September 29, 2010

NATO Choppers Kill Pakistani Soldiers

Now two NATO helicopters have attacked the Teri Mangal village in Kurram Agency, killing three Pakistani paramilitary forces.

“The helicopters shelled the area for about 25 minutes," a senior security official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "Three of our soldiers manning a border post were killed and three wounded."

Fulfilling its threat, Pakistan has blocked all NATO supply trucks at Torkham, the main port of entry into Afghanistan. Seems like things have really hit the fan now. Should see extensive damage control tomorrow, similar to Monday's border raid, although what good it does after a repetition of events remains to be seen.

America might be committing a strategic error by using its free passes early in the game - or else more attacks are in order. Pakistan's reaction, even factoring in theatrics for its public, suggests that no agreement exists, but America is acting as if one does. Or is Washington finally capitalizing on Islamabad's helplessness?

Hamid Karzai has demanded cross-border raids for some time, perhaps a quid pro quo in the making.

Drones Drown Out US Aid

Sporting a hat that read “USAID: From The American People” as he toured two US-funded relief camps, Richard Holbrooke insisted that support to Pakistani flood victims is focused on saving lives. But winning “hearts and minds” or relieving the Pakistani military for new missions against the TTP and al-Qaeda can’t be far behind.

"Our country has donated the most money and the most helicopters," America’s envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan said in one of his many remarks to highlight US contributions. “We do it through the international organizations, so it may not be as visible, but it is very big.”

Holbrooke had pointed out these facts after reaching the conclusion that America still isn’t receiving proper credit for aiding Pakistanis in their darkest hour. But while Pakistanis remain leery of US support after so many years of duplicity, pervasive anti-Americanism isn’t totally responsible for Holbrooke’s latest PR hurdle - he’s also contending with a particularly intense drone campaign. No matter how much the Pentagon plasters its website with flood updates, US, international, and Pakistani media is all covered with drones and questions regarding their legality, precision, and effectiveness.

The Dawn’s Amna Khalique conclusively appraised Washington’s “game of Whack-a-Mole.”

And without answers the information void naturally fills with doubt and fear. Now hot-pursuit has been added to the mix, further entangling drones in the wider debate on sovereignty. To be sure, elements within Pakistan support drones and demand that Islamabad cut all ties with the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. But no one is talking about US aid.

Some wounds are self-inflicted on Holbrooke’s part, documented in another drone tally by Brian Ehrenpreis for Counterpunch. Asked of the Predator and Reaper’s precision by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Holbrooke replied, "It's such a precise weapon, the Predator, that if they were aiming at your producers over there, you and I could continue our conversation. It’s very very small; does that not appeal to you, that idea?”

Ehrenpreis, like Khalique, goes on to argue that minimizing civilian casualties doesn’t relieve drones of their scrutiny. Though their use does appeal to some Pakistanis, the language from its media and government indicates that the majority still find drones more or less revolting.

21 drone strikes over the last month have thus blocked any possibility of widespread awareness of US aid to Pakistan. They’ve consumed the print space of media organizations and attention of pundits, while military escalation solidifies the impression that Washington is trying to distract from ongoing drone strikes. And if Pakistan’s floods ultimately overwhelm Islamabad and the international community, US aid could be swept away in the process, isolated memories of the thankful lost in a larger sea of despair.

While the drones continue their assault.

Holbrooke’s double-sided agenda is nothing unusual, nor are his struggling efforts to win Pakistani hearts and minds. US aid cannot hide an increase in bombings - Pakistanis notice. And whether or not al-Qaeda was actually plotting a concrete attack against a European target, this news is designed to justify past and future operations, including potential cross-boarder raids by NATO forces and CIA-funded Afghan commandos. The fact that US officials released their motive demonstrates the backlash’s potency.

In related events, the same reason why Holbrooke attracts so many skeptics in Pakistani can be found in Afghanistan, where he issued a ringing endorsement for the recent parliamentary election. At a time when many Afghans are renewing doubts of the outcome and their government’s credibility, US and UN officials have bolstered Kabul officials to weather another fraud-plagued election.

“I would draw no conclusions about the outcome in the Western sense that one party won or there will have to be a coalition of three parties,” Holbrooke explained. “You can't apply any of that to Afghanistan. Afghan people don't get enough credit for voting under these circumstances.”

But he either misses or ignores the point. Given parliament’s ineffectiveness, which party gained the most votes becomes less significant than the election’s perception in relation to Hamid Karzai’s government. A fraudulent vote further gnaws away at Afghanistan’s poor representation and Karzai's dipping approval, negatively impacting US strategy. Yet Western officials, so confident of the vote, have resorted to the argument that the elections are a success for being held at all.

Steffan de Mistura, U.N. special representative to Afghanistan, recently wrote in an election report, "One must not forget that Afghanistan is still a country in conflict. The fact that elections took place at all, not least in such close succession and during comparatively a more volatile period, is an accomplishment in itself."

U.S. Ambassador Susan E. Rice welcomed the U.N. envoy's report, calling the elections an "important, step toward a stronger, more stable Afghanistan."

But Washington is more worried than it publicly lets on. Holbrooke cryptically mused, “It is not moving as fast as it should. One of the iron laws of Afghanistan, it seems to me, is that things move more slowly than people say they will. The issue isn't 'Are you behind schedule?' ... The issue is 'Are you moving forward?'"

A drop in voter turnout and chronic instability suggests no. Bruce Riedel, ex-CIA official and key supporter of Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan found two factors “troubling”: continual insecurity and the decrease in voter turnout from about 6 million in the last election to about 3.6 million. And with the election already postponed from May to September, “an accomplishment in themselves” suggests a deteriorating security and political environment.

"While violence seems to have been less in this election than in August 2009, some of that is because 20 percent of polling stations were closed and that's also not a good sign.”

It is this duplicity that cannot be trusted - that Pakistanis despise. Spinning a positive election out of another political quagmire, highlighting US aid while enthusiastically justifying Predators as they pound North Waziristan.

As a messenger of Washington, Holbrooke’s message will never reach the masses without clarity.

Quotes of the Day

"There are many doubts and obstacles on the road to peace. Everyone understands that, but there is only one way to assure that we don't reach peace, and that is if we don't try and achieve peace. I am committed and the government is committed to reaching a peace deal."

- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

"The consensus is that since the entire world is in favor of a Palestinian state and against settlements, then let us throw this problem in the face of the world and see what they can do about it.”

- Hanna Amireh, a member of the PLO body, alleging widespread opposition to resuming talks without a settlement moratorium

Abbas Must Forge Palestinian Unity

Mahmoud Abbas, acting president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), seems to have an infinite number of reasons to disengage from US-sponsored negotiations with Israel. Reduced to a singularity, Palestinians possess little trust in America to negotiate an equal two-state solution and none in Israel. But Abbas wisely chose to await a special Arab League meeting, scheduled for October 4th, before deciding the near-term fate of direct talks with his counterpart, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Although Abbas is talking a tougher game since Israel’s settlement “freeze” in the West Bank expired, he can’t move either way without covering fire.

"We don't want to stop the talks, but if the building continues, we will have to put a stop to them," Abbas told radio station Europe 1. "(Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu must know that peace is more important than settlements. We ask for a moratorium during negotiations, because as long as there are negotiations, there is hope.”

The Arab League now stands in the ironic position to cease direct talks after President Barack Obama and other US officials exhorted Arab states to “do more.” Technically they would fulfill this request by standing up for the Palestinians. Just as Abbas shielded himself with the Arab League to enter direct talks, he’s using it to potentially extract himself from Israel’s trap. Pulling out immediately would have risked another of trap, and so sweating out Netanyahu for a week offers Abbas and the Palestinians the smartest option available.

"We will not react quickly," Abbas said. "We will study all the consequences with Arab countries, with the Palestinian leadership.”

However, the Palestinians must draw their line and withdraw under Arab support if Israel and America don’t alter their behavior. With Washington’s hourglass almost empty, US envoy George Mitchell deployed to the region for a week’s worth of negotiating - and he’ll probably need every second. Netanyahu had already spoken at length with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as Mitchell prepared himself for departure. According to one Israeli source, Netanyahu was not impressed by US proposals for a partial freeze and “did not give a positive response.”

Another European diplomat told The Haaretz that Netanyahu explicitly declared large settlement blocs off limits to US officials, and spoke of at least one 2,000 unit that plans to go ahead with construction.

Both sides of any negotiation wish to create favorable terms, but this conflict of interests becomes especially problematic between the two vastly disproportionate parties. While the Palestinians know they lag behind Israel and are exhausting themselves to catch up, Israel is protecting its lead by keeping Palestinians down. Not exactly the spirit of peace. Aware that Netanyahu will throw Abbas to the wolves, the Palestinians have easily surmised how emboldened Netanyahu would become were he to “win” the first standoff.

Lopsided terms would continue throughout negotiations.

Though Abbas is demanding a total suspension of construction on principle, his real asking price is presumably much lower. Requesting a three or four month extension to finalize border arrangements, Abbas would likely accept a partial freeze if Netanyahu offered a sincere compromise. He already took less since Netanyahu froze only new construction, which even then trickled on according to the Palestinians and Israeli activist groups. Now Arab owners are being evicted in Israeli courts, and a variety of minor projects could add up quickly.

These events poison the negotiation’s atmosphere.

