Archives for December 2007

NEWS & OPINION: The liability of dictatorship

False messiah of Pakistan

Whether Benazir Bhutto was killed by a bullet to the head, shrapnel or a blow that resulted as her driver sped away from the scene, the challenge for the United States remains the same: how to pursue U.S. interests and the cause of international security in a country virtually everyone now labels “the most dangerous place on earth.”

Conventional wisdom goes that the terrorism threat is so great, with Pakistan just a hair’s breadth away from breakdown and nuclear chaos, that the U.S. must defer to the dictator in Islamabad to hold it all together. But the reality is that Bin Laden’s “al-Qaeda” is not the primary domestic or international threat in Pakistan, the nuclear arsenal is not that vulnerable, and relying on General Pervez Musharraf to deliver security and stability means continuing a failed policy. It’s time to change course. [complete article]

Elections face possible delay as Pakistani tensions grow

The most experienced opposition politician in Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, upped the ante in the coming confrontation with the ruling party on Monday, calling for President Pervez Musharraf’s immediate resignation and the formation of a government of national consensus.

The attack, the most stinging public rebuke of the president from Mr. Sharif since his return from exile, was delivered amid strong indications that the government would postpone elections scheduled for Jan. 8 because of the chaos following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the other leading opposition leader.

While the government will not decide officially until Tuesday, officials with the Pakistani election commission said the voting would probably be delayed until the end of January or early February, despite Washington’s entreaties to hold it as scheduled. [complete article]

See also, Delayed election will be disaster for Musharraf (Zahid Hussain).

Pakistan may not make it

Since Musharraf has certainly read the handwriting on the wall and yet still intends to stay in power, there is not much foreign leaders can do, in effect, to encourage his departure. Many Pakistanis – and most Sindhis – believe Musharraf and the army had a role in the Bhutto killing, which took place in a garrison city. Musharraf cannot be trusted to conduct an impartial investigation of the murder of his top rival. He has sacked Pakistan’s independent-minded judges and imprisoned its lawyers.

The US and Britain should take the lead in demanding a UN investigation: the facts in this case are every bit as compelling as those that led the UN to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Harriri. The Bhutto killing is tearing Pakistan apart. A UN investigation can help calm passions, but only the permanent departure of the army from power can provide a hope – and it is only a hope – of saving the country. [complete article]

New questions arise in killing of ex-premier

New details of Benazir Bhutto’s final moments, including indications that her doctors felt pressured to conform to government accounts of her death, fueled the arguments over her assassination on Sunday and added to the pressure on Pakistan’s leaders to accept an international inquiry.

Athar Minallah, a board member of the hospital where Ms. Bhutto was treated, released her medical report along with an open letter showing that her doctors wanted to distance themselves from the government theory that Ms. Bhutto had died by hitting her head on a lever of her car’s sunroof during the attack.

In his letter, Mr. Minallah, who is also a prominent lawyer, said the doctors believed that an autopsy was needed to provide the answers to how she actually died. Their request for one last Thursday was denied by the local police chief. [complete article]

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OPINION: In foreign policy, image is created through action, not branding

He could care less about Obama’s story

Every time I hear about how Sen. Barack Obama is going to “re-brand” America’s image in the Middle East, I can’t help but think about Jimmy Carter’s toast.

When the idealistic Democrat came to Iran in 1977 to ring in the new year with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the country’s much-despised despot, throngs of young, hopeful Iranians lined the streets to welcome the new American president. After eight years of the Nixon and Ford administrations’ blind support for the shah’s brutal regime, Iranians thrilled to Carter’s promise to re-brand America’s image abroad by focusing on human rights. That call even let many moderate, middle-class Iranians dare to hope that they might ward off the popular revolution everyone knew was coming. But at that historic New Year’s dinner, Carter surprised everyone. In a shocking display of ignorance about the precarious political situation in Iran, he toasted the shah for transforming the country into “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” With those words, Carter unwittingly lit the match of revolution.

