Posts Tagged ‘Taliban’

Passivity in the Face of Terror in Syria, Threats of War in Iran — Obama’s Debacle in Syria—Update #2 (March 3, 2012)

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

For earlier articles on Syria by The Trenchant Observer, see the Articles on Syria page.

A Hard Truth:  Obama is a Weak Leader on Foreign Policy

The truth is hard to accept:  President Obama is a very weak leader on foreign policy issues.

This is a painful admission, because like many others the Trenchant Observer had high hopes and expectations for Obama when he assumed office in January, 2009.  He is still far and away superior to any of the candidates in the Republican primaries who could potentially challenge him for the presidency in 2012.

But he stumbled badly in Libya, and was saved only by the intitiative of France and England which led to him getting involved, “leading from the rear.”  America’s “leading from the rear” resulted in great delay before military action was taken, and consequently the loss of many civilian lives in Libya.

Now, he is stumbling badly again–in Syria.  Nicholas Sarkozy is consumed by the first-round presidential elections soon to be held in France, and has declared that France will only act militarily pursuant to Security Council authorization. David Cameron is unable to assume the mantle of leadership on his own. 

So, in effect, following the Russian and Chinese vetoes of a mild U.N. Security Council resolution on February 4–which explicitly ruled out the use of force–and a General Assembly resolution on February 16 which harshly condemned the widespread commission of grave human rights abuses by the Syrian government.

China and Russia have burned their bridges in the Middle East, probably for a generation. Both have shamelessly vetoed the Security Council resolution on February 4 endorsing in part the Arab League’s peace plan–which ruled out the use of force. Both voted against a General Assembly Resolution on Frebruary 16 condemning al-Assad’s continuing butchery in Syria, and calling for its immediate halt. Amazingly, both China and Russia also voted against a Human Rights Council resolution on March 1 which concdemned the killing and called for access for humanitarian relief.

Now, on March 4, China proposes something very similar to what the February 4 Security Council provided for. Unfortunately, thousands have died since then, the butchery continues, and measures short of the authorization of military force or its use are unlikely to stop Bashar al-Assad’s raging commission of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

In a word, no forceful action has been taken to stop the killing in Syria, and none is yet in sight. Obama’s actions have been marked by their passivity, and by his absolute failure to deal in a serious way with the ongoing carnage on the ground in Syria. As in Libya, he has been a commander in chief notable primarily for his absence from the center of decision-making during a crisis of great importance to the United States and the world. He has not assumed the mantle of leadership, and even reportedly vetoed this last week proposals from within hhis administration for the use of force.

The World–Leaderless and Helpless Before the Ongoing Terror in Syria

The world stands leaderless and helpess before the ongoing terror and commission of crimes against humanity and war crimes by Bashar al-Assad and his government in Syria.

This week the U.N. official in charge of humanitarian assistance was refused entry to Syria.  Al-Assad refuses to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent to enter Homs with humanitarian assistance and to remove the wounded.  Having been promised access, they now begin their third day of waiting.  Bombardments of Homs and other cities and towns continue.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has been reduced to an almost tragic figure, pleading publicly with Al-Assad to allow humanitarian aid in and to stop the killing. It is almost as if he expects that the Syrian Dictator might be swayed by appeals to reason and to humanitarian considerations–at this point in time, after all such previous appeals have failed spectacularly.

Leaders from civilized nations and their populations have trouble believing that true evil exists.  They need to grasp that it does exist, now, in Syria.  Hitler existed.  Stalin existed.  They were real.  So is Al-Assad.

Ban Ki-Moon recently made a horrendous mistake when he appointed Kofi Annan to mediate the dispute in Syria, in effect to “mediate” the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity.  How you can even negotiate with such a murderer without bringing to bear credible threats of the use of force is beyond the Observer’s understanding.  The idea of mediating the commission of such crimes is a fundamentally flawed concept, and how it ever got out of the Secretary General’s office defies comprehension. It was an act born of desperation, a desperate ploy, it would seem.

In the event, as was to be expected, Kofi Annan has not even been able to get into to Syria to meet with al-Assad, who continues his commission of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Homs and elsewhere in the country.

It is a sad spectacle, when the world community faces the commission of such horrendous crimes without a leader, helpless.

Obama’s Dangerous Drift and Lack of Leadership on Syria and also on Israel and Iran

Obama should be that leader, but he seems driven only by factors that might affect his re-election in October.  Instead of leading efforts to mobilize effective action against al-Assad, including military action if required, he is on the stump giving political speeches, even if they aren’t called that, fighting to win the daily news cycle as if he were in the last two weeks of the presidential campaign in October.

The world is leaderless, and Obama is stumbling on Syria, and also on Israel and Iran.

His talk of “all options are on the table” with respect to Iran has now become an oft-repeated mantra, whose force has become so weakened that the president himself feels constrained to assure the world that he is “not bluffing”.  Once you have to tell people you are not bluffing, your credibility is already on very weak ground indeed.

His foreign policy attention is riveted on Netanyahu’s visit to the Washington next week, where the Israeli Prime Minister will meet with Obama and also with the leading Israeli lobby in the country. Netanyahu and Israel do have an impact on the elction, through their impact on American supporters and political contributors. That’s one reason why Obama is paying such close attention.

Yet the one nagging problem, far from the lights and noise of the political arena, remains. That problem is that Syria, and Israel and Iran are part of the real world, outside of U.S. electoral politics and the 24-hour news cycle in the U.S. Obama’s decisions will have far-reaching impacts on what happens on the ground in each of these countries, wholly aside from whatever impact they might have on the American presidential elections.

