The Iraq wars

At last week’s Iraq hearings on Capitol Hill, amid the talk of progress, withdrawal timetables, and casualty numbers, one crucial question was largely ignored: How much of Iraq can American troops really expect to fix?

American leaders and media tend to focus on the insurgency in Baghdad and its environs, but that’s only a small part of the total picture. When the United States toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, it engendered a series of power struggles around the country.

Today Iraq is embroiled in three separate civil wars, only one of which has involved US troops in a significant way. These three conflicts have generated most of the country’s violence, and are intensively reported on in the Iraqi press, which I follow closely.

The next president will inherit these ongoing Iraqi and regional conflicts – and the vexing question of how, and whether, America can address them. Amid the high-level generalizations about the Iraq war, these are the conflicts the candidates – and the country – really need to be considering. [complete article]

Palestinians versus Tibetans – a double standard

Israelis have no moral right to fight the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The president of the Israeli Friends of the Tibetan People, the psychologist Nahi Alon, who was involved in the murder of two Palestinians in Gaza in 1967 – as was revealed in Haaretz Magazine last weekend – chose to make his private “atonement” by fighting to free Tibet, of all places. He is not alone among Israelis calling to stop the occupation – but not ours. No small number of other good Israelis have recently joined the wave of global protest that broke out over the Olympics, set to take place in Beijing this summer. It is easy; it engenders no controversy – who would not be in favor of liberating Tibet? But that is not the fight that Israeli human rights supporters should be waging.

To fight for Tibet, Israel needs no courage, because there is no price to pay. On the contrary, this is part of a fashionable global trend, almost as much as the fight against global warming or the poaching of sea lions.

These fights are just, and must be undertaken. But in Israel they are deluxe fights, which are unthinkable. When one comes to the fight with hands that are collectively, and sometimes individually, so unclean, it is impossible to protest a Chinese occupation. Citizens of a country that maintains a military subjugation in its backyard that is no less cruel than that of the Chinese, and by some parameters even more so, and against which there is practically no more protest here, have no justification in denouncing another occupation. Citizens of a country that is entirely tainted by the occupation – a national, ongoing project that involves all sectors of the population to some extent, directly or indirectly – cannot wash their hands and fight another occupation, when a half-hour from their homes, horrors no less terrible are taking place for which they have much greater responsibility.

Hunger. Strikes. Riots. The food crisis bites

Across the world, a food crisis is now unfolding with frightening speed. Hundreds of millions of men and women who, only a few months ago, were able to provide food for their families have found rocketing prices of wheat, rice and cooking oil have left them facing the imminent prospect of starvation. The spectre of catastrophe now looms over much of the planet.

In less than a year, the price of wheat has risen 130 per cent, soya by 87 per cent and rice by 74 per cent. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, there are only eight to 12 weeks of cereal stocks in the world, while grain supplies are at their lowest since the 1980s.

How to defuse a human bomb

Saudi Arabia is one of the last places on earth one would expect to find an art therapy course for convicted terrorists. The kingdom, after all, is known for an unforgiving approach to criminal justice: thieves risk having their hands amputated, “sexual deviance” is punishable by flogging, and drug dealers are beheaded.

And yet, over the past few years, jailed Saudi jihadis, led by therapists and motivated by the possibility of a shortened sentence, have been putting paint to paper to work their way through – and hopefully leave behind – the thoughts and feelings that drove them to support violent strains of Islam.

Extremist art therapy, it turns out, is only part of a new global movement to “deradicalize” terrorists. The Saudi program, a multipronged effort, is among the biggest and best-funded, but in recent years a growing number of Muslim countries and countries with large Muslim minorities have started similar ones: Indonesia, Malaysia, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt, Singapore, Great Britain, and the Netherlands among them. Last September, the US-led military coalition in Iraq created an ambitious program of its own to handle its more than 24,000 detainees. And psychologists and political scientists are starting to take an interest in the topic.

Target: Bin Laden

Osama bin Laden lives among friends, follows news on satellite television or the Internet and reads books about American foreign policy; this much can be safely inferred from his periodic audio and video statements. His latest topical punditry surfaced just a few weeks ago on jihadi websites when he addressed violence in Gaza and the pope’s travels.

