Archives for May 2009


Lebanon’s intelligence war with Israel

Israel’s ability to wage another war against the militant Shia movement Hezbollah may have been compromised by an unprecedented wave of arrests of people in Lebanon alleged to have been spying for the Israelis.

Experts say the arrests appear to add up to a major strategic blow to Israel.

Mobile phone footage circulating in Beirut shows one of the suspected agents being slapped and insulted as he was manhandled out of his house and into the boot of a car.

Lebanese newspapers have reported that more than 40 members of more than a dozen spy networks have been detained so far in a campaign that has gathered pace over the past six weeks, and shows no sign of stopping. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — In the next couple of weeks, the Obama administration is likely to face the same Middle East challenge that proved too great for the Bush administration: demonstrating that its support for democracy is more than an empty slogan. At issue is whether Washington can respect the choice of Lebanese voters if Hezbollah ends up leading a coalition government. And, if Iranian voters favor reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi over the Israelis favorite nemesis, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, can the administration respond appropriately and thus defuse Netanyahu’s ticking time bomb?

In this context, the fact that Israel has suffered a strategic setback in what might have been its chosen combat ground through which it could incite a pretext for a direct attack on Iran, is highly significant.

Israel is rapidly running out of excuses for avoiding dealing with the core political issue that will determine the Jewish state’s viability: whether it can accept a just resolution to the 60-year old Arab-Israeli conflict.

Obama’s bold settlements unsettledness

Freezing settlements is seen in Washington as critical to kick-starting an Arab-Israeli negotiating process; but any negotiations that hope to succeed will have to tackle the much more difficult issue of the status and rights of the Palestinian refugees. The danger is that so much political muscle and negotiating time will be expended on achieving a settlement freeze that prospects for getting the concessions needed on the refugees issue will lessen significantly.

Israel’s strategy is to make it seem that its concessions on settlements are so huge that the Palestinians have to make counter-concessions on the refugee issue. The trade-off Israel seeks is to drop its right to expand settlements in return for the Palestinians dropping their demand to offer the refugees a full range of options in a permanent peace accord, including the right of return for some refugees to their original homes and lands in Israel today. This is a dangerous approach because it equates Israeli settlements – an illegal, criminal act that is widely condemned by the entire world – with the legitimate rights of the refugees, which are widely recognized in law and many United Nations resolutions. [continued…]

Israel to U.S.: ‘Stop favoring Palestinians’

Tensions between Washington and Jerusalem are growing after the U.S. administration’s demand that Israel completely freeze construction in all West Bank settlements. Israeli political officials expressed disappointment after Tuesday’s round of meetings in London with George Mitchell, U.S. President Barack Obama’s envoy to the Middle East.

“We’re disappointed,” said one senior official. “All of the understandings reached during the [George W.] Bush administration are worth nothing.” Another official said the U.S. administration is refusing every Israeli attempt to reach new agreements on settlement construction. “The United States is taking a line of granting concessions to the Palestinians that is not fair toward Israel,” he said. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — The US-Israeli tussle over freezing settlements makes for good political theater. Obama gets to look tough. The Israelis can wallow in the histrionics of making yet another heart-wrenching “major concession” and yet in this display that the press is so enthusiastically lapping up, little if anything is being noted about the fact that freezing settlements is not in fact a major concession.

It’s not a minor concession. It’s not even the most miserly of concessions. If it happens it will be nothing more nor less than a demonstration that Israel has a good faith intention to facilitate rather than obstruct the creation of a Palestinian state. In other words, right now it is a test to see whether after all these years Israel can finally demonstrate that its word is not worthless. If it passes the test, it’s allies can let out a small sigh of relief but it would be no occasion for the kind of congratulations that might mark a major step towards peace.

Obama offers olive branch of ‘respect’ to Middle East

President Barack Obama will offer his personal commitment to “change the conversation” with the Muslim world in a long-awaited speech in Cairo this week.

White House advisers vowed that Obama would “take on the tough issues”, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and offer to bridge differences with Muslims based on “mutual interests and mutual respect” – the same words used in his address to the Turkish parliament last month.

Administration officials say privately that Obama has given himself two years for a diplomatic breakthough on a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, despite the opposition of Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to America’s minimum demand for a freeze on all settlement building in disputed territory. [continued…]

Netanyahu: “What the hell do they want from me?”

Last night, shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told journalists that the Obama administration “wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a confidant. Referring to Clinton’s call for a settlement freeze, Netanyahu groused, “What the hell do they want from me?” according to his associate, who added, “I gathered that he heard some bad vibes in his meetings with [U.S.] congressional delegations this week.”

In the 10 days since Netanyahu and President Barack Obama held a meeting at the White House, the Obama administration has made clear in public and private meetings with Israeli officials that it intends to hold a firm line on Obama’s call to stop Israeli settlements. According to many observers in Washington and Israel, the Israeli prime minister, looking for loopholes and hidden agreements that have often existed in the past with Washington, has been flummoxed by an unusually united line that has come not just from Obama White House and the secretary of state, but also from pro-Israel congressmen and women who have come through Israel for meetings with him over Memorial Day recess. To Netanyahu’s dismay, Obama doesn’t appear to have a hidden policy. It is what he said it was.

“This is a sea change for Netanyahu,” a former senior Clinton administration official who worked on Middle East issues said. The official said that the basis of the Obama White House’s resolve is the conviction that it is in the United States’ as well as Israel’s interest to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “We have significant, existential threats that Israel faces from Iran and that the U.S. faces from this region. It is in our mutual interest to end this conflict, and to begin to build new regional alliances.” [continued…]

Threat of the ‘thought police’ alarms Israel’s Arab minority

Israeli Arab leaders have called an emergency meeting today to discuss their growing alarm over a series of “racist and fascist” bills being promoted by right-wing members of the country’s parliament. One of the bills has already brought fierce accusations from two prominent Jewish Knesset members that its backers are trying to create a “thought police” and “punish people for talking”.

The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee – the main umbrella body of Arab political and civic leaders in Israel – cited special concern over another bill which would outlaw the commemoration of the Nakba or catastrophe on Israel’s Independence Day. While Israel’s Declaration of Independence on 14 May 1948 is celebrated annually as the foundation of the state, Palestinians in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and in refugee camps abroad mark the expulsion and flight of some 700,000 Arabs during the war of that year.

But the Committee is also protesting at another bill, which was given its first reading in the Knesset this week, that would make it a crime to negate Israel’s right to exist as a “Jewish and democratic state”. [continued…]

Change in the air in Iran

… the fact that Mousavi is mounting a strong challenge illustrates the political ferment in Iran. Westerners often imagine that country as an Islamic boot camp with everyone marching in lock step, but there’s a surprisingly open debate in the Iranian media. Mousavi’s supporters have loudly criticized Ahmadinejad for Iran’s rising unemployment and inflation and for its growing international isolation.

Mousavi argued in a speech a week ago in Isfahan that Ahmadinejad’s fulminations are “disgracing” Iran. “The president . . . jeopardized the stature of the Iranian nation with thoughtless policies,” Mousavi said, referring to his rival’s anti-Israel diatribe at the United Nations conference on racism in Geneva in April. All Iranians share in the country’s prestige, he explained, and Ahmadinejad’s administration “undermines that prestige,” according to Xinhua.

Ahmadinejad’s supporters seem to be getting nervous. They burned Mousavi election banners at a rally in Isfahan on Wednesday and used tear gas to break up a Mousavi rally in the city of Malard two weeks ago, according to Iranian news reports. These are isolated incidents, but they demonstrate Ahmadinejad’s ability to use intimidating tactics as Election Day nears. [continued…]

Iran president’s rivals slam his foreign policy

In a political race most analysts predicted would hinge on domestic bread-and-butter issues, foreign policy has emerged as a major battleground — and a potential Achilles’ heel for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

With campaigns for the June 12 presidential election in full swing, none of the three challengers have shied away from publicly criticizing Ahmadinejad on topics long considered off-limits for debate in Iran, such as his stance on the country’s nuclear program and his vitriol for Israel. [continued…]

Iran reformist candidate wants end of US sanctions

The leading reformist challenger to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the Iranian presidential race said Friday his country’s ties with the U.S. could improve if Washington were to halt economic sanctions against Iran.

A suspension of the U.S. sanctions imposed since 1995 would be a “positive sign” and inspire optimism, Mir Hossein Mousavi said at a press conference in Tehran. [continued…]

Pakistan army claims control of main Swat town

Pakistan’s military said Saturday that it had taken full control of Mingora, the most populous city in the Swat Valley, scoring a significant victory against Taliban forces three weeks after the start of an offensive in the area.

Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a military spokesman, said at a news conference that the army was able to flush out militants, in part with the help of locals who showed soldiers Taliban hiding places in hotels and other buildings. The military estimates it has killed more than 1,000 militants since the campaign began on May 8. [continued…]

Pakistani cities are new battleground for Taliban

Only a week ago, the military said it was expecting a long, hard-fought battle with Pakistani Taliban militants who had fortified themselves in the city’s hotels and buildings. It now appears that, after initially putting up stiff resistance, many militants chose to flee.

“When they realized that they were being encircled and the noose was tightening, they decided not to give a pitched battle,” Abbas said.

But the militants may have decided to fight another way: seeding fear in other parts of the country through well-coordinated bombing attacks. [continued…]

Amateurs use Google Earth to uncover Kim’s sinister secrets

For all the billions of dollars worth of surveillance technology directed at North Korea as it breathes fire this weekend, its closed society is so impervious to spying that diplomats in Asia are forced to admit that they might as well rely on Google Earth.

A set of images – “North Korea Uncovered”, released by Curtis Melvin, a keen American amateur – includes a tantalising view of the site where the North Koreans detonated a nuclear device last week that diplomatic sources say may have been based on a Chinese design.

Melvin’s satellite map of the country, collated from Google Earth, reveals palaces, labour camps, mass graves and the entrance to the subterranean test base in the remote northeast of the country. [continued…]

Who is to blame for the next attack?

After watching the farce surrounding Dick Cheney’s coming-out party this month, you have to wonder: Which will reach Washington first, change or the terrorists? If change doesn’t arrive soon, terrorists may well rush in where the capital’s fools now tread.

The Beltway antics that greeted the great Cheney-Obama torture debate were an unsettling return to the post-9/11 dynamic that landed America in Iraq. Once again Cheney and his cohort were using lies and fear to try to gain political advantage — this time to rewrite history and escape accountability for the failed Bush presidency rather than to drum up a new war. Once again Democrats in Congress were cowed. And once again too much of the so-called liberal news media parroted the right’s scare tactics, putting America’s real security interests at risk by failing to challenge any Washington politician carrying a big stick.

Cheney’s “no middle ground” speech on torture at the American Enterprise Institute arrived with the kind of orchestrated media campaign that he, his boss and Karl Rove patented in the good old days. It was bookended by a pair of Republican attack ads on the Web that crosscut President Obama’s planned closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention center with apocalyptic imagery — graphic video of the burning twin towers in one ad, a roar of nuclear holocaust (borrowed from the L.B.J. “daisy” ad of 1964) in the other. [continued…]

The trauma of 9/11 is no excuse

Top officials from the Bush administration have hit upon a revealing new theme as they retrospectively justify their national security policies. Call it the White House 9/11 trauma defense.

“Unless you were there, in a position of responsibility after September 11, you cannot possibly imagine the dilemmas that you faced in trying to protect Americans,” Condoleezza Rice said last month as she admonished a Stanford University student who questioned the Bush-era interrogation program. And in his May 21 speech on national security, Dick Cheney called the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a “defining” experience that “caused everyone to take a serious second look” at the threats to America. Critics of the administration have become more intense as memories of the attacks have faded, he argued. “Part of our responsibility, as we saw it,” Cheney said, “was not to forget the terrible harm that had been done to America.”

I remember that morning, too. Shortly after the second World Trade Center tower was hit, I burst in on Rice (then the president’s national security adviser) and Cheney in the vice president’s office and remember glimpsing horror on his face. Once in the bomb shelter, Cheney assembled his team while the crisis managers on the National Security Council staff coordinated the government response by video conference from the Situation Room. Many of us thought that we might not leave the White House alive. I remember the next day, too, when smoke still rose from the Pentagon as I sat in my office in the White House compound, a gas mask on my desk. The streets of Washington were empty, except for the armored vehicles, and the skies were clear, except for the F-15s on patrol. Every scene from those days is seared into my memory. I understand how it was a defining moment for Cheney, as it was for so many Americans. [continued…]



Obama calls for swift move toward Mideast peace talks

Administration officials have not said whether there is an “or else” attached to their demand for a settlement freeze.

Mr. Obama said Thursday that it was not yet time for that. “In my conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I was very clear of the need to stop settlements, stop the building of outposts,” he said. “I think we don’t have a moment to lose, but I don’t make decisions based on a conversation we just had last week.”

Administration officials are trying to elicit support for Mr. Obama’s stance from pro-Israel lawmakers in Congress, including Senator John Kerry, the Democrat of Massachusetts who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

If they can expand that support to include House members like Gary Ackerman and Nita M. Lowey, both Democrats of New York, then Mr. Netanyahu could find himself on the defensive at home for allowing Israel’s relationship with its most powerful backer, the United States, to sour, foreign policy experts said.

“This approach is predicated on the assumption that an Israeli prime minister needs a tough American president to justify tough decisions to an Israeli public,” said Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and a former United States ambassador to Israel. “People in the American Jewish community and in Israel are sick of settlement activity. The whole zeitgeist has changed.” [continued…]

Mr. Abbas goes to Washington

If the Oval Office guest list is an indicator, President Obama is making good on his commitment to try to revive the long-dead Arab-Israeli peace process. On May 18 President Obama received Israel’s new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu; today he met with Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

As this process gets under way, the United States–Israel’s main arms supplier, financier and international apologist–faces huge hurdles. It is deeply mistrusted by Palestinians and Arabs generally, and the new administration has not done much to rebuild trust. Obama has, like President Bush, expressed support for Palestinian statehood, but he has made no criticisms of Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip–which killed more than 1,400 people last winter, mostly civilians–despite evidence from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and UN investigators of egregious Israeli war crimes. Nor has he pressured Israel to lift the blockade of Gaza, where 1.5 million Palestinians, the vast majority of whom are refugees, are effectively imprisoned and deprived of basic necessities. [continued…]

Somalia: one week in hell – inside the city the world forgot

Mogadishu’s best barometer of ­violence is the little blackboard on which Dr Taher Mahmoud daily records the number of patients in his hospital. For the last 20 years the tall surgeon with huge hands has been operating on the victims of the city’s civil war.

“It’s good times now,” he told me when we met a few weeks ago. “We are only getting four to six gunshot casualties a day. That’s very good.” He pointed at the blackboard covered with his neat white handwriting: it recorded that 86 patients were undergoing treatment. “During the Ethiopian war [2007-08] we had 300 in this hospital.”

… with the exception of the latest pirate drama, Somalia is the country the world forgot, a state so broken that scenes which would elsewhere dominate international news bulletins are barely noted on the foreign pages of major newspapers. Last year Foreign Policy magazine ranked Somalia as the state most at risk of total collapse, a verdict some might have considered flattering.

Yesterday I spoke to Mahmoud again. The hospital was full and around 40 patients were having to sleep under the trees outside. “We need tents to shelter the patients from rain, and medicine is running very low. If the fighting continues we will be without medicine.” The number on his blackboard was 167. [continued…]

As military advances, Taliban threat rises

Ongoing military operations in Swat Valley are expected to provoke more revenge attacks like the one that killed at least 20 people in Lahore this week, analysts and security experts say, urging the intelligence agencies to step up their monitoring of militant cells.