For Abbas, a “freeze” provides the bare minimum of public support to continue talks; support without one drops to single digits. A “freeze” represents confidence in Israel’s seriousness of towards a Palestinian state. Feeling his own pressure from the right, Netanyahu believes he might crumble his power-base by extending limitations on settlement construction. But his argument is overblown. Led by a supportive Tzipi Livni, Netanyahu doesn’t face in Israel’s moderate opposition the same danger as Abbas, who could lose not just half but all of his support to continue direct talks.

The Palestinians would guarantee an unbalanced two-state solution by caving now, which again cannot be said if Israel extended its “freeze.”

Israel’s attitude in denying Washington and the PA, while subsequently accusing the Palestinians of obstruction, has become its own grievance. There’s a difference between giving freely and begrudgingly, and the latter doesn’t inspire confidence like halting settlement activity it meant to do. Of course Israel’s behavior has also been predicted by countless observers, and another crisis of confidence could have been averted had Washington applied real pressure on Netanyahu before the deadline expired. Yet after stumbling through several failed rounds of indirect talks and still believing the Palestinians could be pushed over, Washington left one month to finalize a settlement agreement and unsurprisingly fell short.

Once more appearing unprepared, the White House was rescued from total embarrassment by Abbas’s grace period. The Obama administration’s fundamental dilemma - a pro-Israeli tilt - has hampered and slowed the entire peace process.

Actions haven’t come close to matching his optimistic rhetoric of a Palestinian state, having installed numerous Israeli advocates to Middle East advisory positions. His initial hope is better understood through the chronic negation of past US presidents and what is becoming a hollow speech in Cairo. Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly provides the most recent example of continual Israeli bias, although his 2008 AIPAC speech offers the clearest.

Claiming that, “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided,” Abbas replied, "This statement is totally rejected.” Obama later retracted his statement claiming the two sides must negotiate Jerusalem’s future, but his words lurk in the back of the Palestinians’ minds.

And because of an overwhelmingly pro-Israeli Congress and US public, Obama isn’t positioned to take the risks for peace that he asks of Netanyahu and Abbas. 87 US Senators recently ignored Netanyahu’s settlement dilemma and urged the Palestinians to remain in negotiations.

In a letter to Obama, the Senators argued, "Following the brutal murder of four innocent Israeli civilians by Hamas militants at the start of the negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not abandon the talks. Instead - after forcefully condemning the attack – he reached out to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas saying, 'You are my partner for peace. Peace begins with leaders.' We agree with the Prime Minister, and we also agree with you that it is critical that all sides stay at the table.”

But in foresight or retrospect, negotiations had little chance of overcoming the present obstacle without a change of strategy on Washington’s part. Obama even expects a deal within one year after every US initiative suffered delays. Direct talks would progress more efficiently if Washington, particularly Obama, stopped playing politics with Israel and the Palestinians and started mediating the crisis.

The imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, who consistently polls as Fatah’s most popular leader, accurately explained, "Obama's efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not succeeded up to now. If the US will continue to favor Israel without pressuring it to end the occupation and return to 1967 borders, peace efforts will fail.”

Barring a change in the environment, the risks are too great for Abbas to remain in direct negotiations with Netanyahu. However a premature withdrawal would cause new damage. The difference between Mondays could very well determine perceptions if direct talks do collapse. A reactionary move locks the Palestinians in Washington’s doghouse and Netanyahu’s trap to scapegoat Abbas, who in turn could jeopardize his consolidating European support.

Wait a week and the whole situation could reverse. Moderate Israeli elements may begin to feel the heat and apply pressure on Netanyahu to strike a compromise with the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s bravado must be quelled during the initial phase of negotiations for strategic purposes, but done right and he can be set up for a potential fall too. Lapsing the settlement “freeze” drew a soft warning from Washington, no small feat in itself.

"We are disappointed but we remain focused on our long-term objective and we will be talking to the parties about the implications of the Israeli decision," U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in New York.

The UN and EU, responding to their pro-Palestinian demographics, piled on similar concern. These channels have isolated Washington, leaving no choice but to defend the Palestinian side for once. And this trend stands to increase if Abbas remains open to compromise and Netanyahu stonewalls.

A week is also the least he could use to sort out Fatah and Hamas’s revived dialogue; Abbas is in no position to ignore a healthy number of Fatah officials opposed to direct talks with Israel. Smelling blood, Hamas has eagerly reciprocated to engaging the peace process on its terms. This may be idealistic thinking, but the Palestinians must realize what they can gain united compared to divided.
Were the two groups to reconcile their differences they would offer Abbas a unified front to pressure Israel and America into fairer terms.

Looking over the many pro-Palestinian champions, it would seem that none can necessarily move without the others. Palestinian unity represents the likeliest path to a true settlement freeze and favorable negotiating terms in general. Netanyahu can stand down Abbas or Hamas or Arab League, but what about all three at once?

September 27, 2010

Petraeus’s COIN Turns One-Sided

NATO’s cross-boarder raid into Pakistan can flip one of two ways, but they might lead to the same outcome. Despite Pakistan’s public protests, the possibility cannot be discounted that Washington and Islamabad secretly agree to hot-pursuit operations into Pakistani territory. Both governments have played their part for several years while US drones bombarded Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), denouncing and denying in synchrony.

NATO has also conducted helicopter raids in the past, notably at Angoor Ada.

Conversely, NATO’s actions have begun to give the impression that no such agreement exists on hot-pursuit. In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan initially argued, "Our forces have the right of self-defense. They were being attacked, and they responded."

Pakistan’s Foreign Office countered, “These incidents are a clear violation of the UN mandate under which ISAF operates. The mandate ‘terminates’ at the Afghan border. There are no agreed ‘hot pursuit’ rules. Any impression to the contrary is factually incorrect. Such violations are unacceptable.”

Pakistani military sources then informed The Dawn that Pentagon officials had backtracked on the helicopters’ location, and were now working to establish that they stayed within Afghanistan. Coordinating a day’s rhetoric would be no challenge in the information age. Then again, the stark distinction between explanations suggests that Washington realized it literally crossed too far over what Islamabad publicly labels “the red line.”

Three individual raids occurred in total. The first strike occurred after insurgents moved in from Pakistan to attack outpost Narizah in Khost province, home turf of the Haqqani network. Afghan forces requested NATO air-support, and two helicopters quickly located and eliminated what NATO described as 60 of Haqqanis’ troops. A second strike killed four insurgents after the helicopters returned to the border and took small arms fire, while a third strike targeted another 10.

Two drone strikes were carried out in North Waziristan around the same time as NATO’s helicopter raid. A good day for NATO forces - in a conventional war. But are the risks justified in a counterinsurgency?

US General David Petraeus, commander of all foreign forces in Afghanistan, seemed to think so; the alleged COIN master spoke in strictly conventional terms when addressing the media. Describing the fight as NATO “being out in front of the enemy,” this small battle appears to a case of catching guerrillas in the open. Throughout history counterinsurgents have searched for elusive large-scale battles against insurgents, often to no avail, and Afghanistan is no different from Vietnam.

"They were trying to infiltrate from Pakistan into Afghanistan in Khost, and attacked two Afghan border police posts, and ISAF forces responded and caught those out in the open there," Petraeus said.

But in the White House’s case it must hope more exists to Petraeus’s explanation. It’s unlikely that a significant Haqqani commander would attack a border outpost, so the best news would be that NATO helicopters avoided Pakistani air-space. Yet these odds also appear low after Pakistani military officials confirmed the violation. And so we’re left to wonder what Petraeus gained by approving a cross-boarder raid other than 70 militant bodies and an infuriated Pakistan.

Sacrificing the military for the political is the essence of counterinsurgency, otherwise tactical victory can descend into strategic failure.

If one must pick between two evils, a predetermined arrangement offers a modest opportunity for damage control. At least government and military relations would remain normal. Yet a secret agreement between Washington and Islamabad, essentially with its military, has already agitated Pakistan’s political opposition, further clogging Pakistan’s parliament. Even the ruling PPP, far too close to Washington for many Pakistanis’ taste, threatened that soldiers may return fire in the event of another raid.

As usual Pakistan’s media also took its gloves off to handle America, influencing the final and most critical audience - the Pakistani people. Reacting partially to their leaders and media, these organs primarily react to how they feel. Though Pakistani public opinion hasn’t totally halted US military operations, they have significantly reduced the level of activity and, were the majority of Pakistanis friendly, sizable US forces would have entered the FATA by now.

Option B - that Islamabad sincerely disallows hot-pursuit - suffers from the same problems with one obvious exception. Pakistan’s military has grown used to taking flak from its people whenever the latest US controversy explodes. This doesn’t mean they like to, and this bombshell could be bigger than normal.

Failing to protect Pakitani’s sovereignty embarrasses the military in front of its own people.

Given the many political risks in Pakistan, it’s hard to understand what benefit could outweigh the damage already dealt. Especially odd is that Petraeus's daily report to journalists covered ongoing negotiations with the Taliban, a distinct counterinsurgency choice of politics over military. But the barrage of US military activity in Haqqani’s North Waziristan sanctuary, which borders Khost, is designed to eliminate its political ties with Pakistan.

