Archives for September 2007

FEATURE & EDITOR’S COMMENT: The Administration’s plan for Iran

Shifting targets

In a series of public statements in recent months, President Bush and members of his Administration have redefined the war in Iraq, to an increasing degree, as a strategic battle between the United States and Iran. “Shia extremists, backed by Iran, are training Iraqis to carry out attacks on our forces and the Iraqi people,” Bush told the national convention of the American Legion in August. “The attacks on our bases and our troops by Iranian-supplied munitions have increased. . . . The Iranian regime must halt these actions. And, until it does, I will take actions necessary to protect our troops.” He then concluded, to applause, “I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran’s murderous activities.”

The President’s position, and its corollary—that, if many of America’s problems in Iraq are the responsibility of Tehran, then the solution to them is to confront the Iranians—have taken firm hold in the Administration. This summer, the White House, pushed by the office of Vice-President Dick Cheney, requested that the Joint Chiefs of Staff redraw long-standing plans for a possible attack on Iran, according to former officials and government consultants. The focus of the plans had been a broad bombing attack, with targets including Iran’s known and suspected nuclear facilities and other military and infrastructure sites. Now the emphasis is on “surgical” strikes on Revolutionary Guard Corps facilities in Tehran and elsewhere, which, the Administration claims, have been the source of attacks on Americans in Iraq. What had been presented primarily as a counter-proliferation mission has been reconceived as counterterrorism.

The shift in targeting reflects three developments. First, the President and his senior advisers have concluded that their campaign to convince the American public that Iran poses an imminent nuclear threat has failed (unlike a similar campaign before the Iraq war), and that as a result there is not enough popular support for a major bombing campaign. The second development is that the White House has come to terms, in private, with the general consensus of the American intelligence community that Iran is at least five years away from obtaining a bomb. And, finally, there has been a growing recognition in Washington and throughout the Middle East that Iran is emerging as the geopolitical winner of the war in Iraq. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — Zbigniew Brzezinski says, “This time, unlike the attack in Iraq, we’re going to play the victim. The name of our game seems to be to get the Iranians to overplay their hand.” And more graphically, a retired American four-star general says, “It’s got to be ten dead American soldiers and four burned trucks.”

But time is on Iran’s side. All they have to do is patiently refuse to rise to every bait and then in just over a year the baiters will be out of office.

This is what makes the Israelis and the neocons nervous. They claim that the “point of no return” they fear comes when Iran acquires the capability to produce nuclear weapons, yet what appears to be a more immediate fear is of Cheney’s point of no return. This, more than anything else, is what makes 2008 a critical year.

And even though one would expect that the Pentagon would be chastened by the disaster in Iraq, Hersh reports increasing support for the new strategy for attacking Iran:

The revised bombing plan for a possible attack, with its tightened focus on counterterrorism, is gathering support among generals and admirals in the Pentagon. The strategy calls for the use of sea-launched cruise missiles and more precisely targeted ground attacks and bombing strikes, including plans to destroy the most important Revolutionary Guard training camps, supply depots, and command and control facilities.

“Cheney’s option is now for a fast in and out—for surgical strikes,” the former senior American intelligence official told me. The Joint Chiefs have turned to the Navy, he said, which had been chafing over its role in the Air Force-dominated air war in Iraq. “The Navy’s planes, ships, and cruise missiles are in place in the Gulf and operating daily. They’ve got everything they need—even AWACS are in place and the targets in Iran have been programmed. The Navy is flying FA-18 missions every day in the Gulf.” There are also plans to hit Iran’s anti-aircraft surface-to-air missile sites. “We’ve got to get a path in and a path out,” the former official said.

A Pentagon consultant on counterterrorism told me that, if the bombing campaign took place, it would be accompanied by a series of what he called “short, sharp incursions” by American Special Forces units into suspected Iranian training sites. He said, “Cheney is devoted to this, no question.”

A limited bombing attack of this sort “only makes sense if the intelligence is good,” the consultant said. If the targets are not clearly defined, the bombing “will start as limited, but then there will be an ‘escalation special.’ Planners will say that we have to deal with Hezbollah here and Syria there. The goal will be to hit the cue ball one time and have all the balls go in the pocket. But add-ons are always there in strike planning.”

