Some of the best best photos of 2012

Each of the photos below comes from a “best of…” collection. Click on each picture to see the source.

A lenticular cloud formed as high winds blew over the rugged Crazy Mountains in Montana. (James Woodcock, Billings Gazette via Associated Press.)

A Palestinian man kisses the hand of a dead relative in the morgue of Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. November 18, 2012. (Bernat Armangue, AP.)

A child wounded by Syrian Army artillery shelling is carried at the entrance of the Al Shifa hospital in Aleppo. (Laurent Van der Stockt, Getty Images.)

A crowd beat a Syrian security officer who infiltrated a funeral for a fighter from the Free Syrian Army, January 27. (Tomas Munita, New York Times.)

A Pakistani girl helps her father herd sheep near the demolished compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan that once housed Osama bin Laden. (Muhammed Muheisen, AP.)

A type of solar explosion called a coronal mass ejection sent solar radiation out from the Sun at 900 miles per second, as seen in an image released by NASA on September 17. (SDO/NASA)

The blood-brain barrier in a live zebrafish embryo. (Jennifer Peters and Michael Taylor.)

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YEAR IN REVIEW: When will it be our time?

YEAR IN REVIEW: When will it be our time?

I have lived my entire adult life under occupation, with Israelis holding ultimate control over my movement and daily life.

When young Israeli police officers force me to sit on the cold ground and soldiers beat me during a peaceful protest, I smolder. No human being should be compelled to sit on the ground while exercising rights taken for granted throughout the West.

It is with deepening concern that I recognize the Obama administration is not yet capable of standing up to Israel and the pro-Israel lobby. Our dream of freedom is being crushed under the weight of immovable and constantly expanding Israeli settlements.

Days ago, the State Department spokesman, Ian Kelly, managed only to term such illegal building “dismaying.” The Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, stands up and walks out on the U.S. envoy, George Mitchell, every time the American envoy mentions East Jerusalem.

And Javier Solana, just prior to completing his stint as European Union foreign policy chief, claimed Palestinian moves toward statehood “have to be done with time, with calm, in an appropriate moment.” He adds: “I don’t think today is the moment to talk about that.”

When, precisely, is a good time for Palestinian freedom? I call on Mr. Solana’s replacement, Catherine Ashton, to take concrete actions to press for Palestinian freedom rather than postpone it.

If Israel insists on hewing to antiquated notions of determining the date of another people’s freedom then it is incumbent on Palestinians to organize ourselves and highlight the moral repugnance of such an outlook.

Through decades of occupation and dispossession, 90 percent of the Palestinian struggle has been nonviolent, with the vast majority of Palestinians supporting this method of struggle. Today, growing numbers of Palestinians are participating in organized nonviolent resistance.

In the face of European and American inaction, it is crucial that we continue to revive our culture of collective activism by vigorously and nonviolently resisting Israel’s domination over us. [continued...]

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YEAR IN REVIEW: To beat al Qaeda, look to the east

YEAR IN REVIEW: To beat al Qaeda, look to the east

Al Qaeda’s main focus is harming the United States and Europe, but there hasn’t been a successful attack in these places directly commanded by Osama bin Laden and company since 9/11. The American invasion of Afghanistan devastated Al Qaeda’s core of top personnel and its training camps. In a recent briefing to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Marc Sageman, a former C.I.A. case officer, said that recent history “refutes claims by some heads of the intelligence community that all Islamist plots in the West can be traced back to the Afghan-Pakistani border.” The real threat is homegrown youths who gain inspiration from Osama bin Laden but little else beyond an occasional self-financed spell at a degraded Qaeda-linked training facility.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq encouraged many of these local plots, including the train bombings in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005. In their aftermaths, European law and security forces stopped plots from coming to fruition by stepping up coordination and tracking links among local extremists, their friends and friends of friends, while also improving relations with young Muslim immigrants through community outreach. Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have taken similar steps.

Now we need to bring this perspective to Afghanistan and Pakistan — one that is smart about cultures, customs and connections. The present policy of focusing on troop strength and drones, and trying to win over people by improving their lives with Western-style aid programs, only continues a long history of foreign involvement and failure. Reading a thousand years of Arab and Muslim history would show little in the way of patterns that would have helped to predict 9/11, but our predicament in Afghanistan rhymes with the past like a limerick.

A key factor helping the Taliban is the moral outrage of the Pashtun tribes against those who deny them autonomy, including a right to bear arms to defend their tribal code, known as Pashtunwali. Its sacred tenets include protecting women’s purity (namus), the right to personal revenge (badal), the sanctity of the guest (melmastia) and sanctuary (nanawateh). Among all Pashtun tribes, inheritance, wealth, social prestige and political status accrue through the father’s line.

This social structure means that there can be no suspicion that the male pedigree (often traceable in lineages spanning centuries) is “corrupted” by doubtful paternity. Thus, revenge for sexual misbehavior (rape, adultery, abduction) warrants killing seven members of the offending group and often the “offending” woman. Yet hospitality trumps vengeance: if a group accepts a guest, all must honor him, even if prior grounds justify revenge. That’s one reason American offers of millions for betraying Osama bin Laden fail.

Afghan hill societies have withstood centuries of would-be conquests by keeping order with Pashtunwali in the absence of central authority. When seemingly intractable conflicts arise, rival parties convene councils, or jirgas, of elders and third parties to seek solutions through consensus.

After 9/11, the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, assembled a council of clerics to judge his claim that Mr. bin Laden was the country’s guest and could not be surrendered. The clerics countered that because a guest should not cause his host problems, Mr. bin Laden should leave. But instead of keeping pressure on the Taliban to resolve the issue in ways they could live with, the United States ridiculed their deliberation and bombed them into a closer alliance with Al Qaeda. Pakistani Pashtuns then offered to help out their Afghan brethren.

American-sponsored “reconciliation” efforts between the Afghan government and the Taliban may be fatally flawed if they include demands that Pashtun hill tribes give up their arms and support a Constitution that values Western-inspired rights and judicial institutions over traditions that have sustained the tribes against all enemies.

The secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and the special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, suggest that victory in Afghanistan is possible if the Taliban who pursue self-interest rather than ideology can be co-opted with material incentives. But as the veteran war reporter Jason Burke of The Observer of London told me: “Today, the logical thing for the Pashtun conservatives is to stop fighting and get rich through narcotics or Western aid, the latter being much lower risk. But many won’t sell out.”

Why? In part because outsiders who ignore local group dynamics tend to ride roughshod over values they don’t grasp. My research with colleagues on group conflict in India, Indonesia, Iran, Morocco, Pakistan and the Palestinian territories found that helping to improve lives materially does little to reduce support for violence, and can even increase it if people feel such help compromises their most cherished values.

The original alliance between the Taliban and Al Qaeda was largely one of convenience between a poverty-stricken national movement and a transnational cause that brought it material help. American pressure on Pakistan to attack the Taliban and Al Qaeda in their sanctuary gave birth to the Pakistani Taliban, who forged their own ties to Al Qaeda to fight the Pakistani state.

