JFP News 9/2: Time to Talk to the Taliban?
Just Foreign Policy News
September 2, 2009
Can We Get Some Republicans to Defect on Afghanistan?
Conservative columnist George Will had an op-ed in the Washington Post yesterday, calling for the U.S. to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. We need some Republicans in Congress to listen to George Will.
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1) The New York Times published a forum on "whether it is time to negotiate with the Taliban." New York Times reporter Elizabeth Rubin says "the short answer is yes." Rubin asks what concessions the U.S. might be willing to make: is it prepared for referenda on constitutional issues? There is no risk to pursuing reconciliation or talks with the Taliban, Rubin says. The real risk would be to imagine the insurgents can be defeated through military means alone.
2) A thousand more Americans could die "on Obama's watch" in Afghanistan, writes Tom Hayden on Huffington Post. Hayden arrives at the number by extrapolating the July-August average through 2011.
3) U.S. officials are planning to add as many as 14,000 combat troops to the American force in Afghanistan by sending home support units and replacing them with "trigger-pullers," the Los Angeles Times reports. But many of the noncombat jobs are likely be filled by private contractors, who have proved to be a source of controversy in Iraq and a growing issue in Afghanistan.
4) U.S. officials say the Taliban have become a much more potent adversary in Afghanistan by improving their tactics, the Washington Post reports. But a number of officials said the Taliban's widening influence has as much to do with Afghan government corruption, tensions among regional ethnic groups, lack of state service and justice in rural areas, and high rates of unemployment as it does with insurgent efforts.
5) US sanctions on Iran are having the effect of silencing dissident voices there, argues Evgeny Morozov at Foreign Policy. Iranian social news sites do not display Google Ads, because Google won't allow it, citing U.S. sanctions; this deprives these sites of an important source of revenue that would allow them to continue operating.
6) Though Afghan President Karzai has tried for years to woo back insurgent commanders, only a handful have switched sides, the Wall Street Journal reports. Many more tribal leaders who had supported Kabul now cooperate with the Taliban, military officials say.
7) Leaders of a southern Afghan tribe say Karzai's campaign forged 23,900 votes in Kandahar, the New York Times reports. Much of the story was impossible to verify, the Times said, but the men spoke in great detail, were willing to be publicly named and to have their photographs taken.
8) The IAEA's outgoing head Mohamed ElBaradei said Iran is not going to produce a nuclear weapon any time soon and the threat posed by its atomic program has been "hyped," Reuters reports. ElBaradei said there was concern about Iran's future nuclear intentions and that Iran needs to be more transparent with the UN. "But the idea that we'll wake up tomorrow and Iran will have a nuclear weapon is an idea that isn't supported by the facts as we have seen them so far," said ElBaradei.
9) Israel and the Palestinians on Wednesday held their first cabinet-level talks since Netanyahu took over as prime minister in March, the Washington Post reports.
10) If Colombia is winning its internal war, why are so many terrified Colombians abandoning their farms in the hinterlands and crowding into the cities, asks John Otis in Time Magazine. Last year, 380,000 Colombians were forced off their land amid fighting between rebels, paramilitaries and the army, a 24% increase from 2007's figure, according to the human-rights group Codhes. What's happening, analysts say, is that rather than winding down, the country's 45-year conflict is evolving: demobilized right-wing paramilitary groups have been replaced by a new generation of private armies - often employing the same people. Human-rights groups accuse these militias of working hand-in-glove with businesses to take control of large swaths of land to mine gold, drill for petroleum and produce palm oil for Colombia's booming biofuels industry. Says Jorge Rojas, who heads Codhes, "In almost every case where there is a big palm-oil development, there is widespread forced displacement."
1) Is It Time to Negotiate With the Taliban?
Elizabeth Rubin, New York Times, September 1
[The New York Times asked a number of contributors to address the question. Reporter Elizabeth Rubin, a contributing writer for The New York Times magazine, and Edward R. Murrow fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says "The short answer is yes."
The short answer is yes. There is no military solution to the Afghan insurgency. The Taliban is a catch-word for different groups who are fighting the coalition and the government for many different reasons. Every pocket of resistance throughout the country has originated with a local dispute.
Some fighters have taken up arms to get revenge for the killing of a family member. Some like Mullah Ibrahim, an intelligence commander whom I met back in 2006, were from the wrong tribe and from the very beginning the U.S.-backed warlords in the South made trouble for the men of these tribes.