“I don’t believe the terrorists’ claim that they can mount attacks across Pakistan but they will certainly target the major cities,” said Lt Gen Kamal Matinuddin, a retired army officer and military analyst.

“What is the requirement of the moment is that the intelligence agencies must more effectively penetrate their training facilities – they must know where they are as it is established they are in the madrasas,” he said. [continued…]

Taliban’s foreign support vexes US

U.S.officials recently concluded that the Afghan Taliban may receive as much money from foreign donors as it does from opium sales, potentially hindering the Obama administration’s strategy to rehabilitate Afghanistan by stopping the country’s drug trade.

Gen. David Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said in a recent interview that the Taliban has three main sources of funding: drug revenue; payments from legitimate businesses that are secretly owned by the armed group or that pay it kickbacks; and donations from foreign charitable foundations and individuals.

“You have funds generated locally, funds that come in from the outside, and funds that come from the illegal narcotics business,” he said. “It’s a hotly debated topic as to which is the most significant and it may be that they are all roughly around the same level.” [continued…]



After Iraq, it’s not just North Korea that wants a bomb

The big power denunciation of North Korea’s nuclear weapons test on Monday could not have been more sweeping. Barack Obama called the Hiroshima-scale ­underground explosion a “blatant violation of international law”, and pledged to “stand up” to North ­Korea – as if it were a military giant of the Pacific – while Korea’s former imperial master Japan branded the bomb a “clear crime”, and even its long-suffering ally China declared itself “resolutely opposed” to what had taken place.

The protests were met with ­further North Korean missile tests, as UN ­security council members plotted tighter sanctions and South Korea signed up to a US programme to intercept ships suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction. Pyongyang had already said it would regard such a move as an act of war. So yesterday, nearly 60 years after the conflagration that made a charnel house of the Korean peninsula, North Korea said it was no longer bound by the armistice that ended it and warned that any attempt to search or seize its vessels would be met with a “powerful military strike”.

The hope must be that rhetorical inflation on both sides proves to be largely bluster, as in previous confrontations. Even the US doesn’t believe North Korea poses any threat of aggression against the south, home to nearly 30,000 American troops and covered by its nuclear umbrella. But the idea, much canvassed in recent days, that there is something irrational in North Korea’s attempt to acquire nuclear weapons is clearly absurd. This is, after all, a state that has been targeted for regime change by the US ever since the end of the cold war, included as one of the select group of three in George Bush’s axis of evil in 2002, and whose Clinton administration guarantee of “no hostile intent” was explicitly withdrawn by his successor. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — In the original conception of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, non-proliferation and disarmament were clearly recognized as two sides of the same coin, but in subsequent years non-proliferation came to be seen as a realistic goal while disarmament was dismissed as the stuff of dreams.

What turns out to have been a fantasy was that the two goals could be decoupled. This suggests that the self-described realists are having a hard time grasping reality, or, that in some Hobbesian sense they feel comfortable with the idea of a fully nuclearized world.

In such a world, nuclear weapons will inevitably be used.

Is that the dividend of the end of the Cold War? That the supreme expression of state power can be put to use without destroying the world — merely a few hundred thousand people here or there?

The choice ultimately is not between a global system through which nuclear arms can be managed and one in which proliferation runs out of control; it is between one in which nuclear annihilation occasionally takes place and one in which such a risk has been eradicated.

Alone at the table

Kim Jong Il has always been pretty wacky, with his bouffant hair and awkward habit of kidnapping actresses, but at least the diminutive Dear Leader was someone you could talk with now and then. Today, with a stroke-damaged Kim apparently in eclipse and North Korea erupting out of control again, Barack Obama has a serious problem. As much as he might like to, it doesn’t look as if the president has anyone to engage with, even in North Korea’s traditional language of blackmail.

The puzzle in Pyongyang is bad enough for Obama, but it’s just one part of a larger problem now facing Washington.

On a number of perilous fronts—Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Mideast—this most diplomatically oriented of American presidents, who came into office four months ago eager for “engagement,” has few responsible or dependable parties with whom he can negotiate. As a result, despite Obama’s best intentions, each of these foreign-policy problems is likely to grow much worse—possibly disastrously worse—before it gets any better. [continued…]

Tests point to spread of weapons trade

Signs of growth in North Korea’s nuclear program and the country’s increasing isolation are renewing fears about Pyongyang’s ability and need to smuggle weapons of mass destruction around the world, said U.S. and United Nations officials.

North Korea’s arms trade has focused on Iran and Syria, countries Washington views as state sponsors of terrorism, as well as Libya. Officials say North Korean arms have also been sold to nations allied with the U.S., such as Egypt and Pakistan, and to the military regime in Myanmar.

The concerns about North Korean weapons proliferation were heightened this week with Pyongyang’s underground test of a nuclear weapon and several short-range missile launches. Sales of short- and medium-range missile systems remain among North Korea’s largest export earners, part of an arms trade that generates $1.5 billion annually for Pyongyang, say North Korea analysts.

With the international community looking to punish the regime for the nuclear test, U.S. and U.N. officials say Pyongyang could try to increase exports of its nuclear and missile technologies as it gradually loses its ability to obtain hard currency from foreign aid and exports to markets such as Japan and South Korea. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — This should amount to stating the utterly obvious (but unfortunately doesn’t): if the chosen method for punishing unacceptable behavior turns out to promote unacceptable behavior, then it’s an ill-conceived form of punishment.

North Korea is attached to its isolation. Engagement isn’t a “reward” (as the neocons would have everyone believe); it should and can be the antidote for the regime’s pathological tendencies.

Leadership mystery amid North Korea’s nuclear work

In dealing with North Korea, American officials are reduced to studying two-month-old photographs of its reclusive leader, Kim Jong-il, to calculate how long he is likely to live. The new administration’s North Korea team includes a special emissary who works part time as an academic dean and a State Department official who has yet to be confirmed by Congress.

And as President Obama tries to find a way to punish North Korea for its latest nuclear test and missile launchings, his senior aides acknowledge that every policy option employed by previous presidents over the past dozen years — whether hard or soft, political or economic — has been fruitless in stopping North Korea from building a nuclear weapon.

“As much as they understood this was going to be an issue, they weren’t ready for a nuclear test in May,” Marcus Noland, an expert on North Korea at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said of Mr. Obama and his advisers. “They’re in a situation now where they have to contain and manage a crisis.” [continued…]

Obama in Netanyahu’s web

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, won the first round over President Barack Obama. That’s not good for American interests or for Israel’s long-term security.

All the overblown reciprocal compliments could not hide evident tensions — over Iran and Israel-Palestine and how the two are linked. In the end, Obama blinked.

The president ceded to Israeli pressure for a timetable on any Iran talks, saying a “reassessment” should be possible by year’s end (Israel had pressed for an October deadline). Obama talked of the possibility of “much stronger international sanctions” against Iran, undermining his groundbreaking earlier overture that included a core truth: “This process will not be advanced by threats.”

Obama also allowed Netanyahu to compliment him for “leaving all options on the table” — the standard formula for a possible U.S. military strike against Iran — when he said nothing of the sort. The president did, however, use that tired phrase in a Newsweek interview this month — another mistake given the unthinkable consequences of a third U.S. war front in the Muslim world.

In return, what did Obama get? Not even acknowledgment from Netanyahu that Palestinian statehood, rather than some form of eternal limbo, is the notional goal of negotiations.

Score one for Netanyahu, who, in the words of one former American official who knows him well, “is the kind of guy who negotiates the time he will go to the bathroom.” [continued…]

Israel rebuffs U.S. call for total settlement freeze

Israel will press ahead with housing construction in its West Bank settlements despite a surprisingly blunt demand from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that all such building stop, an Israeli official said Thursday.

The Israeli position could set the stage for a showdown with the U.S. on the day President Barack Obama meets his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, at the White House. Abbas has said the freeze of the Israeli settlements will top his agenda in the talks.

Israel contests that new construction must take place to accommodate for expanding families inside the existing settlements, which the U.S. and much of the world consider an obstacle to peace because they are built on land the Palestinians claim for a future state.

When asked to respond to Clinton’s call for a total settlement freeze, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that normal life in those communities must be allowed to continue. Pressed on whether the phrase normal life meant some construction will take place in existing settlements, Regev said it did. [continued…]

Knesset okays initial bill to outlaw denial of ‘Jewish state’

The Knesset plenum gave initial approval on Wednesday to a bill that would make it a crime to publicly deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, punishable by a sentence of up to a year in prison.

The measure was the latest of several introduced in the past week by right-wing lawmakers and denounced by critics as an assault on free speech, particularly for Israeli Arab citizens, most of whom are of Palestinian origin.

It would outlaw the publication of any “call to negate Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state, where the content of such publication would have a reasonable possibility of causing an act of hatred, disdain or disloyalty” to Israel. [continued…]

Israelis get four-fifths of scarce West Bank water, says World Bank

A deepening drought in the Middle East is aggravating a dispute over water resources after the World Bank found that Israel is taking four times as much water as the Palestinians from a vital shared aquifer.

The region faces a fifth consecutive year of drought this summer, but the World Bank report found huge disparities in water use between Israelis and Palestinians, although both share the mountain aquifer that runs the length of the occupied West Bank. Palestinians have access to only a fifth of the water supply, while Israel, which controls the area, takes the rest, the bank said.

Israelis use 240 cubic metres of water a person each year, against 75 cubic metres for West Bank Palestinians and 125 for Gazans, the bank said. Increasingly, West Bank Palestinians must rely on water bought from the Israeli national water company, Mekorot. [continued…]

Israel destroying Gaza’s farmlands

On the morning of 4 May 2009, Israeli troops set fire to Palestinian crops along Gaza’s eastern border with Israel. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) reported that 200,000 square meters of crops were destroyed, including wheat and barley ready for harvest, as well as vegetables, olive and pomegranate trees.

Local farmers report that the blaze carried over a four-kilometer stretch on the Palestinian side of the eastern border land. Ibrahim Hassan Safadi, 49, from one of the farming families whose crops were destroyed by the blaze, said that the fires were smoldering until early evening, despite efforts by the fire brigades to extinguish them.

Safadi says he was present when Israeli soldiers fired small bombs into his field, which soon after caught ablaze. He explained that “The Israeli soldiers fired from their jeeps, causing a fire to break out on the land. They burned the wheat, burned the pomegranate trees … The fire spread across the valley. We called the fire brigades. They came to the area and put out the fire. But in some places the fire started again.” According to Safadi, he lost 30,000 square meters to the blaze, including 300 pomegranate trees, 150 olive trees, and wheat. [continued…]

Iraq redux? Obama seeks funds for Pakistan super-embassy

The U.S. is embarking on a $1 billion crash program to expand its diplomatic presence in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan, another sign that the Obama administration is making a costly, long-term commitment to war-torn South Asia, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

The White House has asked Congress for — and seems likely to receive — $736 million to build a new U.S. embassy in Islamabad, along with permanent housing for U.S. government civilians and new office space in the Pakistani capital.

The scale of the projects rivals the giant U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which was completed last year after construction delays at a cost of $740 million. [continued…]

Abu Ghraib abuse photos ‘show rape’

Photographs of alleged prisoner abuse which Barack Obama is attempting to censor include images of apparent rape and sexual abuse, it has emerged.

At least one picture shows an American soldier apparently raping a female prisoner while another is said to show a male translator raping a male detainee.

Further photographs are said to depict sexual assaults on prisoners with objects including a truncheon, wire and a phosphorescent tube. [continued…]

In Iraq, assertive parliament emerges under new speaker

In a test of wills that could shape Iraq’s turbulent politics for years to come, the country’s parliament has moved decisively against a minister accused of corruption and has threatened to summon Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to answer lawmakers’ questions.

The struggle over Trade Minister Abdul Falah al-Sudani in recent days is more than just the typical debate between legislative and executive powers. The newly elected speaker of parliament, Ayad al-Samarraie, a Sunni Arab, is attempting to reshape the institution ahead of crucial elections scheduled for January, eight months before the Obama administration has pledged to withdraw most combat troops from Iraq.

“The government kept parliament weak for the past three years,” Wael Abdel Latif, an independent lawmaker, said Monday. “But now, with Samarraie in power, it’s becoming stronger, and it’s assuming its rightful place.” [continued…]



Second nuclear test: North Korea does what it says

North Korea did exactly what it said it would do on May 25, 2009, when it conducted a nuclear test as promised in its April 28, 2009, statement in response to UN sanctions imposed on three North Korean firms in accordance with an April 13, 2009, UN Security Council Presidential Statement condemning North Korea’s April 5, 2009, missile test. The test furthers North Korea’s strategic objective of making permanent its status as a nuclear weapons state. North Korea’s announcement of the test shows that a primary political target of North Korea’s nuclear test is domestic, as was the case with North Korea’s April 5th missile launch. [continued…]

No more sunshine in North Korea

North Korea’s latest actions, seen as recklessly dangerous by the outside world, may be broadly explained in three ways. The first is that Pyongyang is in the grip of an intensifying power struggle over the succession to the country’s ailing president and Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il.

The 67-year-old Kim recently re-emerged in public after suffering what appeared to have been a stroke last year. But he did not look well – almost a shadow of his former chubby, occasionally ebullient self. Some Korea-watchers suggest Kim has not fully recovered from the death in 2004 of Ko Young-hee, North Korea’s de facto First Lady and the mother of the younger two of his three sons.

Signs of internal tensions have continued to grow despite Kim’s political resurrection, including a cabinet reshuffle in which about one-third of ministers lost their jobs or were reassigned. A similar shake-up is said to have taken place among the highest ranks of the military. [continued…]

North Korea will not be ignored

… this represents President Obama’s first foreign policy failure. Obama followed the advice of staff who recommended ignoring North Korea. The argument was that North Korea had no place to go and would eventually come back to negotiations. This was a strategy endorsed by many former Bush officials. There was nothing like the diplomatic approaches that Obama has started with Iran–and North Korea noticed.

Obama officials even put preconditions on renewing negotiations, reportedly blocking Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth from going to North Korea until that country promised not to conduct another missile test. Officials also backed the tough line taken by South Korea, including curtailing fuel shipments to the north. Worse, some officials seem to have concluded that North Korea’s program cannot be stopped, that the best we can do is “manage” the problem.

But North Korea will not be ignored. Or managed. Or coerced into compliance or collapse. These approaches were tried in the Bush administration. They failed. They only gave Pyongyang time to increase the threat of its nuclear and missile programs and export of sensitive technologies. [continued…]

Netanyahu bringing Israel closer to war with Iran

Three arguments are normally made to reject the likelihood of an Israeli military option: the complexity of the mission, the U.S. veto and opposition in the government. It is usually assumed that Israel will seek to repeat the 1981 bombing of the nuclear reactor in Iraq. This is only one scenario and not a likely one.

There are other possibilities to consider: a war in the north that drags Iran in, or a strike against a valuable target for the Iranian regime, which leads Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to take action against “the Zionist regime.” If Iran attacks Israel first, the element of surprise will be lost, but then Israel’s strike against the nuclear installations will be considered self-defense.

