November 29, 2009

Afghan Wedding

Bells are ringing in Kabul and Washington. Months of will he, won’t he are over, the big day is finally here. Some members of the family oppose the arrangement, but it’s too late now. President Obama is finally marrying Afghanistan.

But this marriage is unusual - it comes with a certified expiration date.

Press secretary Robert Gates told reporters the day before Thanksgiving, "We are in year nine of our efforts in Afghanistan. We are not going to be there another eight or nine years. Our time there will be limited and that is important for people to understand.”

In other words, President Obama has seven years to withdraw from a stable Afghanistan or face defeat. But given the nature of guerrilla warfare, seven years appears to overreach just like a year proved insufficient time for a massive task like closing Guantánamo.

Seven years assumes Afghanistan will turn out like Iraq, her second cousin, which needed almost three years to stabilize after near civil war. America should be thankful to exit Iraq five years after the surge, if the withdrawal in 2011 goes off as planned.

Afghanistan is bigger, poorer, has less US troops, more insurgents, and the most corrupt government in the world. 10-15 years sounds plausible - and also politically poisonous. How, though, will Obama leave Afghanistan, without an enemy, by 2017? Is he that certain he’ll succeed?

Confidence is necessary in war, but Obama has been known to over-promise. He’s going to need an arsenal of luck no matter how smart the collective White House and Pentagon is. He needs something old, new, borrowed, and blue.

President Obama has no stronger link to the past than his Defense Secretary, Robert Gates. With knowledge of all the regional players in government halls, military bases, and mountains, his strong resistance to what the military terms its “growing footprint” should come as no surprise.

He’s seen it fail.

Though Gates still favors escalation to secure the country, he’s unlikely to support additional deployments after the 30,000 being readied now. Hopefully Obama will listen because he might run out of money and lose the war too.

As the deficit creeps above $1.4 trillion, Obama is betting the country on trillion dollar initiatives in health care and Afghanistan. The White House budget office estimated that each soldier’s upkeep costs 1$ million annually. Maybe Obama thinks American dollars are lucky because he’s borrowing lots of them.

The war’s cost in June reached 6.7$ million before the 17,000 troops Obama sent had fully arrived. Another 30,000 combat troops, along with their support, could push the figure to 10$ billion a month. Add the costs of reconstruction and each year will cost well over 100$ billion.

"It is very, very, very expensive," Gibbs said.

Obama can’t escape his blue - the feelings of those who oppose the war. Remember them well. Obama needs support to achieve success, but this support must demand a quick resolution and keep a sharp eye. US officials don’t want to give a blank check to Pakistan and Obama shouldn’t expect a black check from the American people to spend in Afghanistan.

Both parties will benefit.

If this marriage is looking grim it’s because Afghanistan is on the verge. Seven years, if Gibbs is correct, plays against the odds of victory. Obama might even understand this much because he’s exploring divorce as a substitute to death. Much of his “new” strategy might not be so new, but one part certainly changed. Once a hardcore Taliban Terminator, Obama has blessed Saudi Arabian negotiation with Mullah Omar.

Special envoy Richard Holbrooke confirmed, “I have talked to the Saudis. I’ve been to Riyadh. I talked to King Abdullah about it myself. We would be supportive of anything that the kingdom chose to do in this regard.”

The Saudi newspaper Al Watan reported that Karl Eikenberry, US Ambassador to Afghanistan, held talks with Mulla Mutawakil, former Taliban Minister of Foreign Affairs, in Kabul. Eikenberry supposedly offered to recognize Taliban rule in a handful of provinces including Kandahar, Helmand, Kunar, and Nuristan. In return, the Taliban must stop their attacks on foreign forces so that reconstruction can progress.

This means Mullah Omar’s message on the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday wasn’t just celebratory, but a direct diplomatic response.

"The invaders do not want negotiation aimed at granting independence to Afghanistan and ending their invasion but they want negotiation which will prolong their evil process of colonisation and occupation,” his message read on the Taliban’s website.

Yet the way this shotgun wedding is looking, negotiations may be the only way to escape alive. They’re bound to get worse after the addition of 30,000 US troops, the bulk of which are headed to Helmand and Kandahar, and the Taliban’s own recruits.

America and Mullah Omar are talking though. Not nicely, but Afghanistan will be an ugly divorce.

November 28, 2009

A New World

Cooperation can turn the weak into the strong, even make the impossible possible. Conversely, a superior force without synergy can be defeated, or unnecessarily impaired, by a weaker force. Hopefully the White House’s marathon deliberation will put decision-makers on the same page in Afghanistan, from President Obama to General McChrystal to Congress.

But with Obama reportedly locked into his decision and a media hurricane about to crash upon Washington, European drift is flying dangerously below the radar. Leaks are always good for an awakening.

When Sir John Chilcot convenes Britain’s Iraq War investigation, private hearings expected to last for months will produce a stockpile of what-if’s. Why wait though? Copies of the Iraq War files were leaked to the Daily Telegraph two days before Chilcot’s Inquiry began, and damning testimony zeroes in on America’s philosophy of waging war.

“The whole system was appalling,” claimed Colonel J.K. Tanner in 2004. “We experienced real difficulty in dealing with American military and civilian organizations who, partly through arrogance and partly through bureaucracy, dictate that there is only one way: the American way.”

Britain’s chief of staff in Iraq lobbed flak at all fronts. US and UK soldiers and officers had little or no knowledge of nation-building when they first arrived. US corporate favoritism hindered reconstruction, while elitism and bureaucracy impeded the command structure in the field. The “special relationship” couldn’t overcome basic differences.

Major General Andrew Stewart, Britain’s top commander in Iraq at the time, described American commanders as “war-war” and their British counterparts as “jaw-jaw.” He jabbed, “As the world’s only superpower, they [the US] will not allow their position to be challenged. Negotiation is often a dirty word.”

"Europeans chat to each other, whereas dialogue is alien to the US military,” Tanner added. “Dealing with them corporately is akin to dealing with a group of Martians.”

Granted these breakdowns occurred in 2003 and 2004, under a vastly different administration, and Iraq yielded a trove of counterinsurgency lessons that should theoretically ease the pain in Afghanistan. But
yesterday’s fallout is perfectly applicable today, according to the report’s three conclusions.

The second reads: “Exclusion of UK personnel from information and decision-making for reasons of US ‘NOFORN’ rules militated against successful working, and needed some robust interventions on occasion. While this may be a factor on future missions, it is an issue that needs to be raised at the outset when national contributions are offered.”

With NATO contributions worth more than their weight in gold, America cannot afford to speak martian in Afghanistan.

President Obama is expected to unveil his revamped strategy after Thanksgiving break and the American people must expect more troops - up to 40,000. Political pressure allowed him no more room for delay, but a round of NATO meetings in the first week of December provided equal incentive to finish his strategy.

just like Bush and Blair’s public friendship concealed a hidden disconnection, fundamental disagreements may lie beneath Obama and Europe’s glow.

For instance, Obama spent three months evading General McChrystal’s total counterinsurgency while NATO adopted a unanimous resolution supporting his plan. Secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen told a NATO meeting last week, “I'm confident it will be a counterinsurgency approach, with substantially more forces.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as part of the White House’s plan to narrow its goal, recently “assured” the American people that building a modern democracy is off the table.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for an international summit to set a time frame for withdrawal. Not wanting to stay a day longer than, Brown expressed hope that coalition forces can begin transferring parts of Afghanistan over to the Afghan National Army in 2010. Both notions were quickly squashed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

It’s not as though America and Britain, or the entire ISAF coalition for that matter, aren’t coordinated. Of course they are. Every NATO army is exceeding professional despite the occasional field mistake caused by miscommunication. But the key is maximizing potential and transcending the sum of individual parts, not settling for a patchwork.

As America shifts to another world, the disadvantages in Iraq can be converted into advantages if a new world is created.

In this new world President Obama cuts America’s allies an equal share, meaning he must make Afghanistan about more than America.
Obama doesn’t technically need 5,000 to 7,000 NATO troops on the battlefield, he needs them for perception. The perception that Afghanistan isn’t just “America’s war," so that the Taliban cannot exploit the occupation any further.

So that he’s not going in alone and won’t take all the blame.