Obama’s Blind Spot: International Law

Obama seems to have it exactly backwards in terms of principle, talking of the option of Israel–with U.S. acquiescence or assistance–attacking Iran to put their nuclear weapons program out of business, at least for a while.

Under international law, there is no basis whatsoever for a military attack on Iran in the absence of Security Council authorization. To argue that Israel is acting in self-defense would stretch that concept (contained in Article 2(4) and Article 51 of the U.N. Charter) far past the breaking point.

Moreover, U.S. military assistance to Israel generally contains the condition that the weapons may only be used for self-defense. No argument that an attack on Iran was justified by self-defense could be made with a straight face, without completely eliminating the meaning of that term in domestic legislation (which applies to military assistance to many countries), not to speak of its lack of foundation under international law and the U.N. Charter.

At the same time, Obama should be aware that the Non-Proliferation Treaty to which Iran is a party contains a withdrawal clause that Iran might well invoke in order to withdraw from the NPT after an armed attack by Israel (with or without the acquiescence or support of the United States).

Article X(1) of the NPT provides:

Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country. It shall give notice of such withdrawal to all other Parties to the Treaty and to the United Nations Security Council three months in advance. Such notice shall include a statement of the extraordinary events it regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests.

–For a short but insightful discussion of the withdrawal clause and its history, see Jenny Nielsen and John Simpson, “The NPT Withdrawal Clause and its Negotiating History,” in Mountbatten Centre for International Studies, MCICS NPT Review Issue (2004).

In sharp contrast, military action to relieve civilian populations from attacks by tanks, anti-aircraft guns and artillery in Syria, and the blocking of humanitarian relief, could probably be justified under international law, even without the authorization of the Security Council. This  in effect was the position taken by the United States with the support of NATO and other countries when it bombed Serbia in 1999, to bring to a halt the crimes against humanity being committed in Kosovo.

In short, international law would arguably permit military action in Syria under the present extraordinary conditions that exist there, whereas an Israeli armed attack on Iran to halt its nuclear program would be a flagrant violation of the U.N. Charter, international law, and U.S. domestic legal restrictions on the use by Israel of weapons purchased from the U.S. or with U.S. funds.  Moreover, an attack on Iran might well lead to Iranian withdrawal from the NPT, making resolution over the longer term of the Iranian nuclear question even more problematic. 

The Consequences of Drift and Inaction in Syria, Israel, and Iran

Obama’s drift and lack of leadership are, in view of the foregoing, extremely consequential.  By not leading the international community in efforts to halt al-Assad, by force if necessary, in accordance with international law, and by verbally allowing the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran, in a manner which could actually lead the Israelis to think they might have a green light, he is in a position to cause an extraordinary reversal of fortunes for the United States, and a much broader war in the Middle East.  Obama’s lack of strategic sense also makes it hard for him to see how opposing al-Assad could have the additional benefit of weakening Iran’s reach into Syria, Gaza (with Hamas) and Lebanon (with Hezbollah). 

Al-Assad’s butchery could continue, while Israel attacks Iran, igniting a regional conflict. At that point it would not only be China and Russia excercising their vetoes in the Security Council to protect al-Assad and gain time for him to finish wiping out his opponents, but also the United States invoking its veto to avoid condemnation and action against Israel and the U.S. under Chapter VII of the Charter, for violation of the prohibition against the threat or use of force contained in Article 2 (4) of the U.N. Charter–the most important norm in the Charter.  Come to think of it, President Obama might usefully reread that language, particularly the part about the “threat..of the use of force”.

Obama has paid little attention to international law.  This is evident, to cite but a few examples, from his failure to apply the provisions of the Convention Against Torture to prosecute those responsible for crafting and implementing the Bush torture policy, in his support of targeted killings and failure to prosecute those responsible for extraordinary renderings, and finally through his adoption of an expansive military doctrine and practice of using drones to execute individuals put on a targets list.  The latter has even included U.S. citizens, and the targeting of unknown individuals who meet certain “parameters” that indicate they belong to the Taliban, Al Queda or other terrorist groups.

He did not use the words “international law” in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, on December 10, 2009.  We can now see, much better than we could at the time, how extremely significant that omission was.

Obama and administration officials speak of “red lines” when they are telling other governments what actions might provoke a military response.  Foreign officials have even begun to use the term of “red lines”.  This is the way states communicated with each other in the 19th century.  Obama doesn’t use the language, grammar and vocabulary of international law, which has evolved  into a highly developed form of precise communication built on the legitimacy and acceptance of the principles involved.  He should. 

As the Butchery Continues in Syria and Israel Threatens to Attack Iran, What is to be Done?

What is to be done?P

Leadership of the world must come from somewhere, if chaos is to be avoided. Preferably that leadership should come from the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama.

But if it doesn’t, if Obama falters, other states or groups of states must come forward, not only to lead military action in Syria if required to halt the killing, but also to prevent an Israeli attack–with or without U.S. backing–on Iran.

International peace and security hang in the balance.

The Trenchant Observer

–For earlier articles by The Trenchant Observer, see the Articles on Syria page.
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Afghanistan–A Hint of Future Collapse? Hand-off to Afghan Forces, as Taliban Seize Control around Mazar-e-Sharif

Friday, August 5th, 2011

A glimpse of how the Afghan government could collapse in the future, as the hand-off from American and other ISAF forces to the Afghan army and police proceeds, is provided by the following report on how the Taliban are seizing control of villages surrounding Mazar-e-Sharif in the North, previously considered a secure zone.

See Tanna Badkhen, “The Taliban Come to Mazar: Last month, NATO forces ceded this northern city to the Afghan army, calling it safe territory. But insurgent forces are on the doorstep,” Foreign Policy, August 3, 2011.