While some Taliban groups use the rhetoric of global jihad to inspire ranks or enlist foreign fighters, the Pakistani Taliban show no inclination to go after Western interests abroad. Their attacks, which have included at least three assaults near nuclear facilities, warrant concerted action — but in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan. As Mr. Sageman, the former C.I.A. officer, puts it: “There’s no Qaeda in Afghanistan and no Afghans in Qaeda.”

Pakistan has long preferred a policy of “respect for the independence and sentiment of the tribes” that was advised in 1908 by Lord Curzon, the British viceroy of India who established the North-West Frontier Province as a buffer zone to “conciliate and contain” the Pashtun hill tribes. In 1948, Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, removed all troops from brigade level up in Waziristan and other tribal areas in a plan aptly called Operation Curzon.

The problem today is that Al Qaeda is prodding the Pakistani Taliban to hit state institutions in the hopes of provoking a full-scale invasion of the tribal areas by the Pakistani Army; the idea is that such an assault would rally the tribes to Al Qaeda’s cause and threaten the state. The United States has been pushing for exactly that sort of potentially disastrous action by Islamabad. [continued...]

Stretching out an ugly struggle

Many decades ago as a fledgling C.I.A. officer in the field, I was naïvely convinced that if the facts were reported back to Washington correctly, everything else would take care of itself in policymaking. The first loss of innocence comes with the harsh recognition that “all politics are local” and that overseas realities bear only a partial relationship to foreign-policy formulation back home.

So in looking at President Obama’s new policy directions for Afghanistan, what goes down in Washington politics far outweighs analyses of local conditions.

I had hoped that Obama would level with the American people that the war in Afghanistan is not being won, indeed is not winnable within any practicable framework. But such an admission — however accurate — would sign the political death warrant of a president to be portrayed as having snatched defeat out of the jaws of “victory.”

The “objective” situation in Afghanistan remains a mess. Senior commanders acknowledge that we are not now winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan; indeed, we never can, and certainly not at gunpoint. Most Pashtuns will never accept a U.S. plan for Afghanistan’s future. The non-Pashtuns — Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, etc. — naturally welcome any outside support in what is a virtual civil war.

America has inadvertently ended up choosing sides in this war. U.S. forces are perceived by large numbers of Afghans as an occupying army inflicting large civilian casualties. The struggle has now metastasized into Pakistan — with even higher stakes. [continued...]

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YEAR IN REVIEW: Obama’s bloody re-election calculus

YEAR IN REVIEW: Obama’s bloody re-election calculus

Obama’s new “strategy” is no strategy at all. It is a cynical and politically motivated rehash of Iraq policy: Toss in a few more troops, throw together something resembling local security forces, buy off the enemies, and get the hell out before it all blows up. Even the dimmest bulb listening to the president’s speech could not have missed the obvious link between the withdrawal date for combat troops from Iraq (2010), the date for beginning troop reductions in Afghanistan (2011), and the domestic U.S. election cycle.

So we are faced with a conundrum. Obama is one of the most intelligent men ever to hold the U.S. presidency. But no intelligent person could really believe that adding 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, a country four times larger than Vietnam, for a year or two, following the same game plan that has resulted in dismal failure there for the past eight years, could possibly have any impact on the outcome of the conflict.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes used to say that “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The only conclusion one can reach from the president’s speech, after eliminating the impossible, is that the administration has made a difficult but pragmatic decision: The war in Afghanistan is unwinnable, and the president’s second term and progressive domestic agenda cannot be sacrificed to a lost cause the way that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s was for Vietnam. The result of that calculation was what we heard on Dec. 1: platitudes about commitment and a just cause; historical amnesia; and a continuation of the exact same failed policies that got the United States into this mess back in 2001, concocted by the same ship of fools, many of whom are still providing remarkably bad advice to this administration. [continued...]

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YEAR IN REVIEW: The European minaret-missile threat

YEAR IN REVIEW: The European minaret-missile threat

Bigotry is on the rise in “the westerly excrescence of the continent of Asia.”

That unpoetic but topographically-precise description of Europe comes from the Oxford archeologist, Barry Cunliffe.

Whenever voices declaring that European culture is under threat are at their most strident, it’s always worth remembering the actual nature of Europe’s physical form.

As a continent it is nothing more than a malleable contrivance with its ambiguous, historically shifting eastern edge. As a result, it is and always has been, an ethnic and cultural melting pot.

Thus the irony when Europe’s self-appointed protectors take a firm stand in the name of its defense: they so often lack a real appreciation for the very thing to which they have pledged their allegiance.

Why is it that the people who most easily become possessed by ideas about cultural purity are themselves so often culturally impoverished?

Because culture in its richness and complexity is not the real issue.

This is about how individuals respond to the other.

Does the unfamiliar prompt interest and curiosity?

Or does it provoke fear?

Fear in response to the other says more about the fearful than it says about the objects they fear.

The fear of the foreign is at its root a fear of becoming foreign. It is a fear of becoming a stranger in one’s own land.

* * *

In the latest outbreak of European xenophobia, the minaret has become a missile in a campaign to ban their construction — that is, the construction of minarets, not missiles.

This is a curious iconic transformation. Is the Swiss People’s Party suggesting that Switzerland, in which currently there are only four minarets, is at risk of becoming a missile-minaret launching pad threatening the rest of Europe with Islamization? (After all, their posters depict missile-minarets ready for launch — not incoming missile-minarets about to explode.)

By Sunday it became apparent that Swiss voters had little interest in dissecting the visual absurdity of the campaign poster — a majority seemed to have bought the implicit message: Islam = violence, death and destruction.

The campaign’s final week of fear-mongering managed to raise support for the ban from 37% up to 57.5%, with passage in the majority of cantons meaning that a constitutional amendment will follow.

As The Guardian reported:

The controversial referendum on Sunday, accompanied by a prohibition campaign denounced as racist and in violation of human rights, is the latest tussle in Europe over the limits of multiculturalism and immigrant lifestyles.

Pushed by anti-immigrant rightwing populists, it has triggered months of debate in a country that uses direct democracy for single-issue politics. The referendum has turned into much more than a vote on architecture and urban planning.

“The minaret has got nothing to do with religion. It’s a symbol of political power, a prelude to the introduction of sharia law,” argued Ulrich Schlüer, of the rightwing Swiss People’s party, an architect of the campaign.

Two years ago the SPP became the strongest party in Switzerland, with an anti-immigrant election campaign that featured posters of three white sheep kicking a black sheep off a red and white Swiss flag. UN experts and human rights activists condemned the campaign as overtly racist.

This time the SPP has plastered the country with posters showing the same flag as a base for several black minarets, portrayed as missiles, alongside a woman clad in a black burqa. Church leaders, the Jewish community and Muslim leaders have all opposed the campaign. The foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, warned that a vote in favour risked turning Switzerland into “a target for Islamic terrorism”. The city of Basel and other towns have proscribed the incendiary posters.

Amnesty International said: “Freedom of religious belief is a basic human right and changing the Swiss constitution to ban the construction of minarets would clearly breach the rights of the country’s Muslims.”

UN human rights experts have said the proposed ban violates freedom of religion and liberty. The Swiss justice minister, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, has agreed, declaring that it would breach anti-discrimination laws and rights to free religious observance, raising the question of why the campaign has been allowed.

Tariq Ramadan, Switzerland’s most famous Muslim, suggests that what his country’s Muslim population is being told is that the only good Swiss Muslim is an invisible Muslim.