After cautioning that the world’s security and freedom is at stake, Obama has gradually retreated into self interest. Afghanistan has degenerated into a US national security issue, but “America’s way” chances disaster. NATO members will deploy troops willingly only if Obama turns Afghanistan into a global issue again.

And doing so would necessitate him bringing NATO into the real decision-making process. So far European states have been given a nominal say, informed more than inquired of, awaiting the White House’s decision like everyone else. Those worried about the fraying alliance must realize an obvious truth - America and NATO need deeper integration at the strategic and tactical level.

If NATO is a necessary component in Afghanistan and a true global force in future wars, America must leave its old world habits in Iraq.

November 27, 2009

Quote of the Day

"We will continue to invite them until peace and stability come to this country. And this is an initiative of the Afghan people, and I wish Mullah Muhammad Omar... and all other Taliban recognize this necessity and join with us and participate in the reconstruction of their country."

- Hamid Karzai, on the prospect of negotiating with the Taliban

Relatively Unstable

Not all tyrants are created equally. Distinguishing between them can be rough work, but nature seems to apply a scale to all things and tyranny is as natural as water, apples, and radiation.

They appear so parallel, almost indistinguishable, but for what it’s worth, Muammar Gaddafi is no Hugo Chavez.

While Chavez is busy inflaming his border with Colombia and warning President Obama of regional interference, Gaddafi is hoping to put Egypt and Algeria's soccer shenanigans to rest. Libya’s state-run JANA news agency Jana reported that Arab League chief Amr Musa had asked Col Gaddafi to play the role of mediator.

"As chairman of the African Union, the Guide of the Revolution is going to work to bridge the gulf that has opened up between Egypt and Algeria," Jana reported.

Musa’s outreach is a propaganda coup for Gaddafi. As Chavez builds up his strongman rep, Gaddafi will attempt to play dove between two Muslim countries. Everyone wins. Ibrahim Youssri, former Egyptian ambassador to Algeria, told Al Jazeera that the introduction of Gaddafi as a mediator would “give the leaders a chance to save face.”

And Gaddafi receives good face time.

Chavez and Gaddafi appear closer than ever; Chavez was the guest of honor at a military parade celebrating Gaddafi’s 40th year in power. As Chavez searches Gaddafi’s political history for clues to extend his own rule, Gaddafi appears to be running his African campaign through Chavez.

Gaddafi and Chavez called for a “NATO of the South" during a September summit between African and South American leaders. A document to redefine terrorism, widely ridiculed, is also in the works. It rejects, “attempts to link the legitimate struggle of the people for liberty and self-determination.”

But their proximity provides an opportunity to study their variation. Chavez’s stock is falling due to a combination of poor governance and political distractions. Nagging inflation, power outages, and IOU’s for government workers have forced Chavez, at least in part, to start a fire on the Colombian border.

Tensions between the two countries are undoubtedly real, but the length Chavez is going to posture himself suggests a red herring. And the plan collapsed too. Four out of five Venezuelan's opposed conflict with Colombia, according to a poll by Alfredo Keller.

By contrast, Gaddafi is back in business now that US sanctions have been lifted, a reward obtained by good behavior. After scrapping his nuclear program in 2003 and tightening the flow of cash and weapons to militant groups, his reward is the return of foreign investment and tourism.

Libya’s economy is booming, relatively speaking. Maybe Muammar Gaddafi will patch the hole between Egypt and Algeria, maybe it’s a publicity stunt. But he’s trying.

Currently the same cannot be said for Hugo Chavez.

November 26, 2009

Hope and a Prayer

President Obama’s journey through the Afghan wilderness is entering the incomprehensible. From the campaign trail on, Obama, even as he advocated more combat brigades and finishing “the necessary war,” never completely sold his position to America or himself.

Many Obama voters are still wailing as if he promised withdrawal. He did not, but no one really knew because he maintained intentional ambiguity for political flexibility. This plan is now backfiring, but we can understand it.

Rolling out the red carpet for his “AfPak” strategy in March, then tunneling into his burrow for four months, is harder to compute. Though he reemerged with a "new" strategy, the selling points won't have changed: destroy al-Qaeda, eliminate hardcore Taliban, root out corruption, protect the populace, provide basic services, find an exit.

It’s all in the White Paper, making his new colored paper somewhat confusing. Obama guessed wrong on his first attempt or he wouldn’t be taking another. An old strategy packaged as a new strategy makes sense on this level - Obama doesn't like admitting mistakes.

He would be wise to do so.

Then there’s Hamid Karzai, half savior, half public enemy. Why Obama put so much emphasis on a fair election, then dumped Dr. Abdullah and indirectly crowned Karzai, then tried to crack the whip on Karzai afterward, is difficult to fathom. One word: desperation.

Desperation also provides relief from another anomaly. Two weeks ago UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, likely at the urging of Obama, sought 5,000 troops from NATO. Last week this demand morphed into 7,000, with US and EU officials estimating between 3,000 and 7,000. Now Obama wants 10,000.

The first part is easy. Obama wants to hit 40,000 without the entire deployment consisting of Americans; two weeks ago he was sending 35,000, then 33,000, now 30,000. He’s desperate to drive down US troop levels, but one must wonder if this minor difference was worth the wait and if it significantly alters his strategy.

Ultimately, as the NYT reports, “NATO countries appear willing to provide fewer than half that number," making the entire process nonsensical.

Once again Obama is over-promising and hoping instead of under-promising and delivering. The most realistic candidates appear to be Britain and Poland, a short list. Germany’s troops will have to be pried out, France has already ruled out them out, Italy may give a little but not enough.

Maybe it's all a setup and their going to surprise us. Who knows.

But desperation is bordering on hysteria. Rumors have US and EU officials hoping for a large contribution from Turkey, who's not about to deploy two or three thousand troops into Afghanistan because European countries won't. Why does Obama’s demand keep increasing even though the odds are decreasing?

Desperate yes, but a blatant disregard for reality. Imprudence.

Perhaps the situation would be different if his attitude changed, but Obama put Europe in the back seat on Afghanistan during his hour of need. The exchange between America and NATO is already strained after NATO backed General McChrystal’s strategy a month ago.

If there was any question that Europe is out of the decision-making process, Defense Minister Bob Ainsworth said Tuesday that Obama took too long to decide. The result is depleting support for the war, a pattern found in Britain, Germany, France, Italy, and Australia. Obama's delay is costing him the very troops he needs.

When he speaks from West Point on Tuesday and targets European donors in Copenhagen, Obama needs to switch on the charm and express a desire to work with, not lord over, NATO. Today provided no indication that he’ll do so.

“We have to do it as part of a broader international community,” he told a news conference to announce his speech. “So one of the things I’m going to be discussing is the obligations of our international partners in this process.”

The word "obligation" serves no purpose, it shouldn't have exited his mouth. Obama needs Europe more than Europe needs him and his leverage is falling. Afghanistan has reverted into a US-centric issue instead of partnership, coordination, eternal bonds, and globalization.

Obligations? Europe, along with Afghans and Pakistan, feel that America isn't the one fulfilling its obligations. President Obama’s plan to obtain NATO troops appears to be a hope and a prayer.

November 25, 2009

Quote of the Day

“He’s still not happy."

- Anonymous official, on President Obama's decision in Afghanistan

Following Blackwater's Tracks

Denial is inherently futile in politics. Deny Area 51 and people still believe anyway. Deny Blackwater in Pakistan and people are going to believe anyway. In the following case, which doesn’t exist, four denials make a fact.

Jeremy Scahill makes his living stalking Blackwater, having authored the controversial, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Too bad for him that the thunder of his exclusive report to The Nation was mitigated by Seymour Hersh. More than a shock, Scahill’s latest scoop is a yawn.

However, the trail he’s following becomes far more disturbing once it crosses out of Pakistan and back into America.

Scahill, citing a source with direct knowledge of Blackwater activity, reports the company has its hands in every military operation in Pakistan. The American and Pakistani governments, Blackwater, and its supposed front group Kestral Logistics, denied all claims. At this point they’re just going through the motions.

"Xe Services has only one employee in Pakistan performing construction oversight for the U.S. Government," Blackwater spokesperson Mark Corallo said in a statement to The Nation, adding that the company has "no other operations of any kind in Pakistan."