They were tortured, imprisoned, unable to work, or simply handed over for cash to the Americans as "Al Qaeda." Mullah Ibrahim's case tells the story of a lot of these commanders. He sought refuge from the local Helmandi strongmen by fleeing to Pakistan where he reunited with his old Taliban friends.
Later he tried through an Afghan officer to reconcile with the Afghan government. When the Pakistani intelligence found out, they arrested Ibrahim and threw him in prison. Smugglers bought him his freedom. And then he was indebted both to the smugglers and the Pakistani intelligence who sent him back to Afghanistan to wage war against the Afghan government and the Americans.
Since then, he's become rich and influential, running operations in two or three provinces. But as he told me, he's tired of life on the run in the mountains. He'd like to lead a peaceful life. Even Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of Hizbi Islami and of a vast insurgent network across the country, has sent letters to President Hamid Karzai saying in effect that he's getting old and he'd like to retire to somewhere like Saudi Arabia.
As in any reconciliation process, choices need to be made about whether you are going for a grand bargain or something in the middle, luring in moderates. Then there are many relevant practical questions.
What are the concessions that the Afghan government and the Americans are willing to make? Are they prepared for referendums on constitutional issues? Who will guarantee the safety of second-tier Taliban commanders? Who will convince the local government strongmen to lay off of them? Who will give them work? What kind of work? How will they be reintegrated into their communities?
The Afghan government is not a unified entity with clean hands. Many officials are making vast sums of money collaborating with the Taliban in drug smuggling. They are benefiting financially from the chaos in the drug-growing regions down south. How do you have reconciliation without stopping the lucrative drug trade?
And then there is the murky role of Pakistan. As in the case of Mullah Ibrahim, Pakistani intelligence officers have consistently financed and armed the insurgents, whether it's the Kandahar Taliban or Hekmatyar's Hizbi Islami fighters.
Is Pakistan ready to see a peaceful Afghanistan with a strong central government? Can the next Afghan government placate Pakistani fears that India is getting too powerful inside Afghanistan? These regional factors will play as much of a role in any reconciliation effort.
There is no risk to pursuing reconciliation or talks with the Taliban. The real risk would be to imagine the insurgents can be defeated through military means alone.
2) 1,080 More Americans Could Die on Obama's Watch in Afghanistan
Highest-Ever Monthly Total of 49 Americans Killed in Afghanistan in August: American Death Rate Under Obama Could Exceed 1,000 by 2011
Tom Hayden, Huffington Post, September 1
August was the cruelest month for American forces in Afghanistan, with at least 49 killed, not including possible last-minute reports. The August numbers exceeded the previous high of 43 in July, as a result of the new escalation of fighting approved by President Obama.
The President is expected to approve another troop increase shortly, which will inevitably increase American casualty rates in the 18-24 months of "hard fighting" forecast by the Pentagon.
At a rate of 45 American deaths per month, the toll on Obama's watch would be 1,080 additional American deaths through 2011, as the President heads into a re-election.
The total number of American deaths in Afghanistan since the beginning of the war is approximately 800. The number officially listed as wounded in action is 3,722, with 2,314 never redeployed to the war zone. www.defenselink.mil/news/casualty.pdf
The numbers are understated by, for example, excluding hundreds of private contractors, many of them American citizens, killed in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Others killed during special operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan may not be included either.
Deaths among US-dominated Coalition forces overall now total 1,293, including 210 from the UK and 126 from Canada.
The real number of Afghanistan civilian casualties is obscured in the fog of war, but has risen to a record high as the US has escalated its forces this year, with the UN Aid Mission figures growing from 684 in the first six months of 2007, to 818 in the first six months of 2008, to 1,013 in January-June this year. The July UNAM bulletin's appendix noted that "there is a significant possibility that UNAMA is under-reporting civilian casualties." [p. 16] Because the Pentagon frequently casts doubt on whether Afghan victims are truly civilian, the frequent result is, as UNAM notes, "if the non-combatant status of one or more victims remains under significant doubt, such deaths are not included in the overall number of civilian casualties."
3) U.S. to boost combat force in Afghanistan
Support units will be replaced by up to 14,000 'trigger-pullers,' and noncombat posts will be contracted out, Defense officials say. The swap will allow the U.S. to keep its troop level unchanged.
