America is operating independently in panic that Pakistan can't contain the TTP umbrella.

No amount of local protest, political outrage, or operational failure will halt the rain of missiles. At a certain point this strategy makes sense; America has absorbed every criticism Pakistan can levy and its popularity can’t dip much lower. Failure may await the drone at a strategic level, so success requires America to produce total victory at the tactical level.

A high risk endeavor, as Damadola, Chenagai, and Chuhatra demonstrate.

October 23, 2009

Waziristan: Closing the Circle

Stage 1 of operation Rah-i-Nijat in Waziristan progressed mostly as expected and has transitioned into stage 2. The biggest question, how much resistance the TTP will put up, has been answered for now - it intends to fight hard but sporadically. Retaking Kotkai wasn’t an option, the TTP had to retake Kotkai to bolster the image of resistance.

Though the operation is still in its infancy, the TTP is already beginning to look like it will withstand the storm. Casualties are naturally running high as militant targets are pounded by artillery and air-support, not to mention US drones. The score stands at 157-19. The TTP will never win the kill ratio or the type of battle Pakistani forces are mounting.

“I'm obviously encouraged by the Pakistani operations,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters. “We obviously are very supportive of what the Pakistanis are doing. But it's very early yet.”

At the same time, Pakistani officials have admitted stiff resistance and that ground forces are proceeding with extreme caution. Bombs are set wherever Pakistani soldiers can walk or tanks can roll. Refugees speak of a fortifying Taliban and limited Pakistani troops. What they’re seeing is an envelopment of advance air strikes with a time-delayed ground assault.

The TTP cannot defeat the Pakistani army in this battle. If it chooses to fight head on then it will be massacred. Yet it must put up resistance, not just at symbolic locations but in the entire territory. The TTP knows it must fight in order to attract new recruits, so it has to balance this need with staying alive. It cannot “win” the land battle, but surviving requires resistance. Running away isn't an option.

While Swat has been used by Pakistani officials as an example of what they’ll do in Waziristan, Swat is more an example why the same outcome is unlikely. The TTP had its hands in Swat, but the subsequent invasion was an overreach. Swat was a balloon puffed up beyond its true environment, an artificial limb. Waziristan is a rock that won’t deflate, the heart of the beast.

Mohmand, Bajaur, Khyber, and Kurram would serve as better examples of Wazirsitan’s reality. The Pakistani army has engaged militants in these agencies for many months with limited success. Stacks of militants have died, yet new soldiers take up the arms of the dead. Nation-building is non-existent.

The TTP will ride a propaganda wave if it survives past winter, but its real damage will be dealt outside the conventional battle-zone.

A ghastly attack at International Islamic University was followed by Qari Hussein declaring “all of Pakistani is a war zone.” Then Brigadier Moeen-ud-Din Ahmed and his driver were killed in a driveby shooting, a rare attack that saw both assailants escape alive. The latest bomb struck an entrance to Kamra Aeronautical Complex facility, rumored to be involved in Pakistan's nuclear program, and now a letter has been sent to officials warning of suicide attacks on PML-Q offices.

The TTP has a far higher chance of success fighting asymmetrically, and these small gains parlay into media victories. Pakistani officials admit the battlefield has expanded beyond their predictions and that they aren’t prepared for such crudely sophisticated attacks. Pakistan's army may be supreme on the battlefield, but the Pakistani state itself is weak, the exact perception the TTP is hoping for.

Reports from outside the battlefield itself aren’t flattering either. At this point every negative story is a positive for the TTP. Rahmatullah Mehsud, who fled to a refugee camp, told reporters. “We came here for bread, but the police beat us up. There the Taliban were messing with things and the army was showering bombs. Here we have to bear the clubs.”

Mehsud’s perspective doesn’t have to be accurate to prove its point. As bad as the Taliban is, disapproval doesn’t translate into support for the government. Pakistan cannot win the war without acting above the TTP. It cannot be on the same level or even a notch above, but far above the TTP’s behavior.

Initial signs aren’t encouraging. Angry refugees are one thing, but Maulvi Sher Mohammad is another. The founder and leader of an anti-Taliban militia "thundered" in an interview, “The government has used the people like toilet paper, used them and thrown them away. We cannot fight alongside the army because my people do not yet know whether the army and the Taliban are friends or enemies. When we see the army crush them, then we'll believe.”