Sure you don’t. We know they can’t admit to the truth, they know Pakistanis know, they can’t do anything, and they don’t care. But the word is out.

Scahill writes, “For months, the Pakistani media has been flooded with stories about Blackwater's alleged growing presence in the country. For the most part, these stories have been ignored by the US press and denounced as lies or propaganda by US officials in Pakistan. But the reality is that, although many of the stories appear to be wildly exaggerated, Pakistanis have good reason to be concerned about Blackwater's operations in their country.”

It’s hard to find one accusation not already known to them: loading bombs on drones, scoping targets and planning missions for US special-ops, aiding Pakistani troops in “snatch and grabs,” and expanding its presence throughout Pakistan in general.

This story has more angle examining the incapability of America and Pakistan to either a.) counteract a false rumor, or b.) keep a secret. Blackwater’s firestorm is the latest proof that America is helpless to manage its image. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s propaganda machine is still broken.

All she can do is watch the rumors fly, like 202 Blackwater agents showing up on an inbound flight without going through custom procedure.

Now two of Scahill’s points are real concerns. Last month Dr AQ Khan, wanted for nuclear proliferation to Iran and North Korea, expressed threats to his life from Blackwater, and said the federal government needs to explain the matter if the rumors are false. So the kidnapping of Khan by Blackwater, however unlikely, is something to chew on.

The second point is near certain. Scahill reports, “Blackwater has a facility in Karachi. three trailers with various generators, satellite phones and computer systems are used as a makeshift operations center. ‘It's a very rudimentary operation,’ says the source. ‘I would compare it to [CIA] outposts in Kurdistan or any of the Special Forces outposts. It's very bare bones, and that's the point.’”

This of course was in 2008. The latest rumors have Blackwater buying the Pearl Continental hotel.

Blackwater is moving into Karachi. Everyone knows it because everyone’s looking for it. And who else is supposedly in Karachi? Mullah Omar, supposedly protected by the ISI according to special-ops, or possibly Blackwater agents. We’re watching a global chess game, but not some fake contest.

This is real strategy, real factions, real lives, costly outcomes. The situation could get ugly and everything will unfold before us to observe. But what about that which cannot be seen?

Scahill’s source said that Blackwater is so "compartmentalized" that senior figures within the Obama administration and the US military chain of command may not be aware of its existence. "This is a parallel operation to the CIA," said the source. "They are two separate beasts."

How right he is remains to be discovered, but the tracks lead in that direction.

"What I was seeing,” said Colonel Wilkerson, “was the development of what I would later see in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Special Operations forces would operate in both theaters without the conventional commander even knowing what they were doing.”

CIA operations are subject to Congressional oversight, but not JSOC bombings, which could make up half of all drone attacks in Pakistan. Said Scahill’s source, “Targeted killings are not the most popular thing in town right now and the CIA knows that. They're not accountable to anybody and they know that. It's an open secret, but what are you going to do, shut down JSOC?”

So not only could the president and senators be out of the “love circle,” as the source calls it, they couldn’t do anything to stop it anyway. Humbling, isn’t it? Pakistan can’t stop Blackwater and neither can the American government.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, recently affirmed, "Every single intelligence operation and covert action must be briefed to the Congress. If they are not, that is a violation of the law."

So there goes the law too.

But Scahill’s realist omen pierces General Stanley McChrystal, chief of JSOC from 2003 to 2008 during its formative years of Rumsfeld and Cheney. Colonel Wilkerson expressed a growing concern that as the recently installed military commander in Afghanistan, the JSOC's power and influence will solidify within the military structure.

"I don't see how you can escape that; it's just a matter of the way the authority flows and the power flows, and it's inevitable, I think," Wilkerson told The Nation. "I'm alarmed when I see execute orders and combat orders that go out saying that the supporting force is Central Command and the supported force is Special Operations Command.”

JSOC is here to stay, and the contrast is stark. A top secret killing machine, half military-half civilian, operating in any country, any time, anywhere, developed by George Bush and his officials. The mission really kicked off in 2006, just when Secretary Robert Gates assumed his position.

Gates lobbied for McChrystal, gave the first press conference himself. President Obama agreed. He’s left Gates in power, who, despite whatever he says, will serve his whole term. McChrystal could be his general until the war is over, and this is what he’ll get.

"This is supposed to be the brave new world," Wilkerson says. "This is the Jamestown of the new millennium and it's meant to be a lily pad. You can jump off to Uzbekistan, you can jump back over the border, you can jump sideways, you can jump northwest. It's strategically located so that they can get their people wherever they have to.”

Obama is waging a dangerous gamble by allowing this program to continue under his watch. He must want it, or not know it. But Blackwater’s tracks lead to darkness, secrecy, a twisted mass of red tape, diplomatic powder-kegs waiting for a spark. His image could go up in flames.

Blackwater can’t go down. It went down in Iraq and simply changed its name and tactics. It’s getting paid more than ever. America is who suffered in Iraq and the same is true in Pakistan. Consider the magnitude of this folly.

America, under President Obama has publicly attempted a goodwill campaign towards Pakistan. At the same time, he’s deployed Blackwater to destroy America’s image in Pakistan. The rumors are out of control, from assassination to drunk, armed agents in US embassy vehicles. Blackwater doesn’t care about politics, it just wants to get paid.

America takes the fall.

November 24, 2009

Quote of the Day

"After eight years - some of those years in which we did not have, I think, either the resources or the strategy to get the job done - it is my intention to finish the job."

- President Obama, on Afghanistan

First Round Bust?

Sports fans know well that it’s never too early to second-guess draft picks, particularly first round selections. Often, evaluating them afterward is equally hard as beforehand. Plenty of top picks fall to earth while bottom dwellers on day bathe in champagne. Some fall quickly, others linger before crashing.

Dishing out sound-bites at a wine reception at the New American Foundation, US envoy Richard Holbrooke found himself in conversation with the Huffington Post’s Taylor Marsh, who recounts, “At one point he added that he'd seen a caption, he believed on CNN, that said "Ambassador Kerry?’ then chuckled.”

He had to laugh, what else could he do? Then he heaped praise on Senator Kerry. MIA headlines, tales of fireworks between Hamid Karzai and himself, disruptions in the chain of command - all false.

“We encouraged John to get in on this," Holbrooke said in a separate interview with Foreign Policy. "I have never seen a better interaction between a member of Congress and an executive branch on a major issue and the stakes yesterday were extraordinarily high."

As for Holbrooke himself, he’s consumed in his Washington office, feeding the White House information day and night. "I didn't know I was missing in action because I was kind of busy all day," he said, adding, “this is the most intense policy review before a big decision that I've ever been involved in.”

The fog of Afghanistan’s election enveloped anything it touched, and judging by the events, media hype surrounding him appears to be overblown. That comes with the job.

Kerry had planned in advance to visit Afghanistan and Holbrooke’s tasks are outgrowing his hands. With a network ballooning from 15 to 30 people, he’s headed to Russia for emergency negotiations over the arms transit pact, an area outside his expertise. Holbrooke is swamped and needed everywhere during crisis mode.

But Holbrooke’s troubles started before October and before Afghanistan's election.

Part of his problem is coaching. For all the hard work Holbrooke put into the Balkans, “AfPak” makes the Balkans look like specs on a window. Population, territory, size of armies, nuclear weapons, power projection - the two conflicts don’t compare on any level.

The key difference between the Balkans and Pakistan is America’s direct influence in Afghanistan. America is part of the conflict rather than an arbitrator. “Peace negotiations,” as they’re formally known, have less of a place.

Kashmir is the hot spot in dire need of conflict resolution, but Holbrooke was taken out of the game. Obama, worried about antagonizing India, gave Holbrooke no mandate for Kashmir. India had put its foot down. Recent talk that India must be brought into “AfPak" is swiftly rejected by the government.

As a result, Holbrooke assumed a public face in Pakistan, an ambassador more than a peace broker between nations or factions. And public diplomacy isn’t Holbrooke’s strongest suit.

Holbrooke got off to a rocky start at his first press conference and didn’t looked back. The “Bulldog” is criticized for battling the Pakistani media, ignoring the region’s history, and leading high-ranking Pakistani figures around like a viceroy. He might be a wizard behind the curtain, but he’s hurting America’s public image.