Ramadan was recently interviewed by the Swiss magazine, L’illustré, where Arnaud Bédat asked him to comment on the fears of his fellow citizens. (Translation by Rashed Chowdhury.)

Tariq Ramadan: One must respect the fear of ordinary citizens, while one also must resist in civic fashion populist parties which are instrumentalising fear in order to win elections. The majority of our fellow Swiss citizens are not racists: they are afraid and they would like to understand. Swiss people of the Muslim faith have a real responsibility to communicate and explain…. At the same time, one must refuse to allow populism to install itself. The problem is that the UDC [the Democratic Union of the Centre, another name for the Swiss People's Party] initiative is using the symbol of the minaret to target Islam as a religion. I have had debates with Mr. Freysinger. [Oskar Freysinger is a parliamentarian in the Swiss People's Party and a driving force in the campaign.] What does he say? That “Islam is not integratable into Swiss society.” So he says to me, to me, and I am Swiss like him, that “You are not a good Swiss person, you cannot be one, since your quality of being a Muslim prevents you from being a good Swiss person.” That is the foundation of the debate: the problem is Islam, not minarets.

Arnaud Bédat: But the minaret, you write so yourself, is not a pillar of Muslim faith.

TR: Yes, but is that a reason to say “Since it is not an obligation, you don’t need it”?… Does it have to be that the only good Swiss Muslim is an invisible Muslim? Is this the future of our pluralism and of our living together?

AB: Numerous Islamic countries forbid other religions on their territory — there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia, for example. Is it not ultimately logical that part of the West reject Islam on its territory?

TR: This is the oft-repeated argument of reciprocity. It is untenable. Respect for the rights and dignity of people is not a question of trade. It falls to us, to us in Switzerland, to preserve our principles of respect, and to not allow ourselves to be colonised by the unacceptable practices of other societies. Let us say first of all that it is wrong to say that religious minorities are always discriminated against in Muslim-majority societies. There are synagogues, churches and temples [there]. However, one should not deny the fact that discrimination and the denial of rights do occur, as in Saudi Arabia. One cannot hold Swiss citizens and residents of Muslim faith responsible for the actions of certain dictatorial governments from which they have often, by the way, fled for political or economic reasons. What one can expect from them [Swiss Muslims], nevertheless, from a moral point of view, is a denunciation of discrimination and ill treatment. That is something I do not stop doing, which has closed the doors of several countries, such as Saudi Arabia, to me.

AB: Do you dream, as you detractors claim, of a world that is entirely Muslim?

TR: No. I was born, have lived and have studied in Switzerland; my whole philosophical education comes from that. I have always believed that those who do not share my beliefs allow me to be more myself. The absolute power or uniformisation of a religion on earth would mean corruption and death. The worst that could happen to Muslims is if the whole world became Muslim! That is not even what God’s project is. There has to be diversity and difference. Because difference teaches us humility and respect.

To which I would add: The cultural ecosystem, or the ethnosphere as Wade Davis has named it, thrives on diversity.

Monoculture is inherently unstable because it lacks the strength that comes from constant adaptation necessitated by complexity and constant change.

Think about it. What would Europe be had it never been open to the influence of foreign cultures?

Christianity wasn’t born in Zurich — it came from the Middle East!

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YEAR IN REVIEW: Imagine living in the West Bank…

YEAR IN REVIEW: Imagine living in the West Bank…

For most Israelis, the occupied West Bank — now mostly concealed behind a barrier far more imposing than the Berlin Wall — could be a million miles away. Even so, thousands really do know what it’s like. They have firsthand experience of the conditions imposed on ordinary Palestinians — they know because during their military service they had a direct role in imposing those conditions.

For the rest of us, beyond hearing testimony, seeing photographs and film, it is really only through an act of imagination that we can transport ourselves there and attempt to understand what it means to be living under military occupation.

The following film was created as a tool to help those of us who take freedom of movement for granted, to have a sense of what it means when that freedom is taken away.

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YEAR IN REVIEW: Israel’s unbroken legacy of righteous victimhood

YEAR IN REVIEW: Some victims we are

The kill ratio was 100-to-1 in our favor. The destruction ratio was much, much greater than that. To this day, thousands of Gazans are living in tents because we won’t let them import cement to rebuild the homes we destroyed. We turned the Gaza Strip into a disaster area, a humanitarian case, and we’re keeping it that way with our blockade.

Meanwhile, here on the Israeli side of the border, it’s hard to remember when life was so safe and secure.

So let’s decide: Who was the victim of Operation Cast Lead, them or us?

No question – us. We Israelis were the victims and we still are. In fact, our victimhood is getting worse by the day. The Goldstone report was the real war crime. The Goldstone report, the UN debates, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Red Cross, B’Tselem, the traitorous soldiers of Breaking the Silence and the Rabin Academy – those were the true crimes against humanity. This is what’s meant by “war is hell.”

It is we who’ve been going through hell from the war in Gaza. It is we who’ve been suffering.

Gazans? Suffering? What’s everybody talking about?

We let them eat, don’t we?

This imaginary monologue is how we actually see ourselves today. We initiated the war in Gaza, we waged one of the most one-sided military campaigns anyone’s ever seen – and we’re the victims.

We’re fighting off the world with the Holocaust; witness Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the UN with his Auschwitz props. “We won’t go like lambs to the slaughter again,” vowed his protégé, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, in a cabinet discussion of the Goldstone report.

Auschwitz, lambs to the slaughter, Operation Cast Lead. To Israelis today, it’s all of a piece, it’s one story, one unbroken legacy of righteous victimhood.

The truth is that the State of Israel has never been a victim, and our likening of ourselves to the 6 million has been embarrassing from the beginning – but now? After what we did in Gaza? With the stranglehold we have on that society, while we over here live free and easy?

Victims? Lambs to the slaughter? Us?

No, this has gone beyond embarrassing; this is out-and-out shameful.

And, despite our excuses, it’s not that we’re “traumatized” by the past into believing that we’re still weak, still the frightened, powerless Jews about to be led to the gas chambers. Many Holocaust survivors still believe this, and to some very limited extent, this vestigial fear still takes up space in the Israeli mind.

But by now, 64 years after the Holocaust, 42 years after seeing in the Six Day War how strong we’d become, we know, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, that we aren’t the victims anymore. We know we aren’t a continuation of the 6 million but rather a deliberate and stark departure from them.

THE REASON we tell ourselves and the world that we are victims is because we know, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, that victimhood is power. Victimhood is freedom. A victim can’t be told to restrain himself. A victim fighting for survival can’t be accused of abusing his power because, after all, his back is to the wall, he’s desperate.

On the facts, it’s very hard to convince ourselves, let alone the world, that Gaza and its Kassams have pushed Fortress Israel’s back to the wall, that we’re desperate, that we’re struggling to survive. So, to convince ourselves and the world that this really is so, we do two things.

One, we refuse to acknowledge any facts that mar this image of ourselves as victims, and instead go over and over and over only the facts that fit the picture.

We talk only about the thousands of Kassams fired at Sderot; we never mention the thousands of Gazans we killed at the same time.