It’s just this sort of blunder — naive, well-meaning, amateurish, convinced that everyone understands the goodness of U.S. intentions — that worries me again these days. That’s because a curious and dangerous consensus seems to be forming among the chattering classes, on both the left and the right, that what the United States needs in these troubling times is not knowledge and experience but a “fresh face” with an “intuitive sense of the world,” and that the mere act of electing Obama will put us on the path to winning the so-called war on terror. [complete article]

See also, America has a clear-cut choice: the candidates of hope or fear (Andrew Sullivan).

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EDITORIAL: The knot of uncertainty tightens

Who knows?

“Benazir Bhutto was so fearful for her life that she tried to hire British and American security experts to protect her,” The Sunday Telegraph reveals. Her entourage even approached Blackwater. They might have been able to protect her life but they would have destroyed her image. She was even directly receiving confidential U.S. intelligence about militant threats to her life. The intelligence was clearly inadequate.

Whenever a dramatic and unexpected event occurs, some journalists try and find out what happened, how it happened, and why it happened. Many more pick up the phone and hunt down some well-respected “expert” who’s only too happy to pump some certainty into a mighty void. Bruce Riedel, a former defense and intelligence official and currently senior fellow at the Brookings Institute is just such a person. The day Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, Riedel was quick to assert that this “was almost certainly the work of al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda’s Pakistani allies.” How did he know? He didn’t, but how many news editors would find fault in quoting the opinion of a Brookings sage? Three days later, many of the fast-talking experts are now starting to sound a bit foolish — Riedel’s own certainty quickly backed off into a “hunch” — so the only expertise still worth noting is that which underlines the uncertainty rather than makes the pretense of knowledge. Only now are the papers finding column space for a more considered and circumspect analysis. From an assassination which supposedly had “al Qaeda” written all over it, the signature is now acknowledged as being quite hard to decipher. As the Los Angeles Times notes:

Several analysts said the use of a handgun in addition to explosives is a departure for militant groups in Pakistan. “This is not by any means a signature killing by Al Qaeda,” security analyst Nasim Zehra said. “A targeted shooting, even in combination with a familiar suicide bombing, makes it look more like a political killing than one by some militant group.”

While facts remain hard to come by, a number of possibly useful observations can be made. Western politicians want to characterize Bhutto’s death in symbolic terms — this was an attack on democracy, an attack on the freedom and power of Muslim women, or some such pernicious act. But to see that as the effect is not to discern the intent. Much more likely this was first and foremost a successful attempt to prevent Bhutto becoming prime minister. This was indeed a political assassination and suspicion should fall first on those whose power is threatened rather than on those whose ambitions are expanding.

The jihadist signature was that the attackers gave up their lives, but it now seems unclear that that was the intent of the gunman. The fact that he wore dark glasses at least suggests that he might have entertained the hope that he was going to make a getaway. What his handlers hadn’t told him was that as soon as he completed his mission, a jihadist foot soldier — unknown to the gunman — was going to make sure that the assassin would never tell his tale.

As for what we can now say about the Bhutto family, the perpetuation of the dynasty and of the Benazir legend are upper most in their minds. The mystery surrounding her death provides yet more grist to their political mill.

Will we ever know the identity of the gunman in shades? Was he driven by dreams of an Islamic state or did he perhaps see himself as a latter day Carlos the Jackal?

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NEWS & OPINION: The measure of American influence

U.S. strives to keep footing in tangled Pakistan situation

For the Bush administration, there is no Plan B for Pakistan.

The assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto dramatically altered Pakistani politics, forcing the largest opposition party to find new leadership on the eve of an election, jeopardizing a fragile transition to democracy, and leaving Washington even more dependent on the controversial President Pervez Musharraf as the lone pro-U.S. leader in a nation facing growing extremism.

Despite anxiety among intelligence officials and experts, however, the administration is only slightly tweaking a course charted over the past 18 months to support the creation of a political center revolving around Musharraf, according to U.S. officials.