Holbrooke is disliked simply because he's American, but he certainly hasn't recast himself or America's profile. Holbrooke blamed the opposition during the Kerry-Lugar uproar when his job is to explain these things. Pakistan, with its high rate of anti-Americanism, wasn’t the best spot to send a confrontational diplomat.

At this point he doesn’t have an image in Afghanistan.

Holbrooke expected a poor election, comparing it to America’s own “disputed elections,” and commendably pushed hard for a second round of voting, saying it would benefit Afghanistan. Truth earned him banishment from Karzai’s circle and his own image collapsed. Holbrooke is losing value and the bleeding won’t stop until he mends his relationship with Karzai - it’s hard to do “AfPak” without the “Af.”

Two months later, after the runoff’s cancellation, he beamed, “The administration worked seamlessly on this.” Worked seamlessly on propping up Karzai - is that the solution? Holbrooke should understand more than most how illegitimate Karzai appears if he deeply believed in a runoff.

He might even have a problem with actual strategy. P.J. Crowley, assistant secretary of state for public affairs, defended Holbrooke by revealing he’s been, “at the heart of the execution of the policy that the president enunciated in March."

As the Washington Times notes, “the current review is intended to revise the March strategy.”

Though tales of his death are likely exaggerated, Holbrooke is falling below first round expectations.

November 21, 2009

Desperate Times, Foolish Measures

Senator Carl Levin has injected a potentially explosive idea into the debate over Afghanistan. The chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee proposed in a Bloomberg interview, "an additional income tax to the upper brackets, folks earning more than $200,000 or $250,000.”

“They have done incredibly well," Levin said of wealthier Americans, "and I think that it’s important that we pay for it [the war] if we possibly can."

But his strategy doesn’t appear to have any upside and comes off as desperation, not innovation. Levin staunchly opposes a troop build-up, preaching the Afghan National Army as a viable alternate. The plan itself was a no-go from the beginning - the ANA is years away from assuming control of Afghanistan.

Just to be sure, Defense Secretary Robert Gates squashed any chance of the ANA substituting for additional US troops.

Realizing his primary option has failed, Levin fell back to an even more precarious scheme - taxing the rich to pay for a war. His actions telegraph an unwillingness to fight in Afghanistan, or rather, a willingness to cheat it. Having denounced inflating the federal deficit with war, what good is draining 40$ billion private capital from the US economy?

"White House Budget Director Peter Orszag has estimated that each additional soldier in Afghanistan could cost $1 million, for a total that could reach $40 billion if 40,000 more troops are added," Bloomberg reported.

Add untold billions for ANA training, reconstruction projects, and civilian support, multiply by 5-10 years, and we're looking at serious coin for COIN. Possibly over a trillion dollars, putting Afghanistan on par with health care.

Wealthy conservatives will oppose this plan under the belief that Republicans are paying for the Democrats' weakness. Being tax averse in general, wealthy and poor conservatives alike will find fault with taxation as the solution to Afghanistan. Wealthy liberals won'’t be any more thrilled paying for neocon warmongering. Poor liberals want America to focus on rebuilding infrastructure and social programs.

Who exactly will support Levin? Asking a small part of the country to fund Afghanistan is a quick way to create more schisms in America.

In another desperate move, Levin, in an crusade to pass the war off to everyone else, said NATO should be responsible for half the troop requirements, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 troops. Considering that Afghanistan is widely perceived as "America's War" and support is down in Europe, America looks more like a beggar than the general.

Levin issued his standard line to anyone who would listen: “There’s a lot of other things involved in showing resolve beside just a troop level."

Lest he forget, Afghanistan is a counterinsurgency and the perception of America's resolve is judged, at home and abroad, by troop levels. Levin, by trying to dodge them, is showing none.

COIN 101

Pakistan has chosen a pragmatic strategy considering its woes. Whereas US influence must be accepted by its leaders, Indian influence is opposed at all times. Being in no position to refuse US military and economic assistance, the slightest weakness towards India would multiply the pressure beyond Pakistan's breaking point.

Responding to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s call for a dialogue over the dispute Kashmir territory, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told reporters at Multan Airport, “We are not ready to come into any one’s pressure. What we keep forth is our national and international interest.”

“I want to convey this message to India that if they are willing to resume a meaningful dialogue, we’re willing to sit with them,” he said. “But if they come for sitting just for the sake of sitting, we’re not ready to spoil our time.”

Pakistan has numerous reasons to be skeptical of India’s diplomatic advances, and India of Pakistan's. Mumbai altered the strategic landscape in South Asia; America and India reinforced their alliance on counter-terrorism. Both countries began leveraging Mumbai for action from Pakistan, with India using preconditions to dictate Kashmir negotiations.

Pakistan, aware that America and India are coordinating their pressure, has not enjoyed the arm-twisting. Now it's payback time.

The Pakistan media is reporting that ISI chief Lt. General Ahmed Shujja Pasha met with his CIA counterpart Leon Panetta hours ago. Pasha supposedly confronted Panetta with evidence of Indian arms found in Balochistan and Wazirsitan. Pasha accused the US military of not doing enough to stop the flow of weapons from east or west.

India’s alleged actions are part of a broader context. Rumors that America abandoned outposts along the Afghan border has prompted Pakistani concerns. Why has America pulled away the anvil when Pakistan is finally hammering away?

Reality or not, the perception is growing that America wants to keep Pakistan destabilized so that it continues fighting militants across the FATA. The TTP blamed Blackwater for working towards the same goal, now India has been publicly added to the list.

Deliberate destabilization of Pakistan is a volatile counterinsurgency strategy, but conspiracies are inching towards reality.

Quote of the Day

"I am absolutely convinced and totally confident that with sufficient resources we can turn the situation around. I even am bold enough to predict that in a year to 18 months you will see success if the effort is sufficiently resourced and there is a commitment to get the job done before setting a date to leave the region."

- Senator John McCain, on Afghanistan

November 20, 2009

Dealing With Reality

Please excuse the delay, we meant to post this recent Haaretz poll earlier. Among several interesting discoveries, the study found, “impressive rising strength of the right and a serious shrinking of the center and the left.”

The Knesset stands at 65-55. The survey concluded that if elections were held today, the right’s margin would dilate to 72-48. If President Obama is having a hard time dealing with Netanyahu now, consider his trouble with a more conservative Israel.

Yet this tilt hasn’t produced the expected effect on Hamas. The Haaretz found 57% of respondents support MK Shaul Mofaz’s plan for dialogue with Hamas under certain conditions. “Inside Kadima the idea has tremendous support by some 72 percent of the party's voters,” the report stated. “But even 53 percent of Likud supporters back the idea.”

Hamas is becoming harder to predict, first pushing for elections, then stalling on reconciliation with Fatah, then denouncing President Mahmoud Abbas after calling for elections. How to engage Hamas - outside or inside a Palestinian coalition - remains complex.

Still, if political support exists, perhaps the return of captured soldier Gilad Shalit would open the door for expanded negotiations. Talking to Hamas, already a pragmatic strategy, could be making real headway in Israeli society. And if Israel accepts this fact, America can as well.

Learning Circle

The ceremony went off on schedule, but without celebration. Hamid Karzai’s inauguration ended before it began when news broke of his mining minister, Mohammad Ibrahim Adel, accepting a 30$ million bribe for awarding a 3$ billion contract to state-run Metallurgical Corporation of China.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in attendance for Karzai’s oath, ignored the reports. Today was for the future of Afghanistan she said, as an eerie parallel descended on the scene.

While America awaits President Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan, we’re told that additional deliberation increases the odds of success. This theory presumes the White House hit a stiff learning curve and, after initial struggle, will come to understand the intricacies of Afghan warfare. Behavior from Washington suggest Obama and his staff haven’t reached that point.

As US officials scrambled to keep their message on track in Kabul, so too have they ignored the improbability of changing Karzai when America’s only leverage is more troops. The goal of a legitimate government is gone.

Dr. Abdullah rejected Karzai’s offer to join, vowing, “I have no intention of taking part in Karzai’s government.” Ashraf Ghani, the other presidential candidate, is just as cool on joining.