The second argument, regarding American opposition to a strike, depends on the circumstances. It’s hard to imagine that Obama will order the interception of Israeli aircraft on the way to Natanz if all other ways of stopping the centrifuges have failed. Clearly the administration will have to chastise Israel, and let’s not forget the statements by CIA chief Leon Panetta, who warned against any operation not coordinated with the United States. But no one knows how Obama will behave in the moment of truth. He told Newsweek that he will not tell Israelis what their defense requirements are. Netanyahu liked this very much. [continued…]

Have we already lost Iran?

President Obama’s Iran policy has, in all likelihood, already failed. On its present course, the White House’s approach will not stop Tehran’s development of a nuclear fuel program — or, as Iran’s successful test of a medium-range, solid-fuel missile last week underscored, military capacities of other sorts. It will also not provide an alternative to continued antagonism between the United States and Iran — a posture that for 30 years has proved increasingly damaging to the interests of the United States and its allies in the Middle East.

This judgment may seem both premature and overly severe. We do not make it happily. We voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and we still want him to succeed in reversing the deterioration in America’s strategic position. But we also believe that successful diplomacy with Iran is essential to that end. Unless President Obama and his national security team take a fundamentally different approach to Tehran, they will not achieve a breakthrough.

This is a genuine shame, for President Obama had the potential to do so much better for America’s position in the Middle East. In his greeting to “the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” on the Persian New Year in March, Mr. Obama included language meant to assuage Iranian skepticism about America’s willingness to end efforts to topple the regime and pursue comprehensive diplomacy. [continued…]

Iran’s Ahmadinejad rejects Western nuclear proposal

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Monday rejected a Western proposal for it to “freeze” its nuclear work in return for no new sanctions and ruled out any talks with major powers on the issue.

The comments by the conservative president, who is seeking a second term in a June 12 election, are likely to further disappoint the U.S. administration of President Barack Obama, which is seeking to engage Iran diplomatically. [continued…]

Big crowd for moderate reflects serious challenge to Iran’s leader

The strongest challenger to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attracted an unusually large and exuberant crowd of supporters on Monday during a campaign speech in this northwest city near the candidate’s birthplace, with only a few weeks before national elections that the incumbent stands a serious chance of losing.

The crowd for the challenger, Mir Hussein Moussavi, was extraordinary not only for its size — an estimated 30,000 — but also because the supporters were not paid, given free food, bused in or ordered by their workplaces to attend, a tactic sometimes used by Mr. Ahmadinejad’s campaign.

Many traveled here in private cars and learned about the rally despite new government restrictions on Facebook, the social networking site, which Mr. Moussavi’s campaign had been using to spread word of his candidacy among the country’s predominantly young electorate. The supporters gave a rousing welcome to Mr. Moussavi, who was born in Khameneh, a small town in the Azerbaijan area of Iran. [continued…]

They may not want the bomb — and other unexpected truths

Everything you know about Iran is wrong, or at least more complicated than you think. Take the bomb. The regime wants to be a nuclear power but could well be happy with a peaceful civilian program (which could make the challenge it poses more complex). What’s the evidence? Well, over the last five years, senior Iranian officials at every level have repeatedly asserted that they do not intend to build nuclear weapons. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has quoted the regime’s founding father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who asserted that such weapons were “un-Islamic.” The country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa in 2004 describing the use of nuclear weapons as immoral. In a subsequent sermon, he declared that “developing, producing or stockpiling nuclear weapons is forbidden under Islam.” Last year Khamenei reiterated all these points after meeting with the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei. Now, of course, they could all be lying. But it seems odd for a regime that derives its legitimacy from its fidelity to Islam to declare constantly that these weapons are un-Islamic if it intends to develop them. It would be far shrewder to stop reminding people of Khomeini’s statements and stop issuing new fatwas against nukes. [continued…]

Mohamed ElBaradei: ‘They are not fanatics’

The election of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s Prime Minister has complicated matters. He’s left open the possibility Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Unfortunately, we have to keep saying what we have been saying for years (and being vilified for it by the neocons): there is no military solution. There is only a diplomatic solution. Israeli President Shimon Peres made the point that you cannot bomb the knowledge [of Iranian nuclear scientists]. I wish that sort of thing had been said three years ago.

Had the Bush administration been more flexible, do you think it could have had a deal to freeze the Iranian enrichment program in its experimental phases?
There is no way you are able to deny them the knowledge. But if they do not have the industrial capacity, they do not have weapons. It is as simple as that. I have seen the Iranians ready to accept putting a cap on their enrichment [program] in terms of tens of centrifuges, and then in terms of hundreds of centrifuges. But nobody even tried to engage them on these offers. Now Iran has 5,000 centrifuges. The line was, “Iran will buckle under pressure.” But this issue has become so ingrained in the Iranian soul as a matter of national pride. They talk about their nuclear program as if they had gone to the moon. And they also understood—unfortunately, not wrongly—that if you have the know-how, you’re still kosher within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And yet you are sending a message: I can do this; I have bought myself an insurance policy, and you don’t want to mess with me. [continued…]

Israel pulls plug on Iran regime change shop

Israeli media are reporting that a small and unconventional Iran office in the Israeli Ministry of Defense will be shut down. The 30-year-old office has been headed by 83-year-old Uri Lubrani, who was de facto Israeli ambassador to Iran in the 1970s and famously predicted the fall of the shah. While the closure of the office may seem a minor bureaucratic matter, it also speaks to the demise of an idea that gained currency in some Washington circles just a few years ago and then faded: that the United States might support a plan of regime change in Iran.

Lubrani and his aide Itzhak Barzilay, who both served in Israel’s embassy in Iran in the 1970s, ran the small office on a shoe-string budget in an outpost of low buildings on the Defense Ministry’s Tel Aviv compound, overshadowed by two gleaming ministry office towers.

The unit (technically known as the Lebanon coordinator unit, perhaps because of Iran’s role in Lebanon) had in later years just four people and ran on a budget of just over a million dollars per year, according to Haaretz. “The main purpose of the unit was to maintain links with the Iranian community and political organizations, and follow the media in Iran.” [continued…]

Israel’s parliament to consider loyalty oath

An ultranationalist party headed by the Israeli Foreign Minister said yesterday that it has prepared legislation linking citizenship to an oath of allegiance, in what amounted to a threat to the country’s Arabs to swear loyalty to the Jewish state or risk severe punishment.

The bill follows a separate proposal on Sunday by the same party that would make it illegal for Arabs to mourn the “catastrophe” – the term Palestinians use to describe their defeat and exile in the war that surrounded Israel’s founding.

Both proposals by the Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party focus on the perceived disloyalty of the country’s Arab citizens, roughly a fifth of Israel’s population of seven million. [continued…]

Rahm Emanuel’s Mideast mission

William Daroff, who directs the Washington office of the United Jewish Communities and knows Emanuel, calls him “Obama’s secret weapon.” It’s not just that Obama can use Emanuel’s Israel-friendly reputation as a kind of shield, allowing him to display “tough love” toward the Jewish state. Daroff told NEWSWEEK Rahm has such a nuanced understanding of Israeli politics, he can easily act as the president’s BS detector as negotiations go forward. “The Israelis aren’t going to be able to slide anything past the administration because Rahm is who he is.” The Hebrew-speaking Emanuel, as much as anyone on the American side, will know if the Israeli prime minister is bluffing about his “red line” on Iran, or what he can really do about halting settlements in the West Bank. (Asked to comment, Emanuel’s spokeswoman, Sarah Feinberg, told newsweek that his goal was to ensure that the president has “every option available to him as we pursue peace.”)

Emanuel’s status as a near-native son gave some Israelis and Jews the impression he would be their guy on the Obama team—the pro-Israeli with the receptive ear. He had those golden Zionist credentials, after all: His father, Benjamin, had been a member of the Irgun, the right-wing Jewish militia that existed before Israeli independence. His Uncle Emanuel had been killed in a skirmish with Arabs back in the ’30s, prompting the family to change its name from Auerbach to honor him. But some in the Jewish community have been disappointed. Even his own rabbi, Asher Lopatin, has doubts about his absent congregant. “There is a lot of disappointment,” says Lopatin, who presides over the Modern Orthodox Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago. “In some ways there was a heightened expectation because Rahm is so connected to Israel and the Jewish community. Instead what we’ve seen is more of the tough Rahm Emanuel. Not the warm Rahm.” [continued…]

My hotel is filled with young people who have come to ‘break the siege,’ like freedom riders

It’s Monday night in Egypt. We are in El-Arish, a resort town about 20 minutes from the Gaza border, where we will go first thing tomorrow morning. I’m with a group of 13 activists and humanitarians mostly from New York, but the hotel is teeming with 45 or so other activists who have answered the call to come to Gaza to try and break the blockade. Most of them are young and sunburned; they have spent the day at the border not getting in. The good news tonight is that a European delegation of 100 people, with a convoy of ambulances and trucks and cars, seems to have gotten through the border after being held up by Egyptian authorities for several days.

We got that rumor at dinner and it has filled our group with confidence. Afterward, we bought bicycle pumps for the dozens of soccer balls we are bringing in, and I grabbed a handful of cosmetics tonight, just because life is not bread alone.

It’s an inspiring scene in the hotel. I wonder if Memphis hotels didn’t feel like this during the freedom rides. You see college kids walking around in 1948 (Nakba) t-shirts, and Penn State t-shirts too. Some carry guitars to play at the border tomorrow, many of the women wear head scarves. You sense that the issue has finally shed its oriental taboo and taking hold among the young. [continued…]

Jerusalem is not on the table, says Israel

Israel and the US now appear to be on a collision course after the announcement yesterday by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel would continue expanding its existing settlements.

Mr Netanyahu told the first cabinet meeting since his meeting with US President Barack Obama that Israel would not begin new settlements on the West Bank but that it would allow “natural growth” in existing settlements.

This was clearly at odds with Mr Obama’s request last week that Israel should stop settlement activity, a request reinforced the following day by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who specifically said there should be an end to “natural growth” after Israeli officials had been using the term following the meeting with Mr Obama. [continued…]

New evidence points to Hezbollah in Hariri murder

In months of painstaking work, a secretly operating special unit of the Lebanese security forces, headed by intelligence expert Captain Wissam Eid, filtered out the numbers of mobile phones that could be pinpointed to the area surrounding Hariri on the days leading up to the attack and on the date of the murder itself. The investigators referred to these mobile phones as the “first circle of hell.”

Captain Eid’s team eventually identified eight mobile phones, all of which had been purchased on the same day in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. They were activated six weeks before the assassination, and they were used exclusively for communication among their users and — with the exception of one case — were no longer used after the attack. They were apparently tools of the hit team that carried out the terrorist attack.

But there was also a “second circle of hell,” a network of about 20 mobile phones that were identified as being in proximity to the first eight phones noticeably often. According to the Lebanese security forces, all of the numbers involved apparently belong to the “operational arm” of Hezbollah, which maintains a militia in Lebanon that is more powerful than the regular Lebanese army. While part of the Party of God acts like a normal political organization, participating in democratic elections and appointing cabinet ministers, the other part uses less savory tactics, such as abductions near the Israeli border and terrorist attacks, such those committed against Jewish facilities in South America in 2002 and 2004.

The whereabouts of the two Beirut groups of mobile phone users coincided again and again, and they were sometimes located near the site of the attack. The romantic attachment of one of the terrorists led the cyber-detectives directly to one of the main suspects. He committed the unbelievable indiscretion of calling his girlfriend from one of the “hot” phones. It only happened once, but it was enough to identify the man. He is believed to be Abd al-Majid Ghamlush, from the town of Rumin, a Hezbollah member who had completed training course in Iran. Ghamlush was also identified as the buyer of the mobile phones. He has since disappeared, and perhaps is no longer alive. [continued…]

Spiegel article probably a plant

The Der Spiegel article is suspicious for many reasons. Here are a few put forward by SC readers:

1. The timing suggests that the story was released to provide maximum damage to Hizbullah’s and Aoun’s likely success in the elections.

2. The most recent UN investigative teams (in contradistinction to Mehlis) have been excellent at not politicizing or leaking evidence from the case.

3. Nasrallah has no record of assassinating Lebanese political figures that stand in his way.

4. The accusations against Syria in 2005 and 2006 turned out to be based on false witness, why should we trust this bombshell?

5. There are accusations that Der Spiegel and Israeli intelligence are in close cahoots. [continued…]

Pakistani refugee crisis poses peril

Bacha Zab, a 32-year-old fruit salesman, dodged army shelling and Taliban sniper fire to escape his native Swat Valley. But when he reached the safety of a government-run refugee camp in this northwestern Pakistani city, he was told there was no more room.

Instead, for the past 16 days, Zab, his wife and their four children have been in the care of a private Islamic charity with close ties to a banned militant organization. “We are asking for help from the government, but they won’t give it,” Zab said. “In the government camps, there are only problems.”

The government has been overwhelmed by the human tide that has washed over the northwest as about 2 million people have fled fierce clashes in Swat. With Pakistan experiencing its largest exodus since the nation’s partition from India in 1947, only a fraction of the displaced civilians are receiving assistance in government-run camps. The rest are fending for themselves or getting help from private charities, including some that are allied with the very forces the Pakistani army is fighting in Swat. [continued…]

Cheney’s bunker mentality

Say what you will about Dick Cheney, at least he’s consistent. While he was in office, the Vice President made a practice of exploiting the fear and loss wrought by the 9/11 attacks to advance his own political agenda—and he’s still doing it now. During his speech at the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday, according to Dana Milbank’s calculations in the Washington Post, “Cheney used the word ‘attack’ 19 times, ‘danger’ and ‘threat’ six times apiece, and 9/11 an impressive 27 times.”

In this putative rebuttal to Obama’s speech on national security, Cheney described how he spent the morning of 9/11 “in a fortified White House command post,” receiving “the reports and images that so many Americans remember from that day,” and then declared:

In the years since, I’ve heard occasional speculation that I’m a different man after 9/11. I wouldn’t say that. But I’ll freely admit that watching a coordinated, devastating attack on our country from an underground bunker at the White House can affect how you view your responsibilities.

Since he’s evoking his experience as a rationalization for torture, this might be a good time to review exactly what it was that Cheney was doing in the bunker on that terrible day. [continued…]

Land of the safe and home of the cruel

Between May 15, when President Obama announced that he would keep the Bush-era Military Commissions to try enemy combatants, and May 21 when he replied to the opponents of his decision to close Guantanamo, we had an opportunity to judge the temper of this administration on issues of national security and the defense of civil liberties.

Obama’s May 21 speech at the National Archives combined a general repudiation of the Bush-Cheney policies with a surprising concession to methods that the former vice president, Dick Cheney, tried to graft onto the Constitution. This approach the Constitution repels as surely as a healthy body rejects poison; for in the Cheney interpretation, the common-law right of prisoners to be charged with a crime and to have due process in challenging the accusation was abridged in cases specified by the executive. Cheney singled out for detention as “enemy combatants” persons suspected of being hard-core terrorists without there being sufficient identification to charge or sufficient evidence to convict them.

We may think ourselves a safe country, but we can hardly be the United States of 1776, of 1865, and of 1945 so long as we retain a power imported by Dick Cheney and his lawyers from the 17th century into the 21st — the power of government to imprison and keep in jail a person against whom nothing has been proved and nothing charged. It is a bondage as complete as slavery; and like slavery, it can last for life. [continued…]


Note to regular readers

NOTE TO REGULAR READERS: Due to a family emergency I may not be able to update War in Context over the next few days. PW



Iran nuclear danger downplayed in reports

A pair of reports released Tuesday by prominent think tanks downplay the potential dangers presented by Iran, concluding that Tehran is at least six years away from building a deliverable nuclear weapon and that its ability to wreak havoc in the Middle East through surrogates is exaggerated.