Julian E. Barnes, Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2009
Washington - U.S. officials are planning to add as many as 14,000 combat troops to the American force in Afghanistan by sending home support units and replacing them with "trigger-pullers," Defense officials say.
The move would beef up the combat force in the country without increasing the overall number of U.S. troops, a contentious issue as public support for the war slips. But many of the noncombat jobs are likely be filled by private contractors, who have proved to be a source of controversy in Iraq and a growing issue in Afghanistan.
The plan represents a key step in the Obama administration's drive to counter Taliban gains and demonstrate progress in the war nearly eight years after it began.
Forces that could be swapped out include units assigned to noncombat duty, such as guards or lookouts, or those on clerical and support squads. "It makes sense to get rid of the clerks and replace them with trigger-pullers," said one Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the plans have not been announced. Officials have spoken in recent days about aspects of the plan.
The changes will not offset the potential need for additional troops in the future, but could reduce the size of any request from Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and allied commander, officials said.
McChrystal submitted a broad assessment of the Afghanistan war effort this week, calling the situation there "serious."
Details of the assessment remain secret, but officials said it did not contain a request for more troops. Such a request could be submitted in coming weeks.
4) Taliban Surprising U.S. Forces With Improved Tactics
Obama Facing Major Strategy Decisions
Karen DeYoung, Washington Post, Wednesday, September 2, 2009
The Taliban has become a much more potent adversary in Afghanistan by improving its own tactics and finding gaps in the U.S. military playbook, according to senior American military officials who acknowledged that the enemy's resurgence this year has taken them by surprise.
U.S. rules of engagement restricting the use of air power and aggressive action against civilians have also opened new space for the insurgents, officials said. Western development projects, such as new roads, schools and police stations, have provided fresh targets for Taliban roadside bombs and suicide attacks. The inability of rising numbers of American troops to protect Afghan citizens has increased resentment of the Western presence and the corrupt Afghan government that cooperates with it, the officials said.
As President Obama faces crucial decisions on his war strategy and declining public support at home, administration and defense officials are studying the reasons why the Taliban appears, for the moment at least, to be winning.
U.S. military officials differ on the extent of Taliban success and the reasons for it. Senior U.S. commanders in eastern Afghanistan, where insurgent leader Jalaluddin Haqqani's network is dominant, said that the sophistication of the insurgents' attacks had increased markedly, beginning with bloody battles along the Pakistani border last summer. To many of the Americans, it appeared as if the insurgents had attended something akin to the U.S. Army's Ranger school, which teaches soldiers how to fight in small groups in austere environments.
In recent months, the Taliban fighters have used mortars to force U.S. troops into defensive positions, where they are then hit with rocket-propelled grenades, rifles and machine guns. Insurgent units have learned to maintain "radio silence" as they move and to wet down the ground to prevent dusty recoil that would make them targets. They have "developed the ability to do some of the things that make up what you call a disciplined force," including treating casualties, the Army general said.
U.S. officers in southern Afghanistan, where thousands of Marines and British troops are fighting long-entrenched Taliban forces, attributed insurgent gains less to sophisticated tactics than to increased use of roadside bombs - improvised explosive devices, or IEDs - laid along U.S. convoy routes in the desert or roads built with foreign aid money.
A number of officials and experts, within and outside the military, said that while the Taliban was able to regroup militarily while U.S. attention was diverted to Iraq, its widening influence has as much to do with Afghan government corruption, tensions among regional ethnic groups, lack of state service and justice in rural areas, and high rates of unemployment as it does with insurgent efforts.
5) Iran's Twitter Revolution won't succeed because of US government
Evgeny Morozov, ForeignPolicy.com, Fri, 08/28/2009 - 9:15am
Recently I've been studying the Iranian new media space in order to understand its key players and how they all relate to each other. I had a hunch that Twitter isn't one of them and so far my findings confirm it. But something else has recently caught my attention: popular Iranian social news sites do not display Google Ads. This seemed strange to me, because many of them have high traffic and would probably generate a lot of cash this way.
After researching the issue, I found out that Google doesn't allow to target visitors from Iran (as well as Cuba, North Korea, Sudan and Syria) because of - you guessed it - the economic sanctions imposed by the US government. Now, this is something that I entirely cannot understand: how exactly would Google AdSense strengthen the Iranian regime? The Iranian state media doesn't need to use Google Ads to generate its revenue: they are lavishly funded by the state.