The overall failure to build a viable government in Afghanistan, over 10 years, and the specific failure of U.S. foreign assistance to contribute to this goal, are described in a report by The International Crisis Group released on August 4.

See International Crisis Group, “Aid and Conflict in Afghanistan” (Asia Report N°210), August 4, 2011

The fundamental flaw in U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has been a failure to address the governance problem, relying instead almost exclusively on military means to stabilize the country. The result has been a totally corrupt narco-state ruled by local warloards, under the general coordination of the leading warlord in Kabul.

The only alternative policy that is left is to return to the earlier project of building a democratic government in the country, giving Afghan soldiers and police goals and an ideology to fight for that might be strong enough to overcome the religious and ideological appeal–and ruthless methods–of the Taliban.

See earlier articles by The Trenchant Observer on this theme:

Strategic disarray in Afghanistan
October 2, 2010

Corrupt-istan Update: Karzai’s Brazen Defiance
November 11, 2010

Fighting corruption and other challenges in Dexter Filkins’ Corrupt-istan
September 18, 2010

September 18 Afghan National Assembly Elections–Context
September 4, 2010

CIA Payments Undercut U.S. Efforts to Strengthen Governance in Afghanistan
September 2, 2010

REPRISE (from March 26, 2010): Afghanistan U.N. SRSG de Mistura Describes U.N. Electoral Role; What Are Allied Forces Fighting For?
July 29, 2010
(Originally published March 26, 2010)

“The Magician” enthralls donors once again, in Kabul
July 22, 2010

General Petraeus, the Haqqani network, and moral clarity in Afghanistan
July 14, 2010
Updated July 16, 2010

Urgent Note to Obama and Petraeus: Reread the Eikenberry Cables, Avoid Reasoning from Conclusions, and Adjust Course
July 1, 2010

After McChrystal: Obama, Petraeus, and Fixing a Failed Strategy in Afghanistan
June 23, 2010

October 16, 2009

October 6, 2009

The Trenchant Observer

Assassination of Syed Saleem Shahzad: Pakistan is the problem

Saturday, July 9th, 2011

Syed Saleem Shahzad, the Pakistan Bureau Chief for Asia Times Online, was assassinated in Pakistan at the time of or shortly after his disappearance on May 29, reportedly on the orders of top-level officials of the Pakistan intelligence agency.

See Editorial, “A Pakistani Journalist’s Murder,” The New York Times, July 7, 2011

Jane Perlez and Eric Schmitt, “Pakistan’s Spies Tied to Slaying of a Journalist,” New York Times, July 4, 2011

“Pakistan ‘sanctioned’ killing of journalist, says US commander: Islamabad hits back at claim by Admiral Mike Mullen over murder of Syed Saleem Shahzad, The Guardian, July 8, 2011

The Observer has previously referred to Shahzad’s reports on alleged behind-the-scenes deals between the Obama administration and the Pakistan military. The first was for the U.S. to withdraw its support of Abdullah Abdullah in negotiations for a unity government or at least the holding of a second-round election, in the stand-off that resulted from the massive fraud in the Afghanistan presidential elections held on August 20, 2009. The U.S. basically cast Abdullah aside, and backed Karzai as the legitimate winner in the elections, reportedly in exchange for Pakistani support in facilitating negotiations with the Taliban.

The second and related move by Hamid Karzai, believed to be at the insistence of Pakistan, was to fire the intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, and the interior minister, Hanif Atmar, who were viewed as too close to India and therefore hostile to Pakistan. Both were fomer members of the Northern Alliance, the force which with the United States toppled the Taliban government in 2001.

See The Trenchant Observer, “Intelligence Matters: In Afghanistan, Karzai Ousts Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and Intelligence Chief Amrullah Saleh,” June 6, 2010

Now, perhaps partly as an unintended consequence of the humiliation of the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies by President Obama, who loudly touted the fact that the United States took out Bin Laden without the foreknowledge or participation of Pakistani officials, a leading reporter on the inner workings of the Pakistan military and intelligence agencies has been murdered. According to American officials, the assassination was approved at very high levels of the Pakistan military and security agencies.

The Observer must observe, in passing, that Obama’s public humiliation of Pakistani military and intelligence officials was utterly unnecessary, and represented a novice’s mistake for a practitioner of foreign policy. In international affairs, it is important to allow your enemies, as well as your (questionable) allies and friends, to save face, and not to push them too hard into a corner. Doing so subjects them to intense internal political and other pressures and sharply limits their freedom of action in adopting policies that you may want them to follow.

Obama, in effect, stressed that the operation against Bin Laden violated the sovereignty of Pakistan, when he might easily have left that issue shrouded in ambiguity. His mistake was to publicly declaim that the Bin Laden operation was carried out without Pakistani knowldge. That wasn’t necessary. On the other hand, it was entirely appropriate to raise the issue of how Bin Laden had lived near Islamabad in Abbottabad, the very same town where the Pakistani “West Point” is located, without being detected. These were legitimate questions. The public humiliation was a grave mistake.

Since the Bin Laden killing, U.S.-Pakistan military and intelligence relations have taken a sharp turn for the worse.

We are left with a situation where we are faced with a nuclear-weapons state, which continues to support Taliban and other insurgent forces operating in Afghanistan, while our own ability to conduct anti-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations from within and against targets in Pakistan territory has been greatly curtailed.

The assassination of Shazad closed one of the few windows open to the world to follow and understand the machinations underway within Pakistani military and intelligence circles.

