My plan for Iraq

The call by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki for a timetable for the removal of American troops from Iraq presents an enormous opportunity. We should seize this moment to begin the phased redeployment of combat troops that I have long advocated, and that is needed for long-term success in Iraq and the security interests of the United States.

The differences on Iraq in this campaign are deep. Unlike Senator John McCain, I opposed the war in Iraq before it began, and would end it as president. I believed it was a grave mistake to allow ourselves to be distracted from the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban by invading a country that posed no imminent threat and had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Since then, more than 4,000 Americans have died and we have spent nearly $1 trillion. Our military is overstretched. Nearly every threat we face — from Afghanistan to Al Qaeda to Iran — has grown.

Editor’s Comment — This seems like a rather jaded statement from a jaded campaign. I don’t know whether Obama had time to read the papers on Sunday, but when the message emerging is that the administration has given up on trying to reach a status-of-forces agreement with the Iraqi government, it’s conceded that a withdrawal date must be set, it’s readying to speed up the pace of withdrawal, and the Iraqis are pushing to reclaim control of the Green Zone — when all of this is happening, then it’s time for Obama to come out with a more nuanced message and less worn-out campaign rhetoric.

Does John McCain’s sick sense of humor matter?

First, he sang ‘bomb, bomb, bomb/ bomb, bomb Iran’ to the tune of the Beach Boys’ ‘Barbara Ann.’

Now, on being told that Iran has increased its importation of American cigarettes, he quipped “Maybe that’s a way of killing them.”

Let us review the things wrong with this statement as a joke.

First of all, it is a standard sentiment that in the United States, we do not wish the people of any country ill, whatever our relations with their government. McCain was hoping Iranians would drop dead from smoking American cigarettes, not the Iranian regime. Coming on top of his ditty about bombing them, I come away with an increasingly sick feeling in my stomach that the man is a sadist who enjoys the idea of killing people.

By the way, for all the propaganda to the contrary, neither Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei nor President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has talked about killing Israelis as opposed to causing the regime in Jerusalem to collapse. Can you imagine the outcry if they joked about doing it?

Editor’s Comment — It’s worth repeating that on several occasions, Ahmadinejad has likened the end of Israel to the end of the Soviet Union. He’s talking about the end of an ideology (Zionism); not the annihilation of Jews.

9 Americans die in Afghan attack

Taliban insurgents carried out a bold assault on a remote base near the border with Pakistan on Sunday, NATO reported, and a senior American military official said nine American soldiers were killed.

The attack, the worst against Americans in Afghanistan in three years, illustrated the growing threat of Taliban militants and their associates, who in recent months have made Afghanistan a far deadlier war zone for American-led forces than Iraq.

The assault on the American base in Kunar Province was one of the fiercest by insurgents since the American-led invasion of Afghanistan routed the Taliban and Al Qaeda militants in late 2001.

Collateral ceremonial damage

It was a tribal affair. Against a picture-perfect sunset, before a beige-colored cross and an altar made of the very Texas limestone that was also used to build her family’s “ranch,” veil-less in an Oscar de la Renta gown, the 26 year-old bride said her vows. More than 200 members of her extended family and friends were on hand, as well as the 14 women in her “house party,” who were dressed “in seven different styles of knee-length dresses in seven different colors that match[ed] the palette of… wildflowers — blues, greens, lavenders and pinky reds.” Afterwards, in a white tent set in a grove of trees and illuminated by strings of lights, the father of the bride, George W. Bush, danced with his daughter to the strains of “You Are So Beautiful.” The media was kept at arm’s length and the vows were private, but undoubtedly they included the phrase “till death do us part.”

That was early May of this year. Less than two months later, halfway across the world, another tribal affair was underway. The age of the bride involved is unknown to us, as is her name. No reporters were clamoring to get to her section of the mountainous backcountry of Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. We know almost nothing about her circumstances, except that she was on her way to a nearby village, evidently early in the morning, among a party 70-90 strong, mostly women, “escorting the bride to meet her groom as local tradition dictates.”