The only people who suffer because of these sanctions are the Iranian Web entrepreneurs who are cut off from a guaranteed source of funding. The appearance of Google Ads as a source of funding for small-scale Web ventures has been one of the key drivers of the Web2.0 era. In my professional experience in Eastern Europe, projects that were built with Google Ads and other business models in mind have usually fared much better than those that only relied on external non-profit funding.
In the current environment, the Iranians have no choice but to wind down their operations after they run out of money or accept grants from the US government or other agencies that would surely have a negative impact on their reputation in Iran and hurt their chances for becoming sustainable down the road. Factor in the impact of cyber-attacks - which are demanding more and more staff power as well as server space to deal with - and you begin to understand that it's the Iranians who need Google's ad money the most. From what I understand, today it's next to impossible to be a popular Iranian social news site without hiring full-time maintenance staff. There is simply no way to pay their salaries without relying on online advertising: the market for pay-per-view models is limited, since many Iranians do not have credit cards and are not accustomed to paying for news online.
Instead, we are faced with yet another situation where a misguided sanctions policy of the US government makes it impossible for the Iranian dissident voices to flourish on the Web and create sustainable online ventures. What the US government should be doing is partnering with Google and doubling and tripling what Iranian web-sites could earn from displaying the ads. This would bring on a real "Twitter revolution"; the current US policy stifles it.
6) Warlord's Defection Shows Afghan Risk
Yaroslav Trofimov, Wall Street Journal, September 2, 2009
Herat, Afghanistan - Ghulam Yahya, a former mayor of this ancient city along the Silk Road, battled the Taliban for years and worked hand in hand with Western officials to rebuild the country's industrial hub.
Now, Yahya is firing rockets at the Herat airport and nearby coalition military headquarters. He has kidnapped soldiers and foreign contractors, claimed the downing of an Afghan army helicopter and planted bombs in central Herat - including one that killed a district police chief and more than a dozen bystanders last month.
Yahya's stranglehold over the outskirts of Herat has destabilized a former oasis of calm and relative prosperity. "The security situation here is critical," said Herat's current mayor, Mohammed Salim Taraki.
The warlord's odyssey from friend to foe shows how disillusionment with the Western-backed administration of President Hamid Karzai has pushed even some former enemies of the Taliban into the insurgency. Violence is rapidly spreading beyond the ethnic Pashtun heartland of southern and eastern Afghanistan, where much of the countryside already is in rebel hands, into parts of the country that were considered safe just a few months ago.
Widespread anger over alleged fraud in August's presidential elections - where President Karzai is leading with 45.8 percent of the vote according to the latest partial count - has deepened this alienation. Though President Karzai has tried for years to woo back insurgent commanders, only a handful have switched sides. Many more tribal leaders who had supported Kabul now cooperate with the Taliban, military officials say.
7) Tribal Leaders Say Karzai's Team Forged 23,900 Votes
Dexter Filkins, New York Times, September 2, 2009
Kabul, Afghanistan - Just a week before this country's presidential election, the leaders of a southern Afghan tribe called Bariz gathered to make a bold decision: they would abandon the incumbent and local favorite, Hamid Karzai, and endorse his challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.
Abdullah flew to the southern city of Kandahar to receive the tribe's endorsement. The leaders of the tribe, who live in a district called Shorabak, prepared to deliver a local landslide. But it never happened, the tribal leaders said.
Instead, aides to Karzai's brother Ahmed Wali - the leader of the Kandahar provincial council and the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan - detained the governor of Shorabak, Delaga Bariz, and shut down all of the district's 45 polling sites on election day. The ballot boxes were taken to Shorabak's district headquarters, where, Bariz and other tribal leaders said, local police officers stuffed them with thousands of ballots.
At the end of the day, 23,900 ballots were shipped to Kabul, Bariz said, with every one marked for President Karzai. "Not a single person in Shorabak District cast a ballot - not a single person," Bariz said in an interview here in the capital, where he and a group of tribal elders came to file a complaint. "Karzai's people stuffed all the ballot boxes."
The accusations by Bariz, and several other tribal leaders from Shorabak, are the most serious allegations so far that have been publicized against Karzai's electoral machine, which faces a deluge of fraud complaints from around the country.