Thus we return to the battlefield, where the TTP must put up a good fight without fighting too much to win, and the Pakistan army “must crush them” to win. In a rare piece of good news, an Afghan Taliban commander expressed sympathy for the TTP, but said, “There will not be any support from us. Our aim was, and is, to get the occupation forces out and not to get into a fight with a Muslim army.”

Problem is, the TTP may not need support. It can probably handle this specific phase by itself, and by attracting and deflecting the blow, will leave the rest of its umbrella intact. Pakistan’s deals with Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir naturally irked White House and Pentagon officials; the drone strike into Bahadur’s territory wasn’t coincidence.

But Army spokesman Majorj General Athar Abbas defended the strategy, conceding, “When the state is seen to have turned out the biggest bully from the area, it has defeated that and it is seen by everyone around to have done that, then it creates vibes all over the place. It radiates effects all around and, therefore, what we expect is that since we have broken the centre of gravity, we have made them see this bully has been defeated, the terrorist organisation, this network has been dismantled and thereby the effect, which is natural, sees others re-adjust to this new existing reality."

US officials don’t want “others” re-adjusting though, they want Haqqani, Bahadur, Nazir, and Mullah Omar dead.

"We would like them to extend the offensive," said Stephen Biddle, a military historian and defense analyst with connections in the US government. "But we would also like them to hold what they clear. It might or might not be a good call for them to add territorial goals, when it is most important for them to hold what they take."

Bold analysis. We’ll stick our neck out - making deals with militants isn’t a good call. Realistically Pakistan has no choice. It barely has enough power to uproot the TTP’s heart and the odds of success would drastically reduce if every arm of the TTP was attacked simultaneously. This strategy also fosters an impression that the Pakistani army cannot defeat the TTP in its entirety.

Stay tuned for weeks of war slogging.

Quote of the Day

"It is reasonable to hope that there will be fewer irregularities this time, for several reasons. One - there are only two candidates; two - there is the experience factor. Three - the international community, including the forces under General McChrystal's command are going to go all out to help make this a success. Now, those forces did so on August 20, but there are more forces in the country today."

- Special envoy Richard Holbrooke, assessing the runoff

October 22, 2009

Deal or No Deal in Palestine

The Middle East has a new game to play. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, plagued by internal and external pressure, issued a peace call for the ages during his opening address at Israel’s Presidential Conference, titled ‘Facing Tomorrow.’ Netanyahu voiced a sound suggestion to rekindle the peace process.

‘I ask of you," he appealed, channeling Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, "something I have not even asked of myself. We must discuss peace as soon as possible, and I am ready to do so. But these cannot be closed talks. We must say these things to the world, to our people and to the Palestinian people.’

Months of back-channel talks rushing into the open would breathe fresh air into a stale conflict. Back-room deals have their place and time, but conflict between Israel and Palestine is a unique situation that would benefit from increased public discourse. The obvious downside is an invitation to criticism, a risk multiplied by false positions.

Motive becomes an immediate question with Netanyahu rushing so suddenly towards peace. Is he sincere or responding to international opposition created by the Goldstone report? His cause is instrumental in determining whether he’s ready to negotiate and compromise, if Palestinians will accept him, and if he can strike a deal.

Netanyahu applied a softer touch in contrast to his confrontational, sometimes braggadocios language, affirming his commitment to negotiations along with support for Palestinians, who could stand to hear more grace from him. Going for the cheese, he broke off his Hebrew and told the audience in English, "It's possible to change the world. Yes we can."

Netanyahu seemed sincere, but as time passed it became evident that he was subtly shifting the burden on Abbas. He stated, ‘The time has come to end this conflict; tell them that the time has come for two nations to live side-by-side in peace and security. I believe that peace with the Palestinians is possible, but that requires brave leadership on both sides.’

Goldstone probably isn’t talking. Netanyahu doesn’t seem concerned with the report itself, armed with assurances from UN ambassador Susan Rice that America will block its progress at every turn. Netanyahu is also aware that advancing the peace process could invite the Goldstone report into negotiations rather than exclude it. Abbas’s weakness is certainly showing though, and this could be Netanyahu’s true target.