Petraeus appears to have committed a counterinsurgency error. Though US officials claim that Sirajuddin and his father Jalaluddin, a legendary CIA-supported mujahideen, represent a main threat to US troops in Afghanistan, they shouldn’t underestimate how deep the Haqqanis’ ties run with Islamabad’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Severing them may be impossible, and counterproductive if possible.

Equally important to recognize is that Pakistan’s people, largely off limits to the Haqqani network, don’t possess the same hatred that they do for the home-grown Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Despite their own cross-border ties, Pakistanis generally view the Haqqanis as Afghan nationalists rather than a threat, and are unlikely to sympathize with US forces who they feel shouldn’t be in Afghanistan to begin with.

So does Petraeus know something that we don’t? Did he feel that he could cancel a bad deed with a good deed? Or did he simply make the wrong decision - and how wide will the damage actually spread?

US, al-Shabab Enter Propaganda Battle

This Associated Press report indicates a slow information flow. Two NATO helicopters have just raided Pakistan’s border, yet US Special Forces denied responsibility for an unclaimed helicopter attack on Somalia’s coast. Denial often means a confession in the political world - as if Special Forces would own up to their operations.

Any big announcement will come from Washington. If it comes:

U.S. military officials and the European Union Naval Force denied on Monday that one of their helicopters was involved in an exchange of fire reported by residents of a coastal town in Somalia.

Residents of the coastal town of Merca, about 50 miles (70 kilometers) southwest of Mogadishu, said a military helicopter flew over the town on Sunday and that militants fired on it. Some residents said the helicopter fired back but caused no major damage.

But no one seems to know who the helicopter belongs to.

The U.S. military's Special Operations Command Africa and its conventional counterpart, U.S. Africa Command, said they had no involvement, as did a spokesman for the EU Naval Force, an anti-piracy unit that has military forces off the east coast of Somalia.

"I can tell you we don't have any troops in that vicinity at all. We are surprised as you to be honest," said Maj. Bryan Purtell, the spokesman for the Germany-based Special Operations Command Africa.

The EU NavFor spokesman, Lt. Col. Per Klingvall, said: "We're not operating on the Somali coast. We're just operating out on the waters."

Merca resident Dahi Aden said that a military helicopter flew over the coastal town and that militants from al-Shabab — the country's most powerful insurgent group — fired on the aircraft. Aden said it did not respond.

However, a second resident, Abdullahi Qalirow, said the helicopter fired back.

"Once the insurgents fired at the helicopters, they immediately responded with machine gun fire," said Qalirow, who said their were at least two helicopters, though others reported only one. "After the incident, al-Shabab militants sealed off the entire area and prevented civilians from moving around, creating a rumor that something hit there."

Somali Minister of Information Abdirahman Omar Osman declined to immediately comment.

Last September U.S. commandos on helicopters strafed a convoy carrying top al-Qaida fugitive Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in rural southern Somalia, rappelled to the ground, collected his body and another corpse and took off. Nabhan was wanted for the 2002 car bombing of a beach resort in Kenya and an attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner.

Somalia hasn't had a fully functioning government in almost 20 years. Al-Shabab — a militant group with ties to al-Qaida — has grown in power in recent years and now controls much of the southern part of the country, where Merca is located.
For its part al-Shabab claims to have driven off the helicopter and that no senior officials were killed. We may not hear much more from Western officials if this is true.

September 26, 2010

Waiting For Merca's Dust to Settle

No conclusion on Somalia’s helicopter attack can be verified until more information becomes available, but certain assumptions must be made since this information may not be offered freely. According to witnesses, a helicopter gun-ship launched from a war ship descended on the southern port of Merca, a sizable city in al-Shabab territory.

Unmarked as far as witnesses could see, the helicopter destroyed a house where al-Qaeda operatives were supposedly meeting. al-Shabab returned fire before quarantining the town’s cell phones and closing local businesses.

Even in their shadowy form these events leave few suspects to chose from. Only America has the capabilities and motive to launch such an attack, and a new raid was a matter of time. Every media report of the incident seems to have mentioned Saleh Ali Nabhan, Al Qaeda’s chief operative in Somalia, who was killed last year by a helicopter of Navy Seals in the southern town of Barawe.

As high-risk attacks normally entail, a potentially high-level target may be released sometime soon. The secret’s probably out in Mogadishu, and it won’t be long before a journalist catches wind. If big enough Washington may preempt their glory.

But unless multiple, high-ranking al-Qaeda operatives were eliminated in the attack, today is unlikely to strategically alter Somalia’s conflict. Knocking out single al-Qaeda agents, even senior commanders, has proven relatively futile in many of its theaters. Nabhan, who participated in the 1998 US embassy bombings, was quickly replaced by Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, another suspect in the bombings.

And al-Shabab captured significant territory following Nabhan’s death, including large sections of Mogadishu. Counter-terrorism cannot spare a foreign military, be it African or Western, from counterinsurgency in Somalia.

The upside for Washington is that no civilians have been reported killed, yet, and militants seem to have been the only people in the area. Another thing is obvious - US Special Forces do their job well. And though this temporary measure is designed to buy time, it might signal a wider ground offensive by the African Union (AU) in the coming months.

However, we must see who and how many al-Qaeda agents Washington caught sleeping before a real analysis of today’s implications.

Quote of the Day

"They're having serious discussions. They ought to keep on having those discussions, and we are very eager to see that happen."

- David Axelrod, White House Chief of Staff, playing down the expiration of Israel's settlement "freeze" in the West Bank

Globalizing Kashmir's Intifada

India’s all-party delegation may have thought the worst case scenario was leaving empty-handed, but they returned to New Delhi with additional weight on their backs. Shadowing India’s political division, Home Minister P Chidambaram possessed no unity when he hit Kashmir's streets last Monday to greet some 800 people. And though India restrained its army after several days of bloody intervention, Kashmiris continued to suffer injury and death as they defied the remaining patchwork of curfews.

Surrounded in a hostile environment, Chidambaram repeatedly fell back on the line, “I’m only hear to listen.” And listen he did.

Protesters hounded Chidambaram’s every stop, chanting pro-Kashmir slogans and demanding to know how he feels when security forces kill innocent Kashmiris. Indian officials all the way up to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have publicly sympathized with Kashmiris’ pain while overseeing their suppression, a natural irritant. Reports indicate that Chidambaram fell silent numerous times.

While Kashmir’s “Quit India” movement for self-determination runs like an oiled machine, one disaster after another flows from New Delhi’s response to the crisis in Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir. India believed the status quo could be preserved when a relatively peaceful 2008 election overcame a separatist boycott and installed Omar Abdullah, chief of the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, as state minister. A sense of normality returned the territory.

But the environment gradually reverted to its natural state as economic hopes faded and draconian Indian laws remained.

Underestimation ripened the conditions for Kashmir’s most comprehensive protests in years, and New Delhi had little idea, if any, of the power stored in the “Green Calendar.” Released in June by the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), Kashmir’s separatist umbrella, the schedule functions as a alarm clock for the masses who strike and protest on command. India's political and military systems were both overwhelmed. Instead of identifying that Kashmir’s movement operates independently of Pakistan and rationally address the situation with urgency, India reacted with suffocating curfews and indiscriminate fire on protesters, many below 18.

Three months of accelerated unrest following 17 year-old Tufail Ahmad Mattoo's death have once more exposed the fragile state of New Delhi’s policy towards Kashmir. Even now India continues to defend its actions, but deploying Home Minister P Chidambaram was the latest sign that its policy hangs on life-support.

Given the jumbled nature of India’s parliament, that its latest move descended into a similar tug-of-war came as no surprise. Kashmiris’ reception of the all-party delegation merely served to increase the pressure on New Delhi’s decision-making process, not bring the two sides closer. Though Chidambaram may have meant well, the situation demanded more action than listening when India already knows Muslim Kashmiris' demands - self-determination and employment. And not one without the other.

India still isn’t prepared to accept this reality.

New Delhi politicians wasted no time in criticizing the all-party delegation for attempting to meet with Hurriyat leaders Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, Yasin Malik, and Syed Ali Shah Geelani; Farooq and Geelani had rejected their invitation. Officials within the delegation responded that their meetings were approved by the government, but the basic act of negotiating with Kashmiri leaders, India’s only political option, remains a borderline taboo.

Many Indian officials believe Kashmiris should restore order before negotiations, even though the point of the latter’s disorder is to force negotiations on their terms.

Rumors also swirl around the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which grants Indian security forces extensive freedom and shields them from potential punishment. But whether the act is repealed in full, partially lifted from calmer areas, or amended, Indian officials have indicated that, even if watered down, the AFSPA will remain an essential instrument of Indian policy in Kashmir. The same goes for upwards of 600,000 security personnel operating in the territory.

This mindset continues to treat Kashmir’s movement as terroristic rather than a civil disobedience campaign, tactics that occupy separate areas on the spectrum of fourth-generation warfare. Though terrorism has proven effective in destroying the enemy’s political will to fight, civil disobedience presents a superior option for waging a liberation campaign. Cracking down on terrorism is easy compared to quelling mass demonstrations, as India has experienced and should know more about than its actions demonstrate.

Yet India resists major changes to its policy for a simple reason - the fundamentals remain unchanged. Acknowledging Kashmir as a territorial dispute and granting Muslim Kashmiris self-determination remains out of the question for moderate and conservative Indian elements. And they make life hard for those who dare speak the dreaded words of “autonomy” or “independence."