“Plan A still has to work,” said a senior administration official involved in Pakistan policy. “We all have to appeal to moderate forces to come together and carry the election and create a more solidly based government, then use that as a platform to fight the terrorists. ”

U.S. policy remains wedded to Musharraf despite growing warnings from experts, presidential candidates and even a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan that his dictatorial ways are untenable. Some contend that Pakistan would be better off without him.

“This administration has had a disastrous policy toward Pakistan, as bad as the Iraq policy,” said Robert Templer of the International Crisis Group. “They are clinging to the wreckage of Musharraf, flailing around. . . . Musharraf has outlived all possible usage to Pakistan and the United States.” [complete article]

Bush’s best-laid plans

Faced with the prospect of “losing” Pakistan, what should the world’s sole superpower do? Despite Musharraf’s flaws, should Washington back him to the hilt as the only alternative to chaos? Or should Bush commit the United States without reservation to building a strong democracy in Pakistan?

To pose such questions is to presume that decisions made in Washington will decisively influence the course of events in Islamabad. Yet the lesson to be drawn from the developments of the last several days — and from U.S. involvement in Pakistan over the course of decades — suggests just the opposite: The United States has next to no ability to determine Pakistan’s fate.

How the crisis touched off by Bhutto’s assassination will end is impossible to predict, although the outcome is likely to be ugly. Yet this much we can say with confidence: That outcome won’t be decided in the White House. Once again, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “events are in the saddle, and ride mankind,” with those events reducing the most powerful man in the world to the status of spectator.

At the beginning of his second term, Bush spoke confidently of the United States sponsoring a global democratic revolution “with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” Ever since that hopeful moment, developments across the greater Middle East — above all, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and on the West Bank — have exposed the very real limits of U.S. wisdom and power.

Now the virtual impotence of the U.S. in the face of the crisis enveloping Pakistan — along with its complicity in creating that crisis — ought to discredit once and for all any notions of America fixing the world’s ills. [complete article]

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FEATURE & OPINION: After Benazir

After Benazir

Speaking again to this newspaper not long before her death – this time by phone from Dubai – Bhutto had voiced her concerns. They were not with the militants but with those inside the security establishment – the same people whom her husband blamed for the Karachi attack.

‘I’m not worried about Mahsud,’ said Bhutto. ‘I’m worried about the threat within the government. People like Mahsud are just pawns. It is the forces behind them that have presided over the rise of extremism and militancy in my country. They feel threatened now that their infrastructure will be rolled back when democracy is restored.’

The reality was that Bhutto’s return was deeply threatening to powerful interests in a Pakistani establishment increasingly dominated under Musharraf’s rule by the army and the intelligence agencies.

It was marked by a hatred towards the Bhuttos within a core section of Pakistan’s military – one that runs back to the coup against Bhutto’s father in the late 1970s. This group were less threatened by her threat to roll up the extremists than her promise to give western countries access to the disgraced scientist Khan, who operated a nuclear weapons supermarket from Pakistan for much of the 1990s. The fear was that Khan might implicate powerful figures in the army who had supported his illegal activities.

Deep down, Bhutto considered these people the real enemy: ‘I’m talking about the retired military officers who fought the jihad, who created the Afghan mujahideen, and later morphed into al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The real threat comes from them; it doesn’t come from their puppets or their pawns. They have a lot of supporters within the echelons of administration and intelligence.’ [complete article]

Pakistan’s flawed and feudal princess

Her neighbouring heads of state may have been figures as unpredictable and potentially alarming as President Ahmadinejad of Iran and a clutch of opium-trading Afghan warlords, but Bhutto has always seemed reassuringly familiar to Western governments – one of us. She spoke English fluently because it was her first language. She had an English governess, went to a convent run by Irish nuns and rounded off her education with degrees from Harvard and Oxford.

‘London is like a second home for me,’ she once told me. ‘I know London well. I know where the theatres are, I know where the shops are, I know where the hairdressers are. I love to browse through Harrods and WH Smith in Sloane Square. I know all my favourite ice cream parlours. I used to particularly love going to the one at Marble Arch: Baskin Robbins. Sometimes, I used to drive all the way up from Oxford just for an ice cream and then drive back again. That was my idea of sin.’