Why, if Netanyahu is serious about advancing the peace process, did he undercut Abbas in front of his own people? Gloating that Abbas twice backed down at the UN, Netanyahu would’ve seethed had Abbas bravely stood up. He weakened Abbas and is now cornering him, cleverly disguising whiplash as diplomatic outreach.

Netanyahu isn’t offering a real opening for negotiations if his position is absolute. A sincere proposal would temporarily freeze settlement growth, not insist ‘the Palestinians should already be talking to us.’ If Netanyahu wants recognition of a Jewish Israel and ‘natural growth’ at the outset of a deal then he doesn't have one. Abbas simply cannot accept these conditions and survive.

Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat quickly countered rumors of an imminent settlement deal between Israel and America. Erekat warned during an interview with Al-Ayyam, ‘There are no interim solutions. It's not a precondition for negotiations, but an explicit Israeli commitment that they have to meet.’ He said there will be ‘no agreement’ until a total settlement freeze, meaning President Obama can make or break a deal.

Back at ‘Facing Tomorrow,’ Obama spoke glowingly of Israel via video screen and exalted its deep bond with America. President Simon had invited him to attend, but Obama declined due to other commitments. His absence carried a hint of irony when he declared, ‘our moment in history is filled with challenges that test our will and invite pessimism’.

Obama is bringing a sizable slice of that pessimism upon himself. From an Israeli perspective, accepting Peres’s invitation would’ve payed big dividends. Obama has been accused of not personally reaching out to Israelis and continues to poll low despite a video stream of goodwill - because video is impersonal. Peres invited him to spread the Midas touch, but the truth is Obama needs to personally visit the region and meet people on both sides of the wall.

He must personally reach out to Palestinians if he’s going to dilute their demands.

That Netanyahu refuses to stop settlement growth is expected, but Obama is wasting his credibility and goodwill in Palestine by toeing the Israeli line. Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to America, explained, ‘The agreement was a time-limited halt - or a pause, if you will - to the settlement construction, that would allow for a certain amount of what we would call 'certain life growth' in the territories.’

Reality is harsh. ‘Life growth’ of the few is outweighing the fate of two nations and withholding the effects of peace on the Middle East. When asked whether Obama signed off on this agreement, Oren responded, ‘That was the understanding. I think everything is agreed on and the [Obama] administration is fully informed about any construction activities in the territories.’

Two days ago Abbas told reporters, ‘Stopping the settlement and the unilateral measures secures the return of the negotiations between the Palestinian and the Israeli side.’

Israel and America might have a deal, but it won’t get them anywhere with the Palestinians and could impel Abbas to seek his own alternate power source. After meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, Abbas issued a perceived threat to Hamas: ‘Based on the constitution, we are obliged to issue a decree on October 25 to hold presidential and parliamentary elections before January 24, and we will issue it.’

Abbas cannot be so bold as to believe he will poll high in the West Bank or Gaza. He's likely paying Hamas back for the Goldstone affair, pressuring it to take or leave its own deal with Egypt. Hamas has stepped back to make sure everything is exactly as it wants, a lost opportunity to be the first signatory, but officials assure the deal will be signed.

And Abbas kept his hand out, vowing, ‘The reconciliation is sacred for us. We cannot shut the doors and say we do not want to reconcile. We cannot say that, because we want to restore the unity of our people and restore the unity of our land in order to face the occupation and the political process.’

It’s only a matter of time before Hamas returns to the political mix, extra motivation for Netanyahu to push for immediate negotiations.

Netanyahu and Obama can still present an offer that won’t humiliate Palestinian leadership, which is counterproductive to the peace process. They’re certainly ready and eager to restart negotiations, nobody can doubt that, but Palestinians aren’t going to take their deal as it stands. Netanyahu and Obama would commit to a two year settlement freeze were they hell bent on establishing two states. Such a move would, as Abbas said, ‘secures the return to negotiations.’

Obama reportedly wants both parties to agree on two years as their goal - put the money up. Deal-making in the Holy Land should be geared towards the millennium, not six months, a year or two.

Downward Spiral

Afghanistan’s election is finally set for an inevitable runoff; no alternative fit the voting statistics and constitutional requirements. Octopus Mountain would have derided any attempt to suppress a runoff and applauds President Obama’s acceptance of reality.