A report by a group of Russian and American scientists and engineers at the EastWest Institute concludes that although Iran could build a nuclear device within one to three years of deciding to do so, it would not be able to deliver a long-range weapon for many more years. The scientists also say that a U.S. missile defense system being considered for Central Europe would be useless against an Iranian nuclear weapon.

A separate 230-page report by the Rand Corp., the result of political and military research for the U.S. Air Force begun in 2007, found Iran a less formidable adversary than some believe.

The report notes “significant barriers and buffers” to Iran’s ambitions because of the reality of regional ethnic and religious politics and “its limited conventional military capacity, diplomatic isolation and past strategic missteps.”

It argues for exploiting the gap between Iran’s ambitions and abilities while engaging with Tehran on areas of mutual interest, such as Afghanistan. [continued…]

Arms sent by U.S. may be falling into Taliban hands

Insurgents in Afghanistan, fighting from some of the poorest and most remote regions on earth, have managed for years to maintain an intensive guerrilla war against materially superior American and Afghan forces.

Arms and ordnance collected from dead insurgents hint at one possible reason: Of 30 rifle magazines recently taken from insurgents’ corpses, at least 17 contained cartridges, or rounds, identical to ammunition the United States had provided to Afghan government forces, according to an examination of ammunition markings by The New York Times and interviews with American officers and arms dealers.

The presence of this ammunition among the dead in the Korangal Valley, an area of often fierce fighting near Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, strongly suggests that munitions procured by the Pentagon have leaked from Afghan forces for use against American troops.

The scope of that diversion remains unknown, and the 30 magazines represented a single sampling of fewer than 1,000 cartridges. But military officials, arms analysts and dealers say it points to a worrisome possibility: With only spotty American and Afghan controls on the vast inventory of weapons and ammunition sent into Afghanistan during an eight-year conflict, poor discipline and outright corruption among Afghan forces may have helped insurgents stay supplied. [continued…]

Swat valley could be worst refugee crisis since Rwanda, UN warns

The human exodus from the war-torn Swat valley in northern Pakistan is turning into the world’s most dramatic displacement crisis since the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the UN refugee agency warned.

Almost 1.5 million people have registered for assistance since fighting erupted three weeks ago, the UNHCR said, bringing the total number of war displaced in North West Frontier province to more than 2 million, not including 300,000 the provincial government believes have not registered. “It’s been a long time since there has been a displacement this big,” the UNHCR’s spokesman Ron Redmond said in Geneva, trying to recall the last time so many people had been uprooted so quickly. “It could go back to Rwanda.” [continued…]

Trial of CIA, Italian agents provides rare look at intelligence work

The two spies were allies and kindred spirits.

Robert Seldon Lady, the CIA station chief in Milan, and Col. Stefano D’Ambrosio, the local head of the SISMI, Italy’s intelligence agency, shared pride in their fight against terrorism and disdain for self-serving bosses.

On a fall day in 2002, the American made an explosive revelation. He told D’Ambrosio that, over his objections, a CIA team was in Milan doing reconnaissance for the “rendition” of an Egyptian extremist ideologue. The American was worried that the risky operation would ruin his carefully built alliances, D’Ambrosio testified years later, and could even lead to a shootout between the Americans and the Italians if things went awry on the street.

With an urgent look, spy to spy, Lady said: “Talk to your people.”

D’Ambrosio recalled that he got the unspoken message: “In other words, he says . . . ‘This whole thing is so crazy that if . . . two operational chiefs in the field, who know the area, who work in this territory, say that an action is completely crazy, probably they will back off.’ ” [continued…]

Obama works to own Middle East timetable

Much of the US media on Tuesday morning flagged up President Barack Obama’s statement in talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would make a judgement by the end of 2009 as to whether Iran was negotiating in good faith about its nuclear programme.

Some have flagged this up as the kind of “deadline” that his Israeli visitor, Mr Netanyahu, would have liked.

However Monday’s statement from the president seems designed more to address those in this country and others who have suggested that his policy of dialogue with Iran is interpreted in that country as a sign of irresolution, something that buys them additional time to work flat out on their military nuclear capability. [continued…]

Expansion of settlement ‘slap in Obama’s face’

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plane landed in Washington Sunday, contractors were being given a tour of the northern Jordan Valley settlement Maskiot in the framework of a tender that was issued to build a new neighborhood there.

“The tender is part of the process to populate the community,” Jordan Valley Regional Council Chairman David Elhayani told Ynet.

“This process takes a few months to complete. The timing is coincidental, and anyone who says otherwise is jeopardizing Israel’s security-related interests. There is a consensus among the Zionist parties that the Jordan Valley must remain under Israel’s control in any future (peace) agreement.”

Peace Now Secretary-General Yariv Oppenheimer said the fact that the contractors’ tour coincided with Netanyahu’s trip to Washington was “an indication of the government’s plan to expand isolated settlements.

“This sends a clear message to the US and the international community as a whole regarding the government’s plan to expand settlement construction,” he said. [continued…]

Corruption probe appalls — and encourages — Iraqis

For the first time since modern Iraq was founded in the 1920s, a sitting government minister has been questioned publicly about corruption allegations, in this case about skimming millions of dollars from a national food-distribution program while ordinary Iraqis went hungry.

The parliamentary grilling of Trade Minister Abdul Falah al Sudany ran live Saturday and Sunday on state television, and everyone in Baghdad seems to have been watching.

“During Saddam’s time we could only dream of seeing something like this,” said Ali Hameed, 25, who was shopping at a market in Jadriyah.

By Monday afternoon, 100 legislators had signed a petition for a vote of no confidence in the trade minister, said Bassim Sharif, a member of parliament from the Shiite Muslim Fadhila Party. Only 50 are needed to call the vote, and a simple majority of the 275-seat parliament can force a resignation. [continued…]



The torture memos and historical amnesia

The torture memos released by the White House elicited shock, indignation, and surprise. The shock and indignation are understandable. The surprise, less so.

For one thing, even without inquiry, it was reasonable to suppose that Guantanamo was a torture chamber. Why else send prisoners where they would be beyond the reach of the law — a place, incidentally, that Washington is using in violation of a treaty forced on Cuba at the point of a gun? Security reasons were, of course, alleged, but they remain hard to take seriously. The same expectations held for the Bush administration’s “black sites,” or secret prisons, and for extraordinary rendition, and they were fulfilled.

More importantly, torture has been routinely practiced from the early days of the conquest of the national territory, and continued to be used as the imperial ventures of the “infant empire” — as George Washington called the new republic — extended to the Philippines, Haiti, and elsewhere. Keep in mind as well that torture was the least of the many crimes of aggression, terror, subversion, and economic strangulation that have darkened U.S. history, much as in the case of other great powers. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Every nation is subject to its own particular form of historical amnesia. Likewise, imperial powers have their own grandiose revisionist tendencies. Yet there is another form of historical denial particular to recently invented nations whose myth-making efforts are inextricably bound together with the process of the nation’s birth.

Whereas older nations are by and large populated by people whose ancestral roots penetrated that land well before it took on the clear definition of a nation state, the majority of the people in an invented nation — such as the United States or Israel — have ancestry that inevitably leads elsewhere. This exposes the ephemeral link between the peoples’ history and the nation’s history.

Add to that the fact that such nations came into being through grotesque acts of dispossession and it is clear that a psychological drive to hold aloft an atemporal exceptionalism becomes an existential necessity. National security requires that the past be erased.

If Americans or Israelis were to truly own their past, they would end up demolishing the foundation upon which their national identity rests.

Relentless player to push for Palestinian state

She once yelled at an Israeli ambassador over Israel’s arms sales to China. Then she took a senior member of the Palestinian Authority to the woodshed over corruption.

Mara Rudman, the Hyannis-bred executive secretary of President Obama’s National Security Council, is known for being tough on everyone.

“She is capable of staring you down and making you back down without even opening her mouth,” said M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy analysis at the Israel Policy Forum, a progressive Jewish group. “She’s a real New Englander: very serious, not frivolous. I have a lot of respect for her.”

Later this month, State Department officials said, Rudman, 46, will be appointed chief of staff to the “dream team” that is being assembled by Special Envoy George Mitchell to tackle one of Obama’s most ambitious foreign policy goals: the creation of a Palestinian state. [continued…]

Despite smiles, Obama, Netanyahu seem far apart

While reaffirming the “special relationship” between their two countries, U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared unable to bridge major differences in their approaches to Iran and Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts following their White House meeting here Monday.

While Obama said he may be prepared to impose additional sanctions against Iran early next year if diplomatic efforts to persuade it to curb its nuclear programme fail to make progress, he refused to set what he called “an arbitrary deadline.” Israeli officials had pressed Washington for an early October deadline.

And while Obama repeatedly stressed the importance of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu never uttered the phrase or alluded to the possibility of a Palestinian state during a 30-minute press appearance with the U.S. president after their meeting in the Oval Office. [continued…]

The Cheney fallacy

Former Vice President Cheney says that President Obama’s reversal of Bush-era terrorism policies endangers American security. The Obama administration, he charges, has “moved to take down a lot of those policies we put in place that kept the nation safe for nearly eight years from a follow-on terrorist attack like 9/11.” Many people think Cheney is scare-mongering and owes President Obama his support or at least his silence. But there is a different problem with Cheney’s criticisms: his premise that the Obama administration has reversed Bush-era policies is largely wrong. The truth is closer to the opposite: The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit. Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric. This does not mean that the Obama changes are unimportant. Packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric, it turns out, are vitally important to the legitimacy of terrorism policies. [continued…]

UN torture watchdog demands access to secret Israeli jail

The United Nation’s watchdog on torture has criticised Israel for refusing to allow inspections at a secret prison, dubbed by critics as “Israel’s Guantanamo Bay”, and demanded to know if more such clandestine detention camps are operating.

In a report published on Friday, the Committee Against Torture requested that Israel identify the location of the camp, officially referred to as “Facility 1391”, and allow access to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Findings from Israeli human rights groups show that the prison has in the past been used to hold Arab and Muslim prisoners, including Palestinians, and that routine torture and physical abuse were carried out by interrogators. [continued…]

Little known military thug squad still brutalizing prisoners at Gitmo under Obama

As the Obama administration continues to fight the release of some 2,000 photos that graphically document U.S. military abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, an ongoing Spanish investigation is adding harrowing details to the ever-emerging portrait of the torture inside and outside Guantánamo. Among them: “blows to [the] testicles;” “detention underground in total darkness for three weeks with deprivation of food and sleep;” being “inoculated … through injection with ‘a disease for dog cysts;'” the smearing of feces on prisoners; and waterboarding. The torture, according to the Spanish investigation, all occurred “under the authority of American military personnel” and was sometimes conducted in the presence of medical professionals.

More significantly, however, the investigation could for the first time place an intense focus on a notorious, but seldom discussed, thug squad deployed by the U.S. military to retaliate with excessive violence to the slightest resistance by prisoners at Guantánamo.

The force is officially known as the the Immediate Reaction Force or Emergency Reaction Force, but inside the walls of Guantánamo, it is known to the prisoners as the Extreme Repression Force. Despite President Barack Obama’s publicized pledge to close the prison camp and end torture — and analysis from human rights lawyers who call these forces’ actions illegal — IRFs remain very much active at Guantánamo. [continued…]

The 13 people who made torture possible

On April 16, the Obama administration released four memos that were used to authorize torture in interrogations during the Bush administration. When President Obama released the memos, he said, “It is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution.”

Yet 13 key people in the Bush administration cannot claim they relied on the memos from the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel. Some of the 13 manipulated the federal bureaucracy and the legal process to “preauthorize” torture in the days after 9/11. Others helped implement torture, and still others helped write the memos that provided the Bush administration with a legal fig leaf after torture had already begun.

The Torture 13 exploited the federal bureaucracy to establish a torture regime in two ways. First, they based the enhanced interrogation techniques on techniques used in the U.S. military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) program. The program — which subjects volunteers from the armed services to simulated hostile capture situations — trains servicemen and -women to withstand coercion well enough to avoid making false confessions if captured. Two retired SERE psychologists contracted with the government to “reverse-engineer” these techniques to use in detainee interrogations. [continued…]

U.N. says 1.5 million flee in Pakistan

The U.N. refugee agency said Monday that nearly 1.5 million people have fled their homes in Pakistan this month, saying that fighting between government forces and Taliban militants is uprooting more people faster than probably any conflict since the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s.

“It has been a long time since there has been a displacement this big,” said UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond, trying to recollect the last time so many people were uprooted in such a short period.

“It could go back to Rwanda,” Redmond said, referring to the 1994 massacre of ethnic Tutsis by the majority Hutus in the African country. “It’s an enormous number of people.” [continued…]

Pakistani army controls Buner, but residents fear Taliban’s return

The carcasses of cars and trucks and bombed buildings on Monday greeted the visitor to Buner, the northwestern district that the military government largely has wrested back from Taliban insurgents. So far, however, only a handful of residents have dared to return.

The Taliban takeover of Buner, which is 60 miles north of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, provoked alarm in Washington early last month and a public warning from the Obama administration that Pakistan was “abdicating to the Taliban.”

The Pakistani government subsequently launched a military operation in Buner, followed by a much larger operation in neighboring Swat. Late last week, a little more than two weeks into the operation led by the paramilitary Frontier Corps, the government said it was safe for people to return to their homes in southern Buner. [continued…]

Iraq arrests 2 Sunni leaders, raising fears of violence

Iraqi government security forces arrested two prominent Sunni leaders in Diyala Province on Monday, according to local security officials, leading to renewed concerns that sectarian tensions in the area could once again erupt into greater violence.

One of those arrested, Sheik Riyadh al-Mujami, is a prominent figure in the local Awakening Council, a movement led by Sunni tribal leaders who decided to stop fighting the Americans and cooperate with them against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a largely homegrown group that is believed to have foreign leadership.

The Awakening movement played a crucial role in reducing the violence in Iraq over the past two years, but some Sunni leaders have complained that the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has broken its promise to integrate their members in the country’s security forces. They also have expressed concern that the government regards them as a threat, and that it is planning attacks on Awakening members as the American military reduces its activities in Iraq. [continued…]



Poll shows partisan divide on Middle East conflict

A large majority of President Obama’s supporters favor increasing US pressure on Israel, according to a new poll released today that shows a deep partisan divide on the issue and an increased willingness on the part of Democrats to support actions that have long been considered taboo in mainstream American politics.

According to the Zogby International survey, 71 percent of Obama backers believe that the United States should “get tough with Israel” to stop the expansion of settlements, compared to just 26 percent of those who supported Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Also, 80 percent of likely Obama voters were in total agreement with the phrase, “It’s time for the United States to get tough with Israel,” while just 16 percent of McCain supporters agreed.

The poll, commissioned by the Doha Debates, a Qatar-based foundation, also found that half of all Obama supporters believe US support for Israel weakens US security, while 67 percent of Obama voters supported talks with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, a percentage similar to the proportion of Israelis who support such talks. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — These polls have several implications but the one that the media will give least attention to (while it also gives little attention to the poll itself) is that there is a huge gap between mainstream opinion and opinion in the so-called mainstream media when it comes to Israel.

