Don’t let Barack Obama break your heart

If Iraq remains a sorry tale of American destruction and dysfunction without, as yet, a discernable end in sight, Afghanistan may prove Iraq squared. And there, candidate Obama expressed no desire to wind the war down and withdraw American troops. Quite the opposite, during the election campaign he plunked hard for escalation, something our NATO allies are sure not to be too enthusiastic about. According to the Obama plan, many more American troops (if available, itself an open question) are to be poured into the country in what would essentially be a massive “surge strategy” by yet another occupant of the Oval Office. Assumedly, the new Afghan policy would be aided and abetted by those CIA-run UAVs directed toward Pakistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden and pals, while undoubtedly further destabilizing a shaky ally.

When it comes to rising civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes in their countries, both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari have already used their congratulatory phone calls to President-elect Obama to plead for an end to the attacks, which produce both a profusion of dead bodies and a profusion of live, vengeful enemies. Both have done the same with the Bush administration, Karzai to the point of tears.

The U.S. military argues that the use of air power is necessary in the face of a spreading, ever more dangerous, Taliban insurgency largely because there are too few boots on the ground. (“If we got more boots on the ground, we would not have to rely as much on airstrikes” was the way Army Brig. Gen. Michael Tucker, deputy commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, put it.) But rest assured, as the boots multiply on increasingly hostile ground, the military will discover it needs more, not less, air power to back more troops in more trouble.

So, after January 20th, expect Obama to take possession of George Bush’s disastrous Afghan War; and unless he is far more skilled than Alexander the Great, British empire builders, and the Russians, his war, too, will continue to rage without ever becoming a raging success. [continued…]

Guantanamo closure called Obama priority

The Obama administration will launch a review of the classified files of the approximately 250 detainees at Guantanamo Bay immediately after taking office, as part of an intensive effort to close the U.S. prison in Cuba, according to people who advised the campaign on detainee issues.

Announcing the closure of the controversial detention facility would be among the most potent signals the incoming administration could send of its sharp break with the Bush era, according to the advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak for the president-elect. They believe the move would create a global wave of diplomatic and popular goodwill that could accelerate the transfer of some detainees to other countries.

But the advisers, as well as outside national security and legal experts, said the new administration will face a thicket of legal, diplomatic, political and logistical challenges to closing the prison and prosecuting the most serious offenders in the United States — an effort that could take many months or longer. Among the thorniest issues will be how to build effective cases without using evidence obtained by torture, an issue that attorneys for the detainees will almost certainly seek to exploit. [continued…]

Battle in Bush administration over interrogation techniques

As the clock runs down on the Bush administration, moderates within the government are mounting what may be one last drive to roll back many of the harsh detention and interrogation policies pushed through by Vice President Dick Cheney.

The effort, led by officials at the State Department, represents the latest battle in a war between hard-liners and moderates that has raged though most of the Bush administration.

In the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency, Cheney and his allies won most of the internal contests over the Guantanamo Bay prison, the CIA’s interrogation program, domestic spying, military commissions and other contentious issues.

But internal critics — including the State Department’s legal advisor, John B. Bellinger III — fought against those efforts. Buoyed by congressional action and court rulings, the moderates in recent years have helped break down administration resistance to international agreements and standards. The latest push underscores how deeply unpopular the most hawkish White House stances have proved to be even within the administration itself. [continued…]

Obama will have to go where no other president has dared

Most Americans understand that Barack Obama will be confronted by a host of foreign policy challenges immediately upon taking office. What is less understood is how few options are available to the new President.

Iraq presents the most obvious test, and it is one that Obama will have trouble passing. If he continues Bush administration policy and negotiates a long-term agreement over bases with the Iraqi government, he will be viewed as having betrayed the anti-war, “bring the troops home” rhetoric that catapulted him to the front ranks of presidential contenders. Yet it is equally clear that a decision to withdraw all US forces from the country – rather than just combat forces as he advocated during the campaign – will be strenuously opposed by the military establishment, precipitating a conflict far more severe than the struggle over gays in the military that roiled President Clinton’s first year in office.

