The Taliban’s Baghdad strategy

Faridoon stares in alarm at the two Newsweek reporters who just walked into his shop. “You guys better get out of town fast,” the 21-year-old Afghan says as quietly as possible. “There’s Taliban everywhere.” Lying in the street outside are the burned-out hulks of a gasoline tanker and a shipping-container truck that someone set ablaze two nights before, right in front of Faridoon’s motor-oil shop in Maidan Shar, the tiny, dust-blown capital of Maidan Wardak province, barely 25 miles south of Kabul. Only days earlier and a few miles farther down Highway 1, Taliban fighters ambushed and burned a 50-truck commercial convoy that was carrying fuel and supplies for the U.S. military. Even during the day, Faridoon and other townspeople warn, it’s not safe to visit the area.

Afghanistan’s insurgents have a new target—Kabul, and the belt of towns and villages surrounding the capital. “Today the Taliban are here,” says Maidan Shar’s white-smocked pharmacist Syed Mohammad, 32. “Tomorrow they may be in Kabul.” The supply convoy was attacked in his home village, a dot on the map called Pul Surkh, where he says insurgents now travel freely, packing new AK-47s and rocket-propelled-grenade launchers. A series of spectacular recent terrorist incidents have shaken Kabul, a city that is all too familiar with violence. Blast walls and barbed wire have sprouted to defend against suicide bombers; residents are afraid to travel even a few miles outside the city. To some, the Afghan capital is beginning to feel like a new Baghdad.

U.S. war on terrorism loses ground in Pakistan

Although the “war on terrorism” remains a consuming focus of the U.S. government, the Bush administration appears poised to leave behind a situation not unlike the one it inherited nearly eight years ago: a resurgent Al Qaeda ensconced in South Asia, training new recruits, plotting attacks against the West, and seemingly beyond the United States’ reach.

In dozens of interviews, senior U.S. national security, intelligence and military officials described a counter-terrorism campaign in Pakistan that has lost momentum and is beset by frustration.

CIA officers pursuing Al Qaeda fighters are confined largely to a collection of crumbling bases in northwestern Pakistan. Most are on remote Pakistani military outposts, where they are kept on a short leash under an awkward arrangement with their hosts — rarely allowed to leave and often left with little to do but plead with their Pakistani counterparts to act.

Embraced overseas, but to what effect?

As Obama moved from Iraq and Afghanistan to Jordan and Israel and then to three European capitals before flying back to Chicago on Saturday night, strategists back home measured the political fallout for the senator from Illinois and for the presumptive Republican nominee John McCain on an almost hourly basis. Their consensus was that the week turned into a near-rout for Obama.

John Weaver, who once was McCain’s top political strategist, said his old boss made a big mistake by virtually daring Obama to go to Iraq and Afghanistan, only to see Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki generally embrace the Democrat’s plan for withdrawing combat forces when he went there.

“McCain lost the week badly, let’s be honest,” Weaver said in a message on Friday. “John [McCain] is still in striking distance, thanks to his own character, biography and memories of the McCain of previous election cycles. But he cannot afford another week like this one.”

Alex Castellanos, another Republican strategist, agreed that Obama had acquitted himself well overseas. ” ‘Barack goes global’ is working,” he noted. But he sounded a cautionary note, nonetheless. Obama, unlike McCain, he said, remains a work in progress who is still trying to answer the question, “Who is this guy?”

The risks of rapture

On his radio show this week, Rush Limbaugh declared of Europeans: “They love Obama because he loathes America.” Conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin predicted that “the race for international popularity” might prompt Obama to undermine Israel and abandon Iraq.

Could arguments like these hurt Obama? Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, is dubious. Recent Pew surveys have found a slight increase since 2004 (from 67 percent to 71 percent) in the number of Americans who say they think the U.S. is less respected in the world than in the past–and a bigger jump in the share who consider that a major problem (56 percent, up from 43 percent). “More people see the importance of rebuilding international ties than four years ago,” Kohut says. And foreign acclaim could help Obama maintain that he is better equipped than McCain to restore those connections.

But fault lines remain. College-educated Obama supporters, when asked why they back him, nearly always insist that his election–as a mixed-race, mixed-heritage president–would transform America’s image abroad. I have almost never heard that argument from blue-collar voters, especially blue-collar men, who Pew polls show are the voting bloc least concerned about America’s international standing and most supportive of GOP arguments that the best way to ensure peace is through military strength, not diplomacy.

European cheers may strengthen Obama at Starbucks, but it remains to be seen whether they will sweeten his prospects at Dunkin’ Donuts.

What did Obama learn in Iraq?

The main complexity Obama has to confront in Iraq is the apparent success of the most recent phase of U.S. military strategy, of which the troop surge was a key part. Violence has come down from stratospheric heights. The success is relative (violence is still at 2005 levels), but the situation is far better than Obama predicted. When he voted against the surge in January 2007, he claimed on more than one occasion that it would lead to increased casualties and sectarian violence. It didn’t. How’d he get that one wrong? In January 2007, Obama claimed that the Iraqi government would make no hard choices if the United States stayed. But they have made hard choices. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched incursions into Basra and confronted cleric Muqtada Sadr, both of which helped pave the way for the Sunni faction’s return to the government. This is not enough progress to suggest Iraq is anywhere near stable, but like the drop in violence, it’s more than Obama predicted.

