March 31, 2010

The Middle East Goes To Hollywood

From the beginning the White House’s announcement of “indirect talks” between Israel and the Palestinians felt like entering a theater rather than sitting down to a real negotiating table.

The gap in perceptions was immediately noticeable. US and Israeli officials spoke of a breakthrough and returning to direct negotiations as quick as possible, political speak for continued disagreement on settlements and Jerusalem, among other issues.

Meanwhile Palestinian and Arab League officials warned, whether they meant it or not, that this was America’s last chance to adopt an equal position to the conflict.

But everyone shared a commonality - desperation - that drove them to act.

As March transpired it became evident that people around the world had walked into a multiplex, not a singular theater. We aren’t watching one show, but a handful running simultaneously. One version plays the US-Israeli “crisis,” another the “fake crisis.” The US media is sponsoring one showing, the Israeli media another, while the international and Muslim media share time over a screen.

And the overall performance, which started as one act, has multiplied into three: the false start of “indirect negotiations,” then Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, and now the aftermath and future.

No surprise then that situation appears more confusing than ever - the goal of any illusion.

Though so many to choose from, one of the most recent and illustrative examples comes from Roger Cohen, columnist for The New York Times. While US conservative pundits slam President Barack Obama’s “hard line” on Israel, Cohen’s pseudo “tough on Israel” stance can be found in liberal editorials and op-eds across the US media.

Lapping up the idea that the White House is finally holding its ground, Cohen opens with Washington’s hottest myth: “The passage of the U.S. health care bill is a major foreign policy victory for President Barack Obama. It empowers him by demonstrating his ability to deliver. Nowhere is that more important than in the Middle East.”

Mesmerizing many US commentators and some in the international media, this theory misses (or intentionally ignores) the central divergence that a host of Senators and Representatives helped Obama deliver health care reform. He doesn’t have a finger of support to pressure Israel into compromise with the Palestinians, whose well-being is of little concern to Congress. He might not have the necessary support in his own cabinet.

This false perception distorts the rest of US-Israeli relations and conjures more myths in the US media.

“Obama was not amused,” Cohen writes of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that Jerusalem is not a settlement. “He airbrushed Netanyahu’s White House visit. The message was clear: The Middle East status quo does not serve the interests of the United States (or Israel). When Obama says ‘stop,’ he does not mean ‘build a bit.’”

Myths within myths are at work. One is that Obama came down hard on Netanyahu and won’t settle for less than a total settlement freeze in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. How quickly his AIPAC speech has been forgotten, when he crowned Jerusalem “the undivided capital of Israel.” Swift Arab condemnation forced him to backtrack less than 24 hours later.

If he didn’t get Jerusalem in 2008 though, what chance did 2010 have?

Israel, already sensing weakness from Obama, proceeded to approve and build in East Jerusalem since his first day in office, with scant reaction. So much inaction that General David Petraeus rushed the White House to build a temporary raft - “indirect talks” - before the peace process completely sunk.

But the White House soon denied a promise that it would hold Israel accountable, and even Petraeus ultimately backtracked on his statements.

To those like Richard Cohen, “Nothing will happen in the Middle East unless the United States is seen as an honest broker able to criticize both sides when needed. Obama’s anger sped a needed clarification and freed debate.”

Yet the silent treatment is why “indirect talks” are currently in the dump and why America is still viewed as a corrupt broker.

From one myth to the next: Obama issued clarification on Jerusalem. Having publicly spoken twice on Israel and Palestine in March, he used both opportunities to reaffirm America and Israel’s unbreakable bond; neither the Palestinians nor Jerusalem was mentioned either time. Anger seemed absent from his public statements, with barely a hint of wrongdoing.

Like the Gaza War, Obama prefers silence to confrontation, which leads to a third myth: the White House snubbed, punished, or sought to weaken Netanyahu by “airbrushing” his visit. Speaking of AIPAC, this is exactly what the Israeli lobby and Congress demanded, including three quarters of the US House of Representatives.

AIPAC’s open letter, after circulating around Congress for a week, is the finale of individual initiatives from Senators Barbara Boxer and Lindsey Graham, and Republican Whip Eric Cantor, to name just a few.

"We recognize that, despite the extraordinary closeness between our country and Israel, there will be differences over issues, both large and small,” reads the letter. “Our view is that such differences are best resolved quietly, in trust and confidence, as befits long-standing strategic allies."

So the White House actually gave Netanyahu the exact treatment Israel requested. On cue, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs played down the notion that Obama had “punished” Netanyahu by keeping their talks private.

“I’m puzzled by the notion that somehow it’s a bad deal to get two hours with the president almost entirely alone,” he said. “That doesn’t seem like a lot of punishment to me.”

Even more eye catching were the words of David Axelrod, who played bad cop after the Biden fiasco. Switching back to good cop he told CNN, "This was a working meeting among friends. And so there was no snub intended. This was not about formalities... We have a deep, abiding interest in Israel's security."

You might think these officials would break the illusion that Obama is flexing a backbone with Israel, or that Netanyahu has been punished in some way, but the show continues uninterrupted in the US media.

And it will despite Obama telling MSNBC in a recent interview, “I think the underlying relationship is solid as a rock. So my commitment, my personal commitment, to Israel’s security is unwavering, and I think that there is broad bipartisan consensus on that.”

“This is a disagreement among friends about how to move forward,” he said. “I think Prime Minister Netanyahu intellectually understands that he has got to take some bold steps. I think politically he feels it. But it’s not just on the Israeli side. I’ve been very clear that the Palestinians have to take steps.”

This is what real US policy looks like - still trying to pass the problem from Netanyahu back on the Palestinians - and where Cohen’s real objective kicks in. The task assigned to the mainstream US media: make the White House look tough on Israel when it’s not.

Cohen concludes, “Obama is now insisting Israel act to avert that unhappy outcome. Americans, prodded by a report from Gen. David Petraeus, are beginning to see the link between terror recruitment and a festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict... These are real shifts. They are prerequisites for the rapprochement with the Muslim world Obama rightly seeks. Lo, even the Middle East moves.”

Yet a link has always existed between the Israeli Palestinian conflict and external Muslim insurgencies and terrorism; only beginning to notice the connection now suggests sluggish intelligence. The White House was also late on Jerusalem, allowing Israel to slide all the way until now instead of standing firm initially.

Then there’s rumors of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” agreement on East Jerusalem settlements, which Cohen and most of the US media dutifully ignored. The hard line is already soft.

These aren’t real moves - they’re fake moves, reasons why the peace process isn’t moving.

Not so coincidentally Israel’s media is showing a similar version of the US performance. Several days ago the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot quoted an unidentified Netanyahu confidant as saying, "We've got a real problem. You could say that Obama is the greatest disaster for Israel - a strategic disaster.”

The Israeli media has generally split one of two ways, a wake up or doomsday call, but both lead to the same conclusion as the US media: Obama and Netanyahu are locked in a bull fight. A section of the Israeli public wanted to see Washington restore a sense of balance to the relationship and they've enjoyed the show.

Netanyahu himself says otherwise though, and while he has good reason to play nice this might be his most honest side.

"I want to say clearly, these comments are unacceptable to me,” he told his cabinet soon after the leak. “They do not come from anyone representing me. There were areas in which there was swift agreement. "In areas where there was disagreement, we tried to take, and we did take, certain steps to narrow the gaps in order to move the (peace) process forward.”

But a kernel of truth can be found in the Israeli media's obsession with Obama's show spoiler, if one exists.

The US media’s job is to accentuate the White House’s moves and turn them into real pressure on Israel, in hopes of parlaying this courageous stance into popularity within the Arab world. Though some analysts bought in, the Muslim media in general has peered through the US-Israeli “crisis," partially designed to conceal and preserve the status quo.

Seen here in its most likely form is a small dent that can be smoothed over - and is. If left unfixed it could turn into a crack, then a leak, and maybe into a real problem. Were Obama to blink now Netanyahu would surely steamroll him, but presently the interpretation of US pressure is wildly exaggerated. So many strings and shadows are visible behind the front actors that nothing seems real.

What isn’t overblown is the impending crisis between Obama and the Muslim world, where an actual crisis is brewing.