Obama’s second big quandary surrounds US policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Professor Obama might have befriended a Palestinian academic or two, but during his candidacy, Senator Obama demonstrated little of the political vision or will necessary to revivify a comatose peace process.An aggressive negotiating agenda is needed, one that couples pressure on Hamas to renounce violence with equal pressure on Israel to withdraw from most settlements, accept East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, and allow the return to Israel of a small but significant number of Palestinian refugees. [continued…]

Obama’s transition team will employ 450, have $12 million budget

At a briefing before well over 100 reporters, John Podesta, the co-chair of Barack Obama’s White House transition, announced three priorities for the interim period and laid out just how comprehensive the effort would be.

The transition team will operate off a budget of $12 million ($5.2 million has been appropriated by Congress, the rest will be raised separately through individual donations of under $5,000), employ 450 people and operate out of offices in Washington D.C. and Chicago. Already, Podesta reiterated, the team has granted 100 interim security clearances.

As for the priorities – they resembled the same major interests Obama announced repeatedly on the campaign trail. [continued…]

The US can quit Iraq, or it can stay. But it can’t do both

If it ever comes to court it should be one of the more interesting libel cases of the decade. The Iraqi National Intelligence Service is threatening to sue Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi politician, for asking who pays for it.

“It is somewhat curious,” says Mr Chalabi, “that the intelligence service of a country which is sovereign – that no one really knows who is funding it.”

In fact there are very few Iraqis who do not believe they have a very clear idea of who funds Iraq’s secret police. Its director is General Mohammed Abdullah Shahwani, who once led a failed coup against Saddam Hussein, and was handpicked by the CIA to run the new security organisation soon after the invasion of 2003. He is believed to have been answering to them ever since.

The history of the Iraqi intelligence service is important because it shows the real distribution of power in Iraq rather than the spurious picture presented by President Bush. It explains why so many Iraqis are suspicious of the security accord, or Status of Forces Agreement, that the White House has been pushing the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Malki to sign. It reveals the real political landscape where President-elect Barack Obama will soon have to find his bearings. [continued…]

Afghan security conference focusing on whether to talk to Taliban

Delegates from Central and South Asia have gathered in Dushanbe — together with a senior official from the U.S. State Department — for talks on how regional cooperation can improve Afghanistan’s security situation.

The talks, hosted by Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, have included a debate on whether the Afghan government should negotiate with Taliban fighters — and possibly bring some former Taliban into the central government.

As delegates discussed the merits and shortcomings of such a policy, an official from the U.S. State Department was able to gauge the views of representatives from Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

Indeed, the two-day conference in Dushanbe is a timely event. It comes as advisers to U.S. President-elect Barack Obama consider a possible new regional strategy for the war in Afghanistan. [continued…]

Pakistanis mired in brutal battle to oust Taliban

When Pakistan’s army retook this strategic stronghold from the Taliban last month, it discovered how deeply Islamic militants had encroached on — and literally dug into — Pakistani territory.

Behind mud-walled family compounds in the Bajaur area, a vital corridor to Afghanistan through Pakistan’s tribal belt, Taliban insurgents created a network of tunnels to store arms and move about undetected.

Some tunnels stretched for more than half a mile and were equipped with ventilation systems so that fighters could withstand a long siege. In some places, it took barrages of 500-pound bombs to break the tunnels apart.

“These were not for ordinary battle,” said Gen. Tariq Khan, the commander of the Pakistan Frontier Corps, who led the army’s campaign against the Taliban in the area.

After three months of sometimes fierce fighting, the Pakistani Army controls a small slice of Bajaur. But what was initially portrayed as a paramilitary action to restore order in the area has become the most sustained military campaign by the Pakistani Army against the Taliban and its backers in Al Qaeda since Pakistan allied itself with the United States in 2001. [continued…]

For Pakistan’s tribesmen, a difficult, deadly choice

The sign above the bed in the surgical ward at Lady Reading Hospital was simple and discreet: Patient #247, Bomb Blast. Beneath the sign lay a man swaddled from the waist down in dirty bandages. His face was pocked with black scars from a suicide bomb attack on a meeting of tribal elders who had decided to fight the Taliban. The man had been in the hospital for nearly a month but was barely conscious.

In that time, more than 120 tribal leaders who decided to take up arms against the Taliban at the Pakistani government’s urging have been killed in suicide bombings. Scores more have been injured in firefights with insurgents. Burned by blasts, wounded by artillery fire and hit by bullets, most have received only first aid from the government. A few have been lucky enough to survive the long ride to the hospital in Peshawar.