Clinton had shuttled from Pakistan to Israel to Asia and back to Afghanistan, but it was in Pakistan where she rolled out a personal message, one of friendship mixed with impatience. She came to preach America's propaganda, using the word with unusual frequency for a US official.

Her message of clarifying disinformation and protecting America’s image apparently didn’t travel far.

At a recent event at the Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies, former CIA analyst and Obama’s “AfPak” chief Bruce Riedel warned that America is unprepared for war against Iran. America, he says, cannot fight simultaneously in Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan when Iran could strike both theaters in addition to Israel.

A valid point, but such sound advise blanketed his real “nightmare scenario,” a jihadi sweep to power and a violent coup in Pakistan, which he says poses a threat to America and Israel.

“Pakistan, next-door to Afghanistan, is being destabilized,” he told the audience. “Pakistan is the fastest growing nuclear arms state in the world, and has more terrorists per square kilometer than any other country. A jihadist Pakistan will be the largest terrorist state that has ever been set up, and will dwarf Libya, Iraq, Syria and Iran."

Pakistan would be a patron state sponsor of terrorism. Hamas would find a lucrative Sunni sponsor... That is the nightmare outcome.”

This speech is a nightmare for US diplomats responsible for America’s image in Pakistan. American and Indian intelligence believe the most realistic threat of a coup comes from rogue, high-ranking ISI officers influenced by radical clerics. Riedel, already disliked in Pakistan, opted for the stereotypical extremist tidal wive that will never come.

But throwing in support for Hamas is a whole new rumor sure to infuriate Pakistan, who believes Israel is insincere about a two-state solution. It doesn't help that Riedel delivered his message on Pakistan to Israelis, not Americans or Pakistanis. This scare tactic is the most blatant yet deployed.

Riedel wasn’t finished trashing America’s image in Pakistan. Days later he confirmed that Mullah Omar had recently been spotted in Karachi. US officials raised a controversy last month by including Quetta as a terrorist haven in the Kerry-Lugar bill and demanding Pakistan take action on the "Quetta Shura." If not, America would.

"Some sources claim the ISI decided to move him further from the battlefield to keep him safe,” Riedel said.

American-Pakistani relations have suffered their latest blow, whether the allegations are true or not. Nadeem Kiani, a spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, told reporters by phone, “People who are making these accusations have their own agendas.”

An anonymous Pakistani official told the Washington Times, “To shift the blame on Pakistan and the security forces because Afghanistan is becoming more of a problem is not going to be helpful but have a demoralizing effect on the situation both here and there.”

Clinton wonders why anti-American propaganda in Pakistan is so virulent. Give the media powder and it will make bombs.

Crippled as perception is, reality offers no respite. "We're losing... It's getting worse in Afghanistan," Riedel admitted, a feeling circulating around Washington and Pakistan. “Every soldier sent to Afghanistan costs the US a million dollars a year. Thirty thousand soldiers cost $30 billion. Extremely large resources are involved. America is broke."

And yet, “Additional troops are a necessity if we want to stop losing. President Obama has ruled that [a withdrawal] out. I think correctly.”

This paradox - going broke fighting a protracted war - breeds another another. American officials, from President Obama on down, don’t want to leave Afghanistan in the near future. Now Pakistan, having bled and sacrificed, wants a say in the decision.

It’s safe to say Pakistanis want America out of Afghanistan more than Americans do. Just as displeased over Obama’s lengthy review, Pakistan is working towards the opposite outcome. Pakistan isn't the real problem, as US officials claim, but Afghanistan. Americans want Obama to take his time before going in. Pakistanis want him to take his time on an exit strategy.

If he chooses escalation, President Obama mustn’t just explain what he’s learning - he must demonstrate an understanding. America can't afford to keep going in circles.

November 19, 2009

UC's and Insurgency

Having just returned from UCLA, it's easy to see why UC regents raised tuition costs by 32% for 2010 - no one cares. Sure, thousands of demonstrator descended on various colleges, but they form a slice of California's overall student body. The reaction doesn't match the outrage.

It's only natural that tuition costs have risen throughout the decade and are set to inflate throughout the 2010's. Let authority walk on us and it will. Personally I went to observe on a scientific basis, not participate. Only a mass protest would have a chance at changing the outcome. Average demonstrations, let alone today's paltry numbers, have no effect.

Some 200 protesters bounced off UC president Mark Yudof like they didn't exist.

That 10,000 dollars annually is still a bargain price for high quality education cannot be denied, but this is a straw-man argument. Tuition increases don''t necessarily translate to a better education. The money is meant to cover short falls in the state deficit, which stems in part from the national deficit. Students are paying the cost of government mismanagement.

A tax hike on college students is forcing them to bail out unsound fiscal policies made by adults. Injustice.

Visions of Afghanistan fluttered behind a group of protesters as I watched them helplessly alter their future. Protests don't pack the punch they used to, whether for school or war. Only a massive demonstration is capable of changing either decision. Anything less leaves the people powerless.

Short term sacrifices have yet to produce long term results. California increased tuition costs throughout the decade yet the UC system is in deeper water than ever. Next year could be worse, and the same with Afghanistan. No matter how much tuition rises, or troops rise, next year will be the same as last. Never enough.

Take our money now, you'll need more later. Take our lives now, you'll need more later. The cycle never ends, which is odd because it appears unsustainable.

Coming Ashore

If the glass is half full, the EU’s developing strategy in Somalia is a welcome admittance that piracy can only be solved on land, where the pirates live. Not to mention those gangs and militants not directly involved in piracy.

Swedish Defence Minister Sten Tolgfors told reporters, “There is general acknowledgment that the troubles we see at sea do not stem at sea, but on land. That is the reason why many countries are interested in discussing what can be done on land.”

EU military planners were ordered to mobilize up to 200 instructors, to be deployed to Uganda where they’ll train an estimated 2,000 Somali troops. Pilot programs initiated by France, Uganda and Djibouti have already begun training another 4,000 troops, and they come with the advantage of operating outside Somalia.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said in a new report to the UN Security Council, “One of the ways to ensure the long-term security of international navigation off the coast of Somalia is through a concerted effort to stabilize the situation ashore, as pirates have become more sophisticated in their methods and techniques of attacking.”

The only way to ensure long-term security is stabilizing the situation ashore. French Defense Minister Herve Morin bluntly stated, “We clearly see that if we don't help Somalia, then we could have the Atalanta operation for 20 or 30 years.”

The glass is always half empty in Somalia. The EU, and presumably America, the UN, and AU, if they start today, have 20 or 30 years of land operations ahead of them, probably more. Anything and everything could go wrong in the meantime. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said training won’t start “before the end of next year."

Somalia could be different in a year.

Of course that shouldn’t stop the international community from trying to help. Guardian reporter George Grant writes that patrolling the Gulf of Aden is an exercise in inefficiency, calculating, “Attacks off the Somali coast and in the Gulf of Aden totaled 141 in the first nine months of this year, up 70% on the same period in 2008.”

Grant advocates strengthening the relatively stable Puntland, which declared itself an autonomous state in 1998. Presumably he would extend his strategy to Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia in 1991 but has yet to be recognized by the international community. Octopus Mountain supports this idea.

Somalia needs a multi-tiered approach. America is feeding weapons, ammunition, and dollars into the transitional government, a futile plan itself. Added to regional support of Somalia’s offshoots and something might happen. Hundreds of millions of dollars in Naval operations have more value in restoring Somalia’s coast, but both projects need funding.

“The numbers we are now talking about are quite realistic,” Tolgfors said of the EU’s training program, though the small numbers make this statement a non-starter. Western training appears viable over the long term, but will only succeed within a comprehensive political and economic strategy. Otherwise the West will stoke more civil war.

One glaring dilemma is where the EU’s trainers will actually come from. Already struggling to fill the 400 quota for Afghanistan, some officials are worried they can barely train one foreign army with an unstable government let alone two.

UK MEP Geoffrey Van Orden, security and defense spokesman for the European Conservatives and Reformists group, pointed out, “If there is a need to train indigenous military and police forces the first priority is Afghanistan, where the response of the EU and many European countries has so far been hopeless.”