A runoff is a disaster in the making. The outcome could be the same as the election, wasting precious resources and time; it could also further split the country. November 7th threatens to end Afghanistan’s election turbulence and initiate a death spiral.

It’s hard to find a bright spot because the reason for a runoff - legitimacy - has been compromised. Assume for theoretical purposes that Hamid Karzai will emerge victorious. What legitimacy can he gain after stealing a million votes in the election, resisting a runoff, then essentially having to be baby-sat during the next round? It’s doubtful that he’ll attract anyone outside his political base, leaving the country deeply divided and unstable.

An Abdullah victory similarly contains no legitimacy to his opponents, chiefly Karzai. Suffice to say, Karzai won't accept defeat because he believes he already won. Meanwhile Pashtuns would helplessly watch the West remove their leader and install a Tajik, not exactly a confidence builder.

Thus either outcome still poses enormous political challenges for both Afghans and America. Easy doesn't exist in Afghanistan and Obama will fail if he attempts to skirt these challenges. Neither Karzai nor Abdullah will accept a power-sharing agreement. The two men don't like each other and wouldn’t make a good team; they reportedly spoke today for the first time since August. No one should force them together because they'll fall apart.

“I think a coalition government is not a solution for Afghanistan's problems,” said Abdullah afterward. “We are completely ready for the second round."

But a runoff is only an answer to a particular problem - the election - and for the winning side; it offers few solutions for America or ordinary Afghans. A legitimate vote could right the plane, but it’s still flying into a storm.

Security is what it is. The end of President Obama’s 17,000 troops will finally be in place, but the Taliban’s growing ranks and territory could negate this small advantage. No time will be spent arguing for more US troops when they are so clearly needed from a security perspective - a breakdown will hobble the runoff right out of the box.

In an effort to minimize security concerns, the UN will close the most obscure polling stations along with those that saw minimal turnout and high fraud, an estimated 7,000 out of 24,000. This prudent move unfortunately carries risk. Southern Afghanistan is likely to become disenfranchised even more; its inhabitants had nowhere safe to vote and now they may have nowhere to vote. Karzai won’t be happy to lose his ghost stations either.

Building on that theme, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the BBC that he wants to replace 200 poll officials who were complicit in fraud. Karzai will interpret such a move with disgust. Moreover, Al Jazeera reporter James Bay claims Dr. Abdullah is drumming up pressure to reform the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) before the runoff.

“He's been very strong in the past saying that the chairman of that commission is a Karzai man and that he cannot be trusted,” Bay reported. “One of Abdullah's aides told me that he is trying to get other figures in the international community - possibly the US, possibly the UN - to put pressure on the IEC to change things. If Abdullah comes out and says the chairman must resign, Karzai will probably stand up to that and say 'no, I back the chairman'. But if the UN or the international community says that they want to see changes, then there might be changes."

These changes, while positive for Afghanistan, would be perceived by Karzai as an international lynching. He won the election in his mind and the West is trying to take it away. Still slighted by James Carville’s assistance to Ashraf Ghani, Karzai won’t forget this pile of injustices if he wins. He should appreciate that the West saved him from a fatal mistake, but he might hold a grudge instead.

Alienating Karzai is the possible price of a runoff.

So where does this leave President Obama? Surprisingly in the driver's seat, should he prepare accordingly. Senator John Kerry, determined to leave his mark on Afghanistan and Pakistan, blandly stated, "I think it's critical to have a runoff. It's a two-week period.” He also brushed against the truth, saying, “you want to know what kind of government has come out of it. I would absolutely counsel the president to wait till the end of the runoff.”

Obama doesn’t want to know, he does know. The options aren’t hidden, either Karzai or Abdullah, most likely Karzai, will emerge victorious. Obama shouldn't make his decision at the end of the runoff; rather, he should already be decided and know exactly what he'll do for either outcome. He can and should be ready as soon as a winner is announced, though he may have no answer to a stalemate and would be particularly doomed in such an event.

If so then expect another delay from Obama.

Otherwise the runway is clear to launch his strategy - to rush the cabin and pull the plane out of its spiral, or to strap on a parachute and escape the crash. Delay again and hit the ground.