No doubt the allure of a surgical strike has been reinforced by the legendary success Israel just had in striking Syria with impunity. Yet are memories so short that everyone has forgotten the lessons from a year ago? Israel’s effort to bomb southern Lebanon “back to the stone ages” left tens of thousands of civilians homeless but it didn’t halt Katyusha rockets raining down on northern Israel.

Now Iran, apparently willing to gamble on harnessing America’s fear of al Qaeda, is reviving memories of the USS Cole. Hersh quotes a State Department adviser saying, “They are bragging that they have spray-painted an American warship—to signal the Americans that they can get close to them.” Hersh goes on to explain, “I was told by the former senior intelligence official that there was an unexplained incident, this spring, in which an American warship was spray-painted with a bull’s-eye while docked in Qatar, which may have been the source of the boasts.”

In all of this, what seems extraordinary is the administration’s resilient belief that simply by changing the narrative you can change the outcome. The US describes its attack on Iran as an act of retaliation, then Iran becomes all contrite, eats humble pie and says, “we learned our lesson”? I don’t think so.


NEWS: Neocons push U.S. closer to war with Iran

Neocons seek to justify action against Teheran

American diplomats have been ordered to compile a dossier detailing Iran’s violations of international law that some fear could be used to justify military strikes against the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme.

Members of the US secretariat in the United Nations were asked earlier this month to begin “searching for things that Iran has done wrong”, The Sunday Telegraph has learnt.

Some US diplomats believe the exercise — reminiscent of attempts by vice-president Dick Cheney and the former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld to build the case against Saddam Hussein before the Iraq war — will boost calls for military action by neo-conservatives inside and outside the administration. [complete article]

Neocon ‘godfather’ Norman Podhoretz tells Bush: bomb Iran

[Describing a late spring private meeting with President Bush, Norman Podhoretz, neocon godfather and now senior foreign policy adviser in the Giuliani presidential campaign, said] “I laid out the worst-case scenario – bombing Iran – versus the worst-case consequences of allowing the Iranians to get the bomb.”

He also told Bush: “You have the awesome responsibility to prevent another holocaust. You’re the only one with the guts to do it.” The president looked very solemn, Podhoretz said.

For the most part Bush simply listened, although he and Rove both laughed when Podhoretz mentioned giving “futility its chance”, a phrase used by his fellow neoconservative, Robert Kagan, about the usefulness of pursuing United Nations sanctions against Iran.

“He gave not the slightest indication of whether he agreed with me, but he listened very intently,” Podhoretz said.

He is convinced, however, that “George Bush will not leave office with Iran having acquired a nuclear weapon or having passed the point of no return” – a reference to the Iranians’ acquisition of sufficient technical capability to produce a nuclear weapon.

“The president has said several times that he will be in the historical dock if he allows Iran to get the bomb. He believes that if we wait for threats to fully materialise, we’ll have waited too long – something I agree with 100%,” Podhoretz said [complete article]

See also, Tougher sanctions on Iran delayed (LAT).


OPINION: General Petraeus wins a battle in Washington — if not in Baghdad

Sycophant savior

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to sustained bipartisan applause, President Bush committed the United States to an open-ended global war on terror. Having made that fundamental decision, the president and Congress sent American soldiers off to fight that war while urging the American people to distract themselves with other pursuits. The American people have done as they were asked.

The result, six years later, is a massive and growing gap between the resources required to sustain that global war, in Iraq and elsewhere, and the resources actually available to do so. President Bush, with the Joint Chiefs of Staff serving as enablers, has papered over that gap by sending soldiers back for a third or fourth combat tour and, most recently, by extending the length of those tours. In a country with a population that exceeds 300 million, one-half of one percent of our fellow citizens bear the burden of this global war. The other 99.5 percent of us have decided to chill out.

The president has made no serious effort to mobilize the wherewithal that his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan require. The Congress, liberal Democrats voting aye, has made itself complicit in this shameful policy by obligingly appropriating whatever sums of money the president has requested, all, of course, in the name of “supporting the troops.”

