Syria is Obama’s shame

Hisham Melhem writes: It was a moral rational Cri de Coeur for taking steps to end the carnage in Syria, but it was also grounded in equally clear and compelling strategic imperatives. For weeks, scores of State Department officers in Washington and in U.S. embassies in the Middle East have been circulating a draft of a sharply critical “dissent cable” of the Obama administration’s fickle policies towards the tragic war in Syria, and forcefully urging the United States to end its dithering and carry out military strikes if necessary to compel the Assad regime to end its systematic mass murder of Syrian civilians.

About two weeks ago the message titled Syria Policy was posted on the “Dissent Channel” signed by fifty one mostly middle ranking and junior officers who worked over the last five years on aspects of Syria policy, and who were exposed to the daily gut-wrenching accounts that came across their desks of the demoralizing and very depressing depredations, mostly from the Assad regime.

The Dissent Channel was set up during the Vietnam War as a vehicle for officers who had strong political and moral disagreements with official policies, to express their dissent to their senior officials without fear of retaliation.

Although the military recommendations in the dissent message are thoughtful and the signatories believe that “perhaps most critically, a more muscular military posture under U.S. leadership would underpin and propel a new and reinvigorated diplomatic initiative,” it is very unlikely that President Obama, who pursued half-heartedly and with stunning detachment several tentative, incomplete and contradictory approaches to Syria will fundamentally alter his current policy, which involves only criticizing the Assad policies but steering away from undermining him or his regime, and focus instead on containing the threat of ISIS. [Continue reading…]

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Former Ambassador Robert Ford on the State Department mutiny on Syria

Robin Wright: What does the letter of dissent reflect?

Former Ambassador Robert Ford: Frustration at the State Department has come to a boil. People don’t write in the Dissent Channel every day. The cessation of hostilities in Syria has broken down completely. The bombings of hospitals in Aleppo and Idlib are a violation of every human norm — and that’s not including the barrel bombs and the chemical weapons. The effort to get a political deal is going nowhere. The Assad government has refused to make any serious concessions. It won’t let in food aid, in violation of U.N. resolutions. And the Americans are watching it all happen. So the Dissent Channel message is a reflection of frustration by the people who are responsible for conducting policy on the ground. I felt that way when I left—and that was after Geneva II, in January-February, 2014.

The existing policy is failing and will continue to fail. Why? I don’t sense, in the message, dissent from the strategic objective, which is a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war, but I sense a sharp disagreement with the tactics the Administration is or is not using. The dissent message says that, without greater pressure on the Assad government, it will be impossible to secure the compromises necessary to win a political agreement and end the war. The message says that the Administration needs to reconsider tactics to generate that pressure.

We all learned from Iraq that regime change is not the way to bring about positive political change. In the case of civil war, there needs to be negotiation between the opposition and the government. The question is how you increase the likelihood that it will succeed. And ever since Secretary Clinton and Sergei Lavrov concluded the communiqué, in June, 2012, Administration policy has failed to create the conditions necessary to succeed. [Continue reading…]

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51 U.S. diplomats urge strikes against Assad in Syria

The New York Times reports: More than 50 State Department diplomats have signed an internal memo sharply critical of the Obama administration’s policy in Syria, urging the United States to carry out military strikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad to stop its persistent violations of a cease-fire in the country’s five-year-old civil war.

The memo, a draft of which was provided to The New York Times by a State Department official, says American policy has been “overwhelmed” by the unrelenting violence in Syria. It calls for “a judicious use of stand-off and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hard-nosed U.S.-led diplomatic process.”

Such a step would represent a radical shift in the administration’s approach to the civil war in Syria, and there is little evidence that President Obama has plans to change course. Mr. Obama has emphasized the military campaign against the Islamic State over efforts to dislodge Mr. Assad. Diplomatic efforts to end the conflict, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, have all but collapsed.

But the memo, filed in the State Department’s “dissent channel,” underscores the deep rifts and lingering frustration within the administration over how to deal with a war that has killed more than 400,000 people.