Unimpressed with the delegation's words or actions and aware that it lacked New Delhi’s support, the whole episode left Kashmiri leaders all the more jaded of Indian rule. Farooq and Geelani quickly appealed the international community to “urgently intervene,” and, “stop the use of brutal force and suppression against the people of Kashmir and to address the issue politically.” Geelani’s latest round of protests are scheduled to end with a march on the UN’s office in Srinagar, regional capital of Jammu and Kashmir.

"The Indian government is making no serious attempt to address the (Kashmir) issue,” Farooq wrote in a letter delivered to the US, British, German, French, Canadian, Chinese, Iranian, and Saudi Arabian embassies in New Delhi. “They are not in any serious manner even acknowledging our suffering, but continue to use more and more force and structured repression to suppress our movement... The entire population of Kashmir valley is being subjected to collective punishment for pursuing their just cause for the resolution of Kashmir issue.”

Except they face a strategic dilemma.

While Indian politics lie in disarray, its strongest area happens to be Kashmir’s main deficiency. New Delhi’s vast domestic media, connections to Western governments and organizations, and comfy US media blanket have limited coverage of Kashmir’s struggle in the West, reducing India's urgency and incentive to act. The list of reasons goes on why Kashmir’s dispute requires international mediation. A destabilizing force in its own right, Kashmir is visibly linked by Pakistan's stability and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) to the US war in Afghanistan.

Yet the moral imperative has become even more twisted. Imagine the uproar in the UN and international media if India was Israel, if over 100 dead Kashmiri protesters and innocents were Palestinians. Consider the international crisis that was the Freedom flotilla. Aiding the Palestinians and abandoning Muslim Kashmiris in their quest for independence represents world justice at its most perverse.

US officials aren’t oblivious to Kashmir’s events, their silence tells all. Ignoring Farooq’s mayday throughout the week, President Barack Obama culminated US policy by simultaneously championing human rights and shunning Kashmiris’ independence movement. Obama finished his speech to the UN General Assembly without uttering the word “Kashmir,” although not before praising India, "which peacefully threw off colonialism and established a thriving democracy of over a billion people.”

Meanwhile UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon issued a remark “regretting the loss of life” only after being cornered by reporters on his “no comment” position. Ki-Moon released a similar statement in early August that, upon Indian criticism, was withdrawn under the excuse of being a media advisory and not an official statement.

The disproportionate media gap between India and Kashmir has come to mirror their battle in the streets. Currently Muslim Kashmiris only enjoy Pakistani support; the dispute never resonated with Muslims or the international media like a free Palestine. On Tuesday, as India’s delegation left the valley and Farooq issued his international call, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani deemed Kashmir as Pakistan’s “core issue.”

In town for the UN General Assembly, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi later implored the Council on Foreign Relations to halt Indian “oppression” in Kashmir.

"The occupation cannot continue,” he argued. “The rights of the Kashmiri people cannot continue to be denied. We call upon the United States particularly, which is pressing so responsibly for peace in the Middle East, to also invest its political capital in trying to help seek an accommodation on Kashmir. Such an accommodation would not only be just for the people of Kashmir but would be critical for peace in the region.”

Pakistan’s unheeded distress call once more highlighted Washington and the UN’s intentional blindness. S M Krishna, India's External Affairs Minister, promptly responded, “Kashmir is an internal matter of India,” while presenting an upbeat account of the all-party delegation. No one bothered to correct him.

It’s admittedly hard for Kashmiris to spread their message when numerous leaders periodically suffer house arrest. Indian security forces obstruct, harass, and beat journalists, while local media sources are gagged by cutting their electricity. Penetrating the US media’s curfew on Kashmir is equally daunting so long as India remains vital to US policy in Asia, particularly China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. And Kashmiri leaders are trying to seize the world’s attention at an inopportune time, with UN side-meetings gripped by Israel, Palestine, Iran, and Sudan.

Consequently, Kashmiris must alter this strategic balance to have any hope of pushing the issue to an international tipping point.
A lone government won’t generate the necessary international light, nor will a growing collection of sympathetic Muslim states, although these may supply the initial thrust for a wider assault. The Palestinians eventually turned the tables on Israel during the First Intifada by transforming it into a murderous occupier, but only after six tireless years of mass demonstration and media campaigning reversed their shady image as "terrorists."

They never would have produced the desired effect without a vigorous media presence.

In fact, the Palestinians induce many of their strategic gains against Israel through their heightened media exposure, and only through a massive shift in public awareness will Kashmiris succeed in their struggle. Kashmiri leaders are shouting West, but they must amplify their message by infiltrating the Western media. Propaganda must sprout from the grass roots level and bloom across the world, seeded by sympathetic officials, journalists, and academics who can lead the charge. From there Kashmir's dispute will reverberate internationally.

To be fair, solving multiple conflicts exceeds the abilities of America and the international community. That’s why Kashmiris are wise to depend on themselves. If the West leaves Kashmir in India’s hands and New Delhi remains divided, no one is left to control Kashmir’s future except Kashmiris. New protests will yield perpetual violence, an unsustainable cycle that digs India into a deepening hole. At some point the international community will cave, be it in five months or five years.

Though India has promised “concessions” and a dialogue in the next week, its options have been significantly reduced by past miscalculation. The “hard reality” as Geelani says, is that Kashmir’s status quo is coming to an end, and Muslim Kashmiris would “rather die” than “surrender” to India.

And if the West doesn’t want to hear about their struggle for self-determination, Kashmiris must make themselves heard.

September 25, 2010

Quotes of the Day

"Our demands for the cessation of settlement activities, the lifting of the siege (of Gaza) and an end to all other illegal Israel policies and practices do not constitute arbitrary preconditions in the peace process."

- Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas

"If Israel fails in its commitment to continue freezing its settlement activities, then it would expose the negotiation process to collapse and it will shoulder the full responsibility before the regional and world public opinion, as well as the American sponsor for wasting this valuable opportunity which was made possible by a major American effort."

- Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit

"Our policy now is to resume a natural pace of building.

- Naftali Bennett, director-general of YESHA, a settler bloc of municipal councils in the West Bank and Gaza

Direct Talks Suffer Confidence Crisis

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Not “Peace talks in jeopardy, Clinton and Abbas meet” again. Not this time, they told us. Launched in the face of overwhelming doubt, direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians (filtered through US mediation) earned their prejudices over the last month.

"It is a pretty intense set of negotiations going on right now with the Israelis and the Palestinians," said Jeffrey Feltman, assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs. "We know that time is short. This is an important issue."

But while US officials may hold a compromise in their hands come Sunday morning, they must realize during the next 24 hour blur that Israeli settlements have outgrown their block.

The purpose of halting settlement activity in Palestinian territory isn’t the act in itself. Having suffered so many hardships under Israeli occupation, the Palestinians occupy the disadvantage going into direct talks. Instituting a settlement freeze was supposed to level the playing field and restore confidence in the peace process, yet neither objective seems to have been accomplished. As Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev explained, "We were very up front. We always said the freeze was about new construction, and in that case it has been full."

According to the Associated Press
, which compiled records for the deadline, “housing starts in West Bank settlements dropped to zero in the first quarter of 2010 compared with 342 in the year-earlier period, according to government data. 2,517 housing units were still listed as under construction.” But the AP also notes, “those figures do not include illegal construction or mobile homes, both of which are common.”

"The freeze is meaningful only if it is extended," said Hagit Ofran, who tracks settlements for Israeli watchdog Peace Now. "If they are going to approve new buildings, all this will have meant is that a few projects were delayed."

Peace Now claims that 450 units have actually begun construction.

Though US President Barack Obama has lavished Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “freeze” for “improving the atmosphere for talks,” the Palestinians’ late resistance indicates that they aren’t so impressed. And the Palestinian people have their leaders’ backs. A September poll by An Najah University in the West Bank city of Nablus found 58% back direct negotiations, an unstable figure in itself that drops to 15% without an extension.

The good news is that some consensus believes an extension would “significantly” impact the ground. The bad news is that enforcement can’t be guaranteed, especially as Israeli settlers become more active in self-organization. Washington could walk away with a three or six month freeze and still impress upon the Palestinians that Israel holds the upper hand in the West Bank and in negotiations. Little confidence would be built going into refugees and Jerusalem, issues that will ultimately dwarf the melee over settlements.

The current showdown makes Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly that much more disturbing, although it fell perfectly in line with his pro-Israeli stance. The Palestinians cheered as Obama preached for their state, enthusiasm that appears more a product of historic US neglect than hope in future mediation. President Mahmoud Abbas didn’t have much to applaud once the speech finished in Israel’s corner.

Failing to make the same promise for a Palestinian state, Obama declared, “It should be clear to all that efforts to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy will only be met by the unshakable opposition of the United States.” And when he concluded, “The slaughter of innocent Israelis is not resistance - it’s injustice,” the reverse scenario received no such attention.

Obama made no mention of Gaza, not even after the UN found that Israeli soldiers aboard the Freedom flotilla committed “disproportionate,” “willful killing.”

Though these events inspire plenty of confidence in Israel, the Palestinians can’t possibly hold the same view. The key isn’t extending the “freeze,” but building confidence that direct negotiations won’t collapse in the future. Netanyahu’s hardball has only scored points on the Israeli right, putting everyone else - Israeli moderates, Washington, and the Palestinians - in the hole. And Obama is having a hard time digging America out.