PA officials have longed to hear anything from Obama personally, so to only receive the “Palestinians must stop inciting anger” card instead of holding Israel accountable must drive them mad. Again Obama has gone silent as Israel zones off religious sites, arrests or kills Palestinian youths, then denies live ammunition was used.

Palestinian “incitement” - protesting - is singled out by America’s highest office.

Obama should get ready for more if that’s his attitude. PA officials are rightfully holding out of "indirect talks" as long as possible, fearful of public backlash from both the non-violent and violent resistances, and are preparing their own pressure on Washington.

“We are aware of the fact that Israel has decided to employ cruel force to repress the popular demonstrations,” Fatah Central Committee member Mahmoud al-Alul said during Palestinian Authority meetings. “They see that the Palestinian leadership is taking an active role and that the popular struggle is heading towards major escalation. Our struggle has a price, and we are willing to pay it.”

President Obama is unlikely to take a real stand against Israel any time soon, but judging by the packed theaters in America the shows could go on even in the event of a total meltdown. Luckily the diversity of new media allows other outlets to display more realistic viewings, however modest this evolution may be.

Now will the Palestinians and Arab states make their own movie, either one-state or unilateral statehood, or keep booing the US version?

March 30, 2010

Obama Green Lights Palestinian Resistance

OK, his real message isn't so sensational, but it does come across that way.

A statement released by the White House and signed by President Barack Obama reminded everyone that the story of Exodus teaches, "wherever we live, there is oppression to be fought and freedom to be won. In retelling this story from generation to generation, we are reminded of our ongoing responsibility to fight against all forms of suffering and discrimination.”

Could this really be an innuendo to Israel and the Palestinians, or just a poorly timed and worded coincidence?

March 29, 2010

Why the Moon?

It was sort of shocking to discover how many people oppose lunar bases. Lunar exploration is apparently a tough enough sell, so much so that NASA launched a lunar campaign in 2006 to re-ignite interest - and thus funding.

“If you asked 100 people why we should return to the moon, you'd probably get 100 answers - or more!” NASA says on its website. “Over the past year, NASA posed this question not just to 100 people, but to more than 1,000 from around the world. Scientists, engineers, commercial entrepreneurs, space advocates, and the general public all provided answers to this intriguing question.”

Culled from the responses were nearly 200 lunar exploration objectives for the Global Exploration Strategy, which is broken down into six themes: human civilization, scientific knowledge, exploration preparation, global partnerships, economic expansion, and public engagement.

It doesn’t take a scientist to see all of these themes are political.

The last theme is of particular importance, being the gateway to the others. Lunar bases, with their astronomical costs, will only become reality when people universally accept their necessity in preserving and advancing the human species. We’ll address later on why lunar expansion is opposed in some corners and a potential remedy.

First, why build on the moon?

We’ve listed our own reasons, most of which correspond with NASA’s and make up a fraction of all possibilities. A lunar base is virtually inevitable in humanity’s future, however long it takes, meaning the primary reason humans must get to building one base is because we’ll need more than one.

The first true lunar base will be no more than an outpost, small capsules that can support a crew for six months. The very first site will ideally be situated on one of the poles and on the lip of a crater, where sunlight is nearly constant and water is thought to be trapped.

Peary crater is one famous candidate for the first site. NASA scientists have also hypothesized that lava tubs could make suitable external structures to house bases within.

But we mean base when we say lunar base, not an outpost, which is why starting the process as soon as possible is so crucial. An outpost could take 10-20 years, the time frame for China, the EU, Russia, and India. NASA’s lunar outpost is planned for construction from 2019 to 2024, but delays are expected.

Then the crew (or crews if an international project) must begin work on a true base that perpetually sustains life, which could take upwards of three decades to construct. We’re talking comfortable sleeping quarters, large chambers for recreation, green houses, and a small fleet of vehicles to compliment the scientific labs themselves.

From there another base will be necessary for diversity and emergency, requiring a transport system between them as well.

All of this could become reality with the right attitude and four or five hundred billion dollars, probably more. And now everything makes sense as to why some resist wasting finite resources on the Moon. A 2008 NASA EDGE broadcast on lunar architecture provides a typical example.

Host Chris Giersch, speaking with Geoff Yoder, Director of NASA’s Integration for the Exploration Directorate, asks the undying question: why the Moon?

“We talk to people when we go out and we get some skeptics that are not quite sure why we’re going out there and why we’re going back to the Moon since we’ve been there six times. Why go on to Mars? And we actually received a message from one of our Face Book friends. ‘I don’t think a Moon-base is the right first step to our advancement in space.’ He thinks asteroid mining and colonization is a far better first step.”

Many opponents of lunar colonization, judging from the material we’ve read, fall into the Mars or asteroid category. And why not devout resources to the next destination in human space exploration, a target China and Russia are already locked onto?

Costs, of course.

But our support for Mars bases is equal to that of lunar colonization, creating a problem. This grand plan could require trillions of dollars and will never happen with concentrated and coordinated action. Yet space funding will always be a problem until human civilization undergoes a paradigm shift in how it views space exploration.

Instead of having to choose between the Moon or Mars, why not expend energy realigning the priorities of governments, corporations, and societies? Why not make space exploration feel like a near term inevitability rather than a dream? Why not work to free up more funds and pursue the unlimited instead of settle for the limited?

That is our intention, and the first place to start in this long journey is the US defense budget.

Out of nearly 700$ billion approved for FY 2010, all of which survived budget cuts, 130$ billion is marked for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. NASA’s budget, which received less funding than requested because of budget cuts, barely reaches 20$ billion. Additionally the White House requested up to 40$ billion in emergency funding for Afghanistan just for 2010.

President Barack Obama’s surge should push all these numbers up in 2011 and 2012, when military operations and national building projects funded by America are in full motion.

We hear a lot of anger and sorrow that the billions funneled into Afghanistan aren’t going to America’s economy, health care, infrastructure, and borders. It’s time to add space exploration to the list. Imagine what a 40$ billion bonus to NASA could lead to, assuming all the money is used properly and not lost to bureaucracy. Imagine if 100$ billion were transferred from the annual defense budget, which still leaves a huge budget, to America’s space strategy.

Well-funded space exploration should qualify for international defense - and will create far more bang for the billions.

Obama's Huge Lie In Afghanistan

He should have kept things simple and shone the spotlight on himself, US troops, and Afghans. Everyone knows he has a war to sell and how complicated Afghanistan is in its own right, so why not stay within limitation?

“Here in Afghanistan you’ve gone on the offensive,” he told soldiers from all four branches at Bagram Airfield. “And the American people back home are noticing. We have seen a huge increase in support in - stateside, because people understand the kinds of sacrifices that you guys are making, and the clarity of mission that you’re bringing to bear.”

Later he would personally assure Afghan President Hamid Karzai, “The American people are encouraged by the progress that has been made.”

Actually a large minority of Americans aren’t encouraged, having seen little to no progress from their perspective.

Some believe Karzai is both puppet and master of America, that Obama is helpless and stuck with Karzai, that military progress is slowed by an inefficient Afghan government, that Helmand and Kandahar will take longer than July 2011 to secure, that his deadline is politically artificial, that America still craves Afghanistan’s resources and buffer position against China, or that 9/11 grows stale as al-Qaeda moves on to other failed states

But let’s peer directly into the source of Obama’s optimism.

A poll released last week by CNN found that 44% of respondents saying the war is going well for America versus 43% who say things are going badly. The poll found that 48% support the war versus 49% opposed, the first time since May that opposition slipped below 50%.

This equates to a 23% jump since last November, according to CNN Polling Director Keating Holland, when Obama’s prolonged review of the war reached critical mass in public. The poll also indicates that 55% of Americans approve of how Obama is handling Afghanistan, up from 42% last fall.

No huge increase in support for Afghanistan has occurred. A bump, but one disconnected from his own supporters. Boosted by Senator John McCain’s voters more than his own, Republicans rather than Democrats have bounced Obama’s surge after fearing a US withdrawal.

The CNN poll indicates that support for the war is highest among rural Americans.

“A 55-percent majority of people who live in rural areas now support the war, up 14 points since the fall,” Holland said. “That's the biggest increase in support for the war among major demographic categories. Some 58 percent of city residents and 52 percent of suburbanites oppose the war.”

Without excessively demographing rural America, the numbers indicate Obama’s boost of optimism is fueled primarily by his opposition.