Neither Afghanistan nor Somalia needs any more hopelessness than they generate on their own, but at least Western leaders are going public on Somalia's plight.

Quote of the Day

"I hope the Palestinians answer our calls for negotiations. The Palestinians have groomed themselves with unrealistic expectations."

- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

November 18, 2009

Leak War

The Kabul airport only canceled regular flights. Perhaps it was too busy ferrying in foreign dignitaries who came to make the reelection of Hamid Karzai look official. His inauguration has much in common with Afghanistan as a whole - under lock-down.

They smiled all the same, none wider than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who spent the day tasking Karzai with all of America’s demands. Karzai reciprocated, touting his new anti-corruption unit and pledging to root out corruption. Afghanistan’s attorney general Mohammad Ishaq Aloko claims he formed a list of corrupt Afghan officials.

But as James Bays, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Kabul, reported from the scene, "He [Karzai] still raised the detention of Afghan prisoners in American jails... he raised other uncomfortable issues for the Americans, the issue of civilian casualties for example. So he was able to make his speech, but it included that central element of corruption that the Americans insisted that they had to hear."

This defiance could be getting him in serious trouble. On the same day Karzai took his oath, the Washington Post reported Mohammad Ibrahim Adel, Afghanistan’s Mining Minister, accepted a 30$ million dollar bribe in 2007 to award a contract to the state-run Metallurgical Corporation of China.

Adel’s alleged bribery hijacked the news cycle. Karzai’s speech already comes under a city curfew with roadblocks and security everywhere. The Taliban have infiltrated Kabul, now his minister is outed. The skies couldn’t get any darker. Well, we take that back.

The Post reports, “The issue has also gained urgency because the ministry is reviewing offers for another massive mining deal -- this time for an iron ore deposit west of Kabul known as Haji Gak -- for which MCC is the front-runner.”

"This guy has done this already; we're in the same situation again," said an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

A rash of well-timed leaks leaves almost no chance of coincidence. Pentagon officials are leaking President Obama’s plans before his Asian trip while US officials leak Karzai’s brother on the CIA payroll before the runoff. Pakistan-Chinese nukes as Obama hits China. And now Adel on inauguration day. It’s a leak war.

But can Karzai really be pushed and pulled by outing his officials? Though susceptible to bias, Nasir Khisrow Parsi says that Karzai is powerless to stop the corruption, inside or outside the Mining Ministry. Parsi represented Aria Zamin, a competing company with MCC, at the time.

"They can do whatever they want," said Parsi, who now works in the geology department of the Mines Ministry. "The whole ministry is corrupt. No one is clean there. I don't see how this is going to end. Only God can stop this corruption."

America isn’t God.

For his part Adel denies having anything to do with a bribe and accused Jim Yeager, a former World Bank adviser who wrote a report on the 2007 deal, of losing his memory. “This is like blind people describing a landscape,” Adel told The London Times.

Multiple companies offered bribes, Afghan officials stressed, hoping to tone down the impact. In a way it might have. This is Afghanistan after all, and that’s the problem. Every time an opportunity comes to redeem its image, something like Adel’s story kills the progress.

Karzai’s fancy words back in Kabul lose meaning. President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s pleas for reform turn from good intentions to desperation to self-serving. They know all the files on Afghanistan’s corruption and still let Karzai back in power. They've been undercut as bad as Karzai.

In a way the leak backfired.

And the cavalry - not US troops but political reconciliation - isn’t on the way. Karzai offered a spot in a “national unity government” to Dr. Abdullah, who told Tolo TV afterwards, "I have no intention of taking part in Karzai's government.”

Showdown Over Palestine

Published November 15th on Technorati

With the Middle East peace process in free fall, leaders from every side are desperate to reverse the past year of war, broken promises, and frigid relations. But soaring tensions are propelling the region towards a showdown.

Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator, told reporters that the Palestinian Authority is setting guidelines for a Palestinian state to present to the UN Security Council, the ultimate goal being international recognition.

"Now is our defining moment,” he said. “We went into this peace process in order to achieve a two-state solution. The endgame is to tell the Israelis that now the international community has recognized the two-state solution on the '67 borders.”

Despite their bravado, Palestinian officials claim they have no intentions of rushing their decision. Nimr Hamad, an adviser to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, told Maariv, “We want the Security Council to discuss this only after we've been given assurances. There is no point in rushing just so that we collide with an American veto."

Caution must be exercised during such a momentous endeavor, or a bluff, especially when conflict is inevitable. The US position won’t support any initiative that excludes Israeli input, a message Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is driving home.

“There is no substitute for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” he told an audience in Jerusalem that included American senators, “and any unilateral attempts outside that framework will unravel the existing agreements between us and could entail unilateral steps by Israel.”

Israeli officials, notably Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, expressed similar opposition, and they’re correct in believing negotiations have no substitute. Unilateralism is a recipe for instability, not conflict resolution. Except Netanyahu is playing the wrong card in Palestine.

“Netanyahu's actions are all unilateral,” Hamad told Ynet Sunday night, “he and his government decide unilaterally on settlement construction in Jerusalem. He and his government have unilaterally decided that settlement construction does not contradict peace. In fact, from the day that we signed the agreements Israel has been engaging in a unilateral policy.”

This prevalent sentiment among Palestinian leadership is a primary reason why they’re resorting to the UN in the first place. Hamad admonished Netanyahu, saying he’s, “under the impression that if he gives us more food we will be glad to live under the occupation. I want to make it clear that IDF forces are still entering West Bank.”

“The Israelis impeded negotiations, and therefore we are left with only this option in order to safeguard our national project," said Mohammed Shtayyeh, a member of the Fatah Central Council in Ramallah. “We have been left with no other choices and nothing to lose."

Words and actions out of Israel and Palestine have set the two entities on a collision course. Netanyahu advocates restarting negotiations immediately as a solution, while Palestinians reject what they perceive as a false choice. As the situation presently stands, a cool down may be more useful.

One emerging option is French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s offer to host a peace conference in Paris, with guests including Jordan's King Abdullah II, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, plus American and EU officials. Instead of resuming negotiations, the goal would be to clear the poisonous air and reset a positive atmosphere before entering the peace process’s deciding phase.

A French initiative would signal failure on the American side, but it may help resolve a gridlock created in part by America’s own interests in the region.

November 17, 2009

Quote of the Day

"This is a message to President Obama that Israel does not care about the American position. There should be real American pressure on the Israelis to stop all these acts. Such acts prove that Israel does not want peace and does not want to revive the peace process, and it really puts the interests of the United States at stake."

- Nabil Abu Rdeneh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, on the Israeli approval of 900 new units in East Jerusalem.

Assad's Gauntlet

"Israel is prepared to hold negotiations without precondition with the Syrians,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed last week, shunning his usual rhetoric that Syria isn’t serious about peace. “I prefer direct talks, but if they are with a mediator then it must be fair.”

After meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responded, “I say we would talk about returning land, and for this subject there is a framework, mechanisms and specialized negotiators to handle this. It is neither me nor Mr. Netanyahu. If Mr. Netanyahu is serious, he can send his teams of experts, we will send our teams of experts to Turkey.”

Netanyahu expressed frustration over Turkey’s role as a mediator and welcomed an alternate proposal for French mediation, which Assad may be open to. A separate dispute may form over direct or indirect negotiations. Either way, Assad laid down a gauntlet to challenge President Obama and Netanyahu. High risk entails high reward.

The Obama administration, in its desire to oppose all things Bush, arranged from the beginning to test Damascus. Bush had taken the opposite approach, freezing relations until Syria disengaged with Iran and stayed out of Lebanon. The bitter taste of Syria’s duplicity in Iraq had to be cleansed.

“We are going to start on day one, we are going to take a regional approach, we're going to have to involve Syria in discussions, we are going to have to engage Iran," Obama said in a CBS interview in January.

Assad, eager to reciprocate and improve his country’s image, told Obama before he took office, “We would like to contribute to the stabilization of the region. But we must be included, not isolated, as we have been until now. We are ready for any kind of cooperation.”

Complicated plans don’t last long in the Middle East, however. Assad told Le Figaro during his recent trip to France that Obama had not gone, "beyond an exchange of views. There has not been an executive plan... What Obama said about peace was a good thing. We agree with him on the principles, but as I said, what's the action plan?”