We talk only about Gilad Schalit; we never mention the 8,000 Palestinian prisoners we’re holding.

And we never mention our ongoing blockade of Gaza or the devastation it does to those people.

The second thing we do to convince ourselves and the world that we’re still victims is to never, ever, ever let go of the Holocaust – because that’s when we really were victims. Victims like nobody’s ever known, victims a million times worse than the Gazans.

Auschwitz, lambs to the slaughter. Remember us, the people of the Holocaust? That wasn’t the Middle East’s superpower you saw fighting in Gaza.

That was the 6 million.

So you can’t blame us. We’re immune from your criticism. We’re the biggest victims the world has ever known. We’re desperate, so don’t tell us about kill ratios and disproportionate use of force and collective punishment. We’re fighting for our survival.

This is what we tell ourselves and the world, and, in the face of what we did and are still doing in Gaza, it has become intolerable. We are not the 6 million. The 6 million were powerless Jews three generations ago; we cannot wrap our abuses of power in their tragedy.

Instead, let’s take a good, hard look at what we did and what we’re doing in Gaza. Then let’s take a good, hard look in the mirror. And then let’s admit who’s the true victim here and now, and, more importantly, who isn’t.

Editor’s Comment — Larry Derfner is a columnist for the conservative Jerusalem Post. Presumably the paper’s editors feel moderately comfortable publishing his provocative commentaries because the paper provides “balance” with other pieces by rabid Likudniks like Caroline Glick. Still, at this time I doubt that there is a single newspaper editor in the United States who would have the guts to publish Derfner’s piece.

Even so, the times they are a-changin’.

Americans are losing patience with Israel and the media knows it. It will be a while before we see a New York Times editorial calling for a cooling in US-Israeli relations, but the views of ordinary Americans are now percolating up through newspaper letters pages. This is where editors are testing the water to see how much space they might dare provide for more honesty when the topic is Israel.

Views once only voiced at the political margins of the blogosphere are now moving into the mainstream. Only yesterday, Andrew Sullivan — not known as an anti-Zionist — had this to say:

One question that should always be asked of an ally: what is that ally doing for the US? Since the end of the Cold War, that question has been increasingly hard to answer with respect to Israel.

Strategically, Israel is obviously a huge burden for the US, making relations with Muslim or Arab nations much harder, and undermining any attempt to portray American intervention in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan, as beneficent rather than predatory. It’s a big drain on the Treasury, as Israel consumes a vast amount of military and non-military aid.

Meanwhile, Congress continues to march in lockstep with the Israel lobby — but this can’t go on forever. As the taboos on criticizing Israel and questioning US-Israeli relations break down, members of Congress will come under increasing pressure to explain how they can justify supporting a country that has become a strategic liability at America’s expense. Israel’s most stalwart defenders should send their donations to a pro-Israel lobby of their choice, but they should no longer expect that support to be subsidized by the US taxpayer.

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YEAR IN REVIEW: A letter from Afghanistan that every American must read

YEAR IN REVIEW: A letter from Afghanistan that every American must read

“… I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan. I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end. To put simply: I fail to see the value or the worth in continued U.S. casualties or expenditures or resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year old civil war.” From Matthew P Hoh, Senior Civilian Representative, Zabul Province, Afghanistan, in his letter of resignation to the State Department.

For weeks, President Obama and his advisers in the White House and from the Pentagon have been wrestling over the formulation of a revised strategy for Afghanistan. Central to that debate has been the question of how to respond to Gen Stanley McChrystal’s request for tens of thousands more American troops.

But perhaps the most important question — one which the president and his advisers have no doubt studiously avoided asking — is whether this war is worth fighting.

Matthew Hoh, a former US Marine captain who fought in Iraq, and who later served as a civilian State Department representative in the Zabul province of Afghanistan, in a letter of resignation submitted in early September, provided a definitive statement on the war’s failure — in its conception, its execution, and its aims. Rarely, if ever, has such an damning indictment of this war been so clearly and powerfully expressed.

The Washington Post reported:

The reaction to Hoh’s letter was immediate. Senior U.S. officials, concerned that they would lose an outstanding officer and perhaps gain a prominent critic, appealed to him to stay.

U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry brought him to Kabul and offered him a job on his senior embassy staff. Hoh declined. From there, he was flown home for a face-to-face meeting with Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“We took his letter very seriously, because he was a good officer,” Holbrooke said in an interview. “We all thought that given how serious his letter was, how much commitment there was, and his prior track record, we should pay close attention to him.”

The Post has published Hoh’s letter in a printable format [PDF] which is likely to result in the whole letter not being widely read. In order to encourage readers to absorb the full force of this testimony, I’ve reproduced the letter in full below — the only place (as far as I’m aware) that it can currently be found on the web in a user-friendly format.

“We are spending ourselves into oblivion”

Dear Ambassador Powell,

It is with great regret and disappointment I submit my resignation from my appointment as a Political Officer in the Foreign Service and my post as the Senior Civilian Representative for the U.S. Government in Zabul Province. I have served six of the previous ten years in service to our country overseas, to include deployment as a U.S. Marine officer and Department of Defense civilian in the Euphrates and Tigris River Valleys of Iraq in 2004-2005 and 2006-2007. I did not enter into this position lightly or with any undue expectations nor did I believe my assignment would be without sacrifice hardship or difficulty. However, in the course of my five months of service in Afghanistan, in both Regional Commands East and South, I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan. I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end. To put simply: I fail to see the value or the worth in continued U.S. casualties or expenditures or resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year old civil war.

This fall will mark the eighth year of U.S. combat, governance and development operations within Afghanistan. Next fall, the United States’ occupation will equal in length the Soviet Union’s own physical involvement in Afghanistan. Like the Soviets, we continue to secure and bolster a failing state, while encouraging an ideology and system of government unknown and unwanted by its people.

If the history or Afghanistan is one great stage play, the United States is no more than a supporting actor, among several previously, in a tragedy that not only pits tribes, valleys, clans, villages and families against one another, but, from at least the end of King Zahir Shah’s reign, has violently and savagely pitted the urban, secular, educated and modem of Afghanistan against the rural, religious, illiterate and traditional. It is this latter group that composes and supports the Pashtun insurgency. The Pashtun insurgency, which is composed of multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups, is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The U.S. and NATO presence and operations in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified. In both RC East and South, I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul.

The United States military presence in Afghanistan greatly contributes to the legitimacy and strategic message of the Pashtun insurgency. In a like manner our backing of the Afghan government in its current form continues to distance the government from the people. The Afghan government’s failings, particularly when weighed against the sacrifice of American lives and dollars, appear legion and metastatic:

• Glaring corruption and unabashed graft;
• A President whose confidants and chief advisers comprise drug lords and war crimes villains, who mock our own rule of law and counternarcotics efforts;
• A system of provincial and district leaders constituted of local power brokers, opportunists and strongmen allied to the United States solely for, and limited by, the value of our USAID and CERP contracts and whose own political and economic interests stand nothing to gain from any positive or genuine attempts at reconciliation; and
• The recent election process dominated by fraud and discredited by low voter turnout, which has created an enormous victory for our enemy who now claims a popular boycott and will call into question worldwide our government’s military, economic and diplomatic support for an invalid and illegitimate Afghan government.