A New York Times poll taken the week after his Afghanistan speech at West Point provides additional evidence, finding that two thirds of Republicans supported his troop escalation, while 53% of Democrats opposed it.

Consequently, Republican approval of Obama’s strategy increased 19% to 42% while Democrats’ 55% approval went unchanged, a number equivalent to the current CNN poll. At most he’s enjoying a small bump from his own party. Conversely, 19% and 14% upswings from conservative America roughly fills the overall rise in approval that Obama is citing.

This is good in a way since bipartisan support for the war is preferable, but America’s overall support for the war hasn’t changed in a significant degree. The country is still deeply divided and skeptical on Afghanistan.

But the polls can be broken down further and Obama’s marketing along with it. Beyond the political skew, a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted in early February found that 52% of respondents identified the economy as America's most urgent concern. 3% named the Iraq and Afghan wars as the nation's biggest problem.

Though hard to argue against, the most recent Gallup poll found similar results implying that Americans are still relatively tuned out of Afghanistan. This makes them easier targets for manipulation.

Generally speaking they see and respond to the big moving parts - the surge and its military operations, drones, kills. and captures. The latest Associated Press-GfK poll at the beginning of March found that 57% of those surveyed approved his handling of the war in Afghanistan compared with 49% two months earlier. Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings said the polls could be a reaction to Operation Moshtarak in Marjah.

Indeed, that was its main purpose and Obama appears to be cashing in the political capital he believes he won.

But he may not have much. General Stanley McChrystal himself admits Marjah is slow going and still isn’t secure, which isn’t so concerning as when extrapolated to all of Afghanistan, where everything takes longer than expected.

Returning to the New York Times poll in December, though overall approval of Obama’s strategy spiked 10% to 55%, only 42% of respondents said US troops would help the situation. 47% rejected the claim.

26% said Karzai could be trusted, with 61% opposed.

Americans have never held much faith in Karzai, regardless of whether corruption in Kabul is exaggerated or not, and consider his power circle as a key weakness in America’s strategy. So to personally tell him that the American people are encouraged by his progress is legitimately offensive.

There’s no begrudging Obama’s visit to Afghanistan, as some appear to be doing. He should have visited sooner and for longer, whether America plans to stay or leave. Sure his visit could be a distraction from Israel, but he’s always going to have that problem. Obama’s job is to rally the troops and stand in the face of opposition to rally the nation - if he truly believes in the mission.

But putting false words into his own voters mouths and using them to sell the war’s progress will not work. Nor can he cynically manipulate his favorite scapegoats, the demonized cynics, who are innocent skeptics in reality. "A huge increase" in support for the Afghan war is a lie that his own supporters shouldn’t fall for.

At least according to the polls.

March 28, 2010

Quote of the Day

“We can’t forget why we’re here. We did not choose this war. This was not an act of America wanting to expand its influence; of us wanting to meddle in somebody else’s business. We were attacked viciously on 9/11.”

- President Obama, ignoring America's past in Afghanistan

Iraq Election Not Looking Good For America

Fitting that one democracy celebrates another through rhetorical devices, a founding pillar of this ancient form of government.

"By any measure, this was an important milestone in Iraqi history," President Barack Obama said one day after its parliamentary election on March 7th.

For the most part any election is important to a democracy.

Obama also insisted in obvious fabrication, knowing who some Iraqi people have chosen, "In this process, the United States does not support particular candidates or coalitions. We support the right of the Iraqi people to choose their own leaders.”

But for how quickly he commented on the election, especially after being burned on Afghanistan, Obama was savvy to note, “All of these important steps will take time. Not weeks, but months... But like any sovereign, independent nation, Iraq must be free to chart its own course.”

Already laying the political groundwork for the inevitable question, one avoided by this Foreign Policy analysis. This is why we exist.

Now that the results are in, what will really happen next in Iraq? Defense Secretary Robert Gates had told reporters the day of the election, “All in all, a good day for the Iraqis and for all of us.”

We aren’t so sure.

Making brief mention of Muqtada al-Sadr and no reference to Obama’s August withdrawal deadline, Foreign Policy shadow analyst Kori Schake conclude:
“Many democracies, especially those that have been given their impetus by outside power, hold successful elections once or twice, then have their weak institutions perverted by ‘strong men.’”

“It is in Nouri al-Maliki's own hands whether he goes down in history as a courageous leader who piloted Iraq through the storm of sectarian violence and establishment of institutions to a peaceful and prosperous future, or as a craven politician who would bring Iraq's nascent democracy down in order to hold onto power he could not earn at the ballot box.”
None of what’s argued is necessarily false. al-Maliki's course of action is of enormous consequence, yet Iraq’s democracy has a bigger problem than weak institutions. Its democracy is normal, inherently chaotic and potentially combustible when so many powerful actors compete for one throne.

And the two biggest question marks - Sadr and US troop levels - go unsaid, not a coincidence when they’re the two elephants in the room. But the Maliki riddle seems to be answered already, and this goes a long way in solving the others.

The Washington Post reports
that yesterday election winner Ayad Allawi’s headquarters in Karbala was burnt down. Hussam Ali al-Maamachi, a member of Iraqiya in Karbala, where the bloc won one seat, was speechless, saying, "We didn't think they would go down to this level.”

"I think [Maliki will] use every means at his disposal, as he made pretty clear he would," said Gary Grappo, chief of the U.S. Embassy's political section, but not in the way he meant it.

Says the Washington Post, “Maliki appears to have begun using the legal system to block Allawi's rise. On Thursday, Iraq's supreme court interpreted an ambiguous clause in the constitution as saying that the largest bloc in parliament, with the right to form the next government, could be two or more groups that merged after the election. The opinion could allow Maliki's State of Law and a rival Shiite bloc to claim the right to form a government first. Allawi disputed the court's interpretation during the TV interview Saturday.”

Elsewhere four Sunni Muslim candidates who won parliamentary seats in Allawi’s coalition are being targeted by Iraqi security forces, according to interviews Saturday with relatives, Iraqi security forces and the U.S. military.

“One candidate who won more than 28,000 votes is being held incommunicado in a Baghdad jail, two other winners are on the run and the whereabouts of the fourth, a woman, are unknown,” reports McClatchy.

Oh, and Maliki refuses to accept the vote as official, saying, "We still insist for a manual recount of votes... We cannot accept these results while we suspect them.”

These developments portend to a hotly contested post-election power struggle.

Violence is inevitable with so many potential sources, so the real question is to what degree. Political intimidation - kidnappings and arrests - has already begun. Foreign insurgents, periodically reminding everyone of their presence, will start making real noise when US troops begin withdrawing. And full blown civil war remains possible given how the current situation is unfolding.

If Maliki continues his current behavior, insisting on a recount and harassing political opponents, his reaction will fuel Allawi’s secular/Sunni base to even higher popularity. Sunni militias could be quick to turn against al-Maliki, further weakening him and priming the opportunity for al-Sadr to align with Allawi.

It seems the smartest bet given al-Sadr and Maliki’s personal history.

"What the Iraqi National Alliance wants is to remove Maliki," said Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie, a political analyst in Baghdad. "If that happens, power would remain in the hands of the Shiites, and this would win the support of the rank and file of the Shiite population.”

If al-Sadr allied with Allawi they could split the religious spectrum and marginalize Maliki in the political system, a prospect Maliki is certain to resist. al-Sadr’s coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance, won 75 seats in the election, with Sadr’s personal officials reported over 40. Combined with Allawi’s 91 and they have three more seats than the necessary 163 majority.

But 55 of Iraqiya’s candidates are said to be under investigation and could be disqualified, feeding back into the cycle of violence. Sunnis are likelier to go on the attack, while al-Sadr is more in a defensive position.

"Sadrists are surprising in being slightly more numerous and better organized than people imagine," said Patrick Cockburn, a British journalist and author of Muqtada Al-Sadr and the Shia Insurgency in Iraq. “Why on earth should they disrupt the withdrawal since it’s what they wanted anyway?”

Indeed, the likeliest scenario appears to be al-Maliki triggering a Sunni backlash, in turn boosted by foreign militants, further stressing Iraqi security forces and leading to potential conflict with al-Sadr’s militia, which, despite his new grassroots, is still locked and ready.