Israel’s secret war with Iran

Those who leaf through the secret files of any intelligence service know what grave mistakes bad intelligence can lead to. But they also know that sometimes even excellent intelligence doesn’t change a thing.

The Israeli intelligence community is now learning this lesson the hard way. It has penetrated enemies like Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Hezbollah and Hamas. Yet despite former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s willingness to authorize highly dangerous operations based on this intelligence, and despite the unquestionable success of the operations themselves, the overall security picture remains as grim as ever. [continued…]

Iran and Israel

A story is doing the rounds in Washington about an Arab ambassador whose view of Barack Obama’s overtures to Iran is: “We don’t mind you seeking engagement, but please, no marriage!”

It’s sometimes hard to know if the Arabs or Israelis are more alarmed — or alarmist — about Iran’s nuclear program and regional ambitions.

A comment a few months back from an Iranian official to the effect that the small desert kingdom of Bahrain was historically a province of Iran sent fears of exportable Shia revolution into overdrive in Sunni Arab capitals. Iran apologized, but the damage was done. [continued…]

Pakistan is rapidly adding nuclear arms, U.S. says

Members of Congress have been told in confidential briefings that Pakistan is rapidly adding to its nuclear arsenal even while racked by insurgency, raising questions on Capitol Hill about whether billions of dollars in proposed military aid might be diverted to Pakistan’s nuclear program.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed the assessment of the expanded arsenal in a one-word answer to a question on Thursday in the midst of lengthy Senate testimony. Sitting beside Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, he was asked whether he had seen evidence of an increase in the size of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal.

“Yes,” he said quickly, adding nothing, clearly cognizant of Pakistan’s sensitivity to any discussion about the country’s nuclear strategy or security.

Inside the Obama administration, some officials say, Pakistan’s drive to spend heavily on new nuclear arms has been a source of growing concern, because the country is producing more nuclear material at a time when Washington is increasingly focused on trying to assure the security of an arsenal of 80 to 100 weapons so that they will never fall into the hands of Islamic insurgents. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — As Benjamin Netanyahu shared his apocalyptic fears with President Obama today, I can’t help wondering whether Obama at any point attempted to contrast the relative threat from Pakistan’s real nuclear weapons versus that posed by Iran’s imaginary weapons.

Pakistan on the brink

To get to President Asif Ali Zardari’s presidential palace in the heart of Islamabad for dinner is like running an obstacle course. Pakistan’s once sleepy capital, full of restaurant-going bureaucrats and diplomats, is now littered with concrete barriers, blast walls, checkpoints, armed police, and soldiers; as a result of recent suicide bombings the city now resembles Baghdad or Kabul. At the first checkpoint, two miles from the palace, they have my name and my car’s license number. There are seven more checkpoints to negotiate along the way.

Apart from traveling to the airport by helicopter to take trips abroad, the President stays inside the palace; he fears threats to his life by the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda, who in December 2007 killed his wife, the charismatic Benazir Bhutto, then perhaps the country’s only genuine national leader. Zardari’s isolation has only added to his growing unpopularity, his indecisiveness, and the public feeling that he is out of touch. Even as most Pakistanis have concluded that the Taliban now pose the greatest threat to the Pakistani state since its cre- ation, the president, the prime minister, and the army chief have, until recently, been in a state of denial of reality.

“We are not a failed state yet but we may become one in ten years if we don’t receive international support to combat the Taliban threat,” Zardari indignantly says, pointing out that in contrast to the more than $11 billion former president Pervez Musharraf received from the US in the years after the September 11 attacks, his own administration has received only between “$10 and $15 million,” despite all the new American promises of aid. He objects to the charge that his government has no plan to counter the Taliban-led insurgency that since the middle of April has spread to within sixty miles of the capital. “We have many plans including dealing with the 18,000 madrasas”—i.e., the Muslim religious schools—”that are brainwashing our youth, but we have no money to arm the police or fund development, give jobs or revive the economy. What are we supposed to do?” Zardari’s complaints are true, but he does acknowledge that additional foreign money would have to be linked to a plan of action, which does not exist. [continued…]

Outnumbered U.S. troops defend Afghan frontier

Lieutenant Joshua Rodriguez, a U.S. platoon commander guarding the Afghan-Pakistan frontier, reckons he is lucky to be alive.

Two weeks after he set up an outpost with 20 Afghan soldiers and seven Americans overlooking a key Taliban smuggling route, some 80 insurgents attacked them hard at daybreak.

“We were very close, very close,” he said, days after the fight, holding his fingers a fraction of an inch apart.

As the Taliban threatened to overrun the base, his sniper put down his long-range rifle and grabbed a shotgun. Then he dropped the shotgun and picked up hand grenades. The enemy had come within throwing distance of the outpost’s razor wire.

“They were trying to get in from everywhere. It was a miracle,” Rodriguez said.

Yet although they managed to fend off the fighters and prevent the outpost from being overrun that day, they abandoned it a few days later, leaving the cross-border smuggling route through the vast Suna Valley unguarded. [continued…]

Taliban cools off in city hot spots

Taliban fighters seeking money, rest and refuge from U.S. missile strikes are turning up in increasing numbers in Pakistan’s largest city and economic hub, Karachi, according to militants, police officials and an intelligence memo.

The Taliban presence in this southern port city, hundreds of miles away from the Islamist organization’s strongholds in the northwest, shows how quickly its influence is spreading throughout the nuclear-armed nation.

Karachi is especially important because it is the main entryway for supplies headed to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, as well as the most critical city to Pakistani commerce. Few think the Taliban could actually take over this diverse metropolis of more than 12 million, but there is fear that it could destabilize it through violence and rock the already shaky national economy. [continued…]


EDITORIAL: Does the NYT‘s David Sanger know how to use the internet?

Does the NYT‘s David Sanger know how to use the internet?

No doubt every diligent reporter still needs a notebook and a telephone, but to read David E Sanger’s report, “Biblical Quotes Said to Adorn Pentagon Reports,” you have to wonder whether the New York Times‘s chief Washington correspondent actually knows how to use the internet.

I know, he did manage to find his way to Robert Draper’s article on GQ, but after that Sanger seemed to think that his time would be better spent listening to a goofball like Lawrence Di Rita than to spend just a few minutes drilling the web to find out more about “a general who worked on the Joint Staff.”

Even though Draper gave prominence to “Major General Glen Shaffer, a director for intelligence serving both the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense,” who crafted the evangelical war reports on which Draper’s article focuses, Sanger didn’t seem to think it was worth mentioning the general by name. It was sufficient to cite Di Rita who “said that he had no recollection of the biblical briefs, but that he doubted the famously acerbic and sometimes cranky secretary would have tolerated them for long, much less shared them with Mr. Bush.”

Given that Maj Gen Shaffer retired on August 1 2003, his handiwork clearly wouldn’t have been gracing the secretary of defense’s desk for very long however well or poorly it was received.

Much more relevant to Sanger’s report would have been a little biographical information about the nameless general. For instance, the fact that he serves on the board of directors of an evangelical Christian school in Texas and is on the board of trustees of an evangelical program supplier that sells seminars to churches around the world “and in chapels of all branches of the U.S. military.”

At the same time, Shaffer is maintaining the time-honored tradition of cashing in on his Pentagon connections by working as executive vice president of Kforce Government Solutions (KGS) which “provides innovative solutions to federal government.”

While Shaffer might not have been inclined to discuss with a New York Times reporter how his evangelical orientation affected his work in the Pentagon, it’s reasonable to assume that the general’s public service experience provides the foundation for his private sector day-to-day work. On that basis, Shaffer could have been pressed a bit — but only if Sanger had managed to track down. The KGS contact page would have been an obvious place to start. Clearly, Sanger didn’t even get that far.



And he shall be judged

On the morning of Thursday, April 10, 2003, Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon prepared a top-secret briefing for George W. Bush. This document, known as the Worldwide Intelligence Update, was a daily digest of critical military intelligence so classified that it circulated among only a handful of Pentagon leaders and the president; Rumsfeld himself often delivered it, by hand, to the White House. The briefing’s cover sheet generally featured triumphant, color images from the previous days’ war efforts: On this particular morning, it showed the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down in Firdos Square, a grateful Iraqi child kissing an American soldier, and jubilant crowds thronging the streets of newly liberated Baghdad. And above these images, and just below the headline secretary of defense, was a quote that may have raised some eyebrows. It came from the Bible, from the book of Psalms: “Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him…To deliver their soul from death.”

This mixing of Crusades-like messaging with war imagery, which until now has not been revealed, had become routine. On March 31, a U.S. tank roared through the desert beneath a quote from Ephesians: “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” On April 7, Saddam Hussein struck a dictatorial pose, under this passage from the First Epistle of Peter: “It is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” [continued…]

Heads in the sand

The history books will record that the so-called Sunni Awakening—when many of Iraq’s Sunni tribes, in return for money and other considerations, began cutting deals with American forces and turned away from their nationalist insurgency—got under way in late 2006. The Sunni tribes, concentrated in Anbar province, had long been the backbone of the insurgency. In the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, Sunni Arabs had exercised a domination far out of proportion to their numbers (some 20 percent of the population), and after the American-led invasion, suddenly excluded from power and influence, they exacted a bloody revenge. After the Awakening, the Sunnis helped obliterate al-Qaeda’s networks in most of Sunni Iraq, a development that many believe did more to dampen the violence than the subsequent “surge” in American troop numbers. Having reached a peak in 2006 and early 2007, the casualty rates for combatants and civilians quickly plummeted.

What the history books should also record, revealed here for the first time, is that the Sunni insurgents had offered to come to terms with the Americans 30 months earlier, in the summer of 2004, during secret talks with senior U.S. officials and military commanders. The Sunnis were gathered by an Iraqi named Talal al-Gaaod, a Sunni sheikh and wealthy businessman based in the Jordanian capital, Amman. The American officials included Jerry H. Jones, then a special assistant to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and later serving as an expert on transitional government to Rumsfeld’s successor, Robert Gates; the late ambassador Evan Galbraith, Rumsfeld’s special envoy to Europe; Colonel Mike Walker, the head of civil affairs for the Marine Corps in Iraq; and James Clad, then a counselor to the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (which was seeking to foster economic development in Iraq) and later the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for South and Southeast Asia. These men were desperate to pursue the Sunni contacts, and took serious risks with their own careers in order to do so. They were supported by officers close to the top of the U.S. military, including Lieutenant General James T. Conway, then the Marine Corps commander in Iraq and today the commandant of the Corps. For a variety of reasons, some of them petty, some of them ideological, and some of them still obscure, these men were blocked by superiors in the State Department, the Pentagon, and the White House. [continued…]

Rumsfeld’s renegade unit blamed for Afghan deaths

Troops from the US Marines Corps’ Special Operations Command, or MarSOC, were responsible for calling in air strikes in Bala Boluk, in Farah, last week – believed to have killed more than 140 men, women and children – as well as two other incidents in 2007 and 2008. News of MarSOC’s involvement in the three incidents comes just days after a Special Forces expert, Lieutenant-General Stanley McChrystal, was named to take over as the top commander of US and Nato troops in Afghanistan. His surprise appointment has prompted speculation that commando counterinsurgency missions will increase in the battle to beat the Taliban.

MarSOC was created three years ago on the express orders of Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary at the time, despite opposition from within the Marine Corps and the wider Special Forces community. An article in the Marine Corps Times described the MarSOC troops as “cowboys” who brought shame on the corps.

The first controversial incident involving the unit happened just three weeks into its first deployment to Afghanistan on 4 March 2007. Speeding away from a suicide bomb attack close to the Pakistan border, around 120 men from Fox Company opened fire on civilians near Jalalabad, in Nangahar province. The Marines said they were shot at after the explosion; eyewitnesses said the Americans fired indiscriminately at pedestrians and civilian cars, killing at least 19 people. [continued…]

Human rights investigator, attorney John Sifton: torture investigation should focus on estimated 100 prisoner deaths

FBI interrogator, Ali Soufan: The interrogator uses a combination of interpersonal, cognitive and emotional strategies to extract the information needed. If done correctly, this approach works quickly and effectively, because it outsmarts the detainee using a method that he is not trained nor able to resist. The Army Field Manual is not about being soft. It’s about outwitting, outsmarting and manipulating the detainee.

The approach is in sharp contrast of the enhanced interrogation method that instead tries to subjugate the detainee into submission through humiliation and cruelty. A major problem is it—it is ineffective. Al-Qaeda are trained to resist torture, as we see from the recently released DOJ memos on interrogation. The contractors had to keep requesting authorization to use harsher and harsher methods.

In the case of Abu Zubaydah, that continued for several months, right ’til waterboarding was introduced. And waterboarding itself had to be used eighty-three times, an indication that Abu Zubaydah had already called his interrogators’ bluff. In contrast, when we interrogated him using intelligent interrogation methods, within the first hour we gained important actionable intelligence. [continued…]

Obama can’t turn the page on Bush

To paraphrase Al Pacino in “Godfather III,” just when we thought we were out, the Bush mob keeps pulling us back in. And will keep doing so. No matter how hard President Obama tries to turn the page on the previous administration, he can’t. Until there is true transparency and true accountability, revelations of that unresolved eight-year nightmare will keep raining down drip by drip, disrupting the new administration’s high ambitions.

That’s why the president’s flip-flop on the release of detainee abuse photos — whatever his motivation — is a fool’s errand. The pictures will eventually emerge anyway, either because of leaks (if they haven’t started already) or because the federal appeals court decision upholding their release remains in force. And here’s a bet: These images will not prove the most shocking evidence of Bush administration sins still to come.

There are many dots yet to be connected, and not just on torture. This Sunday, GQ magazine is posting on its Web site an article adding new details to the ample dossier on how Donald Rumsfeld’s corrupt and incompetent Defense Department cost American lives and compromised national security. The piece is not the work of a partisan but the Texan journalist Robert Draper, author of “Dead Certain,” the 2007 Bush biography that had the blessing (and cooperation) of the former president and his top brass. It draws on interviews with more than a dozen high-level Bush loyalists. [continued…]

Separation anxiety as U.S. prepares to leave Sadr City

The unthinkable is happening in Sadr City as the U.S. military begins to shut down its outposts to meet a June 30 deadline to withdraw from Iraqi cities.

Separation anxiety is growing among residents, local leaders and American soldiers in the sprawling, impoverished Shiite district that was once the most dangerous battlefield in Baghdad for U.S. troops.

“When the Americans leave, everything will be looted because no one will be watching,” an Iraqi army lieutenant newly deployed there said. “There will be a civil war — without a doubt,” predicted an Iraqi interpreter. Council members have asked about political asylum in the United States. [continued…]

World watches for U.S. shift on Mideast

[Chas] Freeman, in a telephone interview last week, said he still believed that Mr. Obama would go where his predecessors did not on Israel. Mr. Obama’s appointment of Gen. James L. Jones as his national security adviser — a man who has worked with Palestinians and Israelis to try to open up movement for Palestinians on the ground and who has sometimes irritated Israeli military officials — could foreshadow friction between the Obama administration and the Israeli government, several Middle East experts said.

The same is true for the appointment of George J. Mitchell as Mr. Obama’s special envoy to the region; Mr. Mitchell, who helped negotiate peace in Northern Ireland, has already hinted privately that the administration may have to look for ways to include Hamas, in some fashion, in a unity Palestinian government.

Mr. Obama’s meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, while crucial, may only preview the beginning of the path the president will take, Mr. Freeman said.