Our support for this kind of government, coupled with a misunderstanding of the insurgency’s true nature, reminds me horribly of our involvement with South Vietnam; an unpopular and corrupt government we backed at the expense of our Nation’s own internal peace, against an insurgency whose nationalism we arrogantly and ignorantly mistook as a rival to our own Cold War ideology.

I find specious the reasons we ask for bloodshed and sacrifice from our young men and women in Afghanistan. If honest, our stated strategy of securing Afghanistan to prevent al-Qaeda resurgence or regrouping would require us to additionally invade and occupy western Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, etc. Our presence in Afghanistan has only increased destabilization and insurgency in Pakistan where we rightly fear a toppled or weakened Pakistani government may lose control of nuclear weapons. However, again, to follow the logic of our stated goals we should garrison Pakistan, not Afghanistan. More so, the September 11th attacks, as well as the Madrid and London bombings, were primarily planned and organized in Western Europe; a point that highlights the threat is not one tied to traditional geographic or political boundaries. Finally, if our concern is for a failed state crippled by corruption and poverty and under assault from criminal and drug lords, then if we bear our military and financial contributions to Afghanistan, we must reevaluate our commitment to and involvement in Mexico.

Eight years into war, no nation has ever known a more dedicated, well trained, experienced and disciplined military as the U.S. Armed Forces. I do not believe any military force has ever been tasked with such a complex, opaque and Sisyphean mission as the U.S. military has received in Afghanistan. The tactical proficiency and performance of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines is unmatched and unquestioned. However, this is not the European or Pacific theaters of World War II, but rather is a war for which our leaders, uniformed, civilian and elected, have inadequately prepared and resourced our men and women. Our forces, devoted and faithful, have committed to conflict in an indefinite and unplanned manner that has become a cavalier, politically expedient and Pollyannaish misadventure. Similarly, the United States has a dedicated and talented cadre of civilians, both U.S. government employees and contractors, who believe in and sacrifice for their mission, but have been ineffectually trained and led with guidance and intent shaped more by the political climate in Washington, D.C. than in Afghan cities, villages, mountains and valleys.

“We are spending ourselves into oblivion” a very talented and intelligent commander, one of America’s best, briefs every visitor, staff delegation and senior officer. We are mortgaging our Nation’s economy on a war, which, even with increased commitment, will remain a draw for years to come. Success and victory, whatever they may be, will be realized not in years, after billions more spent, but in decades and generations. The United States does not enjoy a national treasury for such success and victory.

I realize the emotion and tone of my letter and ask you excuse any ill temper. I trust you understand the nature of this war and the sacrifices made by so many thousands of families who have been separated from loved ones deployed in defense of our Nation and whose homes bear the fractures, upheavals and scars of multiple and compounded deployments. Thousands of our men and women have returned home with physical and mental wounds, some that will never heal or will only worsen with time. The dead return only in bodily form to be received by families who must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence such assurances can anymore be made. As such, l submit my resignation.

Sincerely,

Matthew P. Hoh
Senior Civilian Representative
Zabul Province, Afghanistan

cc:
Mr. Frank Ruggiero
Ms. Dawn Liberi
Ambassador Anthony Wayne
Ambassador Karl Eikenberry

This letter was addressed to:
Ambassador Nancy J. Powell
Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW

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YEAR IN REVIEW: The predator war

YEAR IN REVIEW: What are the risks of the CIA’s covert drone program?

On August 5th, officials at the Central Intelligence Agency, in Langley, Virginia, watched a live video feed relaying closeup footage of one of the most wanted terrorists in Pakistan. Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Taliban in Pakistan, could be seen reclining on the rooftop of his father-in-law’s house, in Zanghara, a hamlet in South Waziristan. It was a hot summer night, and he was joined outside by his wife and his uncle, a medic; at one point, the remarkably crisp images showed that Mehsud, who suffered from diabetes and a kidney ailment, was receiving an intravenous drip.

The video was being captured by the infrared camera of a Predator drone, a remotely controlled, unmanned plane that had been hovering, undetected, two miles or so above the house. Pakistan’s Interior Minister, A. Rehman Malik, told me recently that Mehsud was resting on his back. Malik, using his hands to make a picture frame, explained that the Predator’s targeters could see Mehsud’s entire body, not just the top of his head. “It was a perfect picture,” Malik, who watched the videotape later, said. “We used to see James Bond movies where he talked into his shoe or his watch. We thought it was a fairy tale. But this was fact!” The image remained just as stable when the C.I.A. remotely launched two Hellfire missiles from the Predator. Authorities watched the fiery blast in real time. After the dust cloud dissipated, all that remained of Mehsud was a detached torso. Eleven others died: his wife, his father-in-law, his mother-in-law, a lieutenant, and seven bodyguards.

Pakistan’s government considered Mehsud its top enemy, holding him responsible for the vast majority of recent terrorist attacks inside the country, including the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in December, 2007, and the bombing, last September, of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, which killed more than fifty people. Mehsud was also thought to have helped his Afghan confederates attack American and coalition troops across the border. Roger Cressey, a former counterterrorism official on the National Security Council, who is now a partner at Good Harbor, a consulting firm, told me, “Mehsud was someone both we and Pakistan were happy to see go up in smoke.” Indeed, there was no controversy when, a few days after the missile strike, CNN reported that President Barack Obama had authorized it.

However, at about the same time, there was widespread anger after the Wall Street Journal revealed that during the Bush Administration the C.I.A. had considered setting up hit squads to capture or kill Al Qaeda operatives around the world. The furor grew when the Times reported that the C.I.A. had turned to a private contractor to help with this highly sensitive operation: the controversial firm Blackwater, now known as Xe Services. Members of the Senate and House intelligence committees demanded investigations of the program, which, they said, had been hidden from them. And many legal experts argued that, had the program become fully operational, it would have violated a 1976 executive order, signed by President Gerald R. Ford, banning American intelligence forces from engaging in assassination.

Hina Shamsi, a human-rights lawyer at the New York University School of Law, was struck by the inconsistency of the public’s responses. “We got so upset about a targeted-killing program that didn’t happen,” she told me. “But the drone program exists. ” She said of the Predator program, “These are targeted international killings by the state.” The program, as it happens, also uses private contractors for a variety of tasks, including flying the drones. Employees of Xe Services maintain and load the Hellfire missiles on the aircraft. Vicki Divoll, a former C.I.A. lawyer, who now teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy, in Annapolis, observed, “People are a lot more comfortable with a Predator strike that kills many people than with a throat-slitting that kills one.” But, she added, “mechanized killing is still killing.” [continued...]

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YEAR IN REVIEW: Justice Richard Goldstone interviewed by Bill Moyers

YEAR IN REVIEW: Justice Richard Goldstone – Part One

RICHARD GOLDSTONE: As I say, I accept the right of Israel, absolutely, to defend itself. But let me give you an example. Assuming the United States fighting Taliban, started bombing the whole food infrastructure of the people in the area where Taliban are- plowing up fields, bombing food factories, I don’t believe that this would be accepted as legitimate by the people of the United States.

BILL MOYERS: Do we need to change the rules of war in fighting terrorism?