It also serves as a useful reminder that the United States has gained very little from its apparent deal with Pakistan by withdrawing its support for Abdullah in 2009, and acquiescing in the firing of Saleh and Atmar.

The much-touted negotiations with the Taliban have come to nothing, and hold very little promoise of ever producing tangible results. We are no further along in this regard, in fact, than we were two years ago. The illusions fed by the flawed assumption of the possibility of a political settlement with the Taliban remain as far from the reality on the ground and the realm of real-world possibilities as they were then. The difference is that now President Obama, with his recent speech on the the path forward in Afghanistan, has adopted a posture of publicly relying on those illusions.

The consequences in Afghanistan are likely to be harsh. Moreover, we now face a much larger problem in Pakistan than even that faced in Afghanistan itself, which we have yet to devise a successful strategy to address.

The effects of the loss of Special Ambassador to Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador, Richard Holbrooke, who died suddenly in December, 2010, have been devastating.

On July 9, 2011, the United States faces a one-time ally in Pakistan which looks much more like a hostile state that 1) will block a peaceful resolution of the war in Afghanistan on terms acceptable to the West and the international community; 2) itself has become a great center of Islamic radicalism and the spawning of terrorist behavior; and 3) poses an ultiimate risk to the United States and other nations due to its possession of nuclear weapons.

If a country like Pakistan can decide, at the highest military and intelligence levels, to assassinate a journalist whose reports reveal messy facts they would prefer to remain hidden, how can the United States continue to proceed as if it were an ally?

The Trenchant Observer


Links to some of the Observer’s articles dealing with Syed Saleem Shahzad and the issues he raised, and excerpts from these articles, are reporduced below.

NEWS TO NOTE: Pakistani sources report progress in back-channel talks with Taliban, September 18, 2010

See Syed Saleem Shahzad, “Taliban soften as talks gain speed,” Asia Times On-Line (, September 15, 2010.

“Pakistan Desire to “Mediate” with Taliban Consistent with Earlier Reports of Deal to Support Karzai in Election Settlement,”
February 10th, 2010

NEWS TO NOTE Deal by U.S. with Pakistan Military to Undercut Abdullah in Final Discussions?
November 11th, 2009

If Misurata Falls…: Obama’s Debacle in Libya– Update #6 (May 2)

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

For the latest developments in the fighting in Libya, see

Lin Noueihed (Reuters), “Fighting rages in Libya’s Western Mountains,”, May 2, 2011.

ABC News (Australia), “Gaddafi’s tanks hit rebel city as son is buried,” May 3, 2011.

See also

Borzou Daragahi, “Inside a city running on fear:
Six weeks in the Libyan capital, in a hotel under lock and key, give a journalist a taste of the daily oppression and suffering Kadafi’s regime inflicts on citizens,”Los Angeles Times, May 1, 2011..

If Misurata falls…

One might have written, “If Zawiyah falls…,” but then Zawiyah did fall. We still don’t know exactly what happened there.

One could make the argument that however regrettable the loss of innocent human life as the result of the bombing of Qaddafi’s son’s compound, which NATO reports was being used as a command and control center–and the deaths of three small children are indeed regrettable–one should not lose sight of the fact that Qaddafi’s forces are killing many more than three small, innocent children every day. Under his orders.

One could make the argument that the ongoing commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity in e.g., Misurata, where the civilian population has been subjected to tank and artillery attacks– and is probably under attack at this very moment–should be brought to a halt.

By the use of “all necessary measures”.

One could argue that amphibious and ground troops should be introduced immediately in Misurata in order to secure a humanitarian supply route through the port and the airport.

One could argue that the United States should re-engage in Libya with “the two most accurate close air support weapons systems, the A-10 and the AC-130“, to help defend the civilian population of towns currently under assault by Qadaffi’s military forces.

But why bother? Why should the Libya contact group meeting in Rome on Thursday do anything other than manage their political exposure, attend to inter-alliance arguments over what is and what is not appropriate action in Libya, when up to now they have been perfectly happy to proceed in disarray, with no vision of victory, and no sense that it even matters to prevail in Libya.

Punch the clock. Show that you are doing something. Explain to the world that you can’t complete the anti-mining operation to clear the port of Misurata because Qaddafi’s forces use small mines that are difficult to find.

Who is there to make the argument that in war speed, tactical advantage and momentum are qualities that can make a decisive difference if properly seized upon?

Who could make the argument that while the Russians and the Chinese are unhappy with the way the NATO campaign is going, their displeasure might be mitigated if it were brought to a rapid and successful conclusion?

The failure of incremental decision making by a broad political coaltion is there for all to see. What was and remains necessary has been for the politicians and diplomats to turn the conduct of NATO military operations over to a single commander who is tasked with simply finishing the job.

The longer the fighting in Libya drags out, the more difficult it will become for coalition partners to maintain essential domestic support.

Perhaps it is time for NATO and other coalition members to focus intently on Plan B, prolonged and inconclusive military operations from the air, with a substantial likelihood of failure, leaving Qaddafi entrenched in power. This outcome could even be the result of a negotiated solution.

Would it be possible under Plan B, assuming you don’t care about the thousands who will be hunted down and executed by Qaddafi, to somehow put Qaddafi “back in his box”? To prevent him from supporting or engaging directly in international terrorism?

Of course, coalition partners and the contact group might find “success” through knocking out Qaddafi when he is somewhere giving commands, and therefore operating as a command and control center. That would be legitimate.

In the meantime, what about the people in Misurata and the other towns and cities in Libya that are under assault?

What should be done to protect those civilians?