These are not academic questions. Some people would say the vote on the surge was one of Obama’s most important as a senator. As Obama pointed out regularly during the Democratic primaries with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, both of whom voted to authorize the Iraq war, a person’s past vote tells you something about his or her judgment. Obama has talked a lot about the clarity of his judgment in opposing the Iraq war. He also once suggested that if he’d been forced to cast an actual vote for or against the Iraq war as a senator, his view might have been complicated. On the surge, we get a chance to watch Obama grapple with similar complexities in real time. Or, at least, we should.

Editor’s Comment — How long will it be before “surge” becomes re-purposed as a marketing term? It’s become such an all-powerful signal of positive change it surely has the power to sell goods or get people elected…

How quickly we forget that it’s a matter of only a few months ago that the word was: “the surge should by now be a stunning success… if only it wasn’t for the meddlesome Iranians. It’s the Iranians who are stopping the surge from working.”

Logically, the question now — if one accepts the Pentagon’s claims from before — is not about whether the success of the surge can be acknowledged and applauded; the question should be: why has Iran decided to make life much easier for the US in Iraq? By what logic are we to understand that Iran could carry so much blame for the surge’s failure, yet accrue no credit for the surge’s success?

Arabs under siege as Israel tightens grip on Holy City

Fawzia al-Kurd’s home is nothing special. She has lived within its walls for the past quarter of a century, in the heart of East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah district. The house is tidy. But at first glance, it would not appear to be worth $10m.

That is the sum that the al-Kurd family claim they were offered by Israeli buyers as an incentive to move on, a figure confirmed by their lawyer. Fawzia refused to make a deal, whatever the price. It would have hurt her ‘integrity’ to take it and leave, she said. So last week she received an eviction notice, based on an arcane legal claim to the site that her husband first called home in 1956.

If she and her family are forced to leave as a result, ultra-Orthodox Israeli settlers from a company called Nahlat Shemoun – linked to a nearby Jewish shrine – will take over half of the house. Settlers have already occupied her illegally built extension. The Kurd house may soon be draped with Israeli flags – as is another a handful of metres distant – and Arab East Jerusalem will have shrunk perceptibly once more.

‘Their objective [in trying to evict me] is political’, said Fawzia. ‘They are claiming as theirs something that is not.’

The story of Fawzia’s house reflects the larger battle for the future of Jerusalem, a city contested with an intensity and urgency unmatched anywhere else in the world. In the interminable saga of the Middle East peace process, agreement on the ‘final status’ of the Holy City remains as elusive as ever.

Tensions high in Gaza as Hamas cracks down on rival groups

Hamas security forces fanned out across a tense Gaza Strip Sunday, following a mysterious weekend car bombing that killed six people and sparked the toughest Hamas crackdown against its Fatah rivals in months.

Human rights groups said Hamas released over a dozen of the some 200 Fatah men it arrested Saturday in connection with the bombing, which killed five Hamas men and a 6-year-old girl. But Hamas police remained deployed in force around Gaza City, manning roadblocks and checking cars.

Meanwhile Palestinian security forces loyal to Abbas detained 15 Hamas activists, including two officials, in the West Bank city of Tul Karm on Sunday, Palestinian security officials said. They gave no reason for the arrests.

Analysis: Salafism – the worrying process of self-radicalization

The process whereby young men become radicalized through contact with Islamist ideas via preachers or the Internet and then go on to form ad hoc terror cells has been observed in Muslim communities in Europe and further afield. So how is Salafism gaining its foothold west of the Jordan River? Through the relatively simple formula of preaching, education, the creation of groups of devotees, and the subsequent self-organization of those devotees.

In the West Bank, the removal of Hamas-affiliated imams in over 1,000 mosques has paradoxically opened the door for the rising prominence of Salafi-oriented preachers.

Some of the radical preachers are associated with the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) party. This veteran Islamist group was long regarded as a curiosity because of its failure to maintain an armed wing and its refusal to engage in active politics. However, HT has enjoyed an unprecedented rise in popularity in the West Bank over the last 18 months. Many of its imams are known to be in contact with the broader, amorphous Salafi subculture. HT itself is not a Salafi grouping. But its role as a radicalizing force and then a conduit for young men to violent activity is a key concern.

‘Compared to us, Hamas is Islamism lite’

So far, Hamas has done what it can to keep the Salafis under control. They know the ultra-radicals are just waiting to take over Hamas’ position of leadership. “They are traitors,” Abu Mustafa says of Hamas. “Compared to us, they are Islamism lite.”

Nevertheless, he’s willing to be merciful. “We will give them the chance to turn away from the false path,” he says. And what happens if they don’t take up the offer? “Then there will be confrontation,” Abu Mustafa promises, bringing his fists together. Still, he doesn’t think it likely that the Salafis will have to take up arms against Hamas. “It won’t be necessary. They will destroy themselves.”

His explanation is clear. “For many people in Gaza, Hamas embodied the promise of a good, Islamic lifestyle,” Abu Mustafa says. But once the group seized power in the Gaza Strip over a year ago, many were disappointed. Of the 10 defectors who call him everyday, many of them are Hamas fighters, he claims. “These are tough men and they have insider knowledge. They will be very useful should it come to a power struggle.”

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