Surely this must be a factor in Fatah and Hamas holding new discussions on reconciliation.

The Palestinians have no choice but to walk without any sort of extension. Give them any rope, in this case a partial three-month extension, and they’re likely to grab on with no other option in sight. But to truly restore the Palestinians’ confidence in Netanyahu, who enjoys no trust in the Arab world, Washington should recognize the benefits of a total three or six-month extension, invigorate the wary Palestinians, resolve the border dispute, unlock the settlement issue, and conserve every ounce of momentum for the final challenges ahead.

Otherwise Obama and Clinton could find themselves trapped in a perpetual 11th hour throughout the “non-cynical,” one-year deadline Obama imposed on the conflict. Doubtful that any two-state solution can arise from these conditions, let alone a stable one.

September 24, 2010

Massive Fraud Emerging in Afghan Vote

This New York Times report should sit well with its pro-war editorial board:

KABUL, Afghanistan — Evidence is mounting that fraud in last weekend’s parliamentary election was so widespread that it could affect the results in a third of provinces, calling into question the credibility of a vote that was an important test of the American and Afghan effort to build a stable and legitimate government.

The complaints to provincial election commissions have so far included video clips showing ballot stuffing; the strong-arming of election officials by candidates’ agents; and even the handcuffing and detention of election workers.

In some places, election officials themselves are alleged to have carried out the fraud; in others, government employees did, witnesses said. One video showed election officials and a candidate’s representatives haggling over the price of votes.

Many of the complaints have come from candidates and election officials, but were supported by Afghan and international election observers and diplomats. The fraud appeared to cut both for and against the government of President Hamid Karzai, much of it benefiting sometimes unsavory local power brokers.

But in the important southern province of Kandahar, where election officials threw out 76 percent of the ballots in last year’s badly tainted presidential election, candidates accused the president’s influential half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, of drawing up a list of winners even before the Sept. 18 election for Parliament was carried out.

“From an overall democracy-building perspective it does not look rosy,” said one diplomat who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.

The widespread tampering and bare-knuckle tactics of some candidates raised serious questions about the effort to build a credible government that can draw the support of Afghans and the Obama administration and its NATO partners as they re-evaluate their commitment to the war.
American and international diplomats kept their distance from the tide of candidate complaints this week, and NATO and American Embassy officials said little other than that the election was an Afghan process and that it was the Afghans who were responsible for its outcome.

But a less than credible parliamentary election, following last year’s tarnished presidential vote, would place international forces in the increasingly awkward position of defending a government of waning legitimacy, and diplomats acknowledged that it could undermine efforts to persuade countries to maintain their financing and troop levels.

The Election Complaints Commission said Thursday that it had received more than 3,000 complaints since last Saturday’s election. So far they have registered case files on nearly 1,800 of those complaints — 58 percent of which were considered serious enough to affect the outcome of the balloting. That may change in the course of investigations but that preliminary figure is high, election monitors said.

The complaints are not evenly distributed and were markedly worse in 13 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. In those 13, at least half the complaints were deemed to be high priority — forecasting bitter fights over the outcome.

In addition, complaints in four provinces — Kandahar, Nuristan, Zabul and Paktika — have yet to be categorized, but fraud is expected to be extensive and has already been widely reported.

“That preliminary figure is bad,” said a knowledgeable international observer.

Many analysts predicted there would be serious fraud in the unstable Pashtun belt, in the south of the country, an important base for both the Taliban insurgents and President Karzai. But serious complaints were also coming from provinces in the north and west.

Interviews by The New York Times in 10 provinces and discussions with election monitors elsewhere found a resurgence of local strongmen with armed backers who coerced and threatened voters, and the involvement of local government employees in ballot stuffing.
“In general the election has been a free for all, in that different power blocs were putting forward their candidates in different places,” said an international official who has been following the elections.

“It’s not necessarily the pro-Karzai bloc that has done so well, it’s that the Parliament will be more dependent on big power brokers,” the official said, adding that they would be more likely to make deals with Mr. Karzai that did not necessarily serve the Afghan people.

Lawmakers and opposition candidates openly accused the Karzais, and in particular Ahmed Wali Karzai, the most powerful official in Kandahar, of fixing the election for a list of favored candidates.

“Of the list of 50, it is already decided who will come” to Parliament, said Izzatullah Wasefi, an opposition candidate from Kandahar.

Nur ul-Haq Uloomi, a member of Parliament who won the largest vote from Kandahar in 2005, and has since become an outspoken critic of the corruption and inefficiency of the Karzai government, accused Ahmed Wali Karzai of manipulating the vote to deny him another term.
He said he had sent one of his campaign managers to the chairman of the Independent Election Commission, Fazal Ahmad Manawi, in Kabul to warn of potential fraud before the election, but he was rebuffed.

“Mr. Manawi said: ‘We can do nothing about Kandahar because he is the brother of Karzai,’ ” Mr. Uloomi recounted. “It is a kind of preparation for fraud.”

Mr. Manawi was too busy to take individual calls last week, his spokesman said.

In one Kandahar border district, Abdul Karim Achakzai, an independent candidate from Spinboldak, said three groups of election workers were handcuffed and detained for the entire day of the election by border police officers and prevented from conducting the vote in the Maruf district.

In the evening the polling papers with the results were brought to them to sign, but they refused. They were freed the next day after promising not to complain, he said.

Mr. Achakzai accused the provincial head of the border guards, Abdul Razziq, an ally of Ahmed Wali Karzai, of orchestrating the detention. Mr. Razziq, who has influence in several border districts, was also accused of ballot-stuffing and intimidation in favor of President Karzai in the 2009 election, according to election observers.

A cellphone video from an adjoining district showed men ticking dozens of ballots in favor of certain candidates. The video, which was recorded surreptitiously by a candidate’s agent, also captured a candidate’s representatives and election officials inside a polling station haggling over the price of votes.

“You will get as many votes as you asked, just pay 72,000 Afghanis ($1,500),” said the election official, who identified himself as the head of the polling center.

In the northern province of Takhar, several witnesses described gunmen threatening election workers and dragging voters to polling stations to vote for their candidate, Adbul Baqi. The abuse happened in Farkhar district, according to one witness, Hassibullah, 35.

“Mr. Baqi and his gunmen were slapping and pulling people to the ballot boxes to vote for him,” he said. “He is a very cruel man.” After that, he added, they went to the women’s section of the polling station and forced the female employees of the Independent Election Commission to put more than 200 votes in their ballot box.

Abdul Haq, 50, another voter in Farkhar district, said that when he asked the security guards to stop beating people, one of them attacked him with a knife. “The candidate himself is a good man and people do like him but his dogs around him are not good,” he said.

Abdul Baqi could not be reach by phone for comment. The Independent Election Commission official for the district, Engineer Kebir, said that the supporters of the candidate “did make some disturbances and violent acts and were threatening each other.” But, he insisted, “They did not disrupt the election process.”

The Obama administration's "no major changes" policy can't be repeated enough. According to Reuters, "Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, both expressed confidence in the strategy unveiled by Obama a year ago, which included a 30,000 troop 'surge.'

'I have not gotten a sense from my conversations with people that any basic decisions or basic changes are likely to occur,' Gates told reporters at the Pentagon. 'I suspect that we will find some areas where we can make some adjustments and tweaks to try and enhance what's going on now.'

Mullen, sitting beside Gates at the media event, chimed in, saying: 'I think you have it exactly right. There certainly could be some adjustments, but we think the strategy is sound.'"

September 23, 2010

Ahmadinejad Speaks Babbling Truth

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has a unique way of making it hard to agree with him.

The Iranian president graced the UN stage today and raised several valid areas of injustice: the Western imbalance towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the disproportionate death-toll between 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And with US President Barack Obama highlighting progress in these theaters amid a flood of doubt, then admonishing the Palestinians while keeping silent on Israel’s behavior, Ahmadinejad had the West aligned in his sights.

Then, somewhere between defending Iran’s nuclear program, Ahmadinejad accused elements in the US government of orchestrating 9/11 to save “the Zionist regime.” US, EU, and allied officials staged a premeditated walkout, and the media predictably devolved into Ahmadinejad’s rant.

US officials correctly observed that his time would have been better spent addressing and expressing the will and needs of the Iranian people to the international community. Fortunately for them Ahmadinejad didn’t address Palestine and Afghanistan with any real design either. He had ample material from next door as Afghanistan’s parliamentary election steams toward a messy outcome and US generals evaporate Obama’s July 2011 deadline. He could have simply read the latest Associated Press report indicating that Israeli settlement construction hasn't been “significantly reduced,” as Obama and Israeli officials claim.

Instead Ahmadinejad skewered his own red herring, distracting his audience rather than forcing them to confront the ugly reality that America still faces in the Middle East. His 9/11 conspiracy even drowned out what could have been a sensible argument that, as Ahmadinejad alluded to, many Americans and non-Americans find the entirety of 9/11 suspicious.

“The majority of the American people as well as other nations and politicians,” don’t see 9/11 as a Zionist plot, as Ahmadinejad apparently believes. On the other hand, given its exploitation in justifying Afghanistan, Iraq, and a seemingly endless “Global War on Terror,” many do believe 9/11 has sanctioned potentially illegal wars and operations. Afterward PJ Crowley, a spokesman for the US State Department, denounced Ahmadinejad’s speech as "totally outrageous."