RICHARD GOLDSTONE: Not at all, and you know, it struck me when I heard that Prime Minister Netanyahu suggested that the law of war needs to be changed. It seems to me to contain an implicit acceptance that they broke the law that now is, and that’s why it needs to be changed. [continued...]

Justice Richard Goldstone – Part Two

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YEAR IN REVIEW: Goldstone: My mission – and motivation

YEAR IN REVIEW: Goldstone: My mission – and motivation

Israel and its courts have always recognized that they are bound by norms of international law that it has formally ratified or that have become binding as customary international law upon all nations. The fact that the United Nations and too many members of the international community have unfairly singled out Israel for condemnation and failed to investigate horrible human rights violations in other countries cannot make Israel immune from the very standards it has accepted as binding upon it.

Israel has a strong history of investigating allegations made against its own officials reaching to the highest levels of government: the inquiries into the Yom Kippur War, Sabra and Shatila, Bus 300 and the Second Lebanon War.

Israel has an internationally renowned and respected judiciary that should be envy of many other countries in the region. It has the means and ability to investigate itself. Has it the will? [continued...]

Editor’s Comment — The Netanyahu government’s stonewalling of the Goldstone inquiry does not appear to have purely been an act of self-protection; it also seems to reflect a national spirit of impunity rooted in the conviction: “We had no choice.”

Having turned this declaration into a battle cry, violence was cleansed of doubt as Israel embarked on its own jihad. “We went into Gaza and God went into Gaza with us,” was how one Israeli Special Forces soldier put it.

When the enemy’s homes have been flattened, their bodies incinerated, their land defiled and their water poisoned and all of this is being done under God’s watchful eye and under His protection, the killers return to their homes expecting glorification, not to become the targets of an international inquiry.

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YEAR IN REVIEW: Israel’s never-ending war

YEAR IN REVIEW: Israel’s never-ending war

As Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, meet at the United Nations today, “both sides have made clear that they’ll essentially be humoring Obama, showing up because the President of the United States expects it of them and not to relaunch long-stalled ‘final status’ peace negotiations, as the administration had hoped,” writes Tony Karon at Time magazine.

The conventional wisdom among most seasoned observers of the conflict is that the status quo is untenable — that at some point both sides will have to arrive at a mutually acceptable way of implementing a two-state solution.

The process that might lead to that point is as murky as ever.

The possibility that receives less consideration is that Israelis, living in a country forged through war — a country that has never really known peace — having become resigned to the apparent necessity of remaining on a perpetual war footing, have now reached a point where war is more than tolerable: it is acceptable.

War is what created Israel, has allowed it to exist and will guarantee its perpetuation. Many Israelis may pay lip-service to the notion that peace is desirable, yet it is their willingness to engage in war that makes them feel safe.

For Ariel Siegelman, an Israeli soldier who fought in Gaza in a special forces unit of the IDF, the key lesson from the 2006 war in Lebanon was this: “We learned that we had been living in an imaginary world and that the most dangerous type of war is the one that you call peace. We learned that we are not in fact in a ‘peace process’ at all. We are at war.”

In the Washington Post just this week, Jackson Diehl pointed out that even as the UN’s damning report on the war on Gaza brought renewed critical attention to the most recent conflict, “Operation Cast Lead, as the three-week operation is known in Israel, is generally regarded by the country’s military and political elite as a success.” (Diehl, with apparent satisfaction, predicted: “As for the Goldstone report [PDF], the heat it briefly produced last week will quickly dissipate”.)

Claiming that the wars in Lebanon and Gaza had for Israel both been qualified successes, Diehl suggested that Israel is far less fearful than are most of its allies about picking a fight with Iran.

… as with Gaza, even a partial and short-term reversal of the Iranian nuclear program may look to Israelis like a reasonable benefit — and the potential blowback overblown.

Americans who do not share Diehl’s neoconservative perspective, don’t need to ask themselves whether they share Israel’s view of itself; they simply need to decide whether the United States has a responsibility (or any legitimate excuse) for sustaining Israel’s war machine.

Without American arms, the Jewish state will not be starved of materiel — there are plenty of non-US arms manufacturers who would happily pick up the new demand.

The only issue is whether we should regard Israel’s wars as ours.

* * *

Israel’s military might and its fighting forces have been celebrated by Israelis and Israel’s supporters through numerous songs and videos. Here are a few:

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YEAR IN REVIEW: Israel’s war against human rights

YEAR IN REVIEW: UN: Evidence Israeli ‘war crimes’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ a ‘result of deliberate planning and policy decisions’

A United Nations fact-finding mission investigating the three-week war in Gaza issued a lengthy, scathing report [PDF] on Tuesday that concluded that both the Israeli military and Palestinian armed groups “committed actions amounting to war crimes,” and possibly crimes against humanity.

The four-member mission, led by Justice Richard Goldstone, a widely respected South African judge, also concluded that neither Israel nor the Palestinian groups had carried out any “credible investigations” into the alleged violations. If that did not change within six months, the United Nations Security Council should refer the situation to the International Criminal Court in the Hague for possible prosecution, the panel concluded.

“The prolonged situation of impunity has created a justice crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory that warrants action,” the members said in their 574-page report on the war, during which some 1,200 Palestinians were killed, including at least several hundred civilians, and 13 Israelis died, 10 soldiers and 3 civilians. [continued...]

Editor’s Comment — Perhaps the report’s most disturbing finding says less about the past than it portends for Gaza and Israel’s future:

Some 30 per cent of children screened at UNRWA schools had mental health problems, while some 10 per cent of children had lost relatives or friends or lost their homes and possessions. WHO estimated that some 30,000 children would need continued psychological support and warned of the potential for many to grow up with aggressive attitudes and hatred.

Judge Goldstone and the pollution of argument

The despicable attacks on human rights organisations investigating Israel’s Gaza offensive in January confirm Churchill’s observation: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” The mission led by the South African judge Richard Goldstone to investigate international human rights and international humanitarian law violations during Israel’s offensive, established by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), is the latest victim. His findings are about to be made public. The knives have been out for the mission for months. Now they are being plunged into him and his colleagues. Until the report is out Goldstone can’t defend it. So the smears and misrepresentation are left free to pollute public discourse.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has assiduously responded to a deluge of scurrilous attacks on its credibility and staff, yet totally unfounded allegations – for example, about accepting Saudi government funding and failing to give a critical report to the Israel Defence Forces before releasing it to the public – are constantly being recycled. HRW messed up by failing to see that the nerdy and, to most people, disturbing hobby of its weapons expert Marc Garlasco (he collects German and American second world war memorabilia) could be used to discredit his role as author of highly critical reports of Israel’s military conduct in Gaza. But when this story broke last week, the equation implied in some allegations – “Nazi” object-collector plus “Israel-basher” equals “antisemite” – was baseless and defamatory. That he also worked on reports critical of Hamas and Hezbollah was ignored. As another excuse to attack HRW, and deflect attention from its reports’ findings, the Garlasco affair was a gift.

The human rights world is not beyond reproach. UNHRC has hardly been impartial on Israel. Goldstone accepted his role only after the council president agreed to the alteration of the mission’s mandate to cover all parties to the conflict, not just Israel. But mistrust alone does not explain the extraordinary scale of the attacks on human rights organisations, including all Israeli ones, for their reports on Israel. [continued...]