This chain reaction might not target US troops directly, but President Obama could be taking a huge risk if he stays true to his withdrawal plan. Iraq’s election could take until June or July to sort itself out, like Afghanistan, and that’s without resurgent violence. What if Iraq, headed by a rogue Maliki, triggers another civil war?

Or what if Maliki ultimately cedes power to Allawi and Sadr? Will March 7th still qualify as good? Since 2003 the Sadrists have refused any contact with the American military or diplomats, while a source close to the cleric said Sadr was expected to be appointed ayatollah within three to seven years.

“His family is known to be geniuses,” said Nasser al-Rubaie, a Sadrist candidate, pointing out that Sadr’s father and his father’s cousin both qualified as ayatollahs while relatively young.

U.S. officials have insisted that they will not change plans to withdraw this summer nearly half of the 95,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq. Obama repeated his campaign promise while congratulating Iraq, saying, “And by the end of the next year, all US troops will be out of Iraq.”

But will America really allow Iraq to chart its own course if it drifts away from US interests or back into instability? What happens from here to August takes on particular significance for Obama as it affects his surge in Afghanistan.

March 27, 2010

Quote of the Day

"We cannot resume indirect negotiations as long as Israel maintains its settlement policy and the status quo."

- PA President Mahmoud Abbas

Saleh's Choice: War or Peace

President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s choice seems so simple. Having witnessed the futility of military operations and lauded the benefits of negotiation with the Houthis in the north, logic assumes that dialogue will be kept open in southern Yemen.

But that future is receding as war grows nearer.

Normality is slowly returning to Saada, despite the numerous refugee camps that require resolution, allowing the United Nations refugee agency to visit the regional capital of Saada province for the first time in eight months. UN refugee spokeswoman Melissa Fleming confirmed a team of non-governmental and government representatives visited the area and met local authorities to discuss the recovery plan.

For his part Saleh claims the war is over “forever,” though this is hardly comforting.

Certainly negotiations were the only way to end the fighting, short term or long, but negotiations are only as good as their implementation. Saleh has declared an end to fighting before, the last time in Saada on July 17, 2008. In August and September he ordered some prisoners released as per the ceasefire, but according to Human Rights Watch, “dozens remain detained without charge or trial, and some are still unaccounted for.”

“Months after the guns fell silent in Sa’da, Yemenis are still in prison without being charged with any crime,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at HRW. “President Saleh should take up this opportunity to remedy the injustices committed by his security forces and take immediate steps to ensure these abuses are not repeated.”

The last battle - “the sixth war” in a six year insurgency - stems as much from the Houthis’ obstinacy as Saleh’s; a Yemen Observer poll overwhelming believes the latest ceasefire won’t last either. Saleh must follow up on his end of the agreement, stop politically and economically marginalizing the Houthis and their supporters, or he’ll soon find himself in a seventh battle.

Nevertheless the present situation is preferable to outright war. Dialogue might not succeed in the end, but militarily defeating the Houthis is impossible while they sustain local support. And southern groups are watching closely.

The Yemen Post reports, “The last ceasefire between the government and the Houthi did not include this term and only focused on returning military and civilian equipment that were taken during the war. This means the rebels will stay having their weapons including medium and heavy ones to be an armed party after Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Despite the difference between the Houthi movement and Hezbollah, the matter may lead other parties to think to experience a similar experiment and then the democratic process in Yemen will be supported with factors including arms in a country that suffers from uncontrolled arms across its parts.”

Of course “other parties” like the Southern Movement, al-Qaeda affiliates, and their tribal networks have already taken up arms. Keenly aware and opportunistic of Saleh’s low approval and anti-American sentiment, insurgent groups in southern Yemen know that Saleh cannot defeat them militarily so long as they eschew conventional warfare.

The Southern Movement, and al-Qaeda to a lesser degree, has the popular support to wage a successful guerrilla war. Collateral damage works in their favor; they’ve witnessed US air-strikes kill many civilians and few al-Qaeda leaders, and the corresponding spike in anti-Saleh and US sentiment.

Theoretically dialogue is the only viable resolution to conflict in southern Yemen. Speaking to the military last week, Saleh wisely chose to extend his hand to any opposition group willing to negotiate within a national framework.

"If there are any political demands, they are welcome,” he said. “Come to dialogue. Now, we are going to form local committees to talk to these forces, if they accept dialogue.”

He also told al-Arabiya
, “The government is ready to engage in dialogue with the leaders of the Southern Movement within only the constitutional and political framework... We welcome any political demands.”

At the same time this will be some extremely hard ball. Possibly too hard.

"Dialogue is only with pro-unity elements who have legitimate demands,” Saleh clarified. “But we don't have dialogue with separatist elements. The Yemeni unity was born to live, and I'm not worried about the unity.”

Thus Yemen has a problem since much of the south is rallying behind the Southern Movement - a separatist movement. A big problem after Saleh told his military, "The separatist flags are going to burn in the coming days and weeks.”

Given that the South Movement will likely push on for secession, having come to deeply distrust Saleh, it’s hard to see how the two sides can negotiate a resolution. But military confrontation is far worse as a possibility to resolving the conflict or eliminating al-Qaeda’s presence. Both problems are likely to amplify if Saleh shuns dialogue with separatist leaders and chooses a predominantly military strategy.

His exclusion of separatists and meetings with US officials suggest this outcome. James Clapper, the US undersecretary of defense for intelligence, found himself meeting Saleh in Yemen the same day that the US navy warned that al-Qaeda could attack ships off Yemen's coast.

Scare tactics have no use though when most Yemenis oppose US relations with the corrupt Saleh government and neither will Saleh, who is still quick to refute US influence in Yemen. And yet, allegedly, Yemen security officials force locals with relatives who died in military operations to sign documents implicating them with al-Qaeda just to dupe America.

Why would America bite into such a rotten counterinsurgency, one ripe for spreading the al-Qaeda virus?

Entangled as the future is, only negotiation holds out the chance of stabilizing southern Yemen. If Saleh wants to keep Yemen unified and avoid a potentially international conflict then he must find a way to limit corruption. Suppressing the press should end along with arbitrary arrests and trials. Political opposition parties must have legitimate power and regional autonomy might be an inevitability.

Yemen is a land where the lesser of two political evils rules. Not unlike America, whose war with al-Qaeda hinges on Saleh’s choice.

March 26, 2010

America and Israel Rain Contadictions

Out of ideas and resorting to blatant confusion tactics, America and Israel often found themselves on other worlds over the last three weeks. Again they find themselves alien to reality on Earth.

Is it patience, weakness, trickery, or is the White House truly this delusional?

Automatically cross off patience by the look of the Israeli media. Washington's list of demands expanded after new settlements were approved as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met President Obama at the White House.

These demands include: the release of prisoners held in Israeli jails, the transfer of territory to the Palestinian Authority, and “clarifications” on Israel’s construction policy in the West Bank after the 10-month settlement construction freeze expires in September.

The Haaretz reports, “The Americans want to know to what degree the prime minister intends to monitor construction in East Jerusalem and whether he is willingness to take responsibility for implementing any government decision on this matter.”

“Most importantly, however, Obama wants to know how serious Netanyahu is in moving toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians. The president wants Netanyahu to put in writing his position on future discussions on the Palestinian demand for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines and to commit to the completion of talks within a two year time table.”

The Jerusalem Post interjects, “There were also reports, not confirmed, that the administration had asked for a commitment to extend the moratorium on housing starts in the West Bank settlements beyond the 10-months originally declared.”

The White House also wants, “peace talks with Syria, as part of an effort to promote a comprehensive regional move that would assist in neutralizing Iran and forming a broad Arab anti-Iranian coalition.”

And the Jerusalem Post claims the White House wants an answer by Saturday - less than 24 hours from now. So how does all of that work? It doesn’t.

The real first demand - that America wants an answer by Saturday - is crazy. Unconfirmed, but such haste is in line with Obama’s prior behavior. Meanwhile Israeli news is reporting that Netanyahu’s cabinet is deadlocked and will require some shaking. Multiple meetings are expected.

This confusing statement explains, “Although the efforts by US officials George Mitchell and Dennis Ross and Israeli officials Yitzhak Molcho and Ron Dermer to reach an agreement to reach an agreement failed Wednesday, state officials believe that the response will not be immediate and will not be in writing.”