Because of his passable grasp of current events, Bin Laden may well understand what many Americans do not: that he is more likely to be killed or captured during the next year or so than at any time since late 2001, when he escaped U.S. warplanes bombing him in eastern Afghanistan, at Tora Bora.

This welcome change in probabilities has almost nothing to do with the Bush administration’s counter-terrorism strategy, which remains rudderless and starved of resources because of the war in Iraq. It is a consequence, instead, of dramatic political changes in Pakistan, where Bin Laden is believed to be hiding and where Al Qaeda’s local mistakes and the restoration of civilian democracy have combined to make him considerably less safe.

Gaza’s unemployed have handouts or Hamas

Less than a year ago, Abu Hammed worked in a garment factory, sewing pants.

Now he totes a Kalashnikov assault rifle as a Hamas police officer, imposing order in this eerily desolate city on behalf of the armed Islamist movement.

Given a choice, he’d rather be back in the factory.

“If the Israelis opened the crossings again, I would leave the police and become a tailor again,” said Abu Hammed, who would give only his nickname for fear of a Hamas reprisal. “The salary is better in the factory.”

Yet the factory jobs are long gone. Ten months into an Israeli siege that followed the Hamas takeover of Gaza last June, 90 percent of the factories that once existed in this narrow coastal strip have closed, driving tens of thousands of people out of work. Those who lose their jobs face a stark choice: stay at home and survive on international aid, or try to work for the only employer around that’s still hiring — Hamas.

Don’t know much about Tibetan history

For many Tibetans, the case for the historical independence of their land is unequivocal. They assert that Tibet has always been and by rights now ought to be an independent country. China’s assertions are equally unequivocal: Tibet became a part of China during Mongol rule and its status as a part of China has never changed. Both of these assertions are at odds with Tibet’s history.

The Tibetan view holds that Tibet was never subject to foreign rule after it emerged in the mid-seventh century as a dynamic power holding sway over an Inner Asian empire. These Tibetans say the appearance of subjugation to the Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th and 14th centuries, and to the Manchu rulers of China’s Qing Dynasty from the 18th century until the 20th century, is due to a modern, largely Western misunderstanding of the personal relations among the Yuan and Qing emperors and the pre-eminent lamas of Tibet. In this view, the lamas simply served as spiritual mentors to the emperors, with no compromise of Tibet’s independent status.

In China’s view, the Western misunderstandings are about the nature of China: Western critics don’t understand that China has a history of thousands of years as a unified multinational state; all of its nationalities are Chinese. The Mongols, who entered China as conquerers, are claimed as Chinese, and their subjugation of Tibet is claimed as a Chinese subjugation.

War at the Pentagon

The most intense arguments over U.S. involvement in Iraq do not flare at this point on Capitol Hill or on the campaign trail. Those rhetorical battles pale in comparison to the high-stakes struggle being waged behind closed doors at the Pentagon.

On one side are the “fight-win guys,” as some describe themselves. They are led by Gen. David Petraeus and other commanders who argue that the counterinsurgency struggle in Iraq must be pursued as the military’s top priority and ultimately resolved on U.S. terms.

In this view, the Middle East is the most likely arena for future conflicts, and Iraq is the prototype of the war that U.S. forces must be trained and equipped to win.

Arrayed against them are the uniformed chiefs of the military services who foresee a “broken army” emerging from an all-out commitment to Iraq that neglects other needs and potential conflicts. It is time to rebuild Army tank battalions, Marine amphibious forces and other traditional instruments of big-nation warfare — while muddling through in Iraq.

The Petraeus-Crocker show gets the hook

The night before last week’s Senate hearings on our “progress” in Iraq, a goodly chunk of New York’s media and cultural establishment assembled in the vast lobby of the Museum of Modern Art. There were cocktails; there were waiters wielding platters of hors d’oeuvres; there was a light sprinkling of paparazzi. Then there was a screening. We trooped like schoolchildren to the auditorium to watch a grueling movie about the torture at Abu Ghraib.

Not just any movie, but “Standard Operating Procedure,” the new investigatory documentary by Errol Morris, one of our most original filmmakers. It asks the audience not just to revisit the crimes in graphic detail but to confront in tight close-up those who both perpetrated and photographed them. Because Mr. Morris has a complex view of human nature, he arouses a certain sympathy for his subjects, much as he did at times for Robert McNamara, the former defense secretary, in his Vietnam film, “Fog of War.”