October 21, 2009

Corporate Takeover

Two fundamental questions being debated in the White House and Pentagon are the similarities and differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. Differences appear to outweigh similarities, but one divergence is especially striking. The Iraq insurgency, while organized to a degree, was more of an ad hoc movement that often competed with itself.

The Taliban, despite its variances, is cohesive, regulated, and draws on a continuous past. It is a mature insurgency and bringing it down won’t compare to Iraq.

A flurry of admissions by US officials that Taliban participation in Afghanistan is unpreventable, coupled with General McChrystal's warning that the Taliban can’t be destroyed, prompted immediate speculation over the White House’s internal debate. Those advocating a limited strategy, either a middle way or counter-terrorism, yield to Taliban influence.

But believing the fire can be contained without being extinguished could be a catastrophic mistake. Ceding ground grows the Taliban corporation.

The NYT was only the latest to highlight a disturbing discovery - the Taliban’s war chest is full of more than opium cash. During an overhaul of their counter-narcotics strategy, including the deployment of DEA officers, Special envoy Richard Holbrooke admitted, “In the past there was a kind of a feeling that the money all came from drugs in Afghanistan, That is simply not true.”

Instead the Taliban has, according to the Washington Post, “embraced a strategy favored by multinational corporations: diversification. With money pouring in from so many sources, the Taliban has been able to expand the insurgency across the country with relative ease, U.S. and Afghan officials said.”

And good corporations plan for the future.

Celebration initially greeted a UN report documenting a 22% drop in opium cultivation, but high-yield crops and better irrigation reduced total opium production only 10%. A drop in opium price resulted not from counter-narcotics, but an abundance of opium almost double the world demand. An even more distressing problem - opium stores have steadily vanished since 2006.

UN, US, and Afghan officials agree that the Taliban has stockpiled opium to a tune of 10,000 tons, up from 8,000 in 2008. UN officials estimate the total value at export price at around 3.2$ billion. This reservoir is meant to insulate the Taliban from drops in supply, but also acts as a nest-egg for the future. The Taliban is preparing for the long-term.

And as the White House found out, drugs are only part of the equation, not the largest chunk. If President Obama were to freeze troop levels or deploy a limited number of troops (under 10,000), the Taliban will gradually expand and establish momentum as it grows its economy. A security vacuum exposes a favorite target - foreign contractors. Bribes to protect development projects are unsustainable, allowing the Taliban to make money off America’s troop shortage.

This counterinsurgency strategy isn’t viable. Convert Afghans to alternative crops and the Taliban will tax those too. Extortion has expanded beyond opium into legitimate businesses, farmers, timber and gemstone markets, and antiquity smugglers. The Taliban is the mob, imposing taxes on territory and pinching Afghan and Western subcontractors for protection money to safeguard development projects.

“The international community and the Americans have been deceiving themselves for the past seven years, saying the Taliban has been getting all of their money from drugs," said Waheed Mojda, a former Foreign Ministry official for the Taliban.

Such analysis, if true, poses a deadly risk to any strategy allowing the Taliban to regain territory. The more it spreads the more money it will make, not from increased opium expansion but by taking over the entire local economy. Allowing the Taliban to seize territory makes choking its funding impossible. America is already having trouble denting the flow.

In another indication that nation-building is necessary for American success, Afghanistan lacks a modern financial system. No paper trails means US officials can’t document monetary transitions to prevent money laundering from drugs and foreign donations, the largest portion of Taliban funding. Laws are being written as fast as possible.

"We're going after this with a great deal of urgency and a huge amount of effort to even more effectively disrupt the networks that fund the Taliban," said David S. Cohen, the Treasury Department's assistant secretary for terrorist financing.

But this problem cannot be solved through laws and regulations alone. Foreign donations, the primary source of funds, will increase with the Taliban’s ground success. Moreover, Afghanistan clearly doesn’t have the tools Western officials are used to, a quintessential sign that it needs nation-building - not counter-terrorism.

"They want Afghanistan back," Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen said over the summer. ‘We can’t let them or their Al Qaeda cohorts have it. It’s not just about instilling fear or spreading violence. They want Afghanistan back...That means not giving the Taliban the freedom of movement they've had for the last three years."

Unless President Obama increases the competition and find a new business strategy, the Taliban corporation will threaten to put America out of business.