“You can’t really tell anything by what happened to me and the fact that he didn’t step forward to take on the skunks,” he said, referring to his own appointment controversy and Mr. Obama’s silence amid critics’ attacks. “The first nine months, Nixon was absolutely horrible on China. In retrospect, it was clear that he had every intention to charge ahead, but he was picking his moment. He didn’t want to have the fight before he had to have the fight.”

“I sense that Obama is picking his moment,” Mr. Freeman said. [continued…]

Images, the law and war

Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor who has handled terrorism cases, said the only prudent course in the current case is to withhold the images. “If you’re in a war that’s been authorized by Congress, it should be an imperative to win the war,” he said. “If you have photos that could harm the war effort, you should delay release of the photos.”

But Jameel Jaffer, a lawyer with the civil liberties union, said history favored disclosure, citing the 2004 photographs from Abu Ghraib and the 1991 video of police beating Rodney King in Los Angeles.

But the touchstone remains the Pentagon papers case. It not only framed the issues, but also created a real-world experiment in consequences.

The government had argued, in general terms, that publication of the papers would cost American soldiers their lives. The papers were published. What happened?

David Rudenstine, the dean of the Cardozo Law School and author of “The Day the Presses Stopped,” a history of the case, said he investigated the aftermath with an open mind.

“I couldn’t find any evidence whatsoever from any responsible government official,” he said, “that there was any harm.” [continued…]


EDITORIAL: The scapegoat with a savage bite

The scapegoat with a savage bite

Everyone’s afraid of the CIA.

On PBS’s Washington Week last night, in a roundtable discussion on the Pelosi-CIA joust, there was a clear consensus among the assembled reporters: anyone who dares pick a fight with the CIA does so at their own peril and is almost certain to lose.

As is always the case, the only thing the press is interested in here is the fight — who, if anyone, is telling the truth is apparently of no consequence. It also appears that journalists — just as much as the White House and Congress — are afraid of challenging the agency. No one’s at risk of ending up with a bullet in the back of their head, but that isn’t because the CIA is benign — it just means it can exploit much subtler but equally effective methods for accomplishing its aims.

Consider for a moment that we supposedly live in a democracy. How can it be that the head of state, the executive and legislative branches of government and the erstwhile Fourth Estate should all be afraid of a single government agency?

Why is it that an agency that enjoys the medieval privilege of operating with a “black budget” in the ostensible interests of national security, nevertheless always seems able to lift the umbrella of secrecy as and when it serves its own interests?

After Nancy Pelosi accused the CIA of lying about briefing Congressional leaders on waterboarding, CIA Director Leon Panetta’s response was to publicly issue a statement to CIA employees. This was a multi-layered message.

Top layer: The agency didn’t lie. He said: “…our contemporaneous records from September 2002 indicate that CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, describing ‘the enhanced techniques that had been employed.’ ” (This isn’t a particularly solid statement. “Contemporaneous records” — so might there be other records that tell a different story? “CIA officers briefed truthfully” — briefed who truthfully? “Describing ‘the enhanced techniques that had been employed'” — why didn’t he put it in black and white: Nancy Pelosi was told by CIA officers that Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded?)

Next layer: I’m defending you guys (and want to be seen defending you — hence, he didn’t just send out the memo but also put it on the CIA web site). He said: “We are an Agency of high integrity, professionalism, and dedication. Our task is to tell it like it is — even if that’s not what people always want to hear. Keep it up. Our national security depends on it.”

Next layer: But I do have to cover my own ass: “Let me be clear: It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress.”

Why should the employees of the CIA need reminding that they shouldn’t mislead — which is to say, lie to or deceive — Congress? Oh yes, because it’s already public knowledge that in 2005, even after having been requested by Rep. Jane Harman not to do so, they destroyed video tapes of the torture of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri — tapes that would almost certainly have been used as evidence if anyone is ever prosecuted for torture.

For the last seven years, the CIA has been playing what probably ranks as the most masterful political game in its history. When 9/11 should have posed an existential threat to the agency, instead it was able to distance itself from the Bush administration to such a degree that it ended up being perceived as the victim of a neocon vendetta. Former agents became honorary members of the anti-Bush movement with Valerie Plame as their poster child.

Even now, as the agency fends off demands for investigations into its use of torture, a defense narrative has already being wheeled into service. We were just honest government employers doing what we were asked to do. The real offenders were in Cheney’s office.

I have no problem with the idea that it is the decision-makers and architects of the torture program who should be held responsible. But that doesn’t mean that torturers and murderers get off the hook. Indeed, an agency that goes to such lengths to protect its own doesn’t just need reform; it needs breaking up.



Obama and the Middle East

The time will come for the US to unfurl a grand diplomatic initiative. Not now. The most urgent task is to prepare the way for that day by countering the skepticism that has greeted and torpedoed every recent American idea, good or bad—from Secretary of State William Roger’s 1969 plan to the road map. The time is for a clean break, in words, style, and approach.

For many in the US, the notion of such radical change often is reduced to the question of whether or not to talk to Hamas. That is a diversion. The challenge is whether Obama can speak to those for whom Hamas speaks. They are the people who have lost faith in America, its motivations, and every proposal it promotes.

The broader point is this: a window exists, short and subject to abrupt closure, during which President Obama can radically upset Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim preconceptions and make it possible for his future plan, whatever and whenever it might be, to get a fair hearing—for American professions of seriousness to be taken seriously. It won’t be done by repackaging the peace process of years past. It won’t be done by seeking to strengthen those leaders viewed by their own people as at best weak, incompetent, and feckless, at worst irresponsible, careless, and reckless. It won’t be done by perpetuating the bogus and unhelpful distinction between extremists and moderates, by isolating the former, reaching out to the latter, and ending up disconnected from the region’s most relevant actors.

It won’t be done by trying to perform better what was performed before. President Bush’s legacy was, in this sense, doubly harmful: he did the wrong things poorly, which now risks creating the false expectation that, somehow, they can be done well. [continued…]

Do like Jimmy Carter

The U.S. president who did most for Israel was not Harry Truman, who recognized the Jewish state almost immediately after it was founded. Nor was it John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. Or Gerald Ford, or Ronald Reagan, or the two George Bushes, or Bill Clinton, though all of these provided America’s ally with economic assistance, supplied it with arms and stood at its side at critical moments, from the 1967 Six-Day War to the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The president who did most for Israel was Jimmy Carter — the same Carter who has sometimes been described as an Israel-hater. In numerous appearances around the world, he has never shrunk from criticizing Israel for its faults, real and imaginary; the dislike is mutual. [continued…]

Israel: U.S. will know before any Iran strike

Israel has acceded to American demands by pledging to coordinate its moves on Iran with Washington and not surprise the United States with military action.

During a trip to Jerusalem earlier this week, CIA chief Leon Panetta informed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that U.S. President Barack Obama demanded that Israel not launch a surprise attack on Iran. The message expressed concern that Israel would cause an escalation in the region and undermine Obama’s efforts to improve relations with Tehran. [continued…]

Lieberman’s party proposes ban on Arab Nakba

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s party wants to ban Israeli Arabs from marking the anniversary of what they term “the Catastrophe” or Nakba, when in 1948 some 700,000 Arabs lost their homes in the war that led to the establishment of the state of Israel.

The ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party said it would propose legislation next week for a ban on the practice and a jail term of up to three years for violators.

“The draft law is intended to strengthen unity in the state of Israel and to ban marking Independence Day as a day of mourning,” said party spokesman Tal Nahum. [continued…]

Poll: 58% of Israeli Jews back two-state solution

Some 58% of Israel’s Jewish public backs the “two states for two peoples” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a Smith Institute poll commissioned by Ynet revealed. [continued…]

The writing on the wall for Obama’s ‘Af-Pak’ Vietnam

It requires a spectacular leap of faith in a kind of superheroic American exceptionalism to imagine that the invasion of Afghanistan that occurred in November 2001 will end any differently from any previous invasion of that country. And it takes an elaborate exercise in self-delusion to avoid recognizing that the Taliban crisis in Pakistan is an effect of the war in Afghanistan, rather than a cause — and that Pakistan’s turmoil is unlikely to end before the U.S. winds down its campaign next door. [continued…]

The Taliban bogeyman

President Asif Ali Zardari, less than a year into his reign, has managed to engage Pakistan’s armed forces, the seventh largest army in the world, in a guerrilla war with the newly formed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, our very own Taliban, in the North West Frontier Province. Rumors of Talibanization air daily on Pakistani television, radio and print media: The barbarians are at the gate, we are told, and warned that if there was a time to rally around the nation’s oleaginous president, a man known locally as “President Ghadari” or traitor in Urdu, this is it. However, the time for scaremongering has past — it is precisely President Zardari’s politically expedient use of national hysteria that has seen American drones welcomed over Pakistan’s airspace and has birthed a war that this government cannot win.

In the aftermath and fallout of 9/11, Pakistan saw its elite — the power brokers of the country’s politics and economy — turn against their traditional allies, the United States for the first time. As U.S. forces occupied first Afghanistan and then Iraq, Pakistan’s elite took an unexpected turn; they welcomed resistance to American foreign policy and supported, as they had never quite done before, Islamic parties that took control of local government and provincial cabinet positions in the North West Frontier Province. [continued…]

Caught in the crossfire – the Swat valley’s fleeing families

Army footage shows laser-guided missiles slamming into mountain buildings that explode into a fountain of fragments. Warplanes blast away at Taliban targets in the Swat valley and ground troops push towards the main town, Mingora. When Pakistani forces kill the Taliban, few complain – this is a popular war, for now.

“We are progressing well,” a spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, said.

Sometimes, though, they hit the wrong target. Jan Nawab, a slightly-built man with a scraggly beard, stood outside the house where he has taken refuge, and sobbed softly under the weight of the calamity that had befallen him. [continued…]

Pakistan hospitals, camps are overwhelmed

Shaista Behran lay on a hospital bed with a battered leg and a burdened psyche after watching several members of her family diebefore her eyes.

The 8-year-old and her family fled the village of Wodkhi in Pakistan’s war-torn Swat Valley last week, making it as far as the area’s biggest town, Mingora, when a mortar shell exploded nearby.

“I saw my brother, two sisters and my mother die in front of me,” she said, her words halting and barely audible, as a fly settled on her matted black hair. “Then everything went dark and I woke up here in the hospital.” [continued…]

Al-Qaida today: a movement at the crossroads

If you wonder what has happened to al-Qaida, follow the trail of Arab and Muslim public opinion, and you’ll get a clear picture of its massive crisis of authority and legitimacy.

The balance of forces in the world of Islam has shifted dramatically against al-Qaida’s global jihad and its local manifestations.

Now, more and more Muslims view al-Qaida through a prism that focuses on the monstrosity of killing of non-combatants in general, not just Muslim civilians. Recent opinion surveys and my own field-research confirm that an overwhelming majority of Muslims are more than just unsympathetic to the ideology of Osama bin Laden and his followers; they place the blame squarely at his feet for the harm he has caused to the image of Islam and the damage his movement has wrought within Muslim societies. [continued…]

U.S. evangelicals join the nuclear-weapon-free world movement

In the storied and steady history of faith-based opposition to nuclear weapons, however, mainstream U.S. Evangelicals have been notably absent. Such has been our (yes, I’m one) absence that Michael Sean Winters, blogging on the website of the Catholic magazine America, wrote last week of the new Two Futures Project, “Nothing in recent memory is stranger than the emerging alliance between a group of activist evangelicals and former Cold War statesmen in support of an effort to eliminate nuclear weapons.”

As the founder and director of said alliance, I’m delighted to discover that we’re so superlative.

Last week we launched the Two Futures Project, a Christian movement led by a new generation of U.S. Evangelicals–with the blessing of our older forebears–for the complete, multilateral abolition of nuclear weapons. We have no illusions that the process will be quick or easy, and thus, are preparing for the work of a generation–to ensure nonpartisan continuity of purpose in U.S. political leadership for a nuclear-weapon-free world. Our goal is rooted in “the power of the ought,” as Max Kampelman and George Shultz call it, securing unshakable support for a post-atomic age, with the intention that its attainment would become the north star, or organizing principle, for U.S. nuclear policy. [continued…]



The truth about Richard Bruce Cheney

My investigations have revealed to me — vividly and clearly — that once the Abu Ghraib photographs were made public in the Spring of 2004, the CIA, its contractors, and everyone else involved in administering “the Cheney methods of interrogation”, simply shut down. Nada. Nothing. No torture or harsh techniques were employed by any U.S. interrogator. Period. People were too frightened by what might happen to them if they continued.

What I am saying is that no torture or harsh interrogation techniques were employed by any U.S. interrogator for the entire second term of Cheney-Bush, 2005-2009. So, if we are to believe the protestations of Dick Cheney, that Obama’s having shut down the “Cheney interrogation methods” will endanger the nation, what are we to say to Dick Cheney for having endangered the nation for the last four years of his vice presidency?

Likewise, what I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002–well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion–its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa’ida.

So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney’s office that their detainee “was compliant” (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP’s office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa’ida-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, “revealed” such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop.

There in fact were no such contacts. (Incidentally, al-Libi just “committed suicide” in Libya. Interestingly, several U.S. lawyers working with tortured detainees were attempting to get the Libyan government to allow them to interview al-Libi….) [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Conspiracy is notoriously difficult to prove, but can we go at least this far: Dick Cheney, the CIA and Libya all had a mutual interest in Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi’s death. Might a mutual interest have gone as far as a mutual understanding? Might the former vice president have ever so discreetly let it be known that Libi’s sudden demise could send out a useful message to anyone else with a loose tongue?

Death in Libya, betrayal in the west

News of the death, in a Libyan jail, of Ibn al-Shaikh al-Libi, a US terror suspect who was the subject of an extraordinary rendition, then tortured in Egypt and Jordan as well as CIA prisons in Afghanistan and Poland has, understandably, raised questions about whether he committed suicide – as the Libyan authorities claimed – or whether he was murdered. Just two weeks ago, representatives of Human Rights Watch saw him in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison, and although he refused to speak to them, they reported that he “looked well.”

Al-Libi’s death should also raise uncomfortable questions for former US vice-president Dick Cheney, who is still turning up with alarming regularity on US television, peddling his claims that the use of torture saved America from further terrorist attacks. The focus on al-Libi should be a stark reminder that, when he was rendered to Egypt in early 2002, the CIA’s proxy torturers extracted a false confession from him – that al-Qaida operatives had received training from Saddam Hussein in the use of chemical and biological weapons – which was used not to protect the US from attack, but to justify the invasion of Iraq. The claim featured prominently in secretary of state Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN, just a month before the invasion began.

However, beyond the story of al-Libi’s mysterious death and of Dick Cheney’s role in torturing him to launch an illegal war – as documented by Moazzam Begg earlier this week – another disturbing aspect of America’s cosy relationship with Colonel Gaddafi, in the war on terror emerged in Human Rights Watch’s press release about al-Libi’s death. The organisation noted that its researchers had interviewed four other prisoners also rendered to Libya by the CIA, who reported that they had been tortured – by or on behalf of US forces – in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Thailand. [continued…]

Graham: CIA gave me false information about interrogation briefings

In testimony that could bolster Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s claim that the CIA misled her during briefings on detainee interrogations, former Senator Bob Graham insisted on Thursday that he too was kept in the dark about the use of waterboarding, and called the agency’s records on these briefings “suspect.”