“The sponsor has to draw up an action plan. The weak point is the American sponsor.”

It’s hard to blame anyone when everyone is to blame. Prohibiting IAEA officials from the suspected nuclear site near al-Kibar, followed by a high profile visit to Iran, mixed with unflinching support for Hezbollah and Hamas, leaves no question why America hasn’t moved past an exchange of views.

Yet Israel and America are strong factors in Assad’s behavior. Israel’s actions (and non-actions) throughout the year have impressed upon him that Netanyahu hasn’t changed, a trend spreading across the region. With America in full support of Israel, the Obama administration’s plan seemed little more than a vague concept and the hope that Syria would blink first.

It did not.

With the stakes so high, the three parties haven’t given up on negotiations despite their seemingly irreconcilable disagreements. Breakthroughs often come at the last moment. Israel, fearing a power shift, is glad that American-Syrian relations have stalled. It must now seize the opportunity to engage Syria one on one.

As so much focus goes into preconditions these days, negotiations might be prevented from getting off the ground, but their completion lies at the end of Assad’s concrete conditions: the return of Golan Heights, pursuance of a two-state solution, and an end to Israeli interference in Lebanon. His demands are unrealistic from Israel's perspective, but the three go hand in hand.

Golan Heights is Assad’s slice of “The Resistance” and its fate influences his views on Palestine, Lebanon, and Iran.

“Resisting occupation is a patriotic duty and to support it is a moral and legal imperative... and an honor of which we are proud," Assad said in a speech an Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) meeting in Istanbul. "This does not contradict our unceasing desire to achieve a just and comprehensive peace on the basis of the return of the occupied territories, especially the occupied Syrian Golan, but the failure of negotiations to restore all our rights would make resistance an alternative solution.”

Netanyahu has publicly supported the return of Golan Heights under the right conditions. He appears to be fortified by IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who reportedly said during private meetings, "We should not be disheartened by Assad. Syria is not lost... Assad is western educated and is not a religious man. He can still join a moderate grouping.”

Israel has many incentives for ending its acrimony with Syria. The security threat theoretically diminishes after a return of Golan Heights and moves the region in the right direction for once. Failure to resolve the dispute leaves Obama with the same relationship Bush had with Syria.

Meanwhile Syria’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah will continue as long as the status quo is maintained.

Assad blamed the cause of conflict in Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon on "the Zionist occupation" which "we must begin to work to eliminate.” He berated America for condemning the Goldstone report, calling the Gaza war, "one of the worst war crimes ever known in modern times." Israel’s seizure of alleged Hezbollah weapons was "an act of piracy in the middle of the Mediterranean,” not an international war crime by committed by Iran.

Israel must give Assad a reason to discourage military buildup. Hamas and Hezbollah are his leverage in Golan Heights.

Playing bad cop to Assad’s good cop, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah jeered, "We tell all those who asked us to give the Americans some time… it turned out that presenting a black president from the third world was a trick that ended faster than we expected. Meanwhile, Israel maintains its armament, espionage cells and reconnaissance planes and spying devices. It continues to exploit any incident, whether a real or fabricated one, as part of its war on Lebanon, Palestine and Resistance movements."

“I think we have to give Obama more time,” said Assad, striking a moderate tone. “But I can say that the people of the Middle East are progressively starting to lose hope. I hope they are wrong.”

In reality Obama is powerless within Israeli-Syrian negotiations - those two parties are on their own. What he can do is get serious on a two-state solution and squash any potential Israeli incursions into Lebanon, thereby effecting Israeli-Syrian negotiations externally.

But the ball is mostly in Israel’s hands. Viewing its foreign policy through a security lens, Israel doesn't always assign the highest value to “peace” when it’s so illusive and uncertain. War, saturated into the region's history, is more useful for maintaining power. Israel must now realize the same utility in Golan from a peace standpoint.

Naturally theory can only go so far, but the original reason to engage Syria remains unchanged today as it did last year or last decade. End the occupation in Golan and negotiations with Lebanon over the Shebaa Farms could be next. Resolve two territorial disputes and weaken "the resistance," reducing threats from the north and east.

America would then progress relations with Syria as they see fit and Israel could finally turn its full attention towards Palestine. This strategy is more akin to counterinsurgency than overwhelming military force.

Published in Al-Ahram Weekly

November 16, 2009

Taliban Trickery

In a potential sign of true TTP desperation, Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq accused Blackwater of orchestrating various bombings, primarily the one at Islamic University in Islamabad and the blast in a Peshawar market.

It's not the first time the TTP blamed Blackwater, and at first glance the TTP's statement appears laughable. The Pakistani public has never opposed the TTP more and war in Waziristan isn't going their way. Tariq seems like run of the mill propaganda.

Yet Kamal Hyder, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Islamabad, reports to no surprise, "There is a growing anger among Pakistanis. If one looks at the type of attacks that have been taking place - indiscriminate attacks – the first thing that came out, even reported by local media, was the blaming of Blackwater and other American agencies. The public opinion has turned against the Americans. The video that has appeared today would be trying to capitalize on that."

And the TTP has a good excuse. Remember that it denied both attacks at the university and in Peshawar; Hyder reports, "Even when those bomb blasts did happen, the Taliban denied they had anything to do it." They claim Blackwater is galvanizing the Pakistani public for military operations across the FATA.

Just like America wants. Who does this elaborate setup belong to, the TTP or President Obama?

Quote of the Day

"Jerusalem is considered a red line and Israel needs to understand this and not play with fire."

- King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

Altruism vs. Egoism

Former president Bill Clinton is busy stumping for President Obama in Jerusalem.

Speaking at the Saban Forum, Clinton told his audience, “No American president can serve in good conscience and not be committed to the security of Israel... As long as you believe that American is with you at some core emotional level, we can have a conversation about anything.”

Though the region doesn’t need another American paean of Israeli love when tensions are sky high, Clinton’s remarks have a limited effect on the peace process. Most of what he said is already well known.

“You cannot get a divorce and move to another planet,” he reminded everyone. "If you want to be a democracy and a Jewish State you have to cut a deal. The trajectory of technology is not your friend… you need to get this done and you do have partners.”

And Israelis could use his particular message, “You should not think that President Obama is your enemy.” It would be more effective coming from Obama himself, but Clinton is hoping to exploit his personal charm and history in Israel.

His personal ego, though, might have overstepped its bounds.

“This is the first time that any Israeli government has said we will not issue any new permits and not have any new settlements,” he said, repeating his wife’s position, “and that should be enough to open the door and start talking.”

“Take where we are and the reformulation of the settlement issue and find a way [to move forward]," Clinton urged Palestinian officials.

No real fault can be levied against Clinton if he truly believes negotiations should be restarted under these conditions. Palestinians have already made clear that they believe otherwise, but Clinton is entitled to his opinion.

What he isn’t entitled to is providing political cover for his wife and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose visit to Jerusalem was widely panned by the Arab world and may have contributed to Mahmoud Abbas’s resignation from the PA.

Defending a spouse at the expense of Palestinians would be a gross misuse of power.

November 15, 2009

Quote of the Day

"With respect to Afghanistan, I don't think this is a matter of some datum of information that I'm waiting on... Critics of the process tend not to be folks who are directly involved in what's happening in Afghanistan. Those who are, recognize the gravity of the situation and recognize the importance of us getting this right.”

- President Obama, responding to his first question in Shanghai with criticism of Senators, Pentagon officials, the media, and the American people

Taliban Hideout?

Are they that easy to find? According to Adnkronos, the TTP's leadership has relocated to Shawal, a village complex in North Waziristan next to the Afghan border.

Shawal is old Taliban country so the choice makes sense as a hideout. Journalists flocked to its mountains as the “War on Terror” kicked into high gear in Iraq and Afghanistan. The village was a natural choice for them too - Pakistani intelligence sources believed Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri lived here.

“Intelligence agencies had proof that Osama was in Shawal till June 2003,” the sources claim. “The Osama and Al-Zawahiri videotapes, which were released by Al-Jazeera channel, were also shot in Shawal,”

At the same time, local tribes denied any refuge to al-Qaeda and stood on the American side, mostly for the cash.