The State Department set up the channel during the Vietnam War as a way for employees who had disagreements with policies to register their protest with the secretary of state and other top officials, without fear of reprisal. While dissent cables are not that unusual, the number of signatures on this document, 51, is extremely large, if not unprecedented.

The names on the memo are almost all midlevel officials — many of them career diplomats — who have been involved in the administration’s Syria policy over the last five years, at home or abroad. They range from a Syria desk officer in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs to a former deputy to the American ambassador in Damascus. [Continue reading…]

For Obama to change course at this juncture would require that he acknowledge America’s role in enabling the collapse of Syria, yet he and his staff have been guided by the self-serving conviction: that direct intervention can only make the conflict worse.

If Obama is going to have some great epiphany about the errors of his presidency, don’t expect that to come until after he’s left office and perhaps spent a decade reflecting on what he could have done differently.

What we know already and have known since day one, however, is that this is a president who doesn’t believe in looking back.

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What Obama actually thinks about radical Islam

Jeffrey Goldberg writes: It is not a new practice for critics of President Obama to question his commitment to the fight against Islamist terrorism, but Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has cast doubt on Obama’s commitment to this struggle in uniquely florid and bizarre ways. On Tuesday, he claimed that Obama “prioritizes” America’s enemies over the American people; on Monday, he insinuated that Obama is sympathetic to the Islamic State terror group. (Read the previous sentence again and ask yourself: How has it come to this?)

Trump’s recent statements about Obama grow from a neurotic belief in the president’s malevolent otherness: On ISIS, Trump said, Obama “doesn’t get it, or he gets it better than anybody understands.” Barack Obama, to Donald Trump, is, and will forever be, the Manchurian President — Manchuria, by way of Kenya, with a detour in Raqqa.

It is true that Trump’s critique of Obama’s handling of terrorism is, among other things, analysis-free and comprehensively unserious, but it is also true is that there are non-hysterical critiques to be made, and not only critiques that concern Obama’s reluctance to describe the threat as one posed by “radical Islam” (a reluctance the president addressed on Tuesday). Critics to Obama’s right fault him for prematurely withdrawing American troops from Iraq, and for not doing enough to prevent Syria from becoming a safe haven for ISIS. His reluctance to involve the U.S. more systematically in the Syrian civil war, the argument goes, has allowed jihadists to fill the vacuum created by the absence of the world’s sole superpower. Some critics on the right also argue that Obama blanches when confronted by the ugly truth about Muslim dysfunction and extremism; political correctness, in this view, hamstrings the president, and makes him obtuse. Critics to Obama’s left, on the other hand, argue that he is killing too many people, particularly through the use of drone strikes, and that his policies are distressingly of a piece with those of his Republican predecessor. The over-militarization of the so-called war on terror, that argument goes, exacerbates a problem that has already been hyped by “Islamophobic” fearmongers. [Continue reading…]

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Obama challenges GOP talking points and explains why ‘radical Islam’ is not a useful term

The media called this statement by President Obama a ‘tirade’ — I’d call it a disquisition, with a hint of frustration born from the fact that the people who need to digest this information are mostly idiots.

Huffington Post reports: President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he refuses to describe the Islamic State and al Qaeda as groups fueled by “radical Islam” because the term grants them a religious legitimacy they don’t deserve.

“They are not religious leaders; they are terrorists,” Obama said during remarks at a White House event on countering violent extremism. “We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”

Obama said the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is “desperate” to portray itself as a group of holy warriors defending Islam. It counts on that legitimacy, he said, to propagate the idea that Western countries are at war with Islam, which is how it recruits and radicalizes young people. [Continue reading…]

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The soft bigotry of the American Left when it comes to the Middle East

Evan Barrett writes: It has been rightly observed that the Republican Party’s long tolerance of racist attitudes set the stage for Donald Trump’s rise. But Democrats, too, are using expedient prejudice to drive their political agenda this cycle. Consider how the Obama White House has embraced talk about the “backward” Middle East to account for their own staggering foreign-policy failures there.