The Trenchant Observer


Fierce Artillery Attacks on Misurata: Obama’s Debacle in Libya — Update #5 (May 1)

Sunday, May 1st, 2011


While overshadowed by the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death–for which President Obama deserves great credit–the war on the ground in Libya proceeds with renewed intensity.

Qadaffi’s forces continued to attack Misurata with artillery, in perhaps the fiercest attacks to date. Juan Miguel Muñoz of El País reports:

Military attacks

The Army undertook an offensive against various cities throughout the length and breadth of Libya, with particular fury in Misrata, in a war that becomes more confused each day.

The attacks of the Army with artillery and Grad rockets against Misrata were more virulent than ever, according to neighbors quoted by various news agencies which reported intense bombardments of the port and the airport. Uniformed soldiers were also deployed in strength against the western town of Zintan, and also in Wazin, a small city near Tunisia, whose authorities closed the border crossing. They also tried to attack in Jalu, hundreds of kilometers south of Benghazi, where NATO destroyed 45 military vehicles. The rebel commanders are convinced that Qaddafi wants to seize control of the border between Libya and Egypt in order to isolate the insurgents.

–Juan Miguel Muñoz, “La muerte de un hijo de Gadafi desata las represalias del régimen: Partidarios de Gadafi asaltan embajadas.- La ONU se retira de Trípoli. -El Ejército bombardea el asediado puerto de Misrata,”El País, 1 de mayo de 2011.

See also

Lin Noueihed (Reuters), “Les kadhafistes poursuivent leurs attaques dans l’Ouest libyen,” Le Point, le 2 mai, 2011 (

The mightiest military alliance in the world, NATO, has not yet halted the attacks on Misurata.

If NATO can’t stop artillery attacks on Misurata and the shelling of its port, it is not likely that the Taliban in Afghanistan will be swayed by its awesome power.

If NATO can’t halt the attacks on Misurata, it is difficult to see it playing a useful role in the North Atlantic in the future.

Indeed, NATO’s impotence in Libya may well be a harbinger of the demise of the organization.

Republicans are not likely to fail to make the point that it was a failure of American leadership that produced this failure by NATO, and Obama’s debacle in Libya.

The Trenchant Observer

NEWS TO NOTE: Pakistani sources report progress in back-channel talks with Taliban

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Syed Saleem Shahzad, the Pakistan Bureau Chief for Asia Times Online, reports that back-channel conversations with the Taliban during Ramadan, orchestrated by the Pakistani military, have led to a softening of the Taliban’s positions. Shahzad writes,

Asia Times Online has learned that the backchannel talks have to date resulted in the Taliban agreeing to issue a policy statement on their relationship with al-Qaeda. They will clarify that they provided protection to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in line with Afghan traditions of being hospitable.

It was the presence of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan that led the US to invade the country in late 2001 in retaliation for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US.
The Taliban will spell out their position of decrying international terrorism and of not supporting violence in Muslim countries. Above all, they will clearly state that the Taliban are an indigenous movement struggling against foreign occupation forces with no agenda outside Afghan boundaries.

“This is the first time the situation has reached this level and this is the result of several months of unannounced but untiring efforts by the Pakistan army, with the consent of US military leaders who have very patiently and diligently allowed the Pakistan army to create this environment in which the Taliban feel comfortable, and they are now showing flexibility in their attitude,” a senior Pakistani security official familiar with the talks told Asia Times Online.

See Syed Saleem Shahzad, “Taliban soften as talks gain speed,” Asia Times On-Line (, September 15, 2010.

Shazad has provided reports on Pakistani military efforts to mediate with the Taliban and other parties to the conflict in Afghanistan. See, e.g., the following articles by The Observer:

“Pakistan Desire to “Mediate” with Taliban Consistent with Earlier Reports of Deal to Support Karzai in Election Settlement,”
February 10th, 2010

NEWS TO NOTE Deal by U.S. with Pakistan Military to Undercut Abdullah in Final Discussions?
November 11th, 2009

Interestingly, he reports in the current article, “Neither the Afghan government nor the Pakistani government is officially aware of the backchannel initiative with the Taliban.”

The Trenchant Observer

Comments are invited.

Fighting corruption and other challenges in Dexter Filkins’ Corrupt-istan

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Some time is likely to pass before the results of Saturday’s National Assembly elections in Afghanistan become known, and are officially announced.

In the meantime, it is useful to reflect on the more fundamental issues facing the United States, NATO and other allied countries engaged in the effort to secure the country from the Taliban–or at least arrange a departure that does not lead to the rapid collapse of the Afghan government.

As we get caught up in the details provided to our reporters by U.S. military and civilian officials in Afghanistan and Washington, and also those of allied nations, we tend to forget several fundamental facts about the country.

First, Afghanistan is a narco-state, where drug money and drug lords hold inordinate sway.

Second, the country is the second most corrupt country in the world, according to Transparency International which ranks it 179th, with only the anarchic state of Somalia ranking lower at 180th.

Third, while the United States has supported the development of institutions necessary for good governance over the course of the nine-year war, as have the United Nations and other allied nations, its Central Intelligence Agency has at the same time been paying many high-ranking Afghan officials either as assets or to provide specific information and services, on a long-term and continuing basis. Many of these officials have been known to be corrupt.

Fourth, the United States has been unable to break free from its support of president Hamid Karzai, even when the presidential elections held in August 2009 gave it an opportunity to do so through adherence to the Afghan constitution and the electoral machinery that had been set up in accordance with Afghan legislation. Despite a massive vote against Karzai and for Abdullah that, even after a portion of the votes produced by corruption had been discounted, required that a second-round runoff election be held, the U.S. stood by Karzai.