It was difficult to imagine any of her neighbouring heads of state, even India’s earnest Sikh economist, Manmohan Singh, talking like this.

For the Americans, what Benazir Bhutto wasn’t was possibly more attractive even than what she was. She wasn’t a religious fundamentalist, she didn’t have a beard, she didn’t organise rallies where everyone shouts: ‘Death to America’ and she didn’t issue fatwas against Booker-winning authors, even though Salman Rushdie ridiculed her as the Virgin Ironpants in his novel Shame.

However, the very reasons that made the West love Benazir Bhutto are the same that gave many Pakistanis second thoughts. Her English might have been fluent, but you couldn’t say the same about her Urdu which she spoke like a well-groomed foreigner: fluently, but ungrammatically. Her Sindhi was even worse; apart from a few imperatives, she was completely at sea. [complete article]

See also, Pakistan at standstill as discord and unrest grow (WP), Bhutto’s son, 19, to take over as Pakistan opposition leader (The Guardian), and Fury at claims on Bhutto killing (The Guardian).

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OPINION: Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are vulnerable

What about the nukes?

The assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto reminds us starkly of an unanswered question most of us would prefer to forget: how secure are Pakistan’s nuclear weapons? Could Al Qaeda or another terrorist group acquire a warhead or enough radioactive material to create a dirty bomb?

Over the years I have had the opportunity to discuss the loose nukes issue with Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf on three separate occasions. On each he insisted that there is no possibility that corrupt custodians or terrorists could steal the country’s nuclear weapons and materials. But in the third of these conversations, which occurred in December 2003, just a week after terrorists came within a second and a half of blowing him up, I managed to penetrate his standard defense. How plausible is it, I asked, that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is more secure than the president of the country himself? His answer: well, there you may have a point. [complete article]

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NEWS: The CIA’s tireless effort to protect itself — and others

Tapes by CIA lived and died to save image

If Abu Zubaydah, a senior operative of Al Qaeda, died in American hands, Central Intelligence Agency officers pursuing the terrorist group knew that much of the world would believe they had killed him.

So in the spring of 2002, even as the intelligence officers flew in a surgeon from Johns Hopkins Hospital to treat Abu Zubaydah, who had been shot three times during his capture in Pakistan, they set up video cameras to record his every moment: asleep in his cell, having his bandages changed, being interrogated.

In fact, current and former intelligence officials say, the agency’s every action in the prolonged drama of the interrogation videotapes was prompted in part by worry about how its conduct might be perceived — by Congress, by prosecutors, by the American public and by Muslims worldwide.

That worry drove the decision to begin taping interrogations — and to stop taping just months later, after the treatment of prisoners began to include waterboarding. And it fueled the nearly three-year campaign by the agency’s clandestine service for permission to destroy the tapes, culminating in a November 2005 destruction order from the service’s director, Jose A. Rodriguez Jr. [complete article]

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NEWS: U.S. blocked talks with the Taliban

Diplomats expelled ‘at behest of the U.S.’

Two European diplomats accused of holding secret talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan were thrown out of the country following a complaint by the US, intelligence officials in Kabul have told The Sunday Telegraph.

Mervyn Patterson, who is British, and Irish-born Michael Semple were flown out of Kabul on Thursday after the Afghan government accused them of “threatening national security”.

The pair had been working for the United Nations and the European Union respectively.

But according to a senior Afghan intelligence source, American officials had been unhappy about meetings between the men and high-level Taliban commanders in the volatile Helmand province.

The source claimed that the US alerted Afghan authorities after learning that the diplomats were providing direct financial and other support – including mobile phone cards – to the Taliban commanders, in the hope of persuading them to swap sides.