In an interview with the Huffington Post, the former Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman said that approximately a month ago, the CIA provided him with false information about how many times and when he was briefed on enhanced interrogations. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — The CIA is immensely concerned about its image. It doesn’t want to appear to be a den of rogues. It wants to be seen as a bastion of upright patriots, but please, let’s get real.

What’s the appeal of joining an intelligence agency? Does the CIA find its recruits among those who believe in transparency in government; in full accountability and strict compliance with the law? Or is it looking for those drawn by the adventure of crossing boundaries, taking risks and avoiding getting caught? To be blunt, does intelligence work not actually appeal to a certain kind of grandiose criminality?

Soufan: CIA torture actually hindered our intelligence gathering

“Within the first hour of interrogation,” Soufan said, “we gained actionable intelligence.” Soufan could not say what that information was because it remains classified. Zubaydah had been injured during his capture, and Soufan’s team arranged for medical care and continued talking to the prisoner. Within the next few days, Soufan made one of the most significant intelligence breakthroughs of the so-called war on terror. He learned from Zubaydah that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind behind the attacks on 9/11.

Then, however, a CIA interrogation team from Washington led by a contractor arrived at the secret location. Zubaydah was stripped naked and the contractor began a series of coercive, abusive interrogations, based on Cold War-era communist techniques designed to elicit false confessions. During the Korean War, for example, Chinese interrogators employed the measures to get captured American pilots to make false confessions. “The new techniques did not produce results, as Abu Zubaydah shut down and stopped talking,” Soufan explained. “After a few days of getting no information, and after repeated inquiries from D.C. asking why all of a sudden no information was being transmitted … we again were given control of the interrogation.”

As Soufan and his team resumed their interrogation, Zubaydah revealed information about Jose Padilla, the alleged “dirty bomber.”

But after that, the CIA and the contractor again took over, using what Soufan called an “untested theory” that the Cold War techniques might work for getting good information. “Again, however, the technique wasn’t working,” Soufan recalled.

Soufan’s team was brought back yet again. “We found it harder to reengage him this time, because of how the techniques had affected him,” Soufan noted. “But eventually, we succeeded.”

A third time the CIA and the contractor team took over, using increasingly brutal methods. Soufan reported what he called “borderline torture” to his superiors in Washington. In protest of the abuse, former FBI Director Robert Mueller pulled Soufan out of the location. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — As Dick Cheney pursues his campaign to avoid criminal prosecution, it’s natural that he would want to frame the issue of so-called “enhanced interrogations” in terms of necessity and national security. At the same time, for Cheney and Bush the use of torture fits very comfortably into their general approach to politics. These are men who have neither an aptitude in the art of persuasion nor skill in outwitting their opponents. The way you win is through dominance and when necessary, crushing your opponent. The idea that interrogation might involve building a rapport with a terrorist suspect is something that would simply seem objectionable.

Cheney’s role deepens

At the end of April 2003, not long after the fall of Baghdad, U.S. forces captured an Iraqi who Bush White House officials suspected might provide information of a relationship between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime. Muhammed Khudayr al-Dulaymi was the head of the M-14 section of Mukhabarat, one of Saddam’s secret police organizations. His responsibilities included chemical weapons and contacts with terrorist groups.

“To those who wanted or suspected a relationship, he would have been a guy who would know, so [White House officials] had particular interest,” Charles Duelfer, head of the Iraqi Survey Group and the man in charge of interrogations of Iraqi officials, told me. So much so that the officials, according to Duelfer, inquired how the interrogation was proceeding.

In his new book, Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq, and in an interview with The Daily Beast, Duelfer says he heard from “some in Washington at very senior levels (not in the CIA),” who thought Khudayr’s interrogation had been “too gentle” and suggested another route, one that they believed has proven effective elsewhere. “They asked if enhanced measures, such as waterboarding, should be used,” Duelfer writes. “The executive authorities addressing those measures made clear that such techniques could legally be applied only to terrorism cases, and our debriefings were not as yet terrorism-related. The debriefings were just debriefings, even for this creature.” [continued…]


The Pope in the Palestinian prison camp

The Pope in the Palestinian prison camp

Has this image appeared widely in the media? I don’t honestly know, but I’ll assume it hasn’t. So the next question would be: why not?

(Source: The New York Times)

The New York Times ran an article with the headline: “In Bethlehem, Pope laments Israeli wall“. The perfect place to use the image above — the one their own photographer had provided. Right?

Wrong. Instead, they went with a poetic Getty image: little children peaking over a little wall. How enchanting!



Pope visits Palestinian refugee camp

Editor’s Comment — The Israeli PR campaign designed to cash in on the Pope’s visit cut no corners. Haaretz reported:

About 300 journalists from around the world are covering the pope’s visit to the region. By way of comparison, when U.S. president George W. Bush came to Israel, only 100 reporters were with him.

The Jerusalem municipality, the Foreign Ministry and the Tourism Ministry will have a press center at city hall to assist foreign and local journalists during the four-day visit. It will be Israel’s largest and best-appointed such center.

In addition, the balcony of the municipality building will be converted for use as a live broadcast site, overlooking the Jerusalem skyline. The building will also serve as the departure point for journalists and camera crews.

The press center will offer hundreds of Internet access stations, a few quiet areas for face-to-face interviews, and live TV signals and radio feed of press pool coverage. There will be a second, smaller press center at Nazareth’s Golden Crown Hotel, near the Mount of the Precipice.

The Tourism Ministry will distribute information to journalists aimed at boosting Israel’s image as well as incoming tourism. Among other things, it will stress that Israel provides full freedom of worship and full access to holy sites, develops and maintains these sites, and supports mutual understanding, and that Jerusalem offers a combination of ancient holy sites with a modern urban infrastructure. It will also emphasize the increasingly close relationship between Israel and the Vatican.

The ministry will also explain that pilgrims can take advantage of other attractions in Israel, such as spa treatments at the Dead Sea and nature walking trails.

The ministry intends to use documentary material from the pope’s visit in future tourism campaigns targeting countries with large Catholic populations.

So many wonderful photo opportunities that will help drive “pilgrim tourism” — a source of revenue that will have pumped $22.5 million into the Israeli economy this week alone.

But then comes the image that will* should overshadow all others: the Pope in a fully operational open-air prison camp. No need to get lost in a debate about whose memories he is giving sufficient attention to — the visible reality of incarceration is inescapable.

The Pope’s vaguely Reaganesque moment when he said that walls “can be taken down” not only evoked the fall of the Berlin Wall, but intentionally or not, called attention to the differences between the two barriers. East Berliners were deprived of all sorts of liberties, yet even they enjoyed far greater freedom than Palestinians. The emancipation of those oppressed by authoritarian communist rule was a popular cause among freedom-loving Americans. The emancipation of Palestinians from Israeli oppression… oh, that’s something we’re not even interested in thinking about.

*Having scoured the web in search of decent images of the Pope with the Wall behind him, I have to conclude that either press photographers were prevented from getting good shots or they colluded in self-censorship.

Pope criticizes Israel on Palestinian policy

Pope Benedict XVI criticized Israel’s construction of a security barrier through the West Bank and urged a loosening of restrictions on the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, a day of speeches and symbolic appearances that amounted to a running critique of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.

From a morning address alongside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to a late-afternoon visit to a refugee camp, the pontiff used a full day in the occupied West Bank to highlight some of the main issues on the Palestinian agenda.

His comments were pointed. And although he referred to Israeli security concerns, the focus was on how Palestinians are affected by Israeli measures such as the tall concrete fence that, Benedict said, “intrudes into your territories, separating neighbors and dividing families.” [continued…]

Obama warns Netanyahu: Don’t surprise me with Iran strike

President Barack Obama has sent a message to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanding that Israel not surprise the U.S. with an Israeli military operation against Iran. The message was conveyed by a senior American official who met in Israel with Netanyahu, ministers and other senior officials. Earlier, Netanyahu’s envoy visited Washington and met with National Security Adviser James Jones and with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and discussed the dialogue Obama has initiated with Tehran.

The message from the American envoy to the prime minister reveals U.S. concern that Israel could lose patience and act against Iran. It is important to the Americans that they not be caught off guard and find themselves facing facts on the ground at the last minute.

Obama did not wait for his White House meeting with Netanyahu, scheduled for next Monday, to deliver his message, but rather sent it ahead of time with his envoy. [continued…]

Zelikow advocates independent investigation into torture policies

When Philip Zelikow, the former counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, testifies before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee Wednesday about controversial legal opinions issued by the Bush-era Justice Department, he’ll be wading into a political maelstrom. Former Bush administration and CIA officials have accused Congressional Democrats of hypocrisy for calling for investigations of the interrogations policies, saying that some, including now House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, were briefed on the techniques employed and approved them.

Zelikow, who revealed last month on that the Bush White House tried to destroy all copies of a 2006 memo he wrote opposing the policies, has generally sought to avoid the political spectacle, but describes the program as a collective failure. He is calling for an independent commission to investigate what happened.

“I think the record will show as CIA wants it to be known that quite a number of people from both parties were aware of this program, and endorsed it over a period of years,” Zelikow told The Cable on the eve of his still-embargoed testimony (.pdf) Tuesday. “Goodness knows, this was a problem for the people inside” like himself “who objected to the program. We were constantly told, ‘We briefed XYZ and they had no problem with that.'”

But Zelikow said he is not trying to point fingers. “My point of view on this is fairly straightforward,” he said. “This is now a historical problem. Our country quit doing this some time ago. I think that a lot of people agree with me in judging that this program was a mistake – a pretty big mistake. It was a collective failure. A lot of people in both parties of this country convinced themselves for years that we needed a program like this to protect America. [continued…]

Obama considers detaining terror suspects indefinitely

The Obama administration is weighing plans to detain some terror suspects on U.S. soil — indefinitely and without trial — as part of a plan to retool military commission trials that were conducted for prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The proposal being floated with members of Congress is another indication of President Barack Obama’s struggles to establish his counter-terrorism policies, balancing security concerns against attempts to alter Bush-administration practices he has harshly criticized. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Indefinite detention is unconstitutional. Obama took an oath to uphold — not tinker with — the US Constitution. If there isn’t sufficient evidence to prosecute detainees, they should be released. In a free society, people cannot be confined indefinitely purely on the basis that they are deemed to pose a risk.

For Democrats, unease grows over national security policy

Congressional Democrats are voicing growing unease over the Obama administration’s national security policies, including the seemingly open-ended commitment in Afghanistan and the nettlesome question of what to do with prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

House leaders have yanked from an emergency military spending bill the $80 million that President Obama requested to close the detention center, saying he had not provided a plan for the more than 200 detainees there. The White House has said the center will close by Jan. 22, 2010.

It is virtually certain that the Democratic majorities, with solid Republican support, will approve $96.7 billion in spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for other military operations.

But with votes in the House on Thursday and in the Senate next week, the discomfort among Democrats points to a harder road ahead for Mr. Obama and the prospect of far more serious rancor if conditions worsen overseas. [continued…]

As Cheney seizes spotlight, many Republicans wince

As vice president, Richard B. Cheney famously spent much of the past eight years in undisclosed locations and offering private advice to President George W. Bush. But past was not prologue.

Today Cheney is the most visible — and controversial — critic of President Obama’s national security policies and, to the alarm of many people in the Republican Party, the most forceful and uncompromising defender of the Bush administration’s record. His running argument with the new administration has spawned a noisy side debate all its own: By leading the criticism, is Cheney doing more harm than good to the causes he has taken up and to the political well-being of his party?

His defenders believe he has sparked a discussion of vital importance to the safety of the country, and they hold up Obama’s reversal of a decision to release photos of detainee abuse as a sign that Cheney is having an effect. But there is a potential political price that his party may pay in having one of the highest officials in an administration repudiated in the last election continue to argue his case long after the voters have rendered their decision. [continued…]

Moderate Muslims in Pakistan stir silent majority against Taleban

As classes begin at the Jamia Naeemia madrassa, an Islamic college in Lahore, the courtyard echoes to the sound of 125 students reciting the Koran. Mostly from poor families in Punjab and North West Frontier Province, the youngsters are prime targets for the Taleban and other militant groups preaching the fundamentalist forms of Islam in Pakistan.

Here, however, they are learning a different doctrine that is music to the ears of Pakistani, US and British officials. “The Taleban is a stigma on Islam,” says Sarfraz Ahmed Naeemi, a Sunni cleric who heads the madrassa. “That is why we will support our Government and our army and their right to destroy the Taleban. We will save Pakistan,” he told The Times.

Until recently it was unusual to hear a cleric denounce the Taleban in the country that helped to create the movement and has long resisted Western pressure to engage it militarily. [continued…]

Pakistan’s displacement camps: A study in contrasts

At the entrance to the Hazrat Usman camp just south of the Swat Valley, a welcoming committee greets those fleeing violence between the government and militants with a cool glass of water, a meal and a place to sleep with fans and a pharmacy.

Though camp organizers don’t voice any overt sympathy for the Taliban, their view is clear: The entire crisis is a creation of the government and the army.

Two miles up the road sits the much larger government-run Jalala camp. It is hot, mosquito-ridden and busy turning newcomers away. Water, food and medicine are in short supply, tempers flare and many people are forced to sleep in the open — a particular indignity for women in this Islamic society.

If counterinsurgency is about hearts and minds, the rapid, efficient way some Islamic groups have aided the needy amid the recent army offensive against the Taliban — and the lumbering state response — suggests the hard-liners could win the battle that counts. [continued…]

Pakistan conflict map

Research by the BBC Urdu’s service into the growing strength of Taleban militants in north western Pakistan shows that only 38% of the area remains under full government control.


Russia warns of war within a decade over Arctic oil and gas riches

Russia raised the prospect of war in the Arctic yesterday as nations struggle for control of the world’s dwindling energy reserves.

The country’s new national security strategy identified the intensifying battle for ownership of vast untapped oil and gas fields around its borders as a source of potential military conflict within a decade.

“The presence and potential escalation of armed conflicts near Russia’s national borders, pending border agreements between Russia and several neighbouring nations, are the major threats to Russia’s interests and border security,” stated the document, which analysed security threats up to 2020. [continued…]



Obama reverses position on release of photos of detainee abuse

A month after making public once-classified Justice Department memos detailing the Bush administration’s coercive methods of interrogation, President Obama yesterday chose secrecy over disclosure, saying he would seek to block the court-ordered release of photographs depicting the abuse of detainees held by U.S. authorities abroad.

Obama agreed less than three weeks ago not to oppose the photos’ release but changed his mind after viewing some of the images and hearing warnings from his generals in Iraq and Afghanistan that such a move would endanger U.S. troops deployed there.

“The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals,” Obama said yesterday. “In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in danger.” [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — The ACLU’s executive director, Anthony D. Romero, responded:
“The Obama administration’s adoption of the stonewalling tactics and opaque policies of the Bush administration flies in the face of the president’s stated desire to restore the rule of law, to revive our moral standing in the world and to lead a transparent government. This decision is particularly disturbing given the Justice Department’s failure to initiate a criminal investigation of torture crimes under the Bush administration.

“It is true that these photos would be disturbing; the day we are no longer disturbed by such repugnant acts would be a sad one. In America, every fact and document gets known – whether now or years from now. And when these photos do see the light of day, the outrage will focus not only on the commission of torture by the Bush administration but on the Obama administration’s complicity in covering them up. Any outrage related to these photos should be due not to their release but to the very crimes depicted in them. Only by looking squarely in the mirror, acknowledging the crimes of the past and achieving accountability can we move forward and ensure that these atrocities are not repeated.