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YEAR IN REVIEW: September 9, 2001: The shot that was not heard round the world

YEAR IN REVIEW: September 9: The shot that was not heard round the world

As the war in Afghanistan enters its ninth year, in the minds of most Americans the attacks of September 11, 2001 remain the signal event that shaped everything that has followed. Yet had we been paying more attention, we would have known that September 9, 2001, the day that Ahmed Shah Massoud was assassinated, was no less significant.

On that day, Afghanistan lost a leader of global stature — a man who truly was irreplaceable. Now, as much as ever, as the Taliban is resurgent and American and its allies attempt to prop up a deeply corrupt government in Kabul, the memory of Massoud is a symbol of the Afghan people’s so many shattered hopes.

A year after Massoud’s death, John Burns wrote in the New York Times:

As Americans prepare to mark the Sept. 11 anniversary, with many still struggling to come to terms with the cataclysm of that day, Afghans are passing through their own harrowing remembrance, of an attack that was overshadowed for the rest of the world by what happened two days later in the United States. Only four men died on Sept. 9 — the 49-year-old Mr. Massoud, an aide and the assassins — but there has been little healing of the wounds the killers inflicted on the hearts and the hopes of millions of his countrymen.

Ask Afghans who knew Mr. Massoud what it was about him that inspires such grief, and they struggle. Like [Fahim] Dashti [who was with Massoud at the time of his assassination], they talk of his skills as the guerrilla commander who astonished Soviet generals he outfought during the occupation of the 1980’s, or of his years holding out against the Taliban, when almost all other guerrilla leaders had joined the Taliban or fled abroad.

They speak of Mr. Massoud’s directness, his lack of pretense or false piety, his modesty, the look of somber intensity that rarely left his face. But usually, they give up, as people do when they try to define charisma. Mr. Dashti, the editor, resorted, in the end, to the simplest words. “We loved him,” he said. “We loved him more than we loved our own mothers and fathers. He embodied everything we loved about Afghanistan.”

In 1998, in a letter to the American people, Massoud wrote:

Let me correct a few fallacies that are propagated by Taliban backers and their lobbies around the world. This situation over the short and long-run, even in case of total control by the Taliban, will not be to anyone’s interest. It will not result in stability, peace and prosperity in the region. The people of Afghanistan will not accept such a repressive regime. Regional countries will never feel secure and safe. Resistance will not end in Afghanistan, but will take on a new national dimension, encompassing all Afghan ethnic and social strata.

The goal is clear. Afghans want to regain their right to self-determination through a democratic or traditional mechanism acceptable to our people. No one group, faction or individual has the right to dictate or impose its will by force or proxy on others. But first, the obstacles have to be overcome, the war has to end, just peace established and a transitional administration set up to move us toward a representative government.

We are willing to move toward this noble goal. We consider this as part of our duty to defend humanity against the scourge of intolerance, violence and fanaticism. But the international community and the democracies of the world should not waste any valuable time, and instead play their critical role to assist in any way possible the valiant people of Afghanistan overcome the obstacles that exist on the path to freedom, peace, stability and prosperity.

Pepe Escobar recounts:

During the 1990s, and especially during the time of the Taliban rule, which began in 1996, Washington never knew exactly how to deal with Massoud. But after the attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents sought a meeting with Massoud in Dushanbe. The CIA wanted information on how to get to bin Laden. Massoud carefully considered all the angles, but ultimately he could not but criticize American shortsightedness. For the Bill Clinton administration, the ultimate aim was to get bin Laden and destroy al-Qaeda. For Massoud, the main point was to destroy the Taliban. He repeatedly stressed at the time that “without the Taliban, Osama can’t do anything”.

Massoud, indeed, had agents and intelligence in the heart of Taliban country. The best example is how his Panjshiris planted a powerful truck bomb just outside Mullah Omar’s compound in central Kandahar, in 1999. The explosion left a huge crater and killed 10 people, including three of Mullah Omar’s bodyguards. Omar escaped, almost by a miracle, but if the Northern Alliance could get close to the Taliban, they could not penetrate al-Qaeda’s ultra-hardcore security to try to find and menace bin Laden. And as much as the Northern Alliance could penetrate the Taliban, security chief Arif – now head of intelligence of Hamid Karzai’s government – says that “Osama was actively trying to recruit spies inside the Panjshir Valley”. But once again, no one investigated the “Moroccans”.

In his interview with Asia Times Online, the second-to-last in his lifetime, Massoud repeatedly portrayed al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Pakistan as a sort of “triangle of evil”. He criticized the US for basically following a Pakistani plan: try to “reform” the Taliban and concentrate on seducing Taliban “moderates” (a contradiction in terms). There were never any moderates within the Taliban. Mullah Omar was totally under the spell of bin Laden. American diplomats with knowledge of Central Asia were warning about the “Arabization” of Afghanistan. But no one in Washington was listening. The US only got the message after September 11 – and after Massoud’s death.

In the first months of 2001, Massoud calculated that he had to involve himself in a complex gamble: change his image from warrior to statesman. He addressed the European parliament in Strasbourg, France, in April 2001. This was his first official trip to the West. He tried hard to attract Western support for the resistance against the Taliban. But still no one was listening. In Strasbourg, Massoud delivered a stunning message that nobody took seriously at the time: “If President Bush doesn’t help us, then these terrorists will damage the United States and Europe very soon – and it will be too late.”

Afghanistan Revealed a documentary broadcast by National Geographic in October 2001, presents a portrait of Massoud and his struggle to save Afghanistan.

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YEAR IN REVIEW: Obama is not delivering the goods

YEAR IN REVIEW: Obama’s America is not delivering the goods

With great sorrow and deep consternation, we hereby declare the death of the latest hope. Perhaps rumors of its death are greatly exaggerated, to paraphrase the famous quote by Mark Twain, but the fears are being validated day after day. Barack Obama’s America is not delivering the goods. Sharing a glass of beer with a racist cop and a pat on the back of Hugo Chavez are not what we hoped for; wholesale negotiations on freezing settlement construction are also not what we expected. Just over six months after the most promising president of all began his term, perhaps hope has a last breath left, but it is on its deathbed.

He came into office amid much hoopla. The Cairo speech ignited half the globe. Making settlements the top priority gave rise to the hope that, finally, a statesman is sitting in the White House who understands that the root of all evil is the occupation, and that the root of the occupation’s evil is the settlements. From Cairo, it seemed possible to take off. The sky was the limit.

Then the administration fell into the trap set by Israel and is showing no signs of recovery.

A settlement freeze, something that should have been understood by a prime minister who speaks with such bluster about two states – a peripheral matter that Israel committed to in the road map – has suddenly turned into a central issue. Special envoy George Mitchell is wasting his time and prestige with petty haggling. A half-year freeze or a full year? What about the 2,500 apartment units already under construction? And what about natural growth? And kindergartens?

Perhaps they will reach a compromise and agree on nine months, not including natural growth though allowing completion of apartments already under construction. A grand accomplishment.

Jerusalem has imposed its will on Washington. Once again we are at the starting point – dealing with trifles from which it is impossible to make the big leap over the great divide.

