Obama’s newly harsh tone on Keystone seen signaling rejection

Bloomberg reports: Facing re-election and $4 a gallon gasoline, President Barack Obama sounded like an enthusiastic supporter of the Keystone XL pipeline at a March 2012 campaign rally.

“I’m directing my administration to cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles, and make this project a priority,” he said in a speech in Cushing, Oklahoma, referring to a southern leg of the long-delayed project.

Those days are gone. Now when Obama describes the next proposed Keystone segment he says it will only create about 300 jobs. He calls the Calgary-based pipeline builder TransCanada Corp. a “foreign company” and says the oil won’t benefit American motorists.

And last week, he even said the process of extracting crude from the Alberta oil sands is “extraordinarily dirty.”

After years of review, Obama may be finally nearing a decision on the $8 billion project. The State Department has restarted a review it had paused while a challenge to the pipeline’s route worked its way through Nebraska’s high court. And by vetoing Republican-backed legislation last month to force approval, Obama preserved for himself the final say. [Continue reading…]

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Anti-terrorism summit reinforces ‘fear and hate’ towards Muslims, critics warn

The Guardian reports: As Barack Obama prepares to host a summit on preventing homegrown terrorism, he faces a backlash from those he says he wants to empower: American Muslim community leaders, who warn that the summit risks stigmatizing and even endangering them.

Hanging over the “countering violent extremism” (CVE) summit, to be held Tuesday through Thursday at the White House and State Department, is Wednesday’s brutal murder of three Muslim students in North Carolina.

In the wake of the killings, Muslim leaders, some of whom met with Obama recently, say that whatever the summit’s intentions, it will reinforce a message that American Muslims are to be hated and feared, a spark in what they consider to be a powder-keg of Islamophobia in the media and online.

The killing of Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, “really underscores how dangerous it is for the US government, including the White House, to focus its countering violent extremism initiatives primarily on American Muslims”, said Farhana Khera, the executive director of civil rights law firm Muslim Advocates.

“We’ve long said to the administration, to those in government, that directing the bulk of CVE resources to US Muslims undermines the safety of all of us and endangers US Muslims, because it sends the message our community is to be viewed with fear, suspicion and even hate.” [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s Supreme Leader sends new letter to Obama amid nuclear talks

The Wall Street Journal reports: Iran’s paramount political figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has responded to overtures from President Barack Obama seeking better relations by sending secret communications of his own to the White House.

The Iranian cleric wrote to Mr. Obama in recent weeks in response to an October presidential letter that raised the possibility of U.S.-Iranian cooperation in fighting Islamic State if a nuclear deal is secured, according to an Iranian diplomat. The supreme leader’s response was “respectful” but noncommittal, the diplomat said.

A senior White House official declined to confirm the existence of that letter. But it comes as the first details emerge about another letter Mr. Khamenei sent to the president early in his first term. [Continue reading…]

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FBI opens inquiry into Chapel Hill shootings; Obama calls killings ‘brutal and outrageous’

In a conversation recorded by the storytelling project StoryCorps just last summer, Yusor Abu-Salha, a victim from the recent Chapel Hill shooting, described her experience of being an American.

The Washington Post reports: The FBI is opening an inquiry into the shootings of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, N.C., a move that followed multiple calls this week for authorities to investigate the violence as a hate crime.

On Friday, President Obama issued a statement on “the brutal and outrageous murders,” saying that the FBI would look to see if federal laws were broken during the shooting.

“No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship,” Obama said.

Police are investigating the shootings of three people — newlyweds Deah Barakat, 23, and Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 — on Tuesday afternoon at a housing complex near the University of North Carolina.

As the shooting has attracted global attention, Obama has been criticized for not speaking out about it sooner.

“If you stay silent when faced with an incident like this, and don’t make a statement, the world will stay silent towards you,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said during a visit to Mexico on Thursday, according to Reuters.

The Embassy of Jordan in Washington said Friday that Alia Bouran, the country’s ambassador to the United States, went to North Carolina on Friday. Jordan’s foreign ministry issued a statement a day earlier saying that the sisters killed in Chapel Hill also had Jordanian citizenship.

While in North Carolina, Bouran met with the families of the victims and expressed the sympathies of Jordanian King Abdullah II. The embassy said Friday that it was “closely following the ongoing investigation” in North Carolina.