“This warning came from the Americans,” he said. “They were not happy with the support being provided to the Taliban. They gave the information to our intelligence services, who ordered the arrests.” [complete article]

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NEWS: Iraq safer, Petraeus says, but “there will be bombs”

Iraq safer but still perilous at year-end, Petraeus says

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, delivered a positive but cautious assessment Saturday of progress in the country in 2007, citing the drop-off in violence over the latter half of the year but warning that the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq remains the country’s preeminent threat.

Petraeus said the number of weekly attacks in Iraq — such as roadside bombings, mortar attacks and sniper fire — has fallen by about 60 percent since June, to about 500 a week by late this month. The number of Iraqi civilians killed in December through the 22nd appeared to be about 600, according to a graph of the past two years provided by Petraeus that uses combined Iraqi and U.S. figures. The highest death toll during this period came last December, when about 3,000 civilians were killed.

“The positive security trends and the factors that produced them are changing the context in many parts of Iraq. While progress in many areas remains fragile, security has improved,” Petraeus said during a briefing for reporters at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. He added that success “will emerge slowly and fitfully, with reverses as well as advances, accumulating fewer bad days and gradually more good days. There will inevitably be more tough fighting.”

The downturn in violence is generally attributed to three factors that emerged over the year: the arrival of 30,000 additional U.S. troops, the emergence of tens of thousands of Sunni fighters who aligned with American troops against al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the decision by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to call for a six-month cease-fire by his militia. Petraeus also cited a drop-off in fighters coming to Iraq from Syria and Saudi Arabia, and a decline in recent months in the use of weapons believed to have been made in Iran. [complete article]

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EDITORIAL: The cover-up

The cover-up

If the Pakistani government is not engaged in a cover-up, they’re certainly doing a good job of making it look like a cover-up. First the crime scene was immediately hosed down removing any evidence. Then, after Benazir Bhutto had been pronounced dead, there was no autopsy. Then, after it had been widely reported that she had died from gun shot wounds, the Pakistan Interior Ministry claimed that she had not been shot — that she had died from a fractured skull resulting from her head hitting a lever.

But now Sherry Rehman, a close aide to Bhutto who bathed her body after her assassination, says, “There was a bullet wound I saw that went in from the back of her head and came out the other side.” And following the verbal testimony now we have the visible evidence: the image of a young man aiming a pistol at Bhutto moments before she died.

assassin.jpgInterior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema, says, “This is not an ordinary criminal matter in which we require assistance of the international community. I think we are capable of handling it.” And the White House demurely says, “If Pakistani authorities ask for assistance we would review the request.” In Washington and Islamabad there seems to be much more interest in chanting the al Qaeda mantra than in finding out who was really behind the assassination.

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NEWS: Bhutto’s party: Qaeda story being used as a diversion

Bhutto aides question militant link to killing

An Islamic militant group said Saturday it had no link to Benazir Bhutto’s killing and the opposition leader’s aides accused the government of a cover-up, disputing the official account of her death.

The government stood firmly by its account of Thursday’s assassination and insisted it needed no foreign help in any investigation.

“This is not an ordinary criminal matter in which we require assistance of the international community. I think we are capable of handling it,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema.

Bhutto’s aides said they doubted militant commander Baitullah Mehsud was behind the attack on the opposition leader and said the government’s claim that she died when she hit her head on the sunroof of her vehicle was ”dangerous nonsense.”
[…]
Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party accused the government of trying to frame Mehsud, saying the militant — through emissaries — had previously told Bhutto he was not involved in the Karachi bombing.

“The story that al-Qaida or Baitullah Mehsud did it appears to us to be a planted story, an incorrect story, because they want to divert the attention,” said Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Bhutto’s party.

After the Karachi attack, Bhutto accused elements in the ruling pro-Musharraf party of plotting to kill her. The government denied the claims. Babar said Bhutto’s allegations were never investigated. [complete article]

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EDITORIAL: Who killed Benazir Bhutto?

Who killed Bhutto?