We expected more from Obama. Menachem Begin promised less, and he made peace within the same amount of time after he took office. When the main issue is dismantling the settlements, the pulsating momentum that came with Obama is petering out. Instead, we are paddling in shallow water. Mitchell Schmitchel. What’s in it for peace? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will once again meet him in London at the end of the month. A “magic formula” for a settlement freeze may be found there, but the momentum is gone.

Not in Israel, though. Here people quickly sensed that there is nothing to fear from Obama, and the fetters were taken off. Defense Minister Ehud Barak was quick to declare that there is no Palestinian partner, even after the Fatah conference elected the most moderate leadership that has ever been assembled in Palestine. Afterward, in a blatant act of provocation, he brought a Torah scroll into the heart of the Muslim Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, in full view of television cameras, just so America can see who’s boss around here.

Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, another two politicians who smell American weakness, were quick to declare during a visit to Ma’aleh Adumim that Israel will not freeze any construction. To hell with Obama. The settlers continue to move into more homes in East Jerusalem, Netanyahu is silent and Israelis sense that the “danger” has passed. Israel is once again permitted to do as it pleases. The landlord has once again gone insane. Except that the landlord has gone insane because the real landlord is showing signs of weakness, signs of folding, signs of losing interest in events in the region that most endangers world peace.

Nothing remains from the speeches in Cairo and Bar-Ilan University. Obama is silent, and Yishai speaks. Even “Israel’s friends” in Washington, friends of the occupation, are once again rearing their heads.

One source familiar with Obama’s inner circle likened him this week to a man who inflates a number of balloons every day in the hope that one of them will rise. He will reach his goal. The source compared him to Shimon Peres, an analogy that should insult Obama. The trial balloons the U.S. president sends our way have yet to take off. One can, of course, wait for the next balloon, the Obama peace plan, but time is running out. And Israel is not sitting idly by.

The minute Jerusalem detected a lack of American determination, it returned to its evil ways and excuses. “There is no partner,” “Abu Mazen is weak,” “Hamas is strong.” And there are demands to recognize a Jewish state and for the right to fly over Saudi Arabia – anything in order to do nothing.

An America that will not pressure Israel is an America that will not bring peace. True, one cannot expect the U.S. president to want to make peace more than the Palestinians and Israelis, but he is the world’s responsible adult, its great hope. Those of us who are here, Mr. President, are sinking in the wretched mud, in “injury time.”

Editor’s Comment — When an 11 year-old gets the privilege of going to The White House to interview the president and the kid respectfully observes, “I notice as president you get bullied a lot,” it’s time to sit up straight.

Obama’s lack of backbone is apparent to a child and his method for handling getting bullied — “if I’m doing a good job, I’m doing my best, and I’m trying to always help people, then that keeps me going” — might make him feel better but it does little to push back those who are emboldened by his weakness.

Is Obama capable of imposing his will? After six months we should know the answer to that question. The fact that we don’t is a problem.

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YEAR IN REVIEW: “Neda wanted freedom and freedom for all”

“Neda wanted freedom and freedom for all”

(Translation provided by Huffington Post readers.)

Caspian Makan, Neda Agha-Setan‘s fiancee, was interviewed by BBC Persia, noting that Neda would have turned 27 this year. “Neda’s goal was not Mousavi or Ahmadinejad, it was her country and was important for her to fight for this goal. She had said many times that if she had lost her life or been shot in the heart, which indeed what happened, it was important for her to continue in this path,” he said.

Considering her young age she has taught a lesson to us all.

About the day of the incident, Mr. Makan said: “When the clashes were occurring, Neda was far away from the demonstrations, she was in one of the side alleys near Amir Abad. Thirsty and tired or being cooped up for about an hour in the car in heavy traffic with her music instructor, she finally gets out of the car and, based on the pictures sent in by the people, armed forces in civilian clothes and the Basiji targeted and shot her in the heart.”

“It was over in a matter of minutes, the Shariati Hospital was nearby, the people around her tried to bring her to the emergency room by car, but before that could even happen she died in her instructor’s arms.”

Mr. Makan added: “We got her body back finally yesterday with some diffculties. Of course, her body was not at the Tehran Coroner but at a one outside of Tehran. The medical examiners
wanted parts of her body, including a portion of her femoral bone but the chief medical examiner would not say why and no explanations were ever given.”

“Finally the family consented just so they could get her body back as soon as possible, since just this issue could have resulted in delaying the reception of the body. We buried the body in a small area in the Zahra Cemetery in the late afternoon of 31 Khordad [June 21]. Also, they had brought in other people who had been killed in the protests so it seemed that the whole event was scheduled to be such.”

About payment for releasing the remains, Mr. Makan had this to say: “No specific amount has been paid at this time, although hospitals, clinics, surgeons and medical examiners have been ordered by the Iranian security services, based on various orders, not to list ‘bullet wound’ as the cause of death on the death certificate in order to prevent the families from filing international complaints in the future. I haven’t seen the release notice of Neda’s remains yet, but I will obtain it from her father in the coming days.”

Mr. Makan regarding government ban of memorial service for Neda Agha Setan said: “We were going to hold her memorial Monday 1st of Tir [June 22] at 2:30 PM at a mosque at Sharyati street north of Seyed Khandan. But Basijis and mosque officials refused our request for her memorial service so to avoid further public confrontation and instability. They knew that Neda was an died innocently, and people in Iran and the international community are informed of that fact. So they decided to avoid a situation where a mass rally would take place. In any way, we do not have permission for a memorial service for now.”

However, many eye witnesses told BBC Persia that a large gathering took place with the intention of performing a memorial service at Al Reza Mosque at Nilofar square in Tehran. But the security forces intervened by throwing people out of the mosque and intervening with the service.

Mr. Makan also commented on fake pictures of videos claiming to be Neda at various sites:”I was looking at some sites including ‘iReport’. There was a picture of a young woman with green signs from previous calm demonstrations and had claimed it was Neda before being shot. These pictures have no relation to the event. It seems that Mr. Mousavi’s supporters are trying to portray Neda as one of his supporters. This is not so. Neda was incredibly close to me and she was never supportive of either two groups. Neda wanted freedom and freedom for all.”

BBC Farsi tried to contact Neda Agha-Sultan’s other family members but was told by a close relative of hers that, for reasons of their own, the Agha Sultan family could grant an interview.

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YEAR IN REVIEW: The Pope in the Palestinian prison camp

YEAR IN REVIEW: 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!

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YEAR IN REVIEW: Thank G-d for the IDF!

YEAR IN REVIEW: Gaza probe shows IDF among world’s most moral armies

The Israel Defense Forces announced on Wednesday that an internal investigation has determined that no civilians were purposefully harmed by IDF troops during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip.

Following the release of the investigation results, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that the army’s willingness to probe itself “once again proves that the IDF is one of the most moral armies in the world.

“The IDF is not afraid to investigate itself and in that, proves that its operations are ethical,” said Barak. The defense minister added that he has “complete faith in the IDF, from the chief of staff to the last of the combat soldiers.” [continued...]

Editor’s Comment — Oh my! And to think that cynics like me could have judged the IDF so harshly. What better time could there be to watch again this rousing anthem and wonderful tribute to the most moral army in the world: Don’t mess with the IDF.

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