The FBI probe announced on Thursday stops short of being a full investigation, as had been reported in multiple media outlets since the inquiry was announced. Rather, it is a review that could ultimately become an investigation down the line. It was opened by the FBI, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle district of North Carolina. [Continue reading…]

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Why even a Republican-controlled Congress will give President Obama the authority to wage war

Fred Kaplan writes: President Obama asked Congress on Wednesday for authorization to use military force against ISIS, and smart money gives long odds he’ll get it. The fact is, legislators have only rarely asserted their constitutional prerogative to block a president from going to war, and there’s a reason why: They don’t want the responsibility or — more to the point — blame if all hell breaks loose as a result of their saying no.

The practice (usually, the charade) of presidents asking the Hill for permission dates back to 1973, with passage of the War Powers Act. A whiff of revolt was in the air. Richard Nixon’s presidency was collapsing, with the Senate Watergate hearings (he would resign, to avoid impeachment, the following year); his war in Vietnam was siring massive protests, and news reports had just revealed his secret bombing of Cambodia (which prompted Congress to draft the act). The same year saw publication of Arthur Schlesinger’s 500-page tome, The Imperial Presidency, which won critical acclaim, climbed the best-sellers list, and supplied scholarly heft to the mood of disenchantment.

Nixon vetoed the War Powers Act, which ordinarily would have been the end of it, but Congress actually mustered a two-thirds majority in both houses to override the veto. [Continue reading…]

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Netanyahu’s invitation to address Congress raises eyebrows among some U.S. generals

Mark Perry writes: The uniformed leaders of the U.S. military have had a testy relationship with President Barack Obama since he took office in 2009, with a number of relatively public spats revealing discord over how his administration has approached the use of military force. So it might be assumed that when a politician confronts Obama, portraying his policies on threats overseas as naive, many in the senior uniformed ranks would nod in silent affirmation. But that’s not what has happened since House Speaker John Boehner invited Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to attack Obama’s Iran policy in Congress. Instead the speech, planned for next month, has rallied senior military figures behind the president, with some warning that there’s a limit to what U.S. military officers consider acceptable criticism of the commander in chief.

Obama and his generals have clashed privately and publicly since 2009 over his plans to draw down troops and exit from Afghanistan, and a number of respected recently retired top commanders told Congress that what they called the administration’s piecemeal strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria is destined to fail. Some have also publicly recorded misgivings about Obama’s Iran strategy. Still, Netanyahu’s planned speech has prompted a number of senior military men to rally around the office of a president whose policies they regularly, if privately, question.

Serving uniformed officers are loath to comment on an inflammatory political question — “You’re inviting me to end my career,” one senior Pentagon officer told me when asked to comment on Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu, “but, if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not.” But a senior Joint Chiefs of Staff officer who regularly briefs the U.S. high command was willing to speak bluntly in exchange for anonymity. “There’s always been a lot of support for Israel in the military,” the officer said, “but that’s significantly eroded over the last few years. This caps it. It’s one thing for Americans to criticize their president and another entirely for a foreign leader to do it. Netanyahu doesn’t get it. We’re not going to side with him against the commander in chief. Not ever.” [Continue reading…]

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Obama orders minor changes to surveillance on Americans and foreigners

The New York Times reports: A year after President Obama ordered modest changes in how the nation’s intelligence agencies collect and hold data on Americans and foreigners, the administration will announce new rules requiring intelligence analysts to delete private information they may incidentally collect about Americans that has no intelligence purpose, and to delete similar information about foreigners within five years.

The new rules to be announced Tuesday will also institutionalize a regular White House-led review of the National Security Agency’s monitoring of foreign leaders. Until the disclosures in the early summer of 2013 by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor whose trove of intelligence documents is still leaking into public view, there was no continuing White House assessment of whether the intelligence garnered from listening to scores of leaders around the world was worth the potential embarrassment if the programs became public.

Mr. Obama publicly ordered the end of the monitoring of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, saying he had known nothing about the effort — an admission that revealed the White House was not reviewing N.S.A. activities the way, for example, it annually reviews covert actions around the world by the C.I.A. The timing of the announcement about the new review process comes the week before Ms. Merkel is scheduled to visit the White House, where a long-debated arrangement for greater intelligence sharing between the countries is expected to be discussed.

Mr. Obama has never said whom, beyond Ms. Merkel, he took off the list of foreign leaders whose conversations are monitored, but it appeared that programs in Mexico and Brazil continued, while several dozen leaders have been removed. [Continue reading…]

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Obama will not meet Netanyahu in March

BBC News: Barack Obama will not meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he visits in March to speak to Congress, the White House says.

Spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan cited a “long-standing practice” of not meeting heads of state close to elections, which Israel will hold in mid-March.

Mr Netanyahu was invited by House Speaker John Boehner in what is seen as a rebuke to Mr Obama’s Iran policy.

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NSA on and off the trail of the Sony hackers

After cybersleuth Barack Obama saw the evidence pointing at North Korea’s responsibility for the cyberattacks against Sony, “he had no doubt,” the New York Times melodramatically reports.

He had no doubt about what? That his intelligence analysts knew what they were talking about? Or that he too when presented with the same evidence was forced to reach the same conclusion?

I have no doubt that had Obama been told by those same advisers that North Korea was not behind the attacks, he would have accepted that conclusion. In other words, on matters about which he lacks the expertise to reach any conclusion, he relies on the expertise of others.

A journalist who tells us about the president having “no doubt” in such as situation is merely dressing up his narrative with some Hollywood-style commander-in-chief gravitas.

When one of the reporters in this case, David Sanger, is someone whose cozy ties to government extend to being “an old friend of many, many years” of Ashton Carter, whose nomination as the next Secretary of Defense is almost certain to be approved, you have to wonder whose interests he really serves. Those of his readership or those of the government?

Since Obama and the FBI went out on a limb by asserting that they had no doubt about North Korea’s role in the attacks, they have been under considerable pressure to provide some compelling evidence to back up their claim.

That evidence now comes courtesy of anonymous officials briefing the New York Times and another document from the Snowden trove of NSA documents.

Maybe the evidence really is conclusive, but there are still important unanswered questions.

For instance, as Arik Hesseldahl asks:

why, if the NSA had so fully penetrated North Korea’s cyber operations, did it not warn Sony that an attack of this magnitude was underway, one that apparently began as early as September.

Officials with the NSA and the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the report. A Sony spokeswoman had no comment.

On the one hand we’re being told that the U.S. knew exactly who was behind the Sony attacks because the hackers were under close surveillance by the NSA, and yet at the same time we’re being told that although the NSA was watching the hackers it didn’t figure out what they were doing.

If Hollywood everyone decides to create a satire out of this, they’ll need to come up with a modern-day reworking of the kind of scene that would come straight out of Get Smart — the kind where Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, would be eavesdropping on conversation between his North Korean counterparts, the only problem being, that he doesn’t understand Korean.

The Times report refers to the North Korean hackers using an “attack base” in Shenyang, in north east China. This has been widely reported with the somewhat less cyber-sexy name of the Chilbosan Hotel whose use for these purposes has been known since 2004.

If the attackers wanted to avoid detection, it’s hard to understand why they would have operated out of a location that had been known about for that long and that could so easily be linked to North Korea.

It’s also hard to fathom that having developed its cyberattack capabilities over such an extended period, North Korea would want to risk so much just to try and prevent the release of The Interview.

Michael Daly claims that the regime “recognizes that Hollywood and American popular culture in general constitute a dire threat” — a threat that has apparently penetrated the Hermit Kingdom in the “especially popular” form of Desperate Housewives.

Daly goes on to assert:

a glimpse of Wisteria Lane is enough to give lie to the regime’s propaganda that North Koreans live in a worker’s paradise while its enemies suffer in grinding poverty, driven by envy to plot against Dear Leader.

Of course, as every American who has watched the show knows, Wisteria Lane represents anytown America and the cast could blend in unnoticed at any Walmart or shopping mall.

OK. I won’t deny that American propaganda is much more sophisticated than North Korea’s, but when an American journalist implies that Desperate Housewives offers ordinary North Koreans a glimpse into the lives of ordinary Americans, you have to ask: which population has been more perfectly been brainwashed?

In reality, the dire threat to the North Korean regime in terms of social impact comes not from American popular culture but from much closer: South Korean soap operas.

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America snubs historic Paris rally

The Daily Mail reports: President Obama was missing in action today when world leaders linked arms to lead an anti-terrorism march of more than a million people in Paris.

While the president’s a busy man, his absence at the show of international solidarity was strange considering his schedule was wide open today.

Vice President Joe Biden often fills in for the president at events like this, but he was no where to be seen either, despite his similarly empty schedule.

In fact, the only recognizable Obama official in the city was Attorney General Eric Holder, who attended a terrorism summit with world leaders on Sunday – but skipped the rally.