"[Those killed in the attacks] were people of all faiths, all nationalities. They were killed by 19 people, a plot perpetrated by al-Qaeda," he said. "We know who did it and they have admitted who did it. This idea that nine years later there is still some debate about who did it and why is outrageous."

But the main conspiracies don’t revolve around who did it - rather who in Washington allowed it to happen and why. Ahmadinejad should have concentrated his energy here to avoid a US/EU walkout while accurately framing the conspiracy. Ask why years of intelligence were ignored or suppressed in the run-up to 9/11, both on al-Qaeda in general and its plotters. Raise the very awkward question of why US military jets, which normally deploy with unshakable swiftness, were nowhere to be found during the events of 9/11. Explain how al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden had become a burden for the Taliban, who attempted to unload him in the moments before and after 9/11.

And forget Israel for once. Obama had dealt more damage with his one-sided address to the UN than Ahmadinejad is capable of.

The power of rhetoric proved itself today. Wrapped in an optimistic glow and once again rejecting his favorite punching bags - skeptics and cynics - Obama declared the time ripe for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. That many are skeptical of Washington’s mediation, not just Israeli or Palestinian leadership, went unmentioned in the US media, as did Obama’s imposed, one-year deadline for his own political agenda.

He also expended one line on Iraq, which still lacks a government, and another on Afghanistan, where US forces are, “pursuing a strategy to break the Taliban’s momentum and build the capacity of Afghanistan’s government and security forces.” And as we will get to shortly, Obama "accidentally" left the word Kashmir while championing for human rights.

Ahmadinejad, conversely, scarred reality with his own distortions and turned himself into an international mockery. Truth can be hidden by beauty and grime. A typical day at the UN though - more bark than bite.

September 22, 2010

Afghan Election Drags Down US Strategy

Afghanistan’s Election Commission will release preliminary figures of last Saturday's parliamentary election on Thursday. Here are some quick numbers:
  • About 4.3 million ballots were cast in Saturday's vote, or 25 % of the country's 17 million registered voters, for roughly 2,500 candidates.
  • An estimated 5 million ballots were cast in last year’s presidential election, after removing fraudulent ballots.
  • Afghan officials originally planned enough polling sites to accommodate 12 million voters, later trimmed to 11.4 million voters.
  • Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, the main “independent” observer of the election, received 1,496 complaints of fraud.
  • Over 60 Taliban attacks left 21 civilians and nine policemen dead. One Kabul-based research firm, Indicum Consulting, claims that Saturday’s vote was even more violent than last year’s presidential election, indicating a decrease in security.
With the full results expected around late October, many Afghan, US, and NATO officials are maneuvering for breathing room as public opinion continues to deflate. The West has once again hailed the courageous Afghan people for conducting an election during wartime, undoubtedly a feat if only these elections led to positive change in the country. But with President Hamid Karzai failing to improve the vast majority of Afghans’ lives since being re-elected, Afghanistan’s unstable electoral cycle has many questioning the viability of Western style democracy.

America’s strategy is sinking at the political and military level.

According to the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, “Observers complained that many anti-fraud measures did not work. Some people were able to wash off supposedly indelible ink used to mark fingers and therefore prevent multiple voting, while in some areas poll workers let people use fake registration cards and allowed children to vote.”

In truth Afghanistan's parliament is relatively weak and prone to factionalism, and thus unlikely to prove decisive in the war. Moderate danger arises from those politicians linked to Karzai and whether they receive any favoritism, but the main damage is being delivered through perceptions. One corrupt election after another doesn’t instill confidence in Afghanistan's government or its Western backers, leading to doubts on all fronts of the war.

"Holding" territory after "clearing" it is practically impossible without local and national political support.

Ultimately non-representation will kick in, further undermining attempts to stabilize the country. But the election is first and foremost a psychological obstacle for America, as it blocks political and military progress. Whatever the results - and fraud levels will be high - America and NATO must handle complaints with greater tact than last year’s presidential election, when the West was perceived by Karzai as meddling but by the rest of Afghanistan as his protector.

Perception is vital to insurgency and counterinsurgency alike. To let this election pass with a low standard with similarly passivity would reduce confidence across US strategy, especially in light of reports that President Barack Obama won’t be making any “major changes” in December.

And the Taliban’s version of reality could win out.

Bob Woodward Drops Afghan Bombshell

Courtesy of Woodward's own, The Washington Post:

"President Obama urgently looked for a way out of the war in Afghanistan last year, repeatedly pressing his top military advisers for an exit plan that they never gave him, according to secret meeting notes and documents cited in a new book by journalist Bob Woodward.

Frustrated with his military commanders for consistently offering only options that required significantly more troops, Obama finally crafted his own strategy, dictating a classified six-page "terms sheet" that sought to limit U.S. involvement, Woodward reports in "Obama's Wars," to be released on Monday.

According to Woodward's meeting-by-meeting, memo-by-memo account of the 2009 Afghan strategy review, the president avoided talk of victory as he described his objectives.

"This needs to be a plan about how we're going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan," Obama is quoted as telling White House aides as he laid out his reasons for adding 30,000 troops in a short-term escalation. "Everything we're doing has to be focused on how we're going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint. It's in our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room."

Obama rejected the military's request for 40,000 troops as part of an expansive mission that had no foreseeable end. "I'm not doing 10 years," he told Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a meeting on Oct. 26, 2009. "I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars."

Woodward's book portrays Obama and the White House as barraged by warnings about the threat of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and confronted with the difficulty in preventing them. During an interview with Woodward in July, the president said: "We can absorb a terrorist attack. We'll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever . . . we absorbed it and we are stronger."

But most of the book centers on the strategy review, and the dissension, distrust and infighting that consumed Obama's national security team as it was locked in a fierce and emotional struggle over the direction, goals, timetable, troop levels and the chances of success for a war that is almost certain to be one of the defining events of this presidency.

Obama is shown at odds with his uniformed military commanders, particularly Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command during the 2009 strategy review and now the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.

Woodward reveals their conflicts through detailed accounts of two dozen closed-door secret strategy sessions and nearly 40 private conversations between Obama and Cabinet officers, key aides and intelligence officials.

Tensions often turned personal. National security adviser James L. Jones privately referred to Obama's political aides as "the water bugs," the "Politburo," the "Mafia," or the "campaign set." Petraeus, who felt shut out by the new administration, told an aide that he considered the president's senior adviser David Axelrod to be "a complete spin doctor."

During a flight in May, after a glass of wine, Petraeus told his own staffers that the administration was "[expletive] with the wrong guy." Gates was tempted to walk out of an Oval Office meeting after being offended by comments made by deputy national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon about a general not named in the book.

Suspicion lingered among some from the 2008 presidential campaign as well. When Obama floated the idea of naming Clinton to a high-profile post, Axelrod asked him, "How could you trust Hillary?"

Obama's Wars" marks the 16th book by Woodward, 67, a Washington Post associate editor. Woodward's reporting with Carl Bernstein on the Watergate coverup in the early 1970s led to their bestselling book "All the President's Men."

Among the book's other disclosures:
  • Obama told Woodward in the July interview that he didn't think about the Afghan war in the "classic" terms of the United States winning or losing. "I think about it more in terms of: Do you successfully prosecute a strategy that results in the country being stronger rather than weaker at the end?" he said.
  • The CIA created, controls and pays for a clandestine 3,000-man paramilitary army of local Afghans, known as Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams. Woodward describes these teams as elite, well-trained units that conduct highly sensitive covert operations into Pakistan as part of a stepped-up campaign against al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban havens there.
  • Obama has kept in place or expanded 14 intelligence orders, known as findings, issued by his predecessor, George W. Bush. The orders provide the legal basis for the CIA's worldwide covert operations.
  • A new capability developed by the National Security Agency has dramatically increased the speed at which intercepted communications can be turned around into useful information for intelligence analysts and covert operators. "They talk, we listen. They move, we observe. Given the opportunity, we react operationally," then-Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell explained to Obama at a briefing two days after he was elected president.
  • A classified exercise in May showed that the government was woefully unprepared to deal with a nuclear terrorist attack in the United States. The scenario involved the detonation of a small, crude nuclear weapon in Indianapolis and the simultaneous threat of a second blast in Los Angeles. Obama, in the interview with Woodward, called a nuclear attack here "a potential game changer." He said: "When I go down the list of things I have to worry about all the time, that is at the top, because that's one where you can't afford any mistakes."
  • Afghan President Hamid Karzai was diagnosed as manic depressive, according to U.S. intelligence reports. "He's on his meds, he's off his meds," Woodward quotes U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry as saying.
'The cancer is in Pakistan'

Obama campaigned on a promise to extract U.S. forces from Iraq and focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan, which he described as the greater threat to American security. At McConnell's top-secret briefing for Obama, the intelligence chief told the president-elect that Pakistan is a dishonest partner, unwilling or unable to stop elements of the Pakistani intelligence service from giving clandestine aid, weapons and money to the Afghan Taliban, Woodward writes.

By the end of the 2009 strategy review, Woodward reports, Obama concluded that no mission in Afghanistan could be successful without attacking the al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban havens operating with impunity in Pakistan's remote tribal regions.