The first full embrace of this rhetoric by President Obama himself appeared in Jeffrey Goldberg’s remarkable Atlantic profile, wherein he explicitly cited the notion that conflict and the Middle East are inherently linked. Describing the political fallout of his intervention in Libya, Obama bemoaned “the degree of tribal division” amongst the Libyan people, suggesting that a sort of Libyan sophistication deficiency was responsible for the “chaos” that followed the NATO intervention. Through the article, the President contrasts the people of the Middle East with those in Asian and African societies “filled with striving, ambitious, energetic people who are every single day scratching and clawing to build businesses and get education and find jobs and build infrastructure.” The contrast is, Obama declares, “pretty stark” — leaving the implicit question: What can you do with these people?

This attitude was also reflected in the President’s final State of the Union, when he declared that “The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” This age-old canard about the “eternal” Sunni-Shia conflict was not only historically inaccurate, but a total departure from the Obama of 2009, the man who made the historic and ill-fated Cairo speech. An intellectual of his sort, and a student of history, surely knows this ugly old lie for what it is, but managed to pronounce it nonetheless in the service of anti-war spin. [Continue reading…]

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A desperate woman’s email from Iraq reveals the high toll of Obama’s low-cost wars

The Washington Post reports: On small video screens inside their cockpits, the U.S. pilots spotted their target, an Islamic State checkpoint just south of the Iraqi city of Mosul.

In grainy black and white, they could see the enemy manning the barricades and a guard shack. As they prepared to launch their attack, the pilots noticed a potential complication: Two cars approached the checkpoint and stopped. The drivers appeared to be talking with Islamic State fighters.

Other cars moved through the checkpoint, but these two vehicles remained on the side of the road. Five minutes passed. Then 10. Nearly 40 minutes had gone by and the two vehicles still had not moved.

Running low on fuel and time, the pilots concluded that the people in the cars were allied with the militants and asked for permission to strike. After a brief discussion with their headquarters in Qatar, they got their reply: “You’re cleared to execute.”

This was one version of what war had become in the last years of the Obama administration: The pilots made two strafing runs over the checkpoint, their machine guns cutting through the two cars. Then they unleashed a 500-pound satellite-guided bomb that engulfed the area in dust, fire and deadly shrapnel.

As they returned to their base, the pilots offered an in-flight assessment of their mission: guard shack flattened, two vehicles destroyed and four enemy fighters dead. “There are no apparent civilian or other collateral concerns,” their report concluded.

The first sign that they had made a horrible mistake came in the form of an email, sent two weeks after the March 2015 airstrike, to an Iraqi citizen working at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

“I am Raja’a Zidan al-Ekabee . . . ” the email began. [Continue reading…]

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As rich nations turn their backs on those in need

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In an editorial, the New York Times says: The world is witnessing the largest exodus of refugees in generations, spawned by armed conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. But “witnessing” is perhaps the wrong word. Many world leaders, including those who run most of the richest countries, are choosing to look the other way. They are more interested in barricading their nations from the fallout of conflict than in investing in peacekeeping and stability.

This willful neglect was on display last week at the inaugural World Humanitarian Summit, convened to face the needs of the world’s most vulnerable people. Most heads of state from the richest nations — including the United States — didn’t bother to show up, drawing a rebuke from the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon.

“It’s disappointing that some world leaders could not be here, especially from the G-7 countries,” he said at a news conference on Tuesday. “We have reached a level of human suffering without parallel since the founding of the United Nations” 70 years ago. [Continue reading…]

Contrast Ki-moon’s words with the happy talk from Barack Obama two weeks ago when he gave the commencement address at Rutgers:

by almost every measure, America is better, and the world is better, than it was 50 years ago, or 30 years ago, or even eight years ago.

This assessment has I believe less to do with the dry statistical arguments made by the likes of Steven Pinker, than it has with the group-think inside the Obama administration.

The easiest way to counter criticism on Syria, with the refugee crisis, and elsewhere, is by insisting we did all that we could.

This self-administered anesthetic is designed to suppress remorse, guilt and a keen sense on personal responsibility.

Obama’s faith in inexorable progress derives from his refusal to “look backwards” — a conviction not unlike that of a hit-and-run driver who keeps his eyes firmly on the road ahead.