So that’s that. Or has Obama already received an answer?

Of the demands themselves only talks with Syria have any real value; the rest are designed to obscure what cannot be obscured. According to one Palestinian official, “The American envoy [George Mitchell] said that the two sides failed to reach agreement on settlement construction in Jerusalem.”

Netanyahu's spokesman Nir Hefez, after returning from Washington, told Army Radio that Israel had reached a "list of understandings" with the White House. Hefez said that despite these differences Obama and Netanyahu had agreed, “The construction policy will not change, but Israel is prepared to make additional steps in order to advance peace talks.”

An official statement from Netanyahu’s office followed: "The prime minister's position is that there is no change in Israel's policy on Jerusalem that has been pursued by all governments of Israel for the last 42 years.”

Nothing has really changed in Washington either then. Tomorrow could always bring the unexpected, but for now America remains as weak on Israel as ever and, as usual, is trying to convince us otherwise. How all this situation is possible remains to be seen since one US congressman who spoke to Netanyahu said his meeting with Obama “was awful.”

But the White House’s irrationality goes even deeper. In spite of continuation of settlement construction in East Jerusalem and Palestinian pessimism, Obama is reportedly, “hoping to gain approval from the Arab League for a second time.”

You know, the Arab League that said last time was the last time. Right now it’s busy raising money to counter “Judaisation of Jerusalem”

Do Obama and company actually believe they did enough to regain the confidence of Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims - and disenchanted Americans for that matter? What else are we supposed to believe when US and Israeli officials claim progress while everyone else sees peace in free fall?

March 25, 2010

Petraeus Caves to Israeli Pressure

He can clarify and justify his actions however he wants, but that is the reality. Maybe General Petraeus is what Netanyahu and Obama talked about for three hours.

COIN 101: Abdul Qayyum Zakir Returns

As US officials and analysts sell an improving Afghanistan a whole new controversy is set to explode. The Taliban’s strategy will likely be obstructed in the news cycle as a consequence, making it our job to stay focused on Afghanistan.

Not Guantánamo Bay.

After much speculation Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir has been appointed Mullah Omar’s top deputy and chief military commander, The New York Times reports. Believed to be in his mid-30’s, Zakir, “has a reputation as a tough fighter with few political skills.” He also spent six years in Guantánamo before being released after he testified of no links to al-Qaeda.

Zakir is actually some déjà vu, quickly ascending the Taliban’s ranks he was released from Afghan custody two years after being transferred home. The episode stirred a controversy last March, slowing President Obama’s Guantánamo closure, and this March will repeat now that Zakir has been crowned supreme Taliban general.

But while a new cloud fogs the White House, the choice of Zakir reveals insights into Taliban strategy and behavior. Most recently the Taliban’s commander in southern Afghanistan, Zakir was pulled back into Pakistan earlier this year to avoid the US military surge in Helmand and Kandahar.

Call it fear, or wisdom, but Taliban commanders are reportedly altering their behavior when traveling and gathering.

Waheed Muzhda, “a former Taliban official in Kabul who speaks regularly with Taliban officials,” (i.e. a Taliban official) says that the Quetta Shura feel too insecure to meet in large numbers. “Everyone is worried,” he says, and they should be.

But it’s apparent that the Taliban is adapting its behavior, refusing to sit around and let themselves be bombed indefinitely. Though Predators were active throughout the war 2008 and on spawned an unprecedented wave of Hellfire missiles. The Taliban, having witnessed the TTP’s fate and its own members captured, isn’t staying static.

Muzhda says of Taliban leadership, “they have disappeared.”

It would seem, then, that killing and especially capturing Taliban leaders will become more difficult over time as they adapt to 2010 technology and beyond. Muzhda claims Mullah Omar directly appointed Zakir as his deputy, without convening the leadership council, a sign of even greater authority than Omar once possessed.

And what of Zakir himself?

Though an experienced commander his youth is difficult to ignore given the current situation. The Taliban, to a point, expect their leaders to fall. What if Zakir is a substitute meant to conceal the real commander who will stay unknown? He looks like a poster boy, perfect for the role but not a permanent choice.

The TTP can vouch for this strategy. Though a public crisis developed when multiple commanders challenged for Baitullah Mehsud’s thrown, the reality is that Wali-ur-Rehman, South Waziristan commander, and other TTP commanders less affiliated with al-Qaeda couldn’t have been happier.

Hakimullah was a high profile loose cannon destined for death. Why not let him fill the void as long as possible? Furthermore the TTP appointed a temporary leader in Maulana Toofan, another stalling tactic. Clone tactics are evolving in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Survival presents its own set of problems too. What if Zakir manages to stay alive? Like the TTP, all that would follow a US arrest or kill is another hydra head. Hakimullah’s death has left several heads in charge - Rehman, North Waziristan chief Hafiz Gul Bahadur, and the elusive Faqir Mohammad.

All are more capable than Hakimullah, and lower key.

Zakir, if he proves a capable general, is the latest to undermine America’s “offshore theory,” which has been ratcheted up to enhance Obama’s military and civilian surge, not unlike steroids. More commanders are always rising up through the pipes. In a way this is survival of the fittest; the Taliban know they’re going to die and so are always preparing new commanders.

Killing them repeatedly may make them stronger in the long run.

Zakir also exudes confidence from the Taliban - a young general presumes a long war. Just because the Taliban are reacting to drones and spy planes doesn’t mean they’re truly afraid or on the run.

The New York Times reports, “American officials believe that the Taliban’s leadership is still brimming with confidence about their position inside Afghanistan, making it unlikely that the movement’s chieftains would be inclined to enter substantive negotiations in the near term.”

“The Taliban still believe they are winning and can wait us out,” said one senior US intelligence official. “They are not inclined to accept a bargain.”

March 24, 2010

Quote of the Day

"We think we have found a golden way that would allow the Americans to move the peace process forward while preserving our national interests."

- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after meeting with President Obama

US Must Expand Mind on Drug War

The venue may not have been the most appropriate. Still, it’s hard not to be disappointed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s press conference with Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa. Though the US delegation has days to pitch its revamped strategy for Mexico and the Drug War, Clinton didn’t leave much room for a true comprehensive solution.

Headlines misleadingly read that officials admit US demand is the root of conflict. Clearly US drug demand is key to the delegation’s PR. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters in flight to Mexico City, “We need to keep focusing on that drug demand reduction issue.”

Clinton too acknowledged that US drug demand is a top priority for the White House, but she was far less eager to explain how that demand will drop.

Impressing upon her audience America’s sober concern about its drug use, Clinton informed her audience, “The Obama Administration’s new drug policy is going to be released very soon. And it will include specific recommendations about how to decrease demand... we’re going to be doing a joint study about drug consumption.”

“We want to make sure we understand everything that is going on in both of our countries.”

These were encouraging words until she was asked how exactly US demand could be reduced.

“Madam Secretary, you spoke about looking at anything that works in this problem. I’m wondering, has there been any discussion of decriminalizing drug as one strategy for undercutting the power of the cartels?”

“No,” replies Clinton, an odd answer for someone with an alleged open mind.

Mexico, along with a growing list of South American states, has already decriminalized lesser narcotics, making America, the state with the biggest problem, look like the biggest obstacle. And observe the wording of the question. We’re not talking about stone laws, simply “any discussion,” implying US officials aren’t willing to debate the issue at all.

The underlying message America sends is that decriminalization has no potential positives - that it won’t work - even as more states contemplate drug reform. Instead Clinton claims, “Our Secretary of Defense and our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs... were very complimentary about what the military is doing.”

While we cannot deny the need for increased military operations, Mexico’s strategy hasn’t produced the most desirable results. Are Mexican soldiers and police courageous? Surely. Are they committed? In most cases. But emphasis on military action and law enforcement has escalated the overall war.

And why is a US super delegation in Mexico City in the first place? Because Mexico’s military strategy has stagnated and will be overwhelmed without a change.

The Drug War requires a full spectrum strategy, civil and martial, as every US official will tell us over the coming days. We can’t say for sure, indeed no one can, what effects decriminalization would have on the drug war, but reducing foreign demand for drugs over the long term appears to be a viable prescription to consider. Demand might not drop so much as demand can be regulated.