"We need to make clear to people that the cancer is in Pakistan," Obama is quoted as saying at an Oval Office meeting on Nov. 25, 2009. Creating a more secure Afghanistan is imperative, the president said, "so the cancer doesn't spread" there.

The war in Iraq draws no attention in the book, except as a reference point for considering and developing a new Afghanistan strategy. The book's title, "Obama's Wars," appears to refer to the conflict in Afghanistan and the conflicts among the president's national security team.

An older war - the Vietnam conflict - does figure prominently in the minds of Obama and his advisers. When Vice President Biden rushed to the White House on a Sunday morning to make one last appeal for a narrowly defined mission, he warned Obama that a major escalation would mean "we're locked into Vietnam."

Obama kept asking for "an exit plan" to go along with any further troop commitment and is shown growing increasingly frustrated with the military hierarchy for not providing one. At one strategy session, the president waved a memo from the Office of Management and Budget, which put a price tag of $889 billion over 10 years on the military's open-ended approach.

In the end, Obama essentially designed his own strategy for the 30,000 troops, which some aides considered a compromise between the military command's request for 40,000 and Biden's relentless efforts to limit the escalation to 20,000 as part of a "hybrid option" that he had developed with Gen. James E. Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In a dramatic scene at the White House on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2009, Obama summoned the national security team to outline his decision and distribute his six-page terms sheet. He went around the room, one by one, asking each participant whether he or she had any objections - to "say so now," Woodward reports.

The document - a copy of which is reprinted in the book, published by Simon & Schuster - took the unusual step of stating, along with the strategy's objectives, what the military was not supposed to do. The president went into detail, according to Woodward, to make sure that the military wouldn't attempt to expand the mission.

After Obama informed the military of his decision, Woodward writes, the Pentagon kept trying to reopen the decision, peppering the White House with new questions. Obama, in exasperation, reacted by asking, "Why do we keep having these meetings?"

Along with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan at the time, they kept pushing for their 40,000-troop option as part of a broad counterinsurgency plan along the lines of what Petraeus had developed for Iraq.

The president is quoted as telling Mullen, Petraeus and Gates: "In 2010, we will not be having a conversation about how to do more. I will not want to hear, 'We're doing fine, Mr. President, but we'd be better if we just do more.' We're not going to be having a conversation about how to change [the mission] . . . unless we're talking about how to draw down faster than anticipated in 2011."

Petraeus took Obama's decision personally, Woodward writes. Petraeus continued to believe that a "protect-the-Afghan-people" counterinsurgency was the best plan. When the president tapped Petraeus this year to replace McChrystal as the head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Petraeus found himself in charge of making Obama's more limited strategy a success.

Woodward quotes Petraeus as saying: "You have to recognize also that I don't think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. It's a little bit like Iraq, actually. . . . Yes, there has been enormous progress in Iraq. But there are still horrific attacks in Iraq, and you have to stay vigilant. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we're in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids' lives."

Obama has played politics with Afghanistan from the beginning and this is the result. If he truly wanted out of Afghanistan so badly, why promise escalation while campaigning for president? Because he might not have been elected. Obama has attempted to wage a counterinsurgency, by definition resource and time intensive, through personal politics. Woodward’s account leaves Obama's war credibility in even smaller pieces, and his knowledge of counterinsurgency appears sorely lacking.

We too believe the current US strategy in Afghanistan will inevitably fail and opposed a military buildup, but withdrawing in the manner that Obama privately wished for would create a strategic disaster of its own. A two year, minimum-scale counterinsurgency without nation-building, conducted in one of the world's least developed states, never existed, making it easy for US generals to outflank Obama.

And given that current US policy in Afghanistan is headed towards 10-year, “trillion dollar nation-building," which Obama supposedly opposed, Woodward has once more revealed who’s really in charge of America's foreign policy.

September 21, 2010

The Dark Side of US Policy in Yemen

US and Yemeni officials have staged show after show of unity since December 2009, when US air-strikes on several al-Qaeda targets internationally exposed the Obama administration’s policy. US counter-terrorism officials frequently visit Sana’a to reaffirm their support for Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, while Special Forces training is progressing. Why, then, if such coordination exists, is US-Yemen strategy so out of sync?

After drumming up Washington’s latest military package, an estimated 1.2$ billion in military hardware and training, Yemeni forces went and shelled a village that doubles as a safe haven for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Over 8,000 residents have evacuated. Ali Hassan al-Ahmadi, Shabwa’s provincial governor, vowed to eliminate the estimated 80-120 militants holed up Hawta, telling reporters, "The siege will remain until those elements hand themselves in and we manage to uproot terrorist groups from the region.”

The question is, will Yemeni forces spawn more militants than they kill?

It’s common knowledge that America and Yemen’s aligning military goals diverge at the political level. To actually win a counterinsurgency and shut down the factory of new al-Qaeda recruits, political freedoms must be protected and economic opportunities created. Saleh, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with retaining power amid a sea of disapproval and economic hardship - 40% unemployment mixed with oil and water shortages. Thus America’s strategy amounts to propping up a corrupt and heavy-handed regime.

This policy doesn’t qualify as counterinsurgency or even counter-terrorism, producing more insurgents at the local and international level and leaving both America and Yemen’s objectives unfulfilled.

But this isn’t the dark side. It’s one thing to escalate a war in silence, quite another to promise unity and democracy when division and totalitarianism are delivered. According to National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer, President Barack Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, forwarded a letter to Saleh from Obama “reiterating the United States' support for a unified, stable, democratic and prosperous Yemen.”

This is the true face of US policy in Yemen: a smile campaign hiding an ineffective strategy marked by a dark underbelly. Western officials beat the war drums (like MI5 director-general Jonathon Evans) and then sound a cautious note. The New York Times, who first reported Yemen’s arms deal, painted the impression of a “deeply divided” Washington, but this seems to be a ruse too.

Many US officials supposedly opposed a beefed-up military strategy, including previous Yemeni ambassador Stephen A. Seche, viewing it as overblown and potentially destabilizing. The State Department responded with an “alternative” that would tone down the military overtures and increase development aid, a wise decision only in the face of overwhelming militarism. One senior official seemingly spoke without knowledge of counterinsurgency when saying, “If we’re going to do this, we need to do it right, not dribble aid in and wonder why, if things worsen. It’s like a forest fire. You fight to put it out, not watch it.”

That kind of attitude - relying on military operations and overlooking the political pitfalls - fuels insurgencies.

But in either policy the bulk of funds will be directed towards military and logistics hardware. Both envision Yemeni forces hunting down al-Qaeda in what is often hostile territory, drastically underfund non-military programs that would reach the average Yemeni, and contain few political benchmarks for Saleh to meet, meaning aid is likely to be siphoned off anyway. General David Petraeus, having authored Yemen’s original directive while at Central Command (CENTCOM), enthusiastically backed the State Department's proposal because nothing significantly changed. And his reputation amongst the White House suggests that many officials agree with him.

US actions on the ground tell the real story. A large amount of hardware - helicopters, Hummers, and communications equipment - is supposedly due to restrictions placed on US air-strikes after an unsuccessful attack in May, when the deputy governor of Marib Province was killed while meeting an al-Qaeda operative. Political fallout from Saleh and Marib tribes allegedly shifted US strategy to more ground-oriented options, namely Special Forces training and supplying of Yemeni forces.

However, instead of collateral damage and civilian casualties, America must now promote Saleh’s oppression of the secessionist Southern Movement in the name of al-Qaeda. Divisions have only widened since US military activity increased. A massive arms deal between America and Saudi Arabia, part of which is designed for the Yemen border, also suggests that the northern Houthi tribe could meet a forceful response in the event of fresh conflict. If the alternative to errant and unpopular US air-strikes is supplying indiscriminate, unpopular sieges of towns and villages, Washington desperately needs a plan C.

Most telling, the White House plans to file legal charges against al-Qaeda cleric Anwar Al-Alwaki, a member the CIA's kill-list. Intended to satisfy those addressing the issue from a civil-liberties standpoint, killing al-Alwaki is the wrong counterinsurgency move regardless of its constitutional legality. Apprehension by Yemeni forces remains the only counterinsurgency option, as al-Alwaki’s tribe has vowed to declare war in the event of his execution. No one seems to be listening in Washington.

Among the many niceties in his letter, Obama appealed to the Yemeni people to, "overcome the threats that they face — they can build a future of greater peace and opportunity for their children." Yet Washington is one of those threats, continuing to lead with its military at the expense of Yemen's political, economic, and social realms. So long as US strategy remains dominated by military objectives and hitched to Saleh, Obama will enable an unsustainable cycle of repressing the Yemeni people and generating new al-Qaeda cells.

US officials should think again if they believe Yemenis can’t see America’s dark side - and why can’t they see it themselves?

Quote of the Day

“I don’t believe that under these circumstances international troops will do the job. We live in a very tough neighborhood and the peace will be tested constantly.”

- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, issuing a precondition for an Israeli military force on a future Palestine's border. His call comes amid reports that Washington has demanded that Palestinians stop attacking Netanyahu, who recently reaffirmed his intention not to extend Israel's settlement freeze in the West Bank.

Peering Through Somalia’s Fog of War

News out of Somalia requires a constant filter. On one side, al-Shabab regularly harasses journalists and shuts down media outlets after hauling off equipment for its own communications network. Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its African Union (AU) bodyguard have similarly resorted to propaganda, declaring progress against al-Shabab while pleading for more foreign troops and aid.