CNN’s Jake Tapper said on air: “I’m a little disappointed personally, this is me speaking personally, not as a representative of CNN, as an American that there isn’t more of a display of unity here. Because this is one of the most incredible events I have ever attended and the positivity that these people of France are embracing. This is not a rally — even though there was an ugly racist element in this society, as there is in every society — this is not a rally that is embracing jingoism, or anger, or any sort of hatred. This is a rally that is expressing brotherhood and sisterhood and it is a beautiful thing to behold.”

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James Carroll: The Pentagon as President Obama’s Great White Whale

There’s finally good news when it comes to the renewal of the Faith.  I’m talking, of course, about the nuclear faith.  In case you happen to have forgotten, that’s the Cold War belief that a U.S. arsenal big enough to destroy several Earth-sized planets and on a hair-trigger alert remains crucial to the preservation of the American way of life and, at a more mundane level, that an Air Force career as a “missileer” isn’t a dead-end path in a terrorism obsessed century.  For years, it’s seemed like sitting in a silo in the American West with your proverbial finger on the trigger might be the definition of military meaninglessness.  And it can’t have helped that, early in his first term, President Obama committed himself to banishing from the planet the very weapons the missileers were guarding and preparing to launch one of these days, or that there had even been discussions inside the Pentagon about shrinking the force.  Talk about corrosive or, as one deputy commander of operations and missileer put it, a “rot” in the ranks!  In religious terms, think of this as a loss of confidence among the military priesthood in what had once been the Only True Faith, and a fear that “thinking the unthinkable” — as it was called in the nuclear arsenal’s Cold War heyday — might someday actually become unthinkable.

As a spate of news articles in recent years has indicated, the “rot” has been all too real.  There was that widely reported “cheating” scandal when it came to nuclear “proficiency” exams resulting in the axing of nine Air Force commanders; there were those nuclear weapons flown across the U.S. by mistake, those missile silo blast doors left open while their guards slept soundly, and those suspensions of missileers for “incompetence,” drug problems, and sexual harassment, among other issues.  There was the firing of a general in charge of “three wings of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles with 450 ICBMs” for “misconduct” while in Moscow, including gross and repeated drunkenness, “associating” with two women who might have been spies, offending his hosts, and so on.  There was even a distinctly Biblical “infestation” of rats in a force reputedly “rusting its way to disarmament.”

And last but hardly least, there was the loss of crucial funds for equipment highlighted by the single wrench “required to tighten bolts on the warhead end of the Minuteman 3 missile” that had to be FedExed between three ICBM bases in North Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana.  Of course, that problem could have been solved if, in line with the president’s stated thinking, two of those three bases had been closed and their missiles disarmed and destroyed.  But we’re talking about the renewal of a faith here, not anything as utopian as nuclear disarmament, so that wouldn’t do.  Instead, the U.S. nuclear force is to be “modernized,” which means refurbished to the tune of an estimated trillion dollars in the decades to come, and our disarming president has just nominated as his new secretary of defense a man long committed to such a course of action.

If there’s anyone to take the measure of this moment of nuclear “renewal,” it’s Boston Globe columnist James Carroll.  After all, dedicated to exploring the religious roots of violence, he experienced the American cult of violence up close and personal in his own youth.  His father was the founding director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, something he’s described in his memoir American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us.  He’s written eloquently about the American cult of violence that we like to call the Pentagon in House of War, and about the more traditionally religious roots of violence in his bestseller Constantine’s Sword and in Jerusalem, Jerusalem. His newest book, Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age, focuses on the way in which Jesus has historically been used to justify the very violence he rejected. So Carroll’s look at Washington’s urge to renew America’s waning nuclear faith today couldn’t be more appropriate. Tom Engelhardt

The abolition of abolition
How the president who pledged to banish nuclear weapons is enabling their renewal
By James Carroll

Mark these days. A long-dreaded transformation from hope to doom is taking place as the United States of America ushers the world onto the no-turning-back road of nuclear perdition. Once, we could believe there was another way to go. Indeed, we were invited to take that path by the man who is, even today, overseeing the blocking of it, probably forever.

[Read more…]

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At least 13 killed in failed U.S. bid to rescue hostages in Yemen

Reuters reports: A woman, a 10-year-old boy and a local al Qaeda leader were among at least 11 people killed alongside two Western hostages when U.S.-led forces battled militants in a failed rescue mission in Yemen, residents said on Sunday.

