Cart blanche for McChrystal

The new American commander in Afghanistan has been given carte blanche to handpick a dream team of subordinates, including many Special Operations veterans, as he moves to carry out an ambitious new strategy that envisions stepped-up attacks on Taliban fighters and narcotics networks.

The extraordinary leeway granted the commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, underscores a view within the administration that the war in Afghanistan has for too long been given low priority and needs to be the focus of a sustained, high-level effort.

General McChrystal is assembling a corps of 400 officers and soldiers who will rotate between the United States and Afghanistan for a minimum of three years. That kind of commitment to one theater of combat is unknown in the military today outside Special Operations, but reflects an approach being imported by General McChrystal, who spent five years in charge of secret commando teams in Iraq and Afghanistan. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — When Gen McChrystal told senators last week that “the measure of effectiveness will not be the number of enemy killed. It will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence,” these were lines surely delivered in the spirit that he would simply tell his audience exactly what it wanted to hear. It was a salable statement happy to be bought by the Senate and the New York Times. And if any skeptics remained before his confirmation vote passed, it turned out that they could easily be steamrolled by the melodramatic claim that the general was “literally waiting by an airplane” ready to head off on his mission.

That a general of whom it is said that “his nature isn’t to be second fiddle to anyone” now appears to have been granted unprecedented power, is disturbing in and of itself. But that that power is likely to be exercised in secrecy should be of even greater concern.

As Tom Hayden wrote recently:

The mystique of secrecy may come to shroud all public inquiry about Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are questions to be answered, however.

One is framed on page 380 of Bob Woodward’s book The War Within, in which the author describes a top-secret operation in 2006 that targeted and killed insurgents with such effectiveness that it gave “orgasms” to Derek Harvey, a top aide to Gen. David Petraeus and longtime tracker of Iraqi dissidents. The secret program was led by McChrystal, then a lieutenant general, using signals intercepts, informants and other tools of what McChrystal calls “collaborative warfare” through Special Access Programs (SAPS) and Special Compartmented Information (SCI.) McChrystal, according to the New York Times, conducted and commanded most of his secret missions at night. These missions were consistent with the proposals of Petraeus’s top counterinsurgency adviser at the time, David Kilcullen, to revive the discredited Phoenix Program used in South Vietnam.

This expanding secret war is crucial to understand for three reasons. First, according to Woodward’s claim, it was “more important than the surge” in reducing insurgent violence in Iraq. Second, the Special Ops units served as judge, jury and executioner in hundreds of extrajudicial killings. The targeted victims were from broad categories such as “the Sunni insurgency” and “renegade Shiite militias” or other “extremists.” Third, and most important, the operation was kept secret from the American public, media and perhaps even the US Congress.

Iran awakens yet again

They’re calling it the “green tsunami,” a transformative wave unfurling down the broad avenues of the Iranian capital. Call it what you will, but the city is agog at the campaign of Mir Hussein Moussavi, the reformist candidate seeking to unseat President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 10th post-revolution election.

Iran, its internal fissures exposed as never before, is teetering again on the brink of change. For months now, I’ve been urging another look at Iran, beyond dangerous demonization of it as a totalitarian state. Seldom has the country looked less like one than in these giddy June days.

I wandered in a sea of green ribbons, hats, banners and bandannas to a rally at which Ahmadinejad was mocked as “a midget” and Moussavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, sporting a floral hijab that taunted grey-black officialdom, warned the president that: “If there is vote rigging, Iran will rise up.” [continued…]

In Iran race, ex-leader works to oust president

In a makeshift campaign war room in north Tehran, two dozen young women clad in head scarves and black chadors are logging election data into desktop computers 24 hours a day, while men rush around them carrying voter surveys and district maps.

This nerve center in the campaign to unseat Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s hard-line president, is not run by any of the three candidates who are challenging him in a hotly contested election on Friday.

Instead, it is part of a bitter behind-the-scenes rivalry that has helped define the campaign, pitting Mr. Ahmadinejad against the man he beat in the last election, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a two-term former president and one of Iran’s richest and most powerful men. [continued…]

AIPAC wall beginning to crack

For years, AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee) has helped to stonewall the Middle East peace process by building a solid wall around the Israeli government, protecting it from criticism in the US. Senators and representatives have feared the wrath of AIPAC come Election Day, even in states and districts where the Jewish vote is negligible. Whatever they may have thought privately about Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, they’ve remained silent.

I got a first-hand glimpse of the process shortly after last year’s election, when I talked to an aide of a newly elected House member. The new member, who represents a district with hardly any organized Jewish community, knew very little about the Middle East when the campaign began. The representative had been “educated” on the issue, the aide told me, by a handful of wealthy Democrats – none from the member’s district, all generous contributors to the campaign, and all staunch supporters of the AIPAC line. That’s how it works, all over the country.