Petraeus has now given this charade a further lease on life. In effect, he is allowing the president and the Congress to continue dodging the main issue, which comes down to this: if the civilian leadership wants to wage a global war on terror and if that war entails pacifying Iraq, then let’s get serious about providing what’s needed to complete the mission—starting with lots more soldiers. Rather than curtailing the ostensibly successful surge, Petraeus should broaden and deepen it. That means sending more troops to Iraq, not bringing them home. And that probably implies doubling or tripling the size of the United States Army on a crash basis.

If the civilian leadership is unwilling to provide what’s needed, then all of the talk about waging a global war on terror—talk heard not only from the president but from most of those jockeying to replace him—amounts to so much hot air. Critics who think the concept of the global war on terror is fundamentally flawed will see this as a positive development. Once we recognize the global war on terror for the fraudulent enterprise that it has become, then we can get serious about designing a strategy to address the threat that we actually face, which is not terrorism but violent Islamic radicalism. The antidote to Islamic radicalism, if there is one, won’t involve invading and occupying places like Iraq. [complete article]


OPINION & EDITOR’S COMMENT: In praise of the future

9/11 is over

9/11 has made us stupid. I honor, and weep for, all those murdered on that day. But our reaction to 9/11 — mine included — has knocked America completely out of balance, and it is time to get things right again.

It is not that I thought we had new enemies that day and now I don’t. Yes, in the wake of 9/11, we need new precautions, new barriers. But we also need our old habits and sense of openness. For me, the [presidential] candidate of 9/12 is the one who will not only understand who our enemies are, but who we are.

Before 9/11, the world thought America’s slogan was: “Where anything is possible for anybody.” But that is not our global brand anymore. Our government has been exporting fear, not hope: “Give me your tired, your poor and your fingerprints.”

You may think Guantánamo Bay is a prison camp in Cuba for Al Qaeda terrorists. A lot of the world thinks it’s a place we send visitors who don’t give the right answers at immigration. I will not vote for any candidate who is not committed to dismantling Guantánamo Bay and replacing it with a free field hospital for poor Cubans. Guantánamo Bay is the anti-Statue of Liberty. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — Tom Friedman has what I would call a uniquely American affliction: pathological optimism. One can argue that life is sustained by irrational hope — there is after all no happy ending. But excessive hope makes it much harder to anticipate failure and thereby avoid mistakes.

Friedman’s little pep talk on bringing back the good ol’ new times will appeal to lots of Americans. To say that “9/11 made us stupid” is to imply that the last six years have been nothing more than an aberration; that they did not reveal anything about America’s character, its political culture or its relationship with the world. All we have to do is vote for the right candidate in November 2008. If only it was going to be that easy!


NEWS, ANALYSIS & OPINION: Myanmar revolution

UN envoy meets Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi

A UN envoy met Myanmar’s detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and leaders of the ruling junta Sunday, as he tried to broker an end to a bloody crackdown on anti-government protests.

Ibrahim Gambari met with Aung San Suu Kyi for more than an hour, the UN said in a statement. The rare encounter, seen as a sign of intense pressure on the regime, took place at a government guest house in the main city of Yangon. [complete article]

What makes a monk mad

As they marched through the streets of Myanmar’s cities last week leading the biggest antigovernment protests in two decades, some barefoot monks held their begging bowls before them. But instead of asking for their daily donations of food, they held the bowls upside down, the black lacquer surfaces reflecting the light.

It was a shocking image in the devoutly Buddhist nation. The monks were refusing to receive alms from the military rulers and their families — effectively excommunicating them from the religion that is at the core of Burmese culture.

That gesture is a key to understanding the power of the rebellion that shook Myanmar last week. [complete article]

How Junta stemmed a saffron tide

The military crackdown on Burma’s monk-led opposition has emptied the streets and removed hope of regime change… for now. But dissent continues to seep out via the internet and from the army rank and file [complete article]

The people need the world to speak as one in its support

The UN’s special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, has arrived in Burma. It is not his first visit, but it needs to be more successful than the previous ones. It must result in a dialogue involving the junta, the opposition democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi, and other ethnic leaders. Such talks are the key.