It was then that the American plane (or planes) arrived, ensuring that she would never say her vows. “They stopped in a narrow location for rest,” said one witness about her house party, according to the BBC. “The plane came and bombed the area.” The district governor, Haji Amishah Gul, told the British Times, “So far there are 27 people, including women and children, who have been buried. Another 10 have been wounded. The attack happened at 6.30AM. Just two of the dead are men, the rest are women and children. The bride is among the dead.”

State of siege

Each year since the Taliban regime was ended, foreign troop numbers in the country have risen; the single greatest increase has been since early 2007, with 20,000 additional troops arriving to take the overall total to around 66,000 (see the editorial, “Afghan Escalation”, Washington Post, 6 July 2008). Despite this, the intensity of Taliban activity has also increased. Much of it is seasonal, with less fighting during the severe winter months, but even here there has been a change. In recent years, suicide-attacks in cities such as Kabul and Kandahar have increased overall, but they have also continued through the winter months.

For the US forces, the biggest surprise has been the growth in Taliban activity in the eastern part of the country. This region, close to the Pakistan border, has been garrisoned by US forces operating independently of Nato, and there have been frequent claims of progress over the past two years. The US forces and spokespersons have made pointed references to the contrast between their “success” and the difficulties experienced by British troops in Helmand province and the Canadians in Kandahar.

Now, though, the US claims are sounding less assured. The newly-appointed US military commander for eastern Afghanistan, Major-General Jeffrey J Schloesser, has highlighted the increased sophistication of the methods used by the insurgents as a factor in the rising violence. This has led to a near-doubling of the number of US troops killed in the country in the first six months of 2008 compared with the similar period in 2007. What has become particularly noticeable has been the more widespread use of roadside bombs, with tactics developed in Iraq being deployed in Afghanistan.

U.S. and Iraq near a ‘bridge’ deal on status of U.S. troops

By the end of July, US and Iraqi officials hope to finalize a deal that would map out the role and length of stay for US troops in the country.

But this is likely to be a temporary “bridge” agreement, including specific goals for terms of US withdrawal from major cities, followed by further talks on a long-term status of forces agreement (SOFA), says a senior US administration official involved in the talks here.

The US shift to a short-term deal follows comments last week by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki suggesting for the first time that a timetable be set for the departure of US troops. On Saturday, Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said that “we need a timetable for withdrawal” and that the US should not commit to a long-term occupation of Iraq,

But a key question is whether any deal can be sold to Iraq’s political factions in an election year. The Iraqi government is beset by divisions and conflicting agendas with regard to the status of US forces that are playing out both in the media and in private.

Sarkozy helps to bring Syria out of isolation

Leaders of 43 nations with nearly 800 million inhabitants inaugurated a “Union for the Mediterranean” on Sunday, meant to bring the northern and southern countries that ring the sea closer together through practical projects dealing with the environment, climate, transportation, immigration and policing.

But the meeting was also an opportunity for President Nicolas Sarkozy of France to exercise some highly public Middle East diplomacy by bringing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria out of isolation for an Élysée Palace meeting and by playing host to a session between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

The Union for the Mediterranean is the brainchild of Mr. Sarkozy, but his original concept was watered down to include all members of the European Union, not just those along the Mediterranean coast. The enlargement of the group to the north made it easier for Mr. Sarkozy to include some southern countries, like Syria and Israel, that remain in a formal state of war with one another, and others, like Jordan, that are only notionally Mediterranean.

Our man in Iran?

Iran’s latest missile tests occurred just as there have been glimmers of progress in nuclear negotiations between Tehran and the Western powers. Whether or not those talks succeed, it’s time for Washington to open a diplomatic post in Tehran.

A high-level official has told me that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is seeking President Bush’s approval to establish a United States Interests Section in the Iranian capital. This is a smart idea that Democrats and Republicans should support.

Iran is an anomaly in the Middle East. In Iran, unlike in the Arab world, America is seen as an adversary primarily by the government while most of the Iranian people see it as a country of freedom and moderation.

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