More sympathy, actually. Only a few bad apples at the bottom of the chain of command took the fall for Abu Ghraib. No one above the level of staff sergeant went to jail, and no one remotely in proximity to a secretary of defense has been held officially accountable. John Yoo, the author of the notorious 2003 Justice Department memo rationalizing torture, has happily returned to his tenured position as a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. So when Mr. Morris brings you face to face with Lynndie England — now a worn, dead-eyed semblance of the exuberant, almost pixie-ish miscreant in the Abu Ghraib snapshots — you’re torn.

The Army is spending millions to hire ‘experts’ to analyze Iraqi society. If only they could find some

Though he wears Army fatigues and carries a gun, Griffin is a civilian, part of a controversial program known as the Human Terrain System. According to a Pentagon blueprint from 2006, the idea is to recruit academics whose area expertise and language skills can help the military wage a smarter counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. These specialists, among other things, are meant to map the population of towns and villages, identify the clans that matter and the fault lines within them, then advise U.S. commanders on the right approach for leveraging local support.

But implementation of the $40 million project, which was handed to British Aerospace Engineering (BAE) without a bidding process, has fallen short, according to more than a dozen people involved in the program and interviewed by NEWSWEEK. Of 19 Human Terrain members operating in five teams in Iraq, fewer than a handful can be described loosely as Middle East experts, and only three speak Arabic. The rest are social scientists or former GIs who, like Griffin, are transposing research skills from their unrelated fields at home.

For their services, the anthropologists get up to $300,000 annually while posted abroad—a salary that is six times higher than the national average for their field. (The teams also include some active-duty service members who are paid their regular military salary.) Most team members admit they are hampered by an inability to conduct real fieldwork in a war zone. Some complain that the four-month training they underwent in the States was often a waste of time. Matt Tompkins, who returned home in January after five months in Iraq, said he thought his team provided helpful input to its brigade, but the contribution was more superficial than planners of the program had conceived. “Without the ability to truly immerse yourself in the population, existing knowledge of the culture … is critical,” he said in an e-mail. “Lacking that, we were basically an open-source research cell.”

Video link plucks Afghan detainees from black hole of isolation

Early this year, a 10-year-old Afghan named Esrarullah got his first chance in months to see his father, who had been held since last May at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul. It was not in person, but in a video conference call, and the boy was so overcome, he clutched the phone to his ear and stared mutely at the screen.

Afghan families like his are traveling from distant provinces and turning up by the hundreds for a similar chance to get a glimpse of loved ones who have been held at the American base for months, sometimes years, without charges or legal redress.

It is a measure of their desperation for any word on the fate of their husbands, fathers and brothers that so many families have come so quickly.

In the three months since the program began, about 500 calls have been made. On a recent morning a dozen families gathered to wait their turn before the video screens provided by the American military and set up in three small booths at the Kabul offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Afghan detainees sent home to face closed-door trials

Afghan detainees held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are being transferred home to face closed-door trials in which they are often denied access to defense attorneys and the U.S. evidence being used against them, according to Afghan officials, lawyers and international rights groups.

Since October 2006, the United States has transferred approximately 50 detainees out of Guantanamo to the custody of the Afghan government, part of a policy aimed at reducing the prison population and ultimately closing the facility. Once home, many of the Afghans have been left in a legal limbo not unlike the one they confronted while in U.S. custody.

“These people have been thrown into a deeply flawed process that convicts people on inadequate evidence and breaks numerous procedural rules of Afghan law and human rights standards,” said Jonathan Horowitz, an investigator at One World Research, a public interest investigation firm that works with attorneys and advocacy groups on human rights cases and has monitored some of the detainees’ trials.

Administration set to use new spy program in U.S.

The Bush administration said yesterday that it plans to start using the nation’s most advanced spy technology for domestic purposes soon, rebuffing challenges by House Democrats over the idea’s legal authority.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said his department will activate his department’s new domestic satellite surveillance office in stages, starting as soon as possible with traditional scientific and homeland security activities — such as tracking hurricane damage, monitoring climate change and creating terrain maps.

Sophisticated overhead sensor data will be used for law enforcement once privacy and civil rights concerns are resolved, he said. The department has previously said the program will not intercept communications.

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