“If the Obama administration continues down this path, it will betray not only its promises to the American people, but its commitment to this nation’s most fundamental principles. President Obama has said we should turn the page, but we cannot do that until we fully learn how this nation veered down the path of criminality and immorality, who allowed that to happen and whose lives were mutilated as a result. Releasing these photos – as painful as it might be – is a critical step toward that accounting. The American people deserve no less.”

Torture debate dilutes the moral principle

If torture is an absolute wrong, whatever the circumstances, the question of its effectiveness is irrelevant. To hold the debate on those terms threatens to dilute the moral principle.

This leaves the question of why torture should be condemned absolutely, whereas other acts of war, such as bombing, which cause more damage to human life, might be acceptable as inevitable consequences of national defense.

Bombing can, of course, be a war crime if it is used as an act of terror against unarmed people. But military operations that kill or injure civilians often do not automatically qualify as crimes, as long as deliberately inflicting pain or humiliation on a helpless individual — even if he or she is an enemy — is not the aim. In the case of torture, that is the aim, which is why it is different from other acts of war.

A prominent US right-wing commentator recently opined that any attempt to hold the torturers, and their masters in the Bush administration, accountable, would make a mockery “of the efforts of the tough and brave Americans who guard us while we sleep.”

Aside from the fact that torturing people is not the same as combat and requires little bravery, this gets it exactly wrong. After years of torturing people in one of South America’s most savage “dirty wars,” Brazil’s generals decided to stop it because its institutionalized use was undermining the armed forces’ discipline and morale. It was making a mockery of men who should be tough and brave, but instead had become thugs. [continued…]

The hidden hand of Dick Cheney

While the Obama administration has adopted large numbers of policies that directly contradict Cheney’s positions, it would be a mistake to overlook Cheney’s continued influence on the executive branch through the precedents set by the Bush administration. Among the former vice-president’s most important legacies is increased government secrecy. Obama’s Department of Justice continues to rely on an alleged “state secrets” privilege. It has thus tried to block lawsuits by victims who alleged they were kidnapped and tortured by U.S. intelligence even though they were innocent of wrongdoing, on the grounds that such trials would reveal state secrets. The same state secrets doctrine was used by Obama’s DOJ in an attempt to block investigations of Bush-Cheney warrantless wiretaps. Likewise, the DOJ has attempted to block lawsuits seeking the release of Bush-era e-mails and to prevent prisoners held at Bagram air base in Afghanistan from appearing before a judge to challenge their imprisonment. [continued…]



A recognition Israel doesn’t need

Here is a statement you will not hear today from Jerusalem: “I wish to declare that the government of Israel will not ask any nation, be it near or far, mighty or small, to recognize our right to exist.”

But it is a statement that was made in June 1977 by then-prime minister Menachem Begin. A sentimental nationalist of the highest order, Begin was nevertheless able to identify the only kind of recognition that Israel should require: “I re-emphasize that we do not expect anyone to request, on our behalf, that our right to exist in the land of our fathers, be recognized. It is a different recognition which is required between us and our neighbors: recognition of sovereignty and of the mutual need for a life of peace and understanding.”

A generation later, successive Israeli leaders have ignored Begin’s instruction and demanded, first, that the Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist (which the P.L.O. did, in 1993) and, more recently, that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Yonatan Touval’s conclusion that for Israel to seek Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state risks letting the other define who you are, seems a somewhat implausible risk. After all, he’s already acknowledged that the demand is one which the Palestinians will not accept. And really that’s the point. This is not a recognition that Israelis in their wisdom would see they do not need; it is a demand whose very purpose is that it be refused.

Obama breaks with Gates, cancels nuke program

Obama’s new budget plan includes a little-noted sea change in U.S. nuclear policy, and a step towards his vision of a denuclearized world. It provides no funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, created to design a new generation of long-lasting nuclear weapons that don’t need to be tested. (The military is worried that a nuclear test moratorium in effect since 1992 might endanger the reliability of an aging US arsenal.) But this spring Obama issued a bold call for a world free of nuclear weapons, and part of that vision entails leading by example. That means halting programs that expand the American nuclear stockpile. For the past two budget years the Democratic Congress has refused to fund the Bush-era program. But Obama’s budget kills the National Nuclear Security Administration program once and for all.

“My colleagues just stared at that line,” says Joe Cirincione, a longtime nonproliferation expert and president of the Ploughshares Fund. “They had never seen anything like that.” Killing the program, he said, was “the first programmatic impact of the new [zero nukes] policy. People have said they want to see more than words, this is the very first action.” [continued…]

Chain reaction

Most of my nonproliferation colleagues think that having the United States help build a nuclear power reactor for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a great idea. I think it is a big mistake.

The U.S.-UAE civilian nuclear cooperation agreement was signed in the closing days of the George W. Bush administration and praised by advocates as a “model” for future agreements with Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and other states. President Barack Obama will have to decide in the next few weeks whether to send the deal to Congress for final approval. Wary of a repeat of the Dubai Ports World fiasco, the emirates have launched a $1.6 million lobbying campaign to bring U.S. lawmakers on board. They’ve enlisted many of my friends in the effort.

One former colleague, now a consultant for the UAE, sends me regular updates filled with good news about this multibillion-dollar deal. Her latest e-mail quotes an op-ed by Elliott Abrams, deputy national security advisor during the Bush administration, promising that the deal “will show the way forward in responsible, transparent uses of nuclear energy — at the very moment when the world must confront Iran’s defiance.” I remember Abrams’s assurances about the invasion of Iraq and cringe.

Maybe I’m wrong. It may well be that the leaders of a country the size of Maine that holds 4.8 million people and 98 billion barrels of oil (the fifth-largest reserves in the world and projected to last another 100 years) are truly interested in diversifying energy production. But 10, 20, or 30 years from now will they, or the governments that replace them, still honor their promises not to engage in any nuclear-weapon-related activities, including producing reactor fuel? Or, after they have developed nuclear technologies, trained nuclear scientists and engineers, and plugged into global nuclear markets, will they go one step further and build uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing plants that could be used to make fuel — or bombs? [continued…]

Blue gold, Turkmen bashes, and Asian grids

As Barack Obama heads into his second hundred days in office, let’s head for the big picture ourselves, the ultimate global plot line, the tumultuous rush towards a new, polycentric world order. In its first hundred days, the Obama presidency introduced us to a brand new acronym, OCO for Overseas Contingency Operations, formerly known as GWOT (as in Global War on Terror). Use either name, or anything else you want, and what you’re really talking about is what’s happening on the immense energy battlefield that extends from Iran to the Pacific Ocean. It’s there that the Liquid War for the control of Eurasia takes place.

Yep, it all comes down to black gold and “blue gold” (natural gas), hydrocarbon wealth beyond compare, and so it’s time to trek back to that ever-flowing wonderland — Pipelineistan. It’s time to dust off the acronyms, especially the SCO or Shanghai Cooperative Organization, the Asian response to NATO, and learn a few new ones like IPI and TAPI. Above all, it’s time to check out the most recent moves on the giant chessboard of Eurasia, where Washington wants to be a crucial, if not dominant, player.

We’ve already seen Pipelineistan wars in Kosovo and Georgia, and we’ve followed Washington’s favorite pipeline, the BTC, which was supposed to tilt the flow of energy westward, sending oil coursing past both Iran and Russia. Things didn’t quite turn out that way, but we’ve got to move on, the New Great Game never stops. Now, it’s time to grasp just what the Asian Energy Security Grid is all about, visit a surreal natural gas republic, and understand why that Grid is so deeply implicated in the Af-Pak war. [continued…]

It’s Obama’s war now

Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced this afternoon that he has “asked for the resignation” of Gen. David McKiernan, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, and that he plans to replace him with Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

This is a very big deal.

McKiernan’s ouster signals a dramatic shift in U.S. strategy for the war in Afghanistan. And it means that the war is now, unequivocally, “Obama’s war.” The president has decided to set a new course, not merely to muddle through the next six months or so.

First, let’s clarify a few things. When a Cabinet officer asks for a subordinate’s resignation, it means that he’s firing the guy. This doesn’t happen very often in the U.S. military. McKiernan had another year to go as commander. (When Gen. George Casey’s strategy clearly wasn’t working in Iraq, President George W. Bush let him serve out his term, then promoted him to Army chief of staff.) Gates also made it clear he wasn’t acting on a personal whim. He said that he took the step after consulting with Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command; Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and President Barack Obama. According to one senior official, Gates went over to Afghanistan last week for the sole purpose of giving McKiernan the news face-to-face. [continued…]



Gaza laid bare

Israel’s air assault on Gaza began with attacks on the Strip’s main police stations, including one in Rafah’s densely populated Junaina neighborhood which left twenty-five officers dead. Over the course of the war, approximately two hundred and fifty civilian policemen would be killed and every major police office damaged or destroyed, according to figures provided by the Ministry of the Interior.

When it became clear that policemen were being targeted, officers were ordered to don plain clothes uniforms and continue their patrols carrying sticks rather than guns to avoid detection. Trestle-table desks were set up amidst the rubble of bombed police stations to maintain the administrative network of law enforcement in the Strip, and the thirteen thousand-strong police force continued to function. “We would not allow the Israeli aggression to bring chaos to our streets,” says Ihab Al-Ghusain, a spokesperson for the Ministry. “We simply made the best of what we had.”

The Geneva Convention stipulates that to be considered a legitimate military target, objects must contribute to military action. “Police were not combatants and could not represent legitimate targets unless actively engaged in hostilities,” claims Sarah Leah Witson, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch.

There was no significant increase in theft or looting during the war, although several calls were made to an emergency police hotline reporting incidents of over-pricing by merchants. “We have a bad history of safety in Gaza,” says Mr. Al-Ghusain, “and as a result people here have suffered. In times of crisis, people need the reassurance of a working police force more than ever; we could have everything else, but without security we have nothing. That’s why it was so important to keep going.” [continued…] (Hat-tip to Mondoweiss.)

Taboo broken in US Middle East offensive

A period of high-level diplomacy on the Middle East opens in New York on Monday, promising further insights into an emerging strategy from Barack Obama’s administration that is already raising concerns among Israel’s supporters.

On Monday, King Abdullah of Jordan said the US was promoting a “57-state solution” in which the entire Muslim world would recognise Israel. But he also warned that the new US administration had little time, before fresh violence erupted, to promote a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. [continued…]

Netanyahu meeting with Obama decides Mid-East’s future, says Abdullah

President Obama’s critical meeting with Binyamin Netanyahu next week has become the acid test for the Administration’s commitment to peace in the Middle East, King Abdullah of Jordan said yesterday.

The monarch does not conceal his feelings about the Israeli leader. He described their last encounter – 10 years ago when he had just come to the throne – as the “least pleasant” of his reign. But he, and President Mubarak of Egypt, are expected to meet the Israeli leader before his trip to Washington, where the future course of the region could be decided.

The King said that he was prepared to believe what Israelis have told him — that a right-wing Government in Israel is better able to deliver peace than the Left.

“All eyes will be looking to Washington,” he said. “If there are no clear signals and no clear directives to all of us, there will be a feeling that this is just another American Government that is going to let us all down.”

If Israel procrastinated on a two-state solution, or if there was no clear American vision on what should happen this year, the “tremendous credibility” that Mr Obama had built up in the Arab world would evaporate overnight. [continued…]

Trivializing the Holocaust

First of all, I want to apologize to all the good women who are engaged in the world’s oldest profession.

I recently described Shimon Peres as a political prostitute. One of my female readers has protested vigorously. Prostitutes, she pointed out, earn their money honestly. They deliver what they promise.

Israel’s president, on the other hand, only tells the truth by accident. He is a political impostor and a political sham. To him, too, apply Winston Churchill’s words about a former prime minister: “The right honorable gentleman sometimes stumbles upon the truth, but he always hurries on as if nothing has happened.” Or the words of former minister Amnon Rubinstein about Ariel Sharon: “He blushes when he tells the truth.” [continued…]

Obama worsening Afghan-Pak state

For all the talk of “smart power,” President Obama is pressing down the same path of failure in Pakistan marked out by George Bush. The realities suggest need for drastic revision of US strategic thinking.

  • Military force will not win the day in either Afghanistan or Pakistan; crises have only grown worse under the US military footprint.
  • The Taleban represent zealous and largely ignorant mountain Islamists. They are also all ethnic Pashtuns. Most Pashtuns see the Taleban — like them or not — as the primary vehicle for restoration of Pashtun power in Afghanistan, lost in 2001. Pashtuns are also among the most fiercely nationalist, tribalized and xenophobic peoples of the world, united only against the foreign invader. In the end, the Taleban are probably more Pashtun than they are Islamist.
  • It is a fantasy to think of ever sealing the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The “Durand Line” is an arbitrary imperial line drawn through Pashtun tribes on both sides of the border. And there are twice as many Pashtuns in Pakistan as there are in Afghanistan. The struggle of 13 million Afghan Pashtuns has already enflamed Pakistan’s 28 million Pashtuns.


Pakistan’s ethnic fault line

To American eyes the struggle raging in Pakistan with the Taliban is about religious fanaticism. But in Pakistan it is about an explosive fusion of Islamist zeal and simmering ethnic tensions that have been exacerbated by U.S. pressures for military action against the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies. Understanding the ethnic dimension of the conflict is the key to a successful strategy for separating the Taliban from al-Qaeda and stabilizing multiethnic Pakistan politically.

The Pakistani army is composed mostly of Punjabis. The Taliban is entirely Pashtun. For centuries, Pashtuns living in the mountainous borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan have fought to keep out invading Punjabi plainsmen. So sending Punjabi soldiers into Pashtun territory to fight jihadists pushes the country ever closer to an ethnically defined civil war, strengthening Pashtun sentiment for an independent “Pashtunistan” that would embrace 41 million people in big chunks of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

This is one of the main reasons the army initially favored a peace deal with a Taliban offshoot in the Swat Valley and has resisted U.S. pressure to go all out against jihadist advances into neighboring districts. While army leaders fear the long-term dangers of a Taliban link-up with Islamist forces in the heartland of Pakistan, they are more worried about what they see as the looming danger of Pashtun separatism. [continued…]

Fear and worry pervade refugee camps as Pakistanis flee assault on Taliban

As they waited in rows of empty white tents, refugees from fighting in the Swat Valley said Sunday that they had been repeating a Koranic verse from the sayings of the prophet Muhammad.

“He who recites this will receive my blessing and protection,” one woman read from a pamphlet in Arabic. “If he is hungry, he will find plentiful food. . . . If he has fear of a cruel ruler or enemy . . . the fear will be gone.”

The army has launched an offensive in Swat against armed Taliban extremists, and for now at least, there is enough food, water and shelter for the estimated 200,000 refugees who since Thursday have poured into four camps set up by the United Nations and the government of this northwest Pakistani city.

But there is a pervasive sense of loss and worry among the families that keep arriving in overcrowded farm trucks and rented vans. In interviews in two camps Saturday and Sunday, some refugees said their homes had been destroyed in the fighting. Others said they had to abandon their goats and cows. And some, in their rush to escape, even had to leave their children behind.

“When the shelling started, my wife and I ran out to gather the children. It was like a hell outside, and we just started running,” recounted Taj Mahmad, 35, a vegetable-cart puller. “I realized that my son and my smallest daughter were missing. She is only 3. But my wife cried and said the rest of us would be killed if we stayed, so we kept going. I have no idea what happened to them.” [continued…]