Afghanistan: Soviet failures echo for US

Recent headlines from Afghanistan have read like a history lesson from the Soviet 1980s.

That war “devolved into a fight for control of … the road network,” concludes a 1995 US Army study. Militants are now stepping up attacks against American supply routes, destroying some 200 trucks in Pakistan this month.

Anti-Soviet militants controlled “the rural areas,” says a former Soviet official. Today’s militants have a “permanent presence” in 72 percent of the country, according to a Dec. 8 study.

There are differences between then and now. Yet 20 years later, many problems are similar: The US and NATO control neither the countryside nor the militants’ hideouts in Pakistan, and as civilian casualties increase, Afghan anger is mounting. [continued…]

Pakistanis protest US supply line into Afghanistan

More than 10,000 Pakistanis protested Thursday against allowing U.S. forces to ship supplies through Pakistan into Afghanistan in a sign of growing pressure on Islamabad to harden its foreign policy.

It was one of the largest rallies against the government since it took office in March. Militants have attacked trucks using the critical Khyber Pass route several times in recent weeks.

The protesters — backers of Jamaat-e-Islami, a hard-line Islamist party — also decried U.S. missile strikes targeting al-Qaida and Taliban leaders in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas along the Afghan border and Pakistani military offensives against Islamic insurgents in the area. [continued…]

The global political awakening

A new president is assuming office in the midst of a widespread crisis of confidence in America’s capacity to exercise effective leadership in world affairs. That may be a stark thought, but it is a fact.

Though U.S. leadership has been essential to global stability and development, the cumulative effects of national self indulgence, financial irresponsibility, an unnecessary war and ethical transgressions have discredited that leadership. Making matters worse is the global economic crisis.

The resulting challenge is compounded by issues such as climate, health and social inequality – issues that are becoming more contentious because they have surfaced in the context of what I call “the global political awakening.” [continued…]

The Madoff economy

The revelation that Bernard Madoff — brilliant investor (or so almost everyone thought), philanthropist, pillar of the community — was a phony has shocked the world, and understandably so. The scale of his alleged $50 billion Ponzi scheme is hard to comprehend.

Yet surely I’m not the only person to ask the obvious question: How different, really, is Mr. Madoff’s tale from the story of the investment industry as a whole?

The financial services industry has claimed an ever-growing share of the nation’s income over the past generation, making the people who run the industry incredibly rich. Yet, at this point, it looks as if much of the industry has been destroying value, not creating it. And it’s not just a matter of money: the vast riches achieved by those who managed other people’s money have had a corrupting effect on our society as a whole. [continued…]

Iran’s power rooted in Shi’ite ties

As president-elect Barack Obama’s national security team assesses the challenge of Iran’s role in the Middle East, it confronts a paradox: Iran is seen as having ambitions of regional hegemony, but it lacks the military power normally associated with such a role.

That paradox is explained by the fact that Iran’s position in the Middle East depends to a significant degree on its cultural, spiritual and political ties with other Shi’ite populations and movements in the region. That characteristic of Iranian foreign policy, which Iranian officials and think-tank specialists emphasized in interviews with this writer, poses some unique problems for the United States in opposing Iranian influence in the region.

The pivotal development in the new Iranian position in the region has been the emergence of Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated regime. [continued…]

Hamas formally ends truce with Israel

Hamas declared a formal end to its cease-fire with Israel on Thursday, ruling out an extension of a 6-month-old pact that had begun to fray weeks ago with tit-for-tat attacks across Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip.

Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for the militant group that controls Gaza, said the truce would expire early today. He said it was not being renewed because “the enemy refused to comply” with promises to lift a crippling blockade of the Palestinian enclave.

The decision’s immediate effect was unclear. Hamas stopped short of threatening an escalation of rocket and mortar attacks, and Israeli officials said they were reluctant to launch a major military offensive in the densely populated territory. The border remained quiet in the first hour after the truce lapsed. [continued…]

A short path, from Gaza to Somalia

As the defined period for the Gaza cease-fire comes to an end today, preceded by a new cycle of violence, Israelis are being treated to a predictable dose of political posturing and chest-thumping. “We must do something, exact a price,” we hear. Yes, the rocket fire needs to stop, but there is no military answer to this predicament.

To recap: For most of the six months of the cease-fire, relative quiet prevailed, and life returned to near-normal for the residents of Sderot and environs (though not for Gazans, who remained under siege). Then on November 4, an Israeli operation sparked a new round of dangerous, if controlled, violence – characterized by occasional Israeli strikes and incursions, matched by Palestinian rockets and shooting across the border.

The cease-fire, while far from ideal, was an improvement over what had preceded it. Of course, Hamas sought to upgrade its military and defensive capacities during this period, as Israel should have been doing on the other side of the border – it would have been absurd to expect otherwise. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail and the cease-fire will be extended – it is in the interests of both sides. The military alternative is not an attractive one – from Israel’s side, escalation leading to partial or full reoccupation of Gaza, from Hamas, rockets and perhaps armed attacks from the West Bank in response. It also has no obvious exit strategy. [continued…]

The rise of the Shabab

The Shabab has learnt from its mistakes in 2006, when it was overwhelmed in a few days by the Ethiopian army. It is now more pragmatic and more aggressive. This time round, it is apparently not picking fights with wealthy qat merchants. Men can chew what they like—but won’t be “clean enough” to get a lucrative job in Kismayo’s port. Education is encouraged. Girls can go to school. Charcoal burning is forbidden for the sake of the environment.

But the Shabab has also tightened its own security. Alleged spies for the transitional government or for Ethiopia are routinely beheaded with blunt knives. Mr Turki, the jihadist leader who lives mostly in the bush near the Kenyan border, sleeps in different houses when he is in a town. Public floggings and executions strike fear. So do masked faces. “Before, we knew who killed our relatives,” says a Kismayo merchant. “Now we don’t even know that.”

Most tellingly, the Shabab has learnt how to get hold of money faster. It concentrates its fighters in towns where there is money to be earned. The aim is to create an army that puts Islamist identity above divisive clan loyalties. Shabab commanders say a pious state will emerge once weaker militias have been disarmed. Some reckon that the Shabab shares some of the ransoms earned by pirates who operate out of the central Somali port of Haradheere. Those in Puntland, farther north, are apparently beyond the Shabab’s reach. [continued…]

Arrests in Iraq seen as politically motivated

Iraqi politicians said Thursday that the arrests of government officials accused of supporting a group linked to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party was an attempt by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to demonstrate his power.

Members of parliament charged Thursday that the prime minister was using Iraq’s security forces to instill fear in his rivals ahead of provincial elections set for next month. Critics noted pointedly that a special counterterrorism task force that reports to Maliki made the arrests.

“Forces under the direct control of the prime minister engaged in these arrests. This is not something normal in a democratic process,” said Mithal al-Alusi, an independent Sunni lawmaker. [continued…]

Retired admiral picked as spy chief, officials say

President-elect Barack Obama has settled on a former commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific to fill the nation’s top intelligence job, congressional officials knowledgeable about the decision said yesterday.

If he is confirmed, retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair will become the nation’s third director of national intelligence, succeeding Mike McConnell as leader of the federal government’s 16 intelligence agencies. He had been the rumored front-runner for the job for several weeks, as Obama moved cautiously to make appointments to the nation’s most sensitive intelligence posts.

“It’s definitely Blair,” said one congressional official who had been briefed on the selection and spoke on the condition of anonymity. The Obama transition team declined to comment. [continued…]

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