Khandan, a landowner, told the SF Chronicle in 2003, “Some other tribes have complained about this, but our jirga decided to cooperate, and we've got three new roads, 300 new jobs for tribal policemen, and are awaiting water pumps and schools. All we have to do is keep our eyes open for al-Qaeda and throw them out if they come. They know our area won't welcome them, so they avoid us,”

When asked about the Taliban, Khandan replied, “They are good guys. If Musharraf wants them, he'll have to provide evidence of their guilt."

The hills tell the real story. “It is here that US authorities believe about 500 Arab, Chechen, Uzbek and Chinese Muslim fighters have formed a base, from which they carry out attacks on US targets in the eastern Afghan provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika,” the South Asian Times reported in 2004.

Notoriety attracts attention and the Pakistan army finally reasserted control over the territory in 2006. "We have set up our posts at almost every kilometer and a half,” Brigadier Imtiaz Wyne, military commander in Shawal, said as two of his soldiers watch the border with Afghanistan. “I have now almost full control over the area.”

He admitted the army had launched 10 operations since it secured the area last year. Sporadic fighting still occurs today, meaning a possible Taliban retreat is certainly possible, but it seems an obvious location to regroup and plan suicide attacks.

Is Hakimullah riding openly around Shawal - is the TTP in control - or is he underground?

Such a strategy on his part suggests he chose survival and urban warfare over mountain guerrilla warfare. The Pakistani army likely designed units specifically to climb over mountains, TTP style, and attack its positions. It seems the TTP is ceding territory for the moment, although Hakimullah and his circle don't necessarily need to stay in the battle zone.

What his strategy is after winter remains to be seen. The TTP appears to have taken refuge in Hafiz Gul Bahadur territory. He is, after all, not just commander of North Waziristan but the second ranked amir after Hakimullah. The deal between Bahadur and Pakistan was bound to cause trouble.

That this information went public is a sure sign that the American and Pakistani government’s know TTP commander’s locations if they're in Shawal. Do you leave them alone or break the deal and fire?

No major militant has fell from a drone yet, a surprise in some ways. Faqir Mohammad was targeted and missed in Bajaur agency, but the drones are killing blanks. At this point leaving the commanders alone is wiser, which could be the strategy in play. America, for better and worse, is willing to kill a few people to save the many. Strategic sacrifice, so the theory goes.

Leave the TTP command structure intact instead of taking it out instantly. If the battle is lopsided then let the Pakistani army continue killing militants by the thousands. Keep 24 hour surveillance on the commanders and take them out at the last moment.

Obvious downsides include a reversal in battle, losing the targets, the death of innocents, and many other time-related, insurgency induced traps. Or reports of the TTP’s whereabouts could be inaccurate. Maybe the leadership wants everyone to think they're in Shawal.

Deception, courtesy of Hakimullah?

November 14, 2009

Chinese Brain Buster

President Obama and his “United Brain Trust” are landing in China for the first time, meaning Dr. AQ Khan’s detailed letters of Pakistan’s nuclear program didn’t go public by chance. With North Korean nuclear proliferation set to be a main course on his tour, Obama's going to need more Ivy grads to solve this brain buster.

"It should be clear where that path leads," Obama from Suntory Hall in Japan, his first stop. “We will continue to send a clear message through our actions, and not just our words: North Korea's refusal to meet its international obligations will lead only to less security, not more."

Calling himself “America’s first Pacific president,” Obama said he won’t “be cowed” by North Korea, but what about China? In letters sent first to his wife, then to former Financial Times journalist Simon Henderson, and later obtained by the Washington Post, Khan vividly recollects Pakistani-Chinese nuclear relations from beginning to end.

1976. Fours years after India tests its first nuclear device, Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto seeks an audience with Mao Zedong where the two agree to exchange nuclear material. Months later at Mao’s funeral, Pakistani and Chinese generals agree to honor their mutual pact and open the channels.

“Chinese experts started coming regularly to learn the whole technology,” Khan recounts, while Pakistani experts helped “put up a centrifuge plant” in Hanzhong, central China. After passing on European-designed centrifuges to progress China’s uranium-enrichment program, China returned 15 tons of uranium hexafluoride (UF6), a key component for uranium enrichment.

Pakistan manufactured its first bomb by 1982 under the cover of Afghanistan.

But it needed more. General.Zia-ul Haq, having assumed power after executing Bhutto, became paranoid of Israeli and Indian conspiracies to preemptively strike Pakistan's nuclear sites. A general was dispatched to Beijing and he returned to Islamabad with 10 single-kilogram ingots of highly enriched uranium (HEU).

"The Chinese gave us drawings of the nuclear weapon, gave us kg. 50 enriched uranium," Khan wrote.

A gradual surplus of material allowed Pakistan's nuclear scientists to store China's uranium until 1985, and Khan offered to return the uranium to China with Zia’s approval. After a few days, they responded "that the HEU loaned earlier was now to be considered as a gift... in gratitude” for Pakistan’s help.

“In an interconnected world, power does not need to be a zero-sum game, and nations need not fear the success of another,” Obama said in present day Japan. "So the United States does not seek to contain China."

Is he sure?

Raising the nuclear transfer during his talks is unrealistic; America needs Chinese cooperation on too many issues. Besides, Obama can't bring up human rights, Internet, Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Pakistani uranium all at once. Ambush Beijing and pay the price. It’s smile time.

Chinese Ambassador Zhang Wenjin called the dispute “manageable.” Similarly, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley responded, "The United States has worked diligently and made progress with China over the past 25 years. As to what was or wasn't done during the Reagan administration, I can't say."

But Khan’s story is just as relevant today. America still needs Pakistan too much to say anything.

Henderson agreed to The Post's request in the first place because he believes an accurate understanding of Pakistan's nuclear history is relevant for today's U.S. policy-making. For instance, Pakistan is extremely proud of being the only nuclear Islamic state, but also a poor power. India, on the other side, is seething at Pakistani-Chinese cooperation both then and now.

The Indian Times reported
, “Khan sees this act of stealing, begging and borrowing to make the bomb as a supreme accomplishment by Pakistan. ‘The speed of our work and our achievements surprised our worst enemies and adversaries and the West stood helplessly by to see a Third World nation, unable even to produce bicycle chains or sewing needles, mastering the most advanced nuclear technology in the shortest possible span of time,’ he boasts in an 11-page narrative.”

Allowing Pakistan and China to pursue their nuclear ambitions together is a zero-sum game because India and America are losing power, comparatively speaking. China is the next big thing in Pakistan and both countries want to keep it that way. China’s friendship with Pakistan counters India, while China is a more viable ally to Pakistan than America.

In a display of tensions, Pakistan Foreign office spokesman Abdul Basit called the story, “yet another attempt to divert attention from the overt and covert support being extended by some states to the Indian nuclear program since its inception and intensified more recently in stark contradiction to their self-avowed commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

Neither India nor Pakistan has signed the NPT treaty though, President Obama’s newest obstacle.

Technically no one has a right to criticize Pakistan or China, and they shouldn’t need to deny their relationship. Pakistan has never signed the NPT treaty and China signed in 1992, so no law was broken during the transfer. And nuclear alliances have multiple precedents; France and Israel, Canada and India, America and Britain.

The US–UK Mutual Defense Agreement, dealing exclusively with nuclear transfers, was signed in 1958, ten years before the NPT treaty was created in 1968. However, America and Britain renewed their pact in 2004 until 2014. To condemn a strategic alliance between Pakistan and China would be Western hypocrisy at the highest level.

Except Obama is a champion of non-proliferation, it’s his personal issue. He received his Nobel Prize in large part for his advocacy. How can he look the other way? The letter of the law won’t eliminate nuclear weapons, he needs the spirit. Disarmament will be impossible if the world's greatest powers align themselves in nuclear blocs.

What makes a North Korean-Myanmar connection so wrong? The alleged illegality of a transfer is based on absolute nonproliferation among every state on earth. Otherwise the judgment is moral, subjective, elitist - and that system will ultimately fail.

There is no realistic answer to this dilemma for Obama, who has no choice except to look the other way while in China. More than a few Harvard brains are about to be busted.

But eventually he must confront the full implications of nonproliferation if he wants his dream to come true.