The fact that al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for assassinating Benazir Bhutto really means nothing. After all, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, al Qaeda’s liason to the Taliban, can be confident that the Pakistani government is not going to deny his claim. Indeed, Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema told a news conference today, “We have intelligence intercepts indicating that al Qaeda leader Baitullah Mehsud is behind her assassination.” (The Interior Ministry also claims Bhutto was not shot!) Bhutto herself believed that Mehsud might have been behind the October bombing from which she escaped unscathed soon after her return to Pakistan. Mehsud had been quoted in the Pakistani press as having promised to “welcome” Bhutto with a suicide bombing. What received less attention was that the Waziristan tribal leader denied making any such threats to Bhutto. As Rahimullah Yusufzai reported in The News on October 18:

Though it is clear that Baitullah Mehsud hasn’t threatened Benazir Bhutto with suicide bombing, one should keep in mind that anyone intending to launch such an attack would not brag about it publicly. Benazir Bhutto has provoked the militants and Jihadis with some of her recent pro-US and anti-al-Qaeda and anti-Taliban statements and one should, therefore, not rule out the possibility of suicide bombings targeting her. But that could happen once she is in power and has the authority to order military operations against the militants. At present, she doesn’t possess the authority to cause harm to the militants and it appears that the latter would prefer to wait and see as to how she acts once she is in power.

Political pragmatism might not be what one would expect from an Islamic extremist, but tribal leaders such as Mehsud, even though they impose a harsh form of Islamic rule should be seen as territorial commanders. As such, they are not averse to deal-making. Whatever promises Bhutto might have made to her American friends, Mehsud and his allies would have had good reason to adopt a wait-and-see approach rather than follow the script that says that Bhutto, the Western-friendly, democratic Muslim woman, would, once in office, remain an implacable foe. After all, as prime minister of Pakistan she once led one of only three governments in the world that recognized the Taliban government of Afghanistan.

What is interesting about the Interior Ministry’s claim about Meshud’s involvement in Bhutto’s assassination is that although Bhutto herself lent credence to the claim by connecting Meshud with the October bombing, she also named others — names that we can be sure no Interior Ministry spokesman will ever link to her assassination: former Chief Minister Chaudhry Parvez Elahi, former ISI chief Hamid Gul, Hassan Afzal, former Deputy Chairman of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), and Intelligence Bureau chief Brig (Retd) Ijaz Shah. Given that only a matter of weeks ago, Bhutto saw these men as a threat to her life, it appears a bit premature for so many analysts to have confidently concluded that al Qaeda is the culprit.

See also, Bhutto said she’d blame Musharraf if killed (CNN) and Who killed Benazir? (Noah Shachtman).

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OPINION: The politics of chaos

Benazir Bhutto and the politics of chaos

The question has been raised by many, and all the more ruefully after her assassination: Given how unstable her country was and how dangerous it would be for her, why did Benazir Bhutto return to public opposition politics in Pakistan?

Steven R. Weisman, who covers international economics for The New York Times, was the paper’s New Delhi bureau chief in the mid-1980s, and covered Ms. Bhutto’s return to the country and to prominence in the tumult and violence of 1986. He put some thoughts about what she was thinking then, and now, into a memo shared with The Lede:

“Benazir not only understood that Pakistan was a chaotic country, she often seemed almost to court chaos as an ally,” Mr. Weisman writes. “I believe that, in effect, was her strategy in her current return.” [complete article]

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NEWS: U.S. backs talks with Taliban

U.S. backs talks with Taliban as envoys expelled

The United States ambassador to Kabul has lent his support to attempts to talk to elements of the Taliban as two Western diplomats left the country after being declared persona non grata by the Afghan government.

Michael Semple, the Irish-born acting head of the EU mission, and Mervyn Patterson, a UN political adviser, left for Pakistan following a row over secret talks involving the Taliban.

The ambassador, Bill Woods, tried to defuse the row, describing such talks with the Taliban as “a particularly difficult field which requires particularly close communication, particularly close dialogue (with the government) and apparently that did not take place. [complete article]

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ANALYSIS: The realist resurgence

Gates led realist resurgence in 2007

2007 will likely go down in US history as the year in which the balance of power in the long-running struggle between hawks and realists in the administration of President George W. Bush shifted decisively in favor of the latter.