U.S. special forces raided the village of Dafaar in Shabwa province, a militant stronghold in southern Yemen, shortly after midnight on Saturday, killing several members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

American journalist Luke Somers, 33, and South African teacher Pierre Korkie, 56, were shot and killed by their captors during the raid intended to secure the hostages’ freedom, U.S. officials said. [Continue reading…]

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Glaring contradictions in Obama’s ISIS and Syria policies

The New York Times reports: American and Syrian warplanes screamed over the Syrian city of Raqqa in separate raids this week, ostensibly against the same target, the Islamic State militants in control there.

In the first raid, on Sunday, United States warplanes hit an Islamic State building, with no report of civilian casualties. On Tuesday, Syrian jets struck 10 times, killing scores of civilians, according to residents and Islamic State videos.

The back-to-back strikes, coming just days after President Bashar al-Assad of Syria declared that the West needed to side with him in “real and sincere” cooperation to defeat the extremist group, infuriated Syrians who oppose both Mr. Assad and the Islamic State. They see American jets sharing the skies with the Syrians but doing nothing to stop them from indiscriminately bombing rebellious neighborhoods. They conclude, increasingly, that the Obama administration is siding with Mr. Assad, that by training United States firepower solely on the Islamic State it is aiding a president whose ouster is still, at least officially, an American goal.

Their dismay reflects a broader sense on all sides that President Obama’s policies on Syria and the Islamic State remain contradictory, and the longer the fight goes on without the policies being resolved, the more damage is being done to America’s standing in the region.

More than two months after the campaign against the Islamic State plunged the United States into direct military involvement in Syria, something Mr. Obama had long avoided, the group has held its strongholds there and even expanded its reach. That has called into question basic assumptions of American strategy. [Continue reading…]

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What Obama doesn’t understand about Syria

Noah Bonsey writes: The current U.S. strategy to destroy the Islamic State is likely doomed to fail. In fact, it risks doing just the opposite of its intended goal: strengthening the jihadis’ appeal in Syria, Iraq, and far beyond, while leaving the door open for the Islamic State to expand into new areas.

This is in large part because the United States so far has addressed the problem of the Islamic State in isolation from other aspects of the trans-border conflict in Syria and Iraq. Unless Barack Obama’s administration takes a broader view, it will be unable to respond effectively to the deteriorating situation on the ground.

The good news is that the White House can still change course — and indeed, President Obama has reportedly requested a review of his administration’s strategy in Syria. In crafting a new way forward, the White House needs to understand three points about the Islamic State and the military landscape in which it operates. [Continue reading…]

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The insignificance of Hagel’s arrival and departure

Peter Beinart writes: When I heard that Chuck Hagel was leaving as secretary of defense, I called someone close to the administration to try out the explanation bubbling up on Twitter: that Hagel had been hired to bury the “war on terror” and was being replaced because the White House now needed someone who wanted to vigorously prosecute it. My source sighed. “You guys tend to over interpret these things,” he said.

Oh yeah, I thought. I should know that by now. When Hagel was chosen I wrote a 3,000-word essay claiming his nomination “may prove the most consequential foreign-policy appointment of his [Obama’s] presidency. Because the struggle over Hagel is a struggle over whether Obama can change the terms of foreign-policy debate.” In one sense, that claim was correct. Hagel’s confirmation did spark a large, nasty fight over the terms of American foreign policy. Hawks blasted Hagel for casting doubt on military action against Iran and for criticizing what he called, inaccurately, “the Jewish lobby.” Hagel’s defenders argued that by nominating him, Obama was declaring independence from a foreign-policy establishment that had not reconsidered the assumptions that led America into Afghanistan and Iraq. And we argued that by nominating someone who had spoken uncomfortable truths about the influence groups like AIPAC wield in Congress, Obama was combatting the culture of hyper-caution that stymied provocative thinking inside the Democratic foreign-policy elite.

It was an interesting debate. It just didn’t have a lot to do with what Hagel would do as secretary of defense. Intoxicated by the symbolic significance of a Hagel appointment, both his defenders and his adversaries tended to overlook one mundane but crucial fact: That in the ultra-centralized Obama White House, Hagel’s foreign-policy views wouldn’t matter all that much. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s options in Syria

Henri J. Barkey writes: Press reports suggest that President Obama has ordered a review of Syria strategy (though the White House is denying this). He has already made it clear that he does not favor direct U.S. intervention in Syria. While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has lost large swathes of territory to a rebellion that has so far cost the lives of 200,000 Syrians, he shows no signs of giving up. What is worse, the chaos in Syria and neighboring Iraq has given rise to a virulent jihadist movement in the form of the Islamic State (IS), which has conquered vast territory throughout the region.