The massive corruption of the electoral process, apparently orchestrated by Karzai, was corrected in part only by the Electoral Complaints Commission that at that time had a majority of three international members. Lost in the news reporting was the critical fact that the ECC had only examined the results of the voting stations where the most egregious fraud had occurred. The actual extent of the fraud was in all likelihood far greater than that examined and found by the ECC, and it is quite possible that Abdulllah Abdullah, who came in second, could have won a free and fair second round election.

The U.S., instead of facing down Karzai, turned to Pakistan and apparently struck a deal to gain the cooperation of the Pakistani military in negotiating with the Taliban, in exchange for ceasing its pressure on Karzai to either actually hold a second-round election or form a national unity government with Abdullah. In the face of Karzai’s refusal to meet Abdullah’s demand that the members of the Independent Electoral Commission who had orchestrated the fraud be replaced, the latter withdrew from the race.

As Thomas Friedman observed in the New York Times in his March 31 op-ed column,

When you can steal an election, you can steal anything. How will we get this guy to curb corruption when his whole election, and previous tour in office, were built on corruption? How can we be operating a clear, build-and-hold strategy that depends on us bringing good governance to Afghans when the head of the government is so duplicitous?

See also The Trenchant Observer, “Thomas L. Friedman on Karzai; Hard Options,” March 31, 2010.

Fifth, when U.S. anti-corruption efforts collide with the pervasive corruption at the top of the Afghan government, which reportedly has many high-ranking officials on the CIA payroll, those efforts seem to always be sacrificed as the intelligence agencies weigh in to protect their assets.

See, e.g., Dexter Filkins and Mark Mazzetti, “Karzai Aide in Corruption Inquiry Is Tied to C.I.A.,” New York Times, August 25, 2010

Recently, Karzai blocked the efforts of two U.S. supported Afghan anti-corruption bodies when they sought to arrest officials close to Karzai widely reputed to be corrupt. Karzai then fired Deputy Attorney General Fazel Ahmad Faqiryar, who had been in charge of these anti-corruption efforts. The New York Times, in an editorial on August 25, 2010, noted,

A report in Thursday’s Times that the aide, Mohammed Zia Salehi, is a paid agent of the C.I.A. shows, once again, the seamy complications of this war.

In late July, Mr. Salehi, a top national security adviser to Mr. Karzai, was arrested after being accused of soliciting bribes to help block an investigation of the New Ansari Exchange. New Ansari, a financial firm based in Kabul, is suspected of helping move billions of dollars out of Afghanistan.

The two anticorruption agencies, the Major Crimes Task Force and the Sensitive Investigations Unit, were established by the Afghan government last year with encouragement from the United States. They are independent, with broad powers to arrest, detain and try suspects, and they receive technical and other help from the F.B.I. and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

–Editorial, “Mr. Karzai’s Promises,” New York Times, August 25, 2010

The Central Dilemma Facing the U.S. in Afghanistan

The central dilemma facing the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan is that good governance is required for the Taliban to be checked, both according to U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine (as enunciated in the Army manual drafted by Petraeus), and under the specific conditions on the ground in Afghanistan. Yet good governance cannot be built, or governance strengthened, without law and the framework of law that such governance requires.

In a word, the U.S. and its allies are not likely to succeed in stabilizing Afghanistan, or in reducing the likelihood of destabilization of Pakistan as a result of failure in Afghanistan, without clearly setting out as its objective the establishment and consolidation of a constitutional or rule-of-law state.

That does not mean that the United States must maintain large military forces in Afghanistan until such a state is firmly in place, but it does mean that U.S. and allied efforts in the country must be oriented toward that goal, and not undermine it.

A long-term commitment from the U.S. and its allies on the civilian side, to assist in building and strengthening such a rule-of-law state, may be required. Such a commitment, however, would reassure Afghan partners dedicated to such an enterprise, and potential adherents, that the Umited States will not simply withdraw its troops and leave the country to warlords, drug lords, and the Taliban.

Two must-read articles lay out the depths of the pervasive corruption that exists in Afghanistan, and the inherent contradictions–as well as the strange if not delusional thinking–involved in current U.S. policymaking discussions on the subject of how to fight this corruption. See

Dexter Filkins, “Inside Corrupt-istan, a Loss of Faith in Leaders,” The New York Times, September 4, 2010; and

Mark Mazzetti and Rod Norland, “U.S. Debates Karzai’s Place in Fighting Corruption,” New York Times, September 14, 2010

Filkins writes,

It’s not as if the Americans and their NATO partners don’t know who the corrupt Afghans are. American officers and anti-corruption teams have drawn up intricate charts outlining the criminal syndicates that entwine the Afghan business and political elites. They’ve even given the charts a name: “Malign Actor Networks.” A k a MAN.

Looking at some of these charts—with their crisscrossed lines connecting politicians, drug traffickers and insurgents — it’s easy to conclude that this country is ruled neither by the government, nor NATO, nor the Taliban, but by the MAN.

It turns out, of course, that some of the same “malign actors” the diplomats and officers are railing against are on the payroll of the C.I.A. At least until recently, American officials say, one of them was Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s brother. Mr. Karzai has long been suspected of facilitating the country’s booming drug trade.

President Obama’s Response

How has president Obama reacted to Karzai’s interventions to block anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan and his firing of Deputy Attorney General Fazel Ahmad Faqiryar?

On Monday, September 14, Mazzetti and Norland report, the president met with his senior advisors to address the problem:

The Obama administration is debating whether to make Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, a more central player in efforts to root out corruption in his own government, including giving him more oversight of graft investigators and notifying him before any arrests, according to senior American officials.