Likewise, the notion that the United States can extricate itself from its Middle East entanglements by simply walking away, is really no different from the attitude of a deadbeat father who thinks he can leave his past behind.

Our need to understand the past derives from our need to understand the present — it has nothing to do with (as Obama claims) a fear of the future.

The simplistic approach favored inside the White House reduces everything to a choice over which Obama had no control: the decision to invade Iraq.

Those who make that the beginning of history, have very often thereafter indulged in the conceit that by having personally opposed that misadventure, they can thereby shed any sense of collective responsibility for what followed — as though the neocons’ war never actually became America’s war.

What is ostensibly geographically circumscribed by a neat divide between domestic and foreign is really a separation between those things we claim as our own and those we don’t.

The convenient reflex to which most people are susceptible is simply to disown whatever becomes problematic.

We turn our backs on refugees because we prefer to believe that they are not our problem.

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Hope and hype of Hiroshima can’t conceal Obama’s dismal record on nuclear disarmament

Hiroshima: the original Ground Zero

Setsuko Thurlow, who as a 13-year-old girl survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, writes: In [President Obama’s] famous speech in Prague, in 2009, he said, “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it.”

Why then has the U.S. government, under the Obama administration, pledged $1 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize its nuclear arsenal? Exactly where is the moral responsibility and leadership in that?

Regarding disarmament, Obama stated, “Our efforts to contain these dangers are centered on a global nonproliferation regime, but as more people and nations break the rules, we could reach the point where the center cannot hold.” Why then are the U.S. and other nuclear weapon states actively boycotting the latest international nuclear negotiations? [Continue reading…]

Tim Wright writes: Under the Obama presidency, contrary to perceptions, the pace of nuclear warhead dismantlement has slowed, not hastened. Indeed, the two presidents Bush and Bill Clinton each made greater gains in downsizing the colossal US nuclear stockpile amassed during the cold war.

But more alarming than this failure to destroy old nuclear weapons has been the Obama administration’s aggressive pursuit of new, “smaller” ones, for which the threshold of use would be lower, according to former military commanders.

At great expense, the president has bolstered all three components of the nation’s “nuclear triad”: the strategic bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched missiles. This was the price paid for securing Republican support in 2010 for the ratification of a modest bilateral arms reduction treaty with Russia.

Obama’s much-publicised “nuclear security summits” largely ignored the greatest source of nuclear insecurity in the world today: 15,000 nuclear weapons, including 1,800 on hair-trigger alert. Instead, they focused on measures to keep “vulnerable nuclear material” out of terrorists’ hands – a vital endeavour, certainly, but for all the fanfare the results were small.

Now the United States is stridently resisting diplomatic moves by two-thirds of the world’s nations to declare nuclear weapons illegal. It boycotted UN talks in Geneva this month aimed at setting the stage for negotiations on a prohibition treaty. But it cannot veto this initiative, just as it could not veto the processes that led to bans on landmines in 1997 and cluster munitions in 2008.

While a prohibition on nuclear weapons will not result in disarmament overnight, it will powerfully challenge the notion that these weapons are acceptable for some nations. It will place them on the same legal footing as both other types of weapons of mass destruction – namely, chemical and biological weapons. [Continue reading…]

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Debates about Hiroshima reduce the victims of 1945 to the role of extras in their own murders

Jeffrey Lewis writes: It’s not clear to me Truman had carefully thought through the implications of using the bomb or really understood that it might be a dramatic escalation from the enormous bombing campaign already underway. It is hard to assign simple motives to any large group of people, like “the United States.” Why “the United States” does anything is always a complicated story involving people working both with and against one other. In the case of Hiroshima, if anything, there was no decision to use the bomb, just an enormous amount of institutional momentum that rolled over haphazardly raised objections and qualms. I have a lot of objections to strategic bombing, and what John Hersey called the “material and spiritual evil” of total war, to say nothing of the racist propaganda required to facilitate killing on such a scale. But to postulate a geopolitical rationale for using the atomic bomb elides the awful human cruelty that was on display in 1945 and not just in Hiroshima.