That shift, which could still be reversed by events or actors not subject to Washington’s direct control, can be credited in part to the manifest failures of policies – particularly in Iraq, elsewhere in the Middle East, and in North Korea – promoted by the coalition of aggressive nationalists, neoconservatives, and Christian Zionists who were empowered by the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

The realist resurgence can also be traced to the rise of specific individuals, who took the place of their discredited predecessors in posts between the beginning of Bush’s second term and the end of 2006 when the most important realist of all – Defense Secretary Robert Gates – replaced Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. [complete article]

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NEWS: Refusing to condone torture

Navy JAG resigns over torture issue

“It was with sadness that I signed my name this grey morning to a letter resigning my commission in the U.S. Navy,” wrote Gig Harbor, Wash., resident and attorney-at-law Andrew Williams in a letter to The Peninsula Gateway last week. “There was a time when I served with pride … Sadly, no more.”

Williams’ sadness stems from the recent CIA videotape scandal in which tapes showing secret interrogations of two Al Qaeda operatives were destroyed.

The tapes may have contained evidence that the U.S. government used a type of torture known as waterboarding to obtain information from suspected terrorists.

Torture, including water-boarding, is prohibited under the treaties of the Geneva Convention.

It was in the much-publicized interview two weeks ago between Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, who is the chief legal adviser at the Pentagon’s Office of Military Commissions, that led Williams to resign. [complete article]

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OPINION: Replacing Bhutto

The dangerous void left behind

[Benazir Bhutto’s] longest-running battle was not with the extremists but with the army, whose leaders never trusted her. She was too secular, too worldly and perhaps too wise. Bhutto was killed leaving a political rally in Rawalpindi, just two miles from where her father, prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was hanged by another military dictator 30 years ago. The tragedy of the Bhutto family — her brothers also died violently, one poisoned, one shot, and her husband spent seven years in prison — has become part of the saga and struggle by Pakistanis to create a viable democratic, modern state.

Yesterday, her party’s stalwarts were on the streets, accusing Musharraf and the military of perpetrating the latest murder of a Bhutto. That is extremely unlikely, not least because last night the government itself was in despair.

The classic use of a sniper to cut her down as at least one suicide bomber blew up her vehicle bore the hallmarks of a Pakistani suicide squad expertly trained by the al-Qaeda terrorists who are ensconced in northwest Pakistan.

Her death only exacerbates the problems Pakistan has been grappling with for the past few months: how to find a modicum of political stability through a representative government that the army can accept and will not work to undermine, and how to tackle the extremism spreading in the country.

If the elections are canceled, it is imperative that Musharraf drop his single-minded desire for power and establish a national government made up of all the country’s leading politicians and parties. Together, they may agree on how to conduct an orderly election while trying to beat back the specter of extremism that is haunting this benighted land. But Musharraf may not survive the fallout of Bhutto’s death. His actions have not been honorable, and none of the political opposition is willing to sit down with him. It is unlikely that they will accept Musharraf’s continued presidency.

If rioting and political mayhem worsen, if the opposition refuses to cooperate with Musharraf and the United States finally begins to distance itself from him, then the army may be forced to tell Musharraf to call it a day. If that happens, it will be even more imperative that the world supports a national government, elections and a speedy return to civilian rule — and not another military dictatorship. [complete article]

Editor’s note: The following two articles were published a week before Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.

Aitzaz Ahsan replacing Benazir Bhutto in Washington?

The United States is silently patronizing another candidate for the post of Prime Minister or Senate or opposition leader in the next Pakistani parliament.

aitzaz-ahsan.jpgHe is Washington’s ‘back up man’ in Pakistan. He can replace Benazir Bhutto in case she tumbles on the way due to any reason. Aitzaz Ahsan is the next horse Washington and the CIA are betting their future on in Pakistan.

He has so far shown the required defiance to President Musharraf and is well projected within the U.S. administration as well as in the media and liberal society in the country.