If parts of the international community feel powerless, they shouldn’t. All that the people of Burma are asking of them is to speak with one voice. If this junta has survived for the past 19 years maltreating its people, it is partly because it has exploited international divisions. [complete article]


OPINION: When anthropologists become counter-insurgents

Pledging to boycott the “war on terror”

The Pentagon is increasingly relying on the deployment of “Human Terrain System” (HTS) teams in Afghanistan and Iraq to gather and disseminate information on cultures living in the theatre of war. Some of these teams are assigned to US brigade or regimental combat units, which include “cultural analysts” and “regional studies analysts.” According to CACI International (one of three companies currently contracting HTS personnel for the Pentagon), “the HTS project is designed to improve the gathering, understanding, operational application, and sharing of local population knowledge” among combat teams. Required experience includes an MA or Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, sociology, or related social science fields, and applicants must obtain a secret security clearance to be eligible for employment.

In this environment it is not surprising that the Science Applications International Corporation-one of the top 10 US defense contractors-has begun describing anthropology as a “counter-insurgency related field” in its job advertisements. Prior to joining HTS teams, some social scientists attend military training camps. Recently, Marcus Griffin, an anthropology professor preparing to deploy to Iraq boasted on his blog that “I cut my hair in a high and tight style and look like a drill sergeant…I shot very well with the M9 and M4 last week at the range… Shooting well is important if you are a soldier regardless of whether or not your job requires you to carry a weapon.” The lines separating researchers, subjects, protectors, protected and target are easily confused in such settings, and the concerns of research ethics are easily set aside for more immediate concerns.

Although proponents of this form of applied anthropology claim that culturally informed counter-insurgency work will save lives and win “hearts and minds,” they have thus far not attempted to provide any evidence of this. Instead, there has been a flurry of non-critical newspaper accounts in publications including the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor that portray these HTS anthropologists as heroically serving their nation without bothering to report on the ethical complications of this work. Missing are discussions of anthropologists’ ethical responsibilities to disclose who they are and what they are doing, to gain informed consent, and to not harm those they study. Portraying counter-insurgency operations as social work is naive and historically inaccurate. [complete article]


NEWS: Tribal members join in effort to assist U.S., Iraqi forces

30,000 volunteers to serve with police and military units

More than 30,000 tribal members in Iraq have come forward to work with U.S. and Iraqi forces over the past six months, a phenomenon that is spreading beyond Anbar province to Baghdad and other regions of the country, according to U.S. commanders.

The Iraqi government, at the urging of U.S. authorities, this month ordered Iraqi army and police units to integrate the volunteers into their operations. “That is huge. This gives them the approval that we are looking for,” said Brig. Gen. John F. Campbell, deputy commander of the U.S. military in Baghdad.

However, questions remain over whether alliances with fractious tribal sheiks will hold, whether they can improve security in mixed-sectarian areas such as Diyala province and Baghdad, and whether they will promote stability and national reconciliation or spur Iraq’s fragmentation by proliferating armed groups. [complete article]


FEATURE: America’s merchants of death

Making a killing

Four days after being grounded, Blackwater was back on Iraqi streets. After all, Blackwater is not just any security company in Iraq; it is the leading mercenary company of the US occupation. It first took on this role in the summer of 2003, after receiving a $27 million no-bid contract to provide security for Ambassador Paul Bremer, the original head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Since then, it has kept every subsequent US Ambassador, from John Negroponte to Ryan Crocker, alive. It protects Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she visits the country, as well as Congressional delegations. Since its original Iraq contract, Blackwater has won more than $700 million in “diplomatic security” contracts through the State Department alone.

The company’s domestic political clout has been key to its success. It is owned by Erik Prince, a reclusive right-wing evangelical Christian who has served as a major bankroller of the campaigns of George W. Bush and his allies. Among the company’s senior executives are former CIA official J. Cofer Black, who once oversaw the extraordinary-rendition program and led the post-9/11 hunt for Osama bin Laden (and who currently serves as GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s top counterterrorism adviser), and Joseph Schmitz, the Pentagon Inspector General under Donald Rumsfeld.