And the revisionists have something else wrong, too. World War II was over — but it had not ended. If you study war and violence, you know that people continue killing each other even after the original justifications for the killing are obsolete. Japan’s leaders knew the war was lost, but that wasn’t quite enough to convince them to surrender. And Japan’s war cabinet was focused less on an imminent U.S. invasion than the more immediate problem of domestic subversion from the left if the conflict continued and from the right if it did not. The Japanese materials now available to scholars seem to show that Soviet entry into the war was the event that produced the biggest shock. And what turned the tide in Tokyo, which was divided over the issue of surrender, was the diplomatic note issued by U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes that slightly softened the terms of Japan’s “unconditional” surrender. Even then, the story is a Japanese one. The historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa argues that Japanese leaders interpreted the Byrnes note in a certain way because the translation into Japanese from the Foreign Ministry had been deliberately phrased to emphasize the possibility that Emperor Hirohito would remain in power.

But that’s a funny interpretation of Japan’s surrender, emphasizing people, places, and, above all, chance. Truman had his friend Jimmy Byrnes send a vague note, and a pair of obscure bureaucrats put a little English on the translation, so to speak. And that’s why your granddad didn’t die on some god-forsaken beach code-named after a car. That kind of account doesn’t really satisfy us, does it? Grand decisions require equally grand reasons. We want the story of the bomb to match the stakes in our own debates about who started the Cold War or the role that nuclear weapons played in our security. That’s because our debates about Hiroshima aren’t about understanding Truman, or the Japanese Foreign Ministry, or even the people who died. They are about ourselves.

Over time, the debate about the meaning of Hiroshima has shifted from responsibility for the Cold War to the question of whether we should plan, indefinitely, to base our security on the threat of nuclear destruction. Ward Wilson, in particular, has argued that the account of Hiroshima plays a central role in our modern myths about deterrence and the bomb as the winning weapon. [Continue reading…]

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On nuclear weapons, nations must cooperate to avoid catastrophe

Sam Nunn writes: President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima comes almost 71 years after the conclusion of a world war that was fought and ended with tremendous sacrifice, huge casualties and immense devastation. Today, global nuclear arsenals are capable of destroying not only cities but also civilization itself. Albert Einstein’s prophesy bears repeating: “I do not know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth — rocks!”

Since the end of World War II, the United States and our allies have relied on the ultimate threat of mutual assured destruction for our security, as the Soviet Union did and Russia does now. Today, with nine nations possessing nuclear arms and terrorists seeking them, this strategy has become increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.

Warren Buffett, a man who knows how to calculate risk, has reminded us that if the chance of an event occurring is 10 percent in a given year, and that same risk persists over 50 years, there is a 99.5 percent probability that it will happen during those 50 years. For more than 70 years, the United States and Russia have beaten the odds, avoiding a number of near-disasters. The recent deterioration in relations between the United States and Russia has greatly increased these risks.

The two nations still deploy thousands of nuclear weapons ready to fire on a moment’s notice, risking a catastrophic accident or miscalculation based on a false warning. Cold War dangers compelled dialogue between Washington and Moscow on nuclear security and strategic stability. This dialogue is dangerously absent now, even as our planes and ships have close encounters in Europe and the Middle East. [Continue reading…]

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Is the killing of militant leaders counterproductive?

The Wall Street Journal reports: Killing leaders of Islamist militant groups, such as the Saturday strike on Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour, has long been a signature strategy of the Obama administration—an alternative to massive troop deployments overseas.

But how effective are those “decapitations” in the long run? The verdict is far from clear and, to an extent, depends on the size and cohesion of the targeted group.

Both the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and the targeting of Mullah Mansour on a Pakistani road were major successes for U.S. intelligence and the Pentagon.

Al Qaeda’s central command, a relatively tight international terror network now led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been in decline since bin Laden’s death. It has been unable to fully recover from the blow or to mount major attacks against the West.

But the experience is less encouraging for wide-scale insurgencies such as the Afghan Taliban. While such decapitations can provide a short-term gain, they rarely change the course of the conflict — and frequently backfire if not accompanied by a much broader, resource-intensive involvement of a kind the White House has been loath to pursue.