And though the TFG has portrayed al-Shabab’s Ramadan offensive as a failure, al-Shabab probably didn’t expect to actually fulfill its propaganda and topple the shaky government. Conversely, TFG and AU officials have promised a comprehensive assault for months that has yet to materialize, delayed by a lack of funds and al-Shabab’s advances.

Thus Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke warrants a healthy degree of skepticism after promising to open “a second front” against the group.

Some officials, be they TFG, AU, or UN, have begun pushing back against critisicm of the AMISOM mission. AU spokesman Major Ba-Hoku Barigye condemned “experts” that, “may have never set foot inside Somalia in the first place. Their theories are based on hearsay and lack of in-depth analysis, and board on the absurdity.” Bariqye is particularly upset at those who would deter the AU from sending additional forces to Somalia.

But with due respect to these authorities, their pattern of optimism has worn thin. Outside analysts may simply be searching for the conditions to effectively deploy foreign soldiers, given that no amount of force will bring stability to Somalia without a viable political framework.

It remains to be seen whether Sharmake can back up his threat when very real discrepancies plague the AU/UN narrative, both on the battlefield and inside the TFG. Somali troops receive no pay for months and have vented their anger by barging into parliament, shutting down Mogadishu streets in protest, and deserting to al-Shabab. Though they would make good fighters with the right training and support, TFG soldiers have been a non-factor in the AU’s operations.

As al-Shabab continued its assault into early September, AU officials began circulating information of seven new AU bases established over the last several months. The Associated Press oddly re-ran the story days ago. This information isn’t completely false, but isn’t completely true either coming from Ugandan officials with a personal stake in demonstrating progress. Ugandans make up 4,700 of the 7,100 AU troops in Mogadishu.

CNN would later report that three of the “new outposts” were set up near the presidential palace, Villa Somalia, which still suffers from attack. “When quizzed on this, commanders say their new positions are there to ‘secure’ the old ones.” Much of the capital remains contested ground.

With the AU building up its position in Mogadishu and the international media, a robust UN delegation landed in the capital and began making rounds with TFG officials. Lynn Pascoe, the U.N. under-secretary-general for political affairs, came away encouraged by the TFG’s progress, saying, “It is clear that Al-Shabaab has been pressing very hard in Mogadishu, but as I looked on the streets there were many more people on the streets and rehabilitation is going on."

Except roughly two-thirds of Mogadishu’s population has fled the capital to camps on its outskirts. The city is said to be emptier than ever, around 500,000 people, with the internally displaced speaking of a “hellish scene” wrought by Mogadishu’s most intense battle in recent memory.

Yet the potential destabilization resonating from the TFG trumps these military anomalies. Again the truth may lie somewhere between extremes. Perhaps the TFG isn’t as weak as advertised, but living up to the West’s praise is likely impossible.

"I do not want to sound overly optimistic and perfectly recognize all the difficulties that are there," Pascoe said. "But I also do not accept the statements, which I have seen repeatedly for the last three years, that everything is terrible and it is all falling apart. Yes, the government is weak. But the government is much more inclusive than it was before.”

Two weeks later and the UN, in conjunction with the AU and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), released a statement warning, “The current divisions between the leadership of Somalia's Transitional Federal Institutions (TFIs) are unhelpful and potentially very damaging.”

The TFG’s power-struggle may be the thickest and most dangerous bramble of all, revealed between periods of denial. Prime Minister Sharmake and President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed have openly feuded since Sharif’s unsuccessful attempt to expel Sharmake in May, resulting in numerous votes of confidence and a battle over Somalia’s new constitution. Sharmake recently passed another vote of confidence in parliament while Sharif condemned a constitutional drafting, supported by Sharmake and Parliament Speaker Sharif Hassan, as “illegal.”

Sharif then denied a quarrel with Sharmake, telling Somali parliament members, "Currently we experienced many misunderstandings inside our government, but there is no personal dispute between me and the Prime Minister or the Parliament Speaker. I am requesting everyone to do his work with good intentions."

The TFG is widely perceived as corrupt, an image reinforced by Sharif firing his top general, Mohamed Ghelle Kahiye, for misappropriating US-supplied weapons. Sharmake would later accuse several pro-Sharif officials of “unlawfully” speaking for him, and Sharif continues to demand his resignation. Good intentions or not, Sharif’s claim is unbelievable.

The story reaches its bottom, according to Somaliland Press, at Mogadishu’s airport. Though the veracity of the report is unknown, Sharmake is believed to have signed a business agreement with a United Arab Emirates corporation to renovate Mogadishu’s air and sea ports. The deal called for Sharmake to received several million dollars in advance, with the Somali government receiving 30% of revenue and the unspecified company keeping the remainder. Sharif, who wouldn’t receive any money upfront, supposedly discovered the plan and vowed to oust Sharmake once and for all. He started by blocking Sharmake’s constitutional drafting.

"What is happening in chaos, and we will not leave the government while the political chaos continues,” responded Sharmake, “but I will always accept parliament's decision if it comes through in a legal way.”

Although posing no immediate impact to AU operations, political division within the TFG is draining the life out of Somalia’s counterinsurgency. No ground can be effectively held by the AU without proper support from the central government. The possibility of Sharif removing Sharmake, or the other way around, could spark new divisions as each side attempts to dispose the other. Somehow their feud must be resolved, otherwise a wide-scale military campaign is pointless.

But assume for hypothetical purposes that the TFG launches an assault as planned. Many dangers lie in wait. First, a “second front” doesn’t appear to be a “spirit of the offensive,” but rather a reaction to al-Shabab. Having reached an impasse in Mogadishu, al-Shabab allegedly held a war council in early September to debate its future course of strategy. Not long after, Sunni militia Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama’a issued a high alert in Dhusamareb, the main town in the northern Galgadud region.

The city is also Ahlu Sunna’s main garrison before its headquarters in Abudwak.

The move has been interpreted as al-Shabab’s plan B. Having failed to capture all of Mogadishu, the group is seeking to divert the government’s attention while still mounting resistance in the capital. However, this may be part of al-Shabab’s original plan. Assuming that al-Shabab, rather than topple Villa Somalia, intended to deter the international community from deploying a sufficient reinforcement, the group may be continuing on with its normal operations.

al-Shabab’s Ramadan offensive could be tactical more than symbolic. al-Shabab had already been moving north and seized Beledweyne, a key northern city bordering Ethiopia, before the Kampala bombings in July. Dhusamareb and its satellites towns were raided several times. The possibility exists that al-Shabab redirected its offensive to Mogadishu after Kampala spawned new AU troops, hoping to deter a sizable landing party.

In this case al-Shabab’s plan would still be relatively intact. A large deployment has likely been prevented, and al-Shabab can now equalizes its forces between Mogadishu and the rest of its territory again.

Sharmake may be copying al-Shabab’s second front when he says, "Unless you open different fronts you're not going to end this war." But the TFG will likely find the move hard to duplicate. For starters, TFG officials are expecting Ahlu Sunna to participate even though its officials told the Associated Press that relations with the government are still broken. The two sides fell out months ago over a disputed power-sharing agreement and have yet to restore full ties.

Sharmake claims the offensive, to come later this year, will target al-Shabab’s cities like Beledweyne and the southern port of Kismayo. This would correspond to the 2,000 Kenyan-trained Somalis in the south and 1,000 German-trained troops trained stationed in Ethiopia. But dropping several thousand soldiers into an isolated city would cut them off unless the AU and TFG can maintain their supply routes.

Perhaps Ethiopia would open a corridor from west and Kismayo’s port could supply the south by sea, but these channels would demand sizable resources to operate. And without the necessary troops to hold Mogadishu, holding other cities makes little sense except to draw al-Shabab away from the capital. This may be what the TFG is planning, just like al-Shabab’s northern shift.

Yet the possibility also exists that more AU troops will be landing sometime this year or early next year. Uganda will likely deploy additional forces after calling for between 20,000 and 40,000 soldiers, and a winter offensive predicates itself on reinforcements. Another thousand or two seems realistic.

Unfortunately for the TFG, AU, and Somalis, the decisiveness of such a force remains doubtful. Any serious push into al-Shabab will merely drive the group into smaller towns and the countryside, where it would switch from urban to rural warfare. al-Qaeda’s foreign attachment should prove invaluable here. And without a stable government behind them, the AU has no business patrolling al-Shabab’s deserts when it can’t provide lasting security or services.

One thing is clear: Sharif and Sharmake must settle their feud by compromise before launching any grand offensive. If not one must go. The rift with Ahlu Sunna must also be patched. Anti-corruption measures must be taken to protect revenue to TFG soldiers and civilian workers - a keystone to counterinsurgency - on the front lines. Though the TFG is putting up a fight and the West has no alternative, Somalia won’t be able to handle the influx in foreign troops and international aid without a sound political system.

Holding territory becomes a futile exercise when the government is unable to restore public services or pay national soldiers and employees to garrison the cities. Without a dependable government, AU and TFG incursions into al-Shabab territory could even magnify the conflict. And the AU would continue draining Western resources in stalemate, as leaving Somalia to al-Qaeda is out of the question.

[Note: Prime Minister Sharmake resigned from his position several hours after we posted this analysis. The move certainly benefits Somalia's condition, though many political challenges still lie ahead.]