Many of the injured tribal leaders at Lady Reading were supposed to form the front line in a government campaign to tame the Taliban insurgency in northwest Pakistan. As the army’s efforts to stamp out the insurgency in the rugged areas along the border with Afghanistan have faltered, Pakistani officials have turned to tribal militias to make up ground in an increasingly complex conflict.

But, so far at least, the tribal militias have been no panacea. Instead, the use of the militias, known as lashkars, has set off a debate over whether such a strategy will contribute to a civil war in the northwest that could engulf all of Pakistan. Yet some tribal leaders say they have little choice but to fight their brothers, cousins and neighbors: The Pakistani military, they say, has threatened to bomb their villages if they do not battle the Taliban. [continued…]

Saudis step into Pakistan’s quagmire

General David Petraeus, the new head of US Central Command with responsibility for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has turned to Saudi Arabia to act as an middleman between Washington and Pakistan.

Previously, Washington dealt directly with former president General Pervez Musharraf. A London-based Pakistani diplomatic told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity, “All aid packages will be routed through Saudi Arabia as a result of Pakistan’s performance in the ‘war on terror’. The Saudis will deal directly with Pakistan to resolve disputes, and that’s why Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Ashfaq Kiani visited Saudi Arabia. These kinds of visits will be seen frequently in the near future.”

The envoy continued, “You can see a new campaign emerging of fatwas [religious decrees] against terrorism [recently, one of the most influential and prestigious seminaries in South Asia, the Darool uloom Deoband of India, issued a policy statement condemning terrorism]. This debate will be enhanced by Saudi Arabia for damage control in Muslim countries as well as to safeguard Western interests.”

This week, the United Nations General Assembly held a session entitled “Culture of Peace” to promote a global dialogue about religions, cultures and common values. This was at the initiative of King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia as a followup to an interfaith conference staged in Madrid that was organized in collaboration with King Juan Carlos of Spain in July.

Clearly, Washington has accepted that militancy, at least in Pakistan and Afghanistan, can’t be tamed only through the barrel of the gun, especially given its resurgence in these countries – something that promises to make next year very tough for security forces. [continued…]

Row over claims of Syrian nuclear find

Claims that traces of uranium were found at the site of an alleged Syrian nuclear reactor which was bombed by Israel last year prompted a row about politically-motivated leaks yesterday.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the UN body was taking very seriously allegations that Syria has a hidden atomic programme. But he declined to confirm that uranium had been detected.

Unnamed diplomats said on Monday that samples taken by UN inspectors from Kibar in northern Syria contained traces of uranium combined with other elements. The uranium was processed, suggesting some kind of nuclear link.

“It isn’t enough to conclude or prove what the Syrians were doing, but the IAEA has concluded this requires further investigation,” said a diplomat with links to the Vienna-based watchdog. [continued…]

Why did the West ignore the truth about the war in Georgia?

Thank goodness, they might be thinking at the US State Department and the British Foreign Office, for the financial crisis. Were it not for the ever-blacker news about the Western world’s economy, another scandal would be vying for the headlines – and one where the blame would be easier to apportion. It concerns our two countries’ relations with Russia and the truth about this summer’s Georgia-Russia war.

Over the past couple of weeks, a spate of reports has appeared in the American and British media, questioning many assumptions about that war, chief among them that Russia was the guilty party. Journalists from the BBC, The New York Times and Canada’s Embassy magazine, among others, travelled to South Ossetia, the region at the centre of the conflict, in an effort to establish the facts.

Not the “facts” as told by the super-slick Georgian PR machine at the time, nor the “facts” as eventually dragged from the hyper-defensive and clod-hopping communicators of the Kremlin. But the facts as experienced on the ground by those who were there: civilians, the local military commander, and the small number of unarmed monitors stationed in the region by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The journalists travelled to the region separately and by different routes. They spoke to different people. But their findings are consistent: Georgia launched an indiscriminate military assault on South Ossetia’s main town, Tskhinvali. The hospital was among the buildings attacked; doctors were injured even as they operated. [continued…]

Greenhouse gases imperil oceans’ web of life

Corals, lobsters, clams and many other ocean creatures — including some at the bottom of the food chain — may be unable to withstand the increasing acidity of the oceans brought on by growing global-warming pollution, according to a report Tuesday from the advocacy group Oceana.

Based on scientific findings of the past several years, Oceana’s report “Acid Test” examines the far-reaching consequences of the accumulation of heat-trapping gases, particularly carbon dioxide, in the world’s oceans.