Unlike al Qaeda, the Taliban enjoy support from a significant swath of the Afghan population. The group’s military advances in 2013-15 weren’t impeded by the fact that its leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was secretly dead at the time, or by the assassinations of scores of commanders.

In announcing Mullah Mansour’s death, President Barack Obama said his killing “gives the people of Afghanistan and the region a chance at a different, better future.”

That optimistic assessment isn’t shared by many, in the region or in the U.S., who closely follow the Taliban.

“I don’t think it will weaken the Taliban, and it may strengthen them,” said Barnett Rubin, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on peace negotiations with the Taliban and who is now associate director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University.

It is also far from certain that removing Mullah Mansour would make such peace talks — an avowed U.S. goal — any easier to resume.

The minister of aviation in the pre-2001 Taliban government, Mullah Mansour belonged to the original generation of Taliban leaders, was involved in the political outreach, and could influence field commanders. His successor named on Wednesday, Maulavi Haibatullah, is believed to represent a more uncompromising cast.

“After this killing, the Taliban will be more hard-line and the people who think that the war will solve all the problems will be more powerful. This is a blow to peace,” said Waheed Muzhda, a Kabul political analyst who served in the Taliban regime’s foreign ministry before 2001.

U.S. officials have argued that, with Mr. Mansour, there wasn’t any peace process to derail anyway.

“It’s not as if he was going to open negotiations and this is going to stop that effort. He was not,” said James Cunningham, a fellow at the Atlantic Council who served as U.S. ambassador in Kabul in 2012-14.

Social scientists who examined the effect of such decapitations on militant groups have found little empirical evidence that the killings advance U.S. goals. [Continue reading…]

Vanda Felbab-Brown writes: Commenting on the death of Mullah Mansour during his visit to Vietnam this week, President Obama said, “Mansour rejected efforts by the Afghan government to seriously engage in peace talks and end the violence that has taken the lives of countless innocent Afghan men, women and children.”

So runs the official line from the White House: Because Mullah Mansour became opposed to negotiations, removing him became necessary for new peace talks. Yet the notion that the United States can drone-strike its way through the leadership of the Afghan Taliban until it finds an acceptable interlocutor seems optimistic, at best.

The revelation, last July, of the 2013 death in Pakistan of the Afghan Taliban’s previous leader and founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar, led to a competition for the succession that hurt the group’s willingness and capacity to negotiate. The Taliban’s subsequent military push has been its strongest in a decade, causing thousands of civilian casualties. In particular, suicide bombings by the Taliban’s most dangerous and violent faction, the Haqqani network, have struck at the heart of the nation’s capital.

Facing this onslaught, the whole country has been plunged into insecurity. The struggling Afghan National Security Forces have been hanging on, but the military momentum is on the Taliban’s side.

In quickly announcing on Wednesday that Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, a deputy to Mullah Mansour, would be their new leader, the Taliban is trying to avoid the chaos that surrounded Mr. Omar’s succession and to keep their military momentum. It’s likely the violence will continue. [Continue reading…]

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Taliban leader was made to ‘face the consequences’ of refusing to negotiate

The Wall Street Journal reports: President Barack Obama secretly ordered the strike on Mullah Mansour after first trying to bring him to the negotiating table. Initially, there was hope in Washington that Mullah Mansour would be more open to negotiations than his predecessor, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Obama administration officials were divided over whether the Pakistanis were capable or willing to deliver Mullah Mansour for the negotiations.

U.S. officials said the Pakistanis tried and grew frustrated in February by Mullah Mansour’s refusal to send representatives to meet with the Afghan government.

Around the same time, people who maintain contacts with the Taliban began to report that Mullah Mansour had left Pakistan and was spending time in Iran.

U.S. intelligence agencies received information that allowed them to track Mullah Mansour’s movements, including details about devices he used for communications, U.S. officials said.

That allowed the spy agencies to present policy makers with a choice: If and when Mullah Mansour were located in Pakistan, should the U.S. strike?