The business and revenue potential of decriminalization is a completely seperate sphere, yet filled with potential opportunities as well. Thus to exclude decriminalization from the discussion entirely is likely an action of ulterior motives, either political or business, more than real strategy.

The ultimate irony is that drug use is primarily a public health issue. A more politically progressive society would have debated decriminalization in relation to health care. Granted America is a centrist society, but decriminalization has gained steam since the Crack epidemic and is already underway internationally.

While universal health care is of obvious importance, it's also necessary to proactively prevent disease and substance abuse. Obama speaks often of doing so. US officials in Mexico spoke of every recourse except decriminalization, but this option must be explored in a true comprehensive strategy.

March 23, 2010

Quotes of the Day

“If the Americans support the unreasonable demands made by the Palestinians regarding a freeze on settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, the peace process risks being blocked for a year."

- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, before meeting with President Obama

“What Netanyahu said does not help American efforts and will not serve the efforts of the American administration to return the two sides to indirect negotiations."

- Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina

Obama's Health Care Momentum Evaporates on Israeli Contact

Reports are multiplying that President Barack Obama’s healthcare bill gives him momentum going against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This theory can’t be challenged quick enough.

Some news agencies and analysts are arguing that Obama has demonstrated his resolve to get what he wants done. Well, what does Obama want in regards to Israel and Palestine? His speech to AIPAC in 2008, penned by Dennis Ross and company, sounded like Netanyahu’s kind of Palestine.

He was forced to backtrack on his “undivided Jerusalem” remark the next day.

Obama publicly commented on the current crisis only once in the last three weeks, on Fox New no less (dominated by Israeli advocates), where he reaffirmed America and Israel’s bond while saying little of Palestine. Clinton has assumed the front mask and it’s hard to believe she has less control than Obama on US-Israeli policy.

She’s the face because this is her sphere.

We really have no idea where Obama stands. His position on final status talks and a two-state solution is unknown until the White House releases its own “Road Map,” and even then his position may be unclear, though his speech to AIPAC gives some indication.

Obama’s version of Palestine might be what he wants but not what the Palestinians want.

Now consider how health care reform was passed. Obama must be credited for leadership within the Democrats, but he had major help from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and those Senators and Representatives behind her. And Obama still had to wrangle with Democrats to strike a compromise; he’s dead to Republicans.

US-Israeli policy could follow the same mold, with Israelis as the Democrats and Palestinians as Republicans.

Momentum against Israel is just beginning to gather in the international community - it has has yet to reach the US Congress. No concern shines brighter than how fast the tables would turn on Israeli policy. If Obama does stand up to Netanyahu on settlements he won’t have more than a few votes in Congress, whose only actions called for silence on Israel and an end to US pressure.

Collectively they could care less about Palestine and will be unwilling to participate in any legislation, such as economic or military aid, against Israel. The momentum Obama’s riding will evaporate in an instant.

In that case he’ll be left mano-a-mano with Netanyahu, in a private meeting that until yesterday was kept secret. This time Kennedy holds home-turf on Khrushchev, but Obama is still an underdog. Certainly he must feel emboldened and maybe he will make a stand, but the odds aren’t favorable.

The only sure bet to stand up to Israel is Code Pink.

March 22, 2010

Pakistan Isn't Sri Lanka (and Shouldn't Want to Be)

They came in droves, to prove the power of numbers applies equally to military force and democracy.

An estimated 700 tribal leaders and 3,000 elders had gathered in Peshawar for the National Peace jirga, organized by Amn Tehrik (Peace Movement), to call for stiffer action against the TTP, al-Qaeda, and their affiliates.

"We will not rest until we banish the terrorists from the whole tribal region," said Syed Alam Mehsud, a leading member of Amn Tehrik, which is composed of ethnic Pashtun intellectuals and professionals from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Amn Tehrik’s efforts are both admirable and wise. Reports mention that the group has no faith in America and Pakistan’s governments and is assuming a proactive strategy. Organizing such an event is dangerous in the present and future, but only through local support can Pakistan permanently dismantle the TTP and exile al-Qaeda.

“If we strengthen these councils and make them more functional, I believe it will win us half of the war,” said Salar Amjad Ali. “We, the Pashtuns, live for our culture and tradition and we die for it.”

The exact demands of Amn Tehrik go unsaid. One organizer, Sayd Alam Mehsud, said the jirga was meant to bring together people from the area, presumably to organize them further, but what then? Are they calling for Islamabad to arm them or simply fight harder?

“It should be a genuine military operation like the Sri Lankans did against the Tamil Tigers,” said Sayd Alam Mehsud, a powerful tribal leader.

Amn Tehrik must think carefully because Pakistan isn’t Sri Lanka - and it shouldn’t want Sri Lanka’s outcome anyway.

A number of differences stand out. One is Sri Lanka’s ethnic makeup, heavily skewed at 75% Sinhalese and only 10-15% Tamil. Sri Lanka’s ethnic breakdown provided the government with an unlimited mandate, of which one aspect was to wage war against the Tigers.

Pakistan is ethnically scattered, a reality that has contributed to instability in the FATA, Balochistan, and the Indian border. Though Pashtuns generally support a campaign against militants of their own ethnicity, overall the government hovers in mediocrity, weighted down by domestic crises, making large scale war more difficult to wage.

Then there’s a more obvious divergence - water. Being an island, Sri Lanka exploited its natural counterinsurgency advantage to consume all of its territory until the Tigers surrendered or were pushed into the sea. Pakistan suffers from a porous mountain border with Afghanistan, and its borders with Iran and India aren’t secure either.

Any Sri Lanka-like offensive will only push the TTP into Afghanistan.

Both of these differences feed back into the crux of Amn Tehrik’s dilemma. What is meant by a “genuine military operation?” Does Mehsud mean a sincere operation, as in Pakistan is faking its South Waziristan operation for US consumption? Does he mean more operations, such as in North Waziristan? Or does he merely mean “conventional?”

Sri Lanka’s advantages allowed it to wage a more conventional counterinsurgency than Pakistan is able to. Colombo’s majority support allowed it to avoid winning over the minority populace and thus deploy large scale formations and artillery to pound Tiger locations - and any civilians hiding or being held in the area.

Without having to worry about popular opinion Sri Lanka’s army was able to steam roll all the way to Jaffna. Conventional warfare allowed it to physically crush the Tigers. But Sri Lanka’s type of victory wouldn’t bring victory to Pakistan, and not just because the two conflicts deviate. Both are still counterinsurgencies and share fundamental properties.

Pakistan has been here before and sits in its present hole because overwhelming firepower was too often relied upon in the 2000’s. Conventional war didn’t bring stability to the FATA, it rallied the insurgency. Only when Pakistan began to fight smarter, with greater concern for civilians, more special-ops, and emphasizing social development, did momentum start shifting back in Islamabad’s favor.

Victory isn’t sealed in Sri Lanka. Though militarily and financially scattered, the Tiger’s spirit remains at large and splinter groups have already begun reconstituting for a potentially long fight ahead. As Tamil grievances have largely been ignored, a resurrected insurgency appears to be a matter of time.

Sri Lanka blew everything to pieces, a strategy many Americans favor in Pakistan judging by comments on news sites and blogs, but the reality is that Amn Tehrik has no use for Sri Lanka’s kind of military operation. It was exactly that - a military operation.

Conventional warfare, not counterinsurgency.

All Sri Lanka accomplished with its war is one dead militant group, the rising spirits of new ones, a train of human rights abuses with UN investigation in toe, a disenfranchised Tamil minority and their jailed opposition figure, even if he is the general who defeated the Tigers.

If Colombo formulates a political and social strategy to engage and reintegrate Tamils then victory in the true sense is indeed possible. But the present situation is unstable and if it persists another insurgency will spawn, a new battle in an old war.

We don’t want to assume too much of Amn Tehrik’s intentions, but we would advise them to support Pakistan’s present operations. More force quicker isn’t the answer. More could and should be done in time, but there’s no point in clearing all territory held by the TTP and other militants if it can’t hold or build it.

The operations we’re seeing are only Phase 1 in the grand strategy.

Pakistan should stay its course and gradually reoccupy lost ground in proportion to the level of control the government can reestablish. It must also enter Phase 2, the rebuilding phase, as soon as possible since most tribes have given Islamabad one final chance. National political reform, in regards to both the FATA and Balochistan, would serve as the final phase.