The options such a review would produce are unlikely to change policy anytime soon. This is not only because there are no good ones out there that can transform the situation, but also because the Syrian crisis has become part of a larger global struggle with Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s potential countermoves, especially in Ukraine, serve as a deterrent to American action in Syria.

Here are some of the options Obama’s advisers would likely present him. [Continue reading…]

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In secret, Obama extends U.S. role in Afghan combat

The New York Times reports: President Obama decided in recent weeks to authorize a more expansive mission for the military in Afghanistan in 2015 than originally planned, a move that ensures American troops will have a direct role in fighting in the war-ravaged country for at least another year.

Mr. Obama’s order allows American forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions.

In an announcement in the White House Rose Garden in May, Mr. Obama said that the American military would have no combat role in Afghanistan next year, and that the missions for the 9,800 troops remaining in the country would be limited to training Afghan forces and to hunting the “remnants of Al Qaeda.”

The decision to change that mission was the result of a lengthy and heated debate that laid bare the tension inside the Obama administration between two often-competing imperatives: the promise Mr. Obama made to end the war in Afghanistan, versus the demands of the Pentagon that American troops be able to successfully fulfill their remaining missions in the country.

The internal discussion took place against the backdrop of this year’s collapse of Iraqi security forces in the face of the advance of the Islamic State as well as the mistrust between the Pentagon and the White House that still lingers since Mr. Obama’s 2009 decision to “surge” 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan. Some of the president’s civilian advisers say that decision was made only because of excessive Pentagon pressure, and some military officials say it was half-baked and made with an eye to domestic politics.

Mr. Obama’s decision, made during a White House meeting in recent weeks with his senior national security advisers, came over the objection of some of his top civilian aides, who argued that American lives should not be put at risk next year in any operations against the Taliban — and that they should have only a narrow counterterrorism mission against Al Qaeda. [Continue reading…]

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The drone war in Pakistan

Steve Coll writes: At the Pearl Continental Hotel, in Peshawar, a concrete tower enveloped by flowering gardens, the management has adopted security precautions that have become common in Pakistan’s upscale hospitality industry: razor wire, vehicle barricades, and police crouching in bunkers, fingering machine guns. In June, on a hot weekday morning, Noor Behram arrived at the gate carrying a white plastic shopping bag full of photographs. He had a four-inch black beard and wore a blue shalwar kameez and a flat Chitrali hat. He met me in the lobby. We sat down, and Behram spilled his photos onto a table. Some of the prints were curled and faded. For the past seven years, he said, he has driven around North Waziristan on a small red Honda motorcycle, visiting the sites of American drone missile strikes as soon after an attack as possible.

Behram is a journalist from North Waziristan, in northwestern Pakistan, and also works as a private investigator. He has been documenting the drone attacks for the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, a Pakistani nonprofit that is seeking redress for civilian casualties. In the beginning, he said, he had no training and only a cheap camera. I picked up a photo that showed Behram outdoors, in a mountainous area, holding up a shredded piece of women’s underwear. He said it was taken during his first investigation, in June, 2007, after an aerial attack on a training camp. American and Pakistani newspapers reported at the time that drone missiles had killed Al Qaeda-linked militants. There were women nearby as well. Although he was unable to photograph the victims’ bodies, he said, “I found charred, torn women’s clothing—that was the evidence.”

Syed Wali Shah, a seven-year-old boy was killed in a 2009 drone strike, along with his parents.

Since then, he went on, he has photographed about a hundred other sites in North Waziristan, creating a partial record of the dead, the wounded, and their detritus. Many of the faces before us were young. Behram said he learned from conversations with editors and other journalists that if a drone missile killed an innocent adult male civilian, such as a vegetable vender or a fruit seller, the victim’s long hair and beard would be enough to stereotype him as a militant. So he decided to focus on children.

Many of the prints had dates scrawled on the back. I looked at one from September 10, 2010. It showed a bandaged boy weeping; he appeared to be about seven years old. There was a photo of a girl with a badly broken arm, and one of another boy, also in tears, apparently sitting in a hospital. A print from August 23, 2010, showed a dead boy of perhaps ten, the son of an Afghan refugee named Bismillah Khan, who lived near a compound associated with the Taliban fighting group known as the Haqqani network. The boy’s skull had been bashed in. [Continue reading…]

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