So embedded is Blackwater in the US apparatus in Iraq that the incident in Nisour Square has sparked a crisis for the occupation that is both practical and political. Now that Blackwater’s name is known (and hated) throughout Iraq, the bodyguards themselves are likely to become targets of resistance attacks, perhaps even more so than the officials they are tasked with keeping alive. This will make their work much more difficult. But beyond such security issues are more substantive political ones, as Blackwater’s continued presence on Iraqi streets days after Maliki called for its expulsion serves as a potent symbol of the utter lack of Iraqi sovereignty. [complete article]


OPINION: Guantanamo forever

Guantanamo’s not closing

“Some people have said, we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo.” — Mitt Romney, Republican presidential debate, May 15, 2007

Take a breath, Mitt. Whatever you may think, your bravado statements about doubling the size of Guantanamo — part of your bid to lead the American people faster and farther into the Global War on Terror — are by no means completely off-the-wall. True, President Bush and Secretary of Defense Gates have both stated that closing Guantanamo might be the best way out of the legal limbo we’ve been in ever since that facility opened five and half years ago as the crown jewel of the administration’s offshore network of secret prisons. But forget what they say. Check out what they’re doing. The closing of Guantanamo — and a winding down of the administration’s detention and interrogation policies — may be farther away than most of us think. As elsewhere in this administration’s record, casual talk of refashioning a failed policy masks an inflexible commitment to “staying the course.” [complete article]


OPINION: Stumbling into another war

Iran: Chronicle of a war foretold?

… the Israeli domestic political equation is worrying: Olmert has seen his own approval ratings climb out of the toilet as a result of having bombed something in Syria a couple of weeks ago. Nobody knows what he bombed, but his numbers have climbed from about 3% a few months ago to over 35% today. That’s why the scoundrels to the left and right of him, Ehud Barak and Bibi Netanyahu, have been scrambling to claim some paternity over the mysterious Syria raid.

The Israeli electorate likes the flexing of military muscle, particularly after last summer’s humiliation in Lebanon, and even more so in the face of a steady stream of hysterical nonsense about a new Hitler on the march in the east.

The danger of Israel’s leaders’ own rhetoric painting themselves into a corner where military action becomes inevitable is reinforced by reports that Dick Cheney’s neocon jihadists have actually been planning to goad Israel into doing something this stupid, precisely in order to set off an Iranian response that would force the U.S. into a war with Iran. (Talk about a scorched-earth presidency!) [complete article]

See also, Key nations agree to delay Iran action (AP).


NEWS: Shutting down the revolution

Myanmar monks’ protest contained by junta’s forces

Myanmar’s armed forces appeared to have succeeded today in sealing tens of thousands of protesting monks inside their monasteries, but they continued to attack bands of civilian demonstrators who challenged them in the streets of the main city, Yangon.

Witnesses and diplomats reached by telephone inside Myanmar said troops were now confronting and attacking smaller groups of civilians around the city, sometimes running after them through narrow streets, sometimes firing at protesting groups. [complete article]

See also, UK fears Burma toll ‘far higher’ (BBC), Myanmar: Internet blocked (Global Voices), and The Burma road to ruin (The Guardian).


NEWS: In Kirkuk, security comes first

Security may trump ethnicity in Kirkuk

A staunch Arab nationalist, Ismail Hadidi once dreaded the possibility that his ethnically diverse city would be swallowed up by the neighboring semiautonomous Kurdish region and cut off from the Baghdad government.

But the provincial councilman is also a practical man. And when he compares the chaos and violence in the Iraqi capital with the prosperity and peace next door in the three-province Kurdistan Regional Government area, teaming up with the Kurds doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. He’s even considering buying some property in the Kurdish enclave.

“The people of Kirkuk were afraid of this,” said Hadidi, a Sunni Arab tribal leader. “But given the situation, I believe most people will move toward being part of Kurdistan, because what the people want above all is security.” [complete article]


NEWS: Blackwater’s role in boosting violence

Blackwater ‘mistakes’ led to surge of Iraqi violence

Blackwater, one of the largest American security firms in Iraq, has come under criticism in the US for its role in a 2004 ambush in Fallujah that left four of its staff killed and the region in deadly chaos.