A high level of carbon dioxide in seawater depletes the carbonate that marine animals need for their shells and skeletons. Creatures who are at risk if trends continue include corals, which provide habitats for about a quarter of the world’s fish; things many people like to eat, including shrimp and lobster; and pteropods, or swimming sea snails, which are an important part of the base of polar and sub-polar food chains. [continued…]

The Bretton Woods sequel will flop

I blame it all on Dean Acheson. The long-dead American statesman was a big figure at the original Bretton Woods conference in 1944 and later helped invent Nato. Acheson gave his memoirs the modest title Present at the Creation and, in so doing, he inadvertently fed the grandiose fantasies of the leaders of the Group of 20 leading economies who will assemble in Washington next weekend. Perhaps they too can achieve near God-like status by reordering the institutions of the world?

Some of the leaders who are heading for Washington are surprisingly frank about the fun they are having. Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s dynamic president, has congratulated himself on his “luck” in having the chance to remake the global financial system. Gordon Brown, Britain’s prime minister, has visibly revelled in the idea that he is a global intellectual leader.

But like most sequels, Bretton Woods II is not going to be nearly as good as the original. The first conference gave birth to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Its successor will be duller and less consequential. [continued…]

The New York Times’s lonely war

Today, the narrative of Iraq has evolved into a complex one of a society taking tentative steps toward some sort of dimly glimpsed future—instead of just bombings and armed combat, the story these days more often involves army units trying to coordinate services with nascent town councils. The differences between hard-liners and insurgents, to say nothing of those between Sunnis and Shiites, can be dizzyingly difficult to understand and explain, and many readers have stopped paying attention.

Add to this an unprecedented decline in the financial condition of the news media and severe restrictions on photographers by the military and it’s no surprise that Iraq has all but disappeared from the front pages. A study conducted earlier this year by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that the war occupied just 3 percent of the mainstream media’s news hole. Compare that with 2003, when 9 out of 10 Americans said they were closely following the situation in Iraq—a higher percentage than were following any other topic—and there were, by some estimates, more than 1,000 Western reporters covering the conflict. There’s an ongoing chicken-and-egg debate about whether lack of interest has led to a decline in coverage or vice versa. For whatever reason, today there are only a few dozen Western reporters in Iraq, which is not many more than were there during Saddam Hussein’s last days in power, when staying in the country meant risking detention, or worse.

The Times is being whipsawed by the same economic woes battering the rest of the industry—earlier this year, the paper eliminated more than 100 editorial positions, which was about 8 percent of the newsroom’s total workforce. (So much for the suit of armor.) But unlike virtually every other news organization on the planet, it has not significantly cut back on the number of staff it has on the ground in Iraq, a commitment which costs upwards of $3 million a year. “You can’t cover a story only when interest peaks,” says Bill Keller, the paper’s executive editor. “You have to walk the beat all the time. This is so integral to what readers expect in The New York Times that if we stopped covering the war in Iraq we should just go out of business.” [continued…]

The Iraq math war

In early 1999, Les Roberts traveled to Bukavu, a city of more than 200,000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (drc). The country’s brutal civil war was in full swing, and a nearby region, Katana, had been largely cut off from the outside world for nearly a year. Roberts, a former Centers for Disease Control (cdc) epidemiologist who’d taken over as director of health policy for the International Rescue Committee, wanted to see how the locals were faring.

Every morning for weeks, Roberts and his team rode into the jungle. After finding a spot they’d selected randomly on a map, they approached the people living in the area and asked them about recent deaths in their households. When Roberts finally crunched the numbers, he determined that the mortality rate in Katana was two and a half times the peacetime rate. The next year, using a similar approach, he concluded that the war’s overall death toll in eastern drc at the time wasn’t 50,000, as widely reported, but a staggering 1.7 million.

Roberts’ results helped boost the reputation of conflict epidemiology, a fledgling discipline that applies the tools of public health research to the surprisingly difficult question of how many civilians die in war zones. Historically, soldiers and journalists have been the main sources of real-time casualty estimates, leaving the truth somewhere between propaganda and a best guess. Researchers are still revising death tolls for wars that ended decades ago; estimates of civilian deaths in Vietnam even now range from 500,000 to 2 million or more. The methods Roberts helped pioneer aimed to end some of that uncertainty. [continued…]

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