The corruption issue was at the center of a two-hour White House meeting on Monday, with President Obama and senior aides agreeing that efforts to tackle corruption should be balanced against the need to maintain ties with the Afghan government.

“The discussion on corruption, in essence, is really a discussion about our relationship with Karzai,” said one senior Obama administration official, who like several others interviewed for this article spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Officials cautioned that no firm decisions had been made about whether President Karzai should have any veto power over anticorruption efforts. They said that Mr. Obama told his advisers on Monday to come up with a more “sophisticated” policy toward Afghan corruption.

Mr. Obama, the officials said, directed government agencies — including the Pentagon, the State Department, the Justice Department and the C.I.A. — to develop guidelines that could isolate the corruption that fuels anger among Afghans and drives many into the ranks of the insurgency, as opposed to the more routine kickbacks and bribes that grease the Afghan political system.

“The corruption we need to combat is the corruption that undermines the fight against the Taliban,” said a second American official. “That means going after officials who abuse ordinary Afghans and drive them to the other side — a plundering landlord or a brutal, thieving cop.”

In other words, the idea is to pursue some corruption, but not the corruption at the top of the Afghan government. In the president’s words, the challenge is to come up with a more “sophisticated” policy toward fighting Afghan corruption.

Perhaps more importantly, Obama’s call for more “sophisticated” options for fighting corruption in Afghanistan reflects Karzai’s continued ability to “roll” the president, who every time he hits a brick wall seems to call for more analysis.

There is room for some doubt as to whether these “sophisticated” intellectual distinctions and options, if found and implemented, will ever gain traction in the second most corrupt country in the world, Corrupt-istan.

To the Observer, the idea of trying to make Karzai a more central player in efforts to root out corruption in his own government sounds like giving Al Capone a more central role in cleaning up Chicago.

In the meantime, anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan are “paused”. See Rod Nordland and Alissa J. Rubin, “New Afghan Corruption Inquiries Frozen,” New York Times, September 14, 2010.

The Trenchant Observer

Comments are invited.

The U.S., Iran, and Afghanistan; attacks on home of Karroubi and offices of Moussavi

Friday, September 17th, 2010

Iranian Help on Afghanistan?

In an interesting column in the Washington Post, David Ignatius reports on the possibilities for engaging with Iran to gain its assistance in dealing with Afghanistan, and the arguments for and against such an approach within the Obama administration.

Ignatius quotes President Obama’s statement, in an August 4 meeting with journalists, that he was in favor of establishing a “second track” (in addition to that on nuclear issues) for talking about Iran’s potential role in helping to stabilize Afghanistan, where the U.S. and Iran have a “mutual interest” in battling both the drug trade and the Taliban.

The question for the Obama administration is whether to take up these feelers (from Iran). Advocates argue that stabilizing Afghanistan is a strategic priority and that the United States should seek help wherever it can. They also argue that rather than undermining talks on the nuclear issue, contacts on Afghanistan could be an important confidence-building measure.

Skeptics contend the Afghan gambit would dilute the main focus of Iran policy, which is stopping Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. That same logic led the Bush administration to pull back in March 2006 from its proposal for talks in Baghdad with Iran, after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had appointed a key adviser, Ali Larijani, as his representative.

–David Ignatius, “The U.S. should test Iran’s resolve to stabilize Afghanistan,” Washington Post, September 17, 2010.

Attacks on Home of Karroubi and Offices of Moussavi

Meanwhile, in Iran paramilitary militia and/or government security officials on September 2 reportedly attacked the home of opposition leader and 2009 presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi.

Pro-government crowds swarmed outside the battered home of a key Iranian opposition leader Friday after militiamen attacked with firebombs and beat a bodyguard unconscious in a brazen message of intimidation and pinpoint pressure on dissent.

Mobs of hard-line militiamen — known as Basij — began breaking down the front door of Karroubi’s residence before being driven back by warning shots from guards, according to the Sahamnews website, which supports Iran’s pro-reform movement.

Karroubi was at home at the time, but was not injured, his son Hossein told The Associated Press.

Media restrictions imposed by Iranian authorities blocked journalists from reaching the site and independently verifying the accounts. A video posted on the Internet by a group backing the opposition showed smashed windows and graffiti on the walls and door panel of the house, located on a tree-lined street in north Tehran.

Hossein Karroubi said dozens of hard-liners — some on motorbikes — continued to damage the opposition leader’s home on Friday and that police were not responding to the scene. Some security cameras outside the building were torn down, he said.

–Brian Murphy and Nasser Karimi, “Mobs attack home of Iranian opposition leader,” AP, published on Iran on MSNBC, September 3, 2010.

On Wednesday night, September 15, Iranian government security forces and/or paramilitary militia reportedly attacked the offices of Mir Hossein Moussavi, the leading opposition candidate in the June, 2009 presidential elections.

–Associated Press, “Forces raid office of Iran’s opposition leader,” September 17, 2010.

–See also Ramin Mostaghim and Meris Lutz, “Iran opposition leader’s offices raided,” Los Angleles Times, September 17, 2010.

AP also reported that

Adding to the pressure on the opposition, Tehran chief prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi issued a new warning that the movement’s leaders could be brought to trial, Iranian newspapers reported Thursday.

See also

Ladane Nasseri, “Iran Pledges to Bring to Trial Opposition Leaders Who Challenged President,” Bloomberg, September 16, 2010

These attacks follow the surfacing of an alleged official letter to Iranian newspapers and media outlets banning any reporting on the activities of Karroubi, Moussavi, or former president Mohammad Khatami.

–See William Yong and Robert F. Worth, “Iran Clamps Down on Reporting on Protest Leaders,” New York Times, August 25, 2010.