Or at least that’s how it used to work. Now, for the first time, there are signs of a crack in AIPAC’s vaunted political edifice. The wedge issue is the Obama administration’s public demand that Israel stop all new construction in its West Bank settlements, including what the Israelis call expansion to accommodate “natural growth.” [continued…]

Netanyahu speech may endorse Palestinian state

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will attempt to narrow a growing divide with the Obama administration when he delivers a major policy speech in the coming days, his aides say _ perhaps even endorsing the concept of a Palestinian state at the risk of alienating his hawkish coalition.

In one curious twist, Netanyahu’s message _ and his room to maneuver _ could be at least partially linked to the outcome of Friday’s election in Iran.

Painted into a corner by his right-wing coalition and an American president bent on progress toward peace, Netanyahu is facing a moment of truth when he will have to decide between the two. For now, it seems his all-important American allies will be the focus of his efforts, though it’s unclear if he will go far enough for Washington. [continued…]

Obama inspires possible shift in Hamas

The Arab world translates Obama’s Cairo speech as a change in American policy, and so does Hamas.

Hamas Political Bureau Director Khaled Mashal: “Hamas will not be an obstacle to a peace agreement in the 1967 borders, Hamas will be a positive element helping to reach a solution that is fair to the Palestinians and will enable them to realize their rights.”

In response, high-ranking Hamas figure Salah Bardawil told Makor Rishon-Hatzofe, “Mashal disclosed the first details of Hamas’s new policy, as a factor that will act in the framework of a Palestinian government, after there is Palestinian unity, and in the framework of the Mecca agreement.” [continued…]

Jimmy Carter visits Lebanon

Over the past month, a rumor made its way around journalistic circles here in Beirut: last Sunday’s parliamentary vote in Lebanon would be former President Jimmy Carter’s last stint as an election observer. It sounded plausible enough—after all, Carter is getting on in years and, through his organization, the Carter Center, he has participated in dozens of elections around the world.

And yet, last night, at a farewell reception for the Center’s observers at the Hotel InterContinental Phoenicia, Carter was looking enthused and animated, a glass of white wine in his hand, as he greeted friends and fellow observers. The rumor of his retirement from retirement, he said with a grin, was bunk.

“I hope it’s not the last one. I’m eighty-four-years-old, and I may be coming to my, you know…” he said. “But I hope I can have another one in Palestine in January. And I’ll be going to Bolivia in December.” [continued…]

The Mitchell visit: why it is important

George Mitchell is due to arrive in Syria on Friday for what promises to be a crucial visit. Syria wants a place in any emerging Obama peace plan for the region. Washington would be short sighted not to include Damascus. The Lebanon has been a leading factor in Syria’s isolation and Washington’s dominant concern in the Levant for five years very much to Syria’s detriment. Because of the election results, Lebanon can now take a back seat to other regional considerations.

The Lebanon elections produced results confirming the political status quo among Lebanon’s competing factions. The Doha, power-sharing agreement that resolved the Lebanon question last year – or something closely approximating it – is likely to be reformulated for the new government. All sides seem to be in agreement about the general outlines of a new government, eliminating the temptation on the part of all sides, including the US and Syria to renegotiate the regional balance of power. Lebanon has effectively been placed in deep freeze.

Obama has yet to speak the word Syria. He has spoken clearly and emphatically about the Palestinian track in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, but not about the Syrian track. [continued…]

Was detainee’s death a suicide?

To the prisoners at Guantánamo, Mohammed Ahmed Abdullah Saleh was simply known as Wadhah al-Abyani (Wadhah meaning ”one who clarifies” and Abyan the place where he came from in Yemen). Last week, it was announced that he had apparently committed suicide in his cell. After almost eight years in U.S. custody, Wadhah came home to his native Yemen in a coffin. He was no more than a few months older than I. He was born in 1978. Coincidentally, he was numbered 078 by the U.S. military.

At 5’10” in height, his weakened body weighed no more than 104 pounds the last time I saw him. Wadhah had, like many prisoners still held in Guantánamo, been on a hunger strike before I left, protesting the conditions, abuses and absence of justice we were all subjected to.

We were force-fed together, transported to the chair willing or unwilling, strapped to it according to the doctors orders. A sympathetic-looking nurse would ask which nostril we would like to have the tube inserted in. While the 25-inch of hard tube is forced through your nostril down to your stomach, your eyes swell with tears and run down your cheeks. It’s always comforting to hear the nurse say, ”Oh don’t worry. It’s OK, that happens to everyone,” as she wipes off your tears for you. And as the tube goes through the throat, you get the sensation of choking. Coughing is a norm but some start vomiting blood. With the years of hunger-striking, very few can keep what’s being pumped into them down. [continued…]

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