Mullah Mansour’s travels made it easier to find him. In contrast, the Central Intelligence Agency spent years looking in vain for an opportunity to kill the reclusive cleric he replaced, Mullah Omar.

An April 19 Taliban attack in Kabul targeted Afghanistan’s secret service, killing more than 60 people and underlining for the Americans the extent to which Mullah Mansour had chosen a military course. A decision was made that he should “face the consequences” of his refusal to negotiate, a senior administration official said. [Continue reading…]

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Taliban name new leader after confirming predecessor died in U.S. strike

The New York Times reports: The Taliban broke their silence early Wednesday over the death of their leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, confirming in a statement that he had been killed in an American drone strike.

Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, a deputy to Mullah Mansour, was selected as the new leader of the Taliban, and Sarajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Muhammad Yaqoub were chosen as his deputies, the movement’s leadership council said in the statement. Mullah Yaqoub is the son of the previous Taliban chief, Mullah Muhammad Omar, whose death was acknowledged in July 2015.

President Obama said Monday that Mullah Mansour had been killed in a drone strike Saturday in a restive province of Pakistan.

The Taliban’s spokesmen, who publish regular updates from battlefields across Afghanistan, had remained silent since Mullah Mansour’s killing, as the movement’s leaders convened in the Pakistani city of Quetta to discuss his burial, as well as his successor.

One of their first meetings was at the home of Mawlawi Haibatullah, a figure with deep religious credentials who had been a lesser-known deputy to Mullah Mansour. Over the past year, more attention had focused on another deputy, Mr. Haqqani, who increasingly had been running the day-to-day war for the Taliban as Mullah Mansour was occupied with a campaign of quashing internal dissent and with travel abroad.

Taliban commanders who were aware of the conversations in Quetta had described Mawlawi Haibatullah as a voice guiding the discussions of succession, but not as a front-runner for the leadership.

Many of the movement’s leaders had pushed for a relatively obscure figure to succeed Mullah Mansour — to avoid a divisive personality and for purposes of enhanced security, keeping in mind that Mullah Omar’s reclusive ways long protected him and even concealed his death for years. It appeared Wednesday that such criteria had served Mawlawi Haibatullah well. [Continue reading…]

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Did Obama just carry out an experimental execution?

Reuters reports: U.S. President Barack Obama approved the drone strike that killed Mullah Akhtar Mansour because the Taliban leader was overseeing plans for new attacks on American targets in Kabul, the Afghan capital, U.S. officials said on Monday. [Continue reading…]

Drone strikes are always carried out in the name of necessity. From the president on down, everyone wants to be able to claim that the decision to launch a deadly attack was driven by an imminent threat, there being no legal basis for indiscriminate killing or vengeance.

In the case of the assassination of the Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in Pakistan over the weekend, Obama’s comments on the killing suggest that this actually had less to do with preventing an imminent attack, than it was a kind of experiment.

No one knows what the consequence of killing Mansour will be, but Obama apparently thought that the potential benefits outweighed the risks.

An otherwise risk-averse president always seems confident about the bets he places when they involve Hellfire missiles.

The Wall Street Journal reports: Mr. Obama, speaking Monday during a visit to Hanoi, said the drone strike against Mr. Mansour did not constitute a “shift” in the U.S. mission. “We are not re-entering the day-to-day combat operations that are currently being conducted by Afghan forces,” he said.

He stressed Saturday’s airstrike was an opportunity for the Taliban to shift direction in favor of reconciliation talks, because Mr. Mansour for months has been against those talks.

Whether Mr. Mansour’s death changes things remains to be seen, according to those who track the group. Some believe his death could lead to a power struggle, accelerating the Taliban’s breakup. A main breakaway group already is being funded by the Afghan government as part of an effort to splinter the movement, The Wall Street Journal reported.

It was disclosed last year that the former Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had died two years earlier.

However, the infighting is unlikely to encourage the group to negotiate with the Afghan government, according to those familiar with its operations. Mr. Mansour’s death actually may make it difficult for moderates among the Taliban to negotiate. [Continue reading…]

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