Letting the bombs fly like Sri Lanka might sound tempting, but it would destroy Pakistan’s counterinsurgency.

Quotes of the Day

"For President Obama, for me, and for this entire administration, our commitment to Israel's security and Israel's future is rock solid."

- US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in prepared statements for AIPAC convention

“We want to reaffirm that the relationship between the United States and Israel is strong and enduring, that our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable and unbreakable. And that’s the way it’s going to remain,” Mitchell said before meeting with the prime minister in Jerusalem.

- US envoy George Mitchell, meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before his departure to Washington

“It’s obvious that the Israeli government does not want peace. Nor does it want negotiations [with the Palestinians].”

Nabil Abu Rudaineh, spokesman for PA President Mahmoud Abbas

March 21, 2010

America and Israel Prepare Finale

Maybe the shock is justified. America and Israel are sailing through rocky seas and nothing publicly suggested that he would yield, so “Netanyahu bows to U.S. demands” and “Netanyahu Caves to Washington” can’t help but feel like big news.

Or is the illusion merely coming to a close?

With suspicions already perked by West Bank urban warfare, observers were given one more reason to doubt after “breaking news” literally broke. Initially The Haaretz reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to “hold” settlements in Jerusalem until the 10 month freeze on West Bank settlements expires in September.

But by the time The Guardian quoted Netanyahu as having, “bowed to American demands to suspend the construction of settlement homes in east Jerusalem ahead of his departure today for a visit to Washington DC,” the original report had undergone surgery to remove the settlement “hold/suspension” aspect.

Momentarily reporting a “slowdown,” The Haaretz currently reads, “For the first time since Operation Cast Lead, Israel has agreed to ease the blockade on the Gaza Strip. Moreover, Netanyahu has agreed to discuss all core issues during the proximity talks, with the condition of reaching final conclusions only in direct talks with the PA.”

Instead, “Netanyahu refused to revoke the building project in Ramat Shlomo or freeze construction in East Jerusalem. He also promised a better oversight system to prevent embarrassing incidents such as the one that triggered the crisis with the U.S. during Vice President Joe Biden's visit.”

Thus Netanyahu didn’t bow or cave at all.

A modest prisoner release is a decent gesture though hardly bowing. Easing the Gaza blockade carries a nice symbolism, but the material being allowed through is meager, suggesting a token gesture concocted between Netanyahu and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Few Gazans will be persuaded.

Agreeing to discuss all core principles is especially duplicitous since Netanyahu has already agreed to that demand and failed to execute. This redundant gesture serves to distract from Netanyahu’s refusal to freeze settlement construction in East Jerusalem, an indicator of where he falls on Jerusalem’s final status.

Basically Israel gave in to the weaker demands in order to reject the first, while the new “don’t ask, don’t tell” system actually works in Israel’s favor. No, Netanyahu hasn’t bowed to US pressure. If anything he’s reacting to the rigid settlement position of the UN, EU, and Arab League, but even that is a stretch.

As for America he’s escaped at best, played his part beautifully at worst. What else should we expect from Netanyahu, a political veteran, just before he boards his plane for Washington?

The Haaretz reports, “Netanyahu is scheduled to leave for Washington tonight with Defense Minister Ehud Barak to attend the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington. Opposition leader MK Tzipi Livni and Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau will also attend the convention... Netanyahu is slated to address the convention tomorrow at 7 P.M. (Israel time), then meet Clinton, who is also to speak at the AIPAC gathering.”

On cue a White House official told The Jerusalem Post, “We’re happy, but it’s an ongoing conversation.”

Judging by the unfolding events so is Congress and their friends in the Israeli lobby. Is this how the situation will truly climax? Provocation followed by condemnation followed by praise, then Netanyahu comes to speak at AIPAC with Clinton, a quiet trip to Obama to finalize their back-room dealings and lobby for bombs, and everything is back to normal?

US House of Representatives Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Virginia), joined by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Middle East subcommittee, faxed their own letter to Clinton demanding the crisis go silent.

“We recognize that, despite the extraordinary closeness between our country and Israel, there will be differences over issues both large and small,” they write. “Our view is that such differences are best resolved quietly, in trust and confidence, as befits long-standing strategic allies.”

Could this be the reason why so much secrecy and disinformation surrounds a potential meeting between Obama and Netanyahu?

Another letter from Senators Charles Schumer (D-New York) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) say in their letter to US President Barack Obama, “We write you out of concern that Iran is growing ever closer to acquiring nuclear capability, a fact demanding immediate action. We want to assure you of strong bipartisan support for the tough and decisive measures that we hope you will undertake to address this grave problem.”

The Palestinians have no Senators to speak through and it’s showing. They can only watch while America and Israel orchestrate their play. Anyone who thinks America came down hard on Israel hasn't been paying attention.

Once the “crisis” is over America and Israel are coming for the Palestinians again - they must be ready not to bow themselves.

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said on Saturday that the diplomatic crisis between Jerusalem and Washington had been, “amplified in the media in order to improve the status of the United States as an honest broker in the region.”

Ayalon believes, as many US and Israeli officials do behind him, that, “Israel has taken many trust-building steps, so [international] pressure should be on the Palestinians, who have only become more rigid in their positions.”

The stage is set for the finale of an illusion designed to increase America’s image in the Middle East. Because reality still permeated through we’ve observed the reverse effect, but the illusion has correspondingly increased in power. AIPAC’s conference is looking less coincidental, a date long on the calendar and timed exactly to the White House's latest push for proxy talks.

What a perfect venue for the final act in case its play went awry.

March 20, 2010

Bruce Riedel Spins Back

Looks like this AKI report touched a nerve. Three days after revealing that captured Taliban in Pakistan are laid up in posh guest houses, safely removed from the battlefield, senior Obama official Bruce Riedel was deployed to counter the story with his own spin.

This is the surest sign that the original report is more or less accurate:
"Pakistan's arrest of several key Afghan Taliban leaders has sent a powerful message to militants seeking refuge in the country, a US terrorism expert on the region has told Adnkronos International (AKI). Bruce Riedel is a former CIA officer who conducted a policy review on Afghanistan and Pakistan for US president Barack Obama soon after he took office.

Riedel said the recent arrest of top Taliban commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and other Afghan Taliban leaders in Pakistan showed a significant change in Islamabad's attitude, and more particularly its powerful Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).

However, he warned that the ISI "played a very complicated game to make sure that Pakistan is a winner no matter what happens".

"A year ago, Pakistani leaders including the head of the ISI denied categorically that there were any Afghan Taliban leaders in their country," Riedel told AKI.

"Well a year later they have arrested a half dozen or so of them. Does that mean they have cut off all of their relations with the Taliban ? I doubt it.

"I suspect they are still playing a very intricate game. But that doesn't change the fact that they have arrested a half dozen top Taliban leaders. That is a step in the right direction."

Riedel said Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who visited Pakistan just over a week ago, had a much better relationship with president Asif Ali Zardari than with his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf.

"I think that this new reconciliation is one that is still being worked on," he said.

"The most important thing is that we are now beginning to see real action to clamp down on Taliban activities and to bring people like Baradar under control which is a very significant change from what we have seen in the past."

Riedel said the recent arrests were also "a success" for Obama.

"We have been pushing the Pakistanis to take action against the Taliban since last year and this is a concrete manifestation that for whatever reason, they have now taken a step in the right direction from the president's standpoint and it makes the chance of the success of his strategy is much higher," he said.

In February, counter terrorism experts from the ISI and US intelligence officials arrested Bradar, as well as a member of Taliban’s command council Moulvi Abdul Kabir and two shadow governors Mullah Mir Mohammad and Mullah Abdul Salam.

Mullah Omar’s close lieutenant Mullah Mustasim Agha Jan and an Al-Qaeda leader Abu Yahya were also detained.

Afghanistan sought the extradition of the Taliban leaders who are Afghan nationals but the Pakistani Lahore High Court blocked the extradition, leaving the ISI to negotiate the future of the detained leaders with the Taliban leadership.

Riedel, is a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, who focuses on political transition, terrorism and conflict resolution.

He has advised three US presidents on the Middle East and South Asia and at Obama's request, he chaired an interagency policy review on Afghanistan and Pakistan for the White House completed in March 2009."
And we know how that turned out.