Why a ‘back up man’ for Mrs. Bhutto is becoming a necessity for Washington?

The answer is simple.

Mr. Musharraf has scuttled the “conspiracy” to throw him out of power, in which at least the U.S. media played a crucial role. Washington also exerted unbelievable pressures to ease Mr. Musharraf’s supposed replacement, Benazir Bhutto, in power in Islamabad. But that entire plan has been scuttled. And Mr. Musharraf is in fact consolidating his power. He might even end up having enough majority in the next parliament to change the constitution and transform Pakistan into a presidential democracy. From the American standpoint, Musharraf needs to be restrained, since his ouster does not seem possible for the time being.

Mr. Ahsan’s ambitions have extremely offended Mrs. Bhutto and her frustration is so obvious that it is even being noted on the streets. Mr. Ahsan remains part of PPP but the party leader continues to feel seriously threatened by him as he is now the next U.S. candidate to replace her in case she fails to deliver. [complete article]

Can a democrat like Mr. Aitzaz Ahsan answer these questions?

Mr. Aitzaz Ahsan, a Pakistani politician turned rights activist, is successfully pandering to an American audience that knows zilch about Pakistan, or about Mr. Ahsan’s own history. He can wow the Americans all he wants, but only we, the ordinary Pakistanis, know Mr. Ahsan’s undemocratic history within his own political party. Welcome again to Pakistan, where the hero-of-the-month is just another feudal politician fighting for his pie. [complete article]

See also, Anti-Bhutto army factions behind murder? (B. Raman), Sharif’s party to boycott elections (AP), and Nawaz Sharif holds Musharraf responsible for Bhutto killing (Indo-Asian News Service).

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OPINION & EDITOR’S COMMENT: What can’t be forgotten

Did Bush watch the torture tapes?

… the sequence of statements out of the White House is extremely revealing. It started with firm denials, then went silent and then pulled back rather sharply to a “President Bush has no present recollection of having seen the tapes.” This is a formulation frequently used to avoid perjury charges, a sort of way of saying “no” without really saying “no.” In between these statements, two more things unfolded that have a bearing on the question.

The New York Times squarely placed four White House lawyers in the middle of the decision about whether to destroy the tapes—Alberto Gonzales, David Addington, John Bellinger and Harriet Miers. It also reported that at least one of them was strongly advocating destruction. Suspicion immediately fell on the principle mover in support of torture, David Addington.

Second, John Kiriakou clarified his statements about the purpose for which the tapes were made. It was to brief higher ups about the process of the interrogation. Reports persist that one “higher-up” in particular had a special strong interest in knowing the details of the Abu Zubaydah case. His name is George W. Bush.

Are Bush’s denials that he has seen the torture tapes really credible? I don’t think so. [complete article]

See also, Operation stop talking (Laura Rozen).

Editor’s Comment — “I have no recollection” — a non-denial denial — is most likely a lie that could be pried open with just a few questions.

President of the United States is a unique job that includes all sorts of unusual tasks that nevertheless are quite forgettable. “In your daily intelligence briefings, do you remember being warned about imminent attacks by al Qaeda?” How could a president be expected to remember every little detail from every single briefing?

But interrogation videos — images of a man struggling against the sensation of drowning? How much time could George Bush spend watching videos of what amount to mock executions before the routine became something less than memorable? The question isn’t whether Bush remembers seeing videos of suspects being waterboarded; it is whether he believes this is something he could forget.

If the president is less than certain that such a sight is something he would never forget, then he’s apparently a sociopath. If on the other hand he can attest to the fact that, like most normal people, he would find such images unforgettable, then this is one instance where there is no reason for the president to be telling us about the power or frailty of his memory. If the president really has no recollection of seeing videos of waterboarding, he should be able to go one step further and say emphatically that he did not watch the videos. If he can’t deny watching the videos, it’s not because there are limits to his powers of recollection but because he refuses to shine any light on an indelible memory.

“I have no recollection” is not really a non-denial denial. It’s a simple lie.

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