A House of Representatives report outlined the “unprepared and disorderly” build-up to the incident on 31 March, 2004, resulting in the employees – who were escorting a convoy – being executed and having their charred bodies hung from a bridge.

The disturbing attack was seen as a turning point for US public opinion after images of the charred bodies were shown around the world by the media. A few days later, the US military launched a major offensive in Fallujah, leading to one of the bloodiest periods since the 2003 invasion. [complete article]


OPINION: Robert Gates – the anti-Rumsfeld

Bob Gates’s victory

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is, quite by choice, the anti-Rumsfeld—a man so low-key and consensus-oriented that it’s hard to find his fingerprints on any particular policy. But no one can win internal battles the way Gates has been doing in Washington lately without leaving a few traces. To scant notice in recent weeks, Gates seems to have scored a significant victory in the Bush administration’s internal fight over troop withdrawals from Iraq, and he has been perhaps the key player in quelling moves toward a military confrontation with Iran.

You may remember all the hullabaloo over Gen. David Petraeus’s report on the Iraq “surge” a couple of weeks ago. By most media accounts, he came, he testified and then he conquered Capitol Hill. Not so. In the days after the testimony, Gates appears to have won a crucial debate behind the scenes with Petraeus and administration hard-liners who were pushing to keep U.S. deployments at current or at least “pre-surge” levels for the forseeable future. The proof is that he seems to be bringing the president onto his side (in his speech on the Petraeus report, Bush suggested that he wants the reductions to go deeper, as well). [complete article]


NEWS: Saudis revive hope for Palestinian national unity government

Saudis urge Hamas and Fatah to form new coalition

Saudi Arabia – potentially a key player in current diplomatic moves on the Middle East – has warned that Fatah and Hamas will have to form a new coalition if any peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians is going to work.

At the same time it has expressed cautious optimism about the international Middle East conference called by George Bush for November – without yet committing itself to attend, as Israel and the United States would like it to.

The latest, relatively candid, summary of the Saudi position came during the meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York on the fringes of which the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, met the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and top officials from Gulf states. [complete article]


NEWS: Hamas ready to fight IDF

Hamas: 50,000 gunmen are ready to fight IDF, defend the Gaza Strip

Fifty thousand Palestinian gunmen and hundreds of suicide bombers are ready to repel or at least impede any large-scale Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip, an official from the ruling Hamas faction said on Friday.

The statement came one day after 12 Palestinians were killed in separate Israel Defense Forces and Israel Air Force strikes within the coastal territory.

Nizar Rayyan, a senior Hamas leader, promised Israel “a painful response” should it send troops and tanks en masse into the Gaza Strip. [complete article]

See also, Palestinians face an emerging paradox in Gaza (Haaretz).


ANALYSIS: Will Barghouti be Fatah’s savior?

Would Barghouti’s release save Fatah?

The brainstorming in Israel on how to strengthen Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has again raised the possibility of releasing Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti from prison. Several members of Ehud Olmert’s government regard clemency as a wonder drug that would instantly bolster the popularity of Abbas (Abu Mazen) and save Fatah from collapse. But it is doubtful that Barghouti can be his movement’s savior. To save Fatah, more is needed than the reemergence of this or that charismatic leader. In certain circumstances, freeing Barghouti could definitely help Abu Mazen in the internal Palestinian arena, but in other conditions it is even likely to hurt him. [complete article]


NEWS: Pakistan court bows to Musharraf

Pakistan court rules Musharraf can run for reelection

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf scored a badly needed victory Friday when the Supreme Court cleared the way for him to run for another term, despite a challenge from opponents who say he is ineligible.

The 6-to-3 ruling, which dismissed a series of petitions seeking to knock Musharraf off the ballot, will make it difficult for rivals to keep him from winning another five years in office. The national and provincial assemblies are due to vote Oct. 6, and Musharraf is widely believed to have the support he needs. [complete article]