March 19, 2010

America Lags Behind Quartet

Online gamers are familiar with lag. Political lag is just as annoying and potential fatal. In computers the source of lag is the internet connection, a weak signal or slow modem. Moscow just witnessed its own disconnect.

First interference jammed the signal. Senators Barbara Boxer (D-California) and Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia) had sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, subtly implying that she possesses more control of US-Israeli policy than Obama.

Calling for an end to US-Israeli public acrimony, the Jerusalem Post reports that the letter, drafted ahead of AIPAC’s conference, “along with its House companion will be centerpieces of Israel advocates’ lobbying as part of the AIPAC annual conference.”

Clinton had earned her check all week and today was no different.

During a press conference after the Quartet adjourned their meeting, Clinton said of her phone call with Netanyahu, where he rejected a settlement freeze, "What I heard from the prime minister in response to the requests we made was useful and productive.”

Of the White House’s “decision to escalate” pressure on Israel, "I think we're going to see the resumption of the negotiation track and that means that it is paying off because that's our goal."

How Clinton managed to make these statements while in Moscow can be attributed to lag, similar to a Fox News report that Obama and Netanyahu will meet next Tuesday. The White house later denied the report.

Before speaking to the press herself, the Quartet issued a call for a total settlement freeze in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Clinton, brimming as if inhabiting another reality, couldn’t have stuck out more as she applauded Israel’s commitment to the peace process. Expecting gestures of goodwill, we can assume one of them won’t be a settlement freeze.

The Quartet’s position was markedly different from America, focused equally on Israel and the Palestinians. Implementation is another problem, but the Quartet has chipped away at US mediation, an admission by the greater international community that America once again went soft on Israel and cannot be trusted as an honest broker.

"Arab-Israeli peace and the establishment of a peaceful state of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza is in the fundamental interests of the parties, of all states in the region, and of the international community," UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said.

Of course a lag persists between the Quartet and the Palestinians, but today was a step in the right direction. Now America is lagging behind the world. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, welcomed the Quartet's condemnation of Israeli settlement building, and in his eagerness to diminish US unilateralism called for the Quartet to monitor Israeli activities on the ground.

Clearly insulted by “don’t ask, don’t tell” rumors, Erekat demanded, “We want the Quartet to have the Israeli government, to monitor their actions, to monitor their activities on the ground, because they're playing many games of deceit on the ground - they say now 'we're not going to announce more settlements, but we're going to continue with settlements'. That is deceit.”

"I think it's really more than words," he told CNN, "because this is coming at a time when the international community is at its feet now as regards Israeli settlement activity and Netanyahu is still being defiant. Netanyahu is defying the whole international community now and he 's insisting to continue settlement activity, and he's telling the world, 'Look, I'm going to fool you - I'm not going to announce any tenders anymore, but I am going to continue with settlements.'"

The Palestinians cannot agree to any talks, indirect or direct, until America catches up to the Palestinian’s position and now the Quartet’s. Excessive static in Washington and Jerusalem is interfering with this transmission.

If it persists the Palestinians should switch to international mediation as the replacement connection.

New US-Israeli Settlement Policy: Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Apparently Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proved to be the apex of America and Israel’s public feud. President Barack Obama was already part of the decline, an afterthought himself after he turned the Palestinians into one.

Pressures in both capitals, inside and outside the government, could no longer stand the special relationship’s image battered in the international media. This, we were told, wasn’t a true representation of their friendship.

Everything is fine, despite Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman unofficially rejecting a settlement freeze. Now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formally rejected any change to the 1,600 units that have caused so much trouble and pseudo trouble.

The White House had been waiting for a response since Tuesday, but according to the Haaretz, “Netanyahu is expected, according to the Washington Post report, to tell the Obama administration that he cannot revoke the Ramat Shlomo expansion plan both for legal reasons and as a result of wide public support in continued building in Jerusalem.”

Instead Netanyahu will offer, "assurances that the new neighborhood will not be constructed anytime soon; it is, in fact, two or three years from groundbreaking. Coupled to that would be an Israeli pledge to avoid publicizing further construction decisions in Jerusalem.”

“The result would not be a freeze, but something like a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy for settlements.”

Netanyahu also wants "mutual confidence building measures" from the Palestinians (as if they announced the settlements), which US officials eagerly support.

Thus America and Israel remain on the same script despite their recent bumps and bruises; they really have no choice except to stick together. Breaking apart now would expose them to all kinds of ridicule and weaknesses. They have to stick it out as long as possible even if closing their eyes will smash them into the Palestinian wall.

"The goal of both sides at this point is to put this behind us, “ US ambassador Michael Oren was quoted as saying, “and go forward with the proximity talks as quickly as possible."

As he was echoed by Obama, so too was Oren’s sentiment was confusingly mimicked by Vice President Joe Biden. In an ABC interview to air Friday night, Biden described Israel’s settlement announcement as a deliberate provocation meant to undermine the peace process.

His solution to Israel’s cavalier unilateralism?

“The message is: We've got to get over this. Granted, I condemn the announcement made by that planning council... The irony is even that planning council acknowledging not a single new unit can be built at least for a year and maybe never will be built, it was provocative."

And like Obama, he too struck down General David Petraeus’s conclusion that US-Israeli policy is endangering US troops in the Middle East.

"No, I never said that," Biden told ABC.

Looks like no one will be saying anything for a while if Israel gets its way again. One can only hope the Palestinians and Arab states don’t fall for this cheap illusion.

Pakistan to America: Do More

Maybe a turning point did occur in US-Pakistani relations, but is this what US officials had in mind? During his weekly press briefing at the Foreign Office, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi was asked whether America will press for more action against the Taliban during next week’s Strategic Dialogue in Washington.

“Gone are the days when the US used to press Pakistan to do more. Now we are going to demand of the US to do more,” he replied.

Qureshi’s attitude could be a good thing. His general point is that Pakistan has indeed altered its counterinsurgency strategy, citing military operations in Swat, South Waziristan, Bajaur, Mohmand, and Khyber agencies, the long trail of dead al-Qaeda and TTP commanders, and a half dozen high-level Taliban arrests.

But we also know that its collection of Taliban are pawns more than prisoners.

We know that US officials still demand an operation in North Waziristan, the most connected agency to the Afghan Taliban, and are worried about a relapse in Swat. They’re skeptical of negotiations with Mullah Omar and his inner circle, want action on LeT, and believe Pakistan should redeploy away from the Indian border.

US military officials would likely vouch that Pakistan has done enough - for now - but the White House and Congress are another matter. What’s changed more than anything is Islamabad’s aggression on the political and military battlefields. It hasn’t decided to help Washington so much as take charge of its own interests.

Good for Pakistan, but a potential bomb for America.

Qureshi did his part to highlight the Strategic Dialogue, saying, “I believe our forthcoming dialogue will provide a good opportunity to re-build confidence and trust on both sides. We need to build comfort on all sides. We want these talks to be broad-based and that is why I am proposing a completely different format for interaction between the two countries.”

But the niceties ended there. Qureshi is leading the talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and has orders from above to put the foot down.

“My message to Washington is: we’ve been talking a lot. The time has come to walk the talk. We’ve done our bit. The ordinary citizen in Pakistan has paid a price. We’ve delivered. Start delivering.”

He knows what he wants too.

“I am also proposing 10 tracks of sectoral engagements in economy, energy, defense, education, science and technology, counter-terrorism strategic stability and non-proliferation, health, communication, agriculture and public diplomacy.”

Again, this could be good news for America. Only through a broad civil strategy can an efficient martial strategy thrive. Its incurred wrath in Pakistan is largely due to military obsession. America stands to gain if Islamabad wants to develop a mature, long-term relationship. Even its people, in time, might be persuaded if America constantly delivers on its promises.

A few items on Pakistan’s list include independent drones technology, civil nuclear technology, lifting security measures at airports, and accepting Taliban negotiations mediated by Islamabad. Most Pakistanis want America to exit from Afghanistan.

Naturally March 24th is a day to keep an eye on. For the moment all Pakistan has done is seize negotiation lines with the Taliban through a secret deal with America and leverage its actions last year into demands for the future.

US-Pakistani relations could actually take a step in the right direction if the Strategic Dialogue is handled correctly, but the potential exists for conflict over how much has been done, still needs to be done, and what should be delivered.