Khamenei’s January call for opposition members to be dealt with strictly in accordance with the law

In January, two days after groups believed to be linked to the Revolutionary Guards allegedly open fire on the car of opposition figure Mehdi Karroubi, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for such groups to abide by the law, stating

“Relevant bodies should fully respect the law in dealing with the riots and the ongoing events,” he told clerics and seminary students bused to Tehran from the shrine city of Qom for an annual political commemoration.

“Those without any legal duty and obligations should not meddle with these affairs,” he said. “Everyone should hold back from arbitrary acts and everything should go within the framework of the law.”

Borzou Daragahi, “Iran’s Supreme Leader Tells Militias not to Meddle,” Los Angeles Times, January 10, 2010

See The Trenchant Observer, “NEWS TO NOTE: In Iran, Khamenei calls for non-interference by militias and for officials “to fully respect the law,” January 14, 2010

The contradiction between Khamenei’s call for the authorities and paramilitary groups to act within the law and these recent attacks raises basic questions as to whether Kamenei has lost or is losing influence over the Revolutionary Guards and paramilitary groups such as the Basiji.

The Trenchant Observer

Comments are invited.

REPRISE (from March 26, 2010): Afghanistan U.N. SRSG de Mistura Describes U.N. Electoral Role; What Are Allied Forces Fighting For?

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

Originally Published March 26, 2010

In his first press conference, Staffan de Mistura, the new Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG), described what he and the United Nations are doing to facilitate “credible and inclusive” National Assembly elections to be held on September 18, 2010.

“Let’s be frank. We are not in Switzerland, we are in Afghanistan, so the elections are still likely to be imperfect, not perfect, but they need to be credible and inclusive for the sake of Afghans’ feelings that they are really part of it,” de Mistura told reporters.

Translation: We are going to try to make the National Assembly elections appear “credible”, although Hamid Karzai will control the outcome through his majority of three appointed Afghan members on the Electoral Complaints Commission. We are not going to raise a stink over his blatant rewriting of the electoral law in violation of the Constitution.

Before Karzai’s electoral coup, that law provided for a majority of three “internationals” on the ECC, in order to guarantee elections that were free and fair by internatiional standards. Such elections were in fact held in 2004 and 2005.

The idea behind this provision was that there would be at least a majority of international members who would be free from the influence and intimidation that Aghan members were likely to be subjected to.

The Afghan parliament approved this law. Karzai, in a sleight of hand, overrode the law with a decree issued in February while the National Assembly was in recess, which with twisted legal logic he now maintains cannot be overturned by the Assembly due to another constitutional provision that states the electoral law cannot be changed within a year before elections.

In other words, Karzai can change the law by decree but the National Assembly cannot overturn his decree-law by their own law because the Constitution forbids changes to the electoral law within a year prior to elections.

That defies constitutional logic.

A critical question is whether the goal of “credible” elections, as ultimately determined by an Electoral Complaints Commission appointed by Karzai, is good enough.

Is it good enough for the men and women from U.S. and allied forces, as well as Afghans, who have given their lives in the battle for a democratic state governed by law in Afghanistan? Is it good enough for those who fight today, including the Afghan army and police?

Such a state would protect the rights of women, among other things. The idea of negotiating a withdrawal in which the country is handed back to the control of the warlords is, after eight years of war, appalling.

What is going on here is that the United Nations and its representatives are speaking as if their task were simply to assist in the development of Afghan electoral institutions, without regard to the corruption of those institutions by Afghan officials at the very top of the power structure. They view their task as a technical one. The questions of fraud and the validity of the results are for the Afghans to decide.

Meanwhile, Allied soldiers fight and die, if not for a democratic future for the people of Afghanistan, then for what? To return the country, and the women of Afghanistan, to the power of the warlords throughout the country? To men like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar?

If free elections have been critical to the success to date in Iraq, why are they not critical in Afghanistan?

These are some of the questions the Observer can not get out of his head.

What do you think?

The Trenchant Observer

Comments are invited, in any language. If in a language other than English, please provide an English translation. A Google translation will be sufficient.

Wikileaks’ Leaked Documents on Afghanistan: Massive U.S. Intelligence System Failure

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

Much of the attention in the press following the release by Wikileaks of over 90,000 classified documents from U.S. military operations and intelligence in Afghanistan has been off the mark.

The big issue here is not how the disclosures are going to affect the debate in Washington and the U.S. over the future course of the war, but rather which institutions and individuals in the U.S. military and above are going to be held accountable for what may be one of the greatest leaks of classified operational intelligence in U.S. history.

The leaks reveal a pervasive failure in intelligence methods and document handling.

On the nature of this intelligence fiasco, see

Jill R. Aitoro, Security Controls at Their Worst? Cyber-Secuirty Report,, July 27, 2010

“WikiLeaks Files’ ‘Potential Threat’ Continues to Rattle Washington,” PBS New Hour, July 27, 2010

Why was nothing done by the U.S. or the U.K. to prevent the publication of these detailed documents revealing U.S. intellignce sources and methods?

What is going to be done, and how soon, to fix the systems and procedures that made these leaks possible?

Who is going to be held accountable?

These are the key questions that need to be immediately addressed.

Of course, now that the documents are public, much will be learned from detailed analyses of their content over the coming months, and years. That is all highly interesting, but should not distract us from the nature of the intelligence failure that has occurred, and the urgent need to fix at once the defects in the system that allowed these massive leaks to happen.

The Trenchant Observer

Comments are invited. Please add to the discussion and tell the Observer why he is wrong. Or right. Or some of one and some of the other.