Allegations like those described by Bariz are throwing the basic integrity of the election into question. Much of the story told by Bariz and the other tribal elders was impossible to verify. But it appeared credible. All three men spoke in great detail. And all of them were willing to be publicly named and to have their photographs taken.
8) Iran nuclear "threat" hyped: IAEA's ElBaradei
Reuters, Wed Sep 2, 2009 12:00pm EDT
Vienna - Iran is not going to produce a nuclear weapon any time soon and the threat posed by its atomic program has been exaggerated, the U.N. nuclear watchdog chief said in a published interview.
Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said there was no concrete evidence that Tehran has an ongoing nuclear weapons program. "But somehow, many people are talking about how Iran's nuclear program is the greatest threat to the world. In many ways, I think the threat has been hyped," he told the specialist Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
ElBaradei said there was concern about Iran's future nuclear intentions and that the Islamic Republic needs to be more transparent with the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog. "But the idea that we'll wake up tomorrow and Iran will have a nuclear weapon is an idea that isn't supported by the facts as we have seen them so far," said ElBaradei, 67, who will step down in November after 12 years in office.
The interview was conducted in July but released late on Tuesday.
9) Israelis, Palestinians Resume High-Level Talks
Howard Schneider, Washington Post, Wednesday, September 2, 2009 12:05 PM
Jerusalem, Sept. 2 - Israel and the Palestinians on Wednesday held their first cabinet-level talks since conservative leader Binyamin Netanyahu took over as prime minister in March, a tentative overture as the United States pushes for a full resumption of peace talks.
The meeting between Palestinian economy minister Bassem Khoury and Israel's deputy prime minister, Silvan Shalom, was held to discuss economic cooperation between the two sides - something Netanyahu has emphasized since assuming office.
The Palestinian Authority until now has been reluctant to sanction high-level meetings on the issue, citing concern that Netanyahu wanted to substitute "economic peace" for the more sensitive political negotiations surrounding creation of a Palestinian state.
But after months in which Netanyahu has gradually lifted checkpoints in the occupied West Bank and the Obama administration has tried to nudge the two sides to resume talks, Khoury and Shalom and teams of aides met at the King David Hotel to discuss ways to bolster the Palestinian economy.
10) If Colombia Is Winning Its War, Why the Fleeing?
If Colombia Is Winning Its War, Why the Fleeing?
John Otis, Time Magazine, Tuesday, Sep. 01, 2009
Bogota - As he contemplates running for a third term next year, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe must first get over the swine flu, which he was diagnosed with over the weekend. But he has another thing to worry about besides his health: his impressive record on national security appears to be fraying.
The achievements had been stunning. Uribe's U.S.-backed military pounded Marxist guerrillas while his peace envoys convinced 30,000 right-wing paramilitaries to disarm - the two feats leading to a steep reduction in kidnappings and homicides and making Uribe the most popular Colombian leader in decades. But if the war is being won, why then are so many terrified Colombians abandoning their farms in the hinterlands and crowding into the cities?
Last year, 380,000 Colombians were forced off their land amid fighting between rebels, paramilitaries and the army, a 24% increase from 2007's figure, according to the Bogotá-based human-rights group Codhes (the Spanish acronym for the Human Rights and Displacement Office). Colombian officials, in turn, put the number of displaced at 294,000 for just the first six months of last year. "It's the million-dollar question," Marie-Helene Verney, spokeswoman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Colombia, says of the perplexing trend. "Something is going on."
What's happening, analysts say, is that rather than winding down, the country's 45-year conflict is evolving. In the 1990s and in the first half of this decade, campesinos were often driven off their land en masse by rebels or their foes, the paramilitaries. Following Mao's advice to separate the water from the fish, the warring factions depopulated the land to disrupt the enemy's civilian support network. According to Codhes, such scorched-earth tactics have uprooted more than 4.5 million people since 1985, leaving Colombia (pop. 45 million) with the world's second largest population of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Only Sudan, with nearly 5 million, has more. (The Bogotá government began keeping track of IDPs in 1997 and its running total is 3.1 million.)
Uribe was first elected in 2002 on a campaign pledge to crush the guerrillas. As the rebels retreated, the annual number of displaced persons fell. But now the yearly figures mirror those registered during the most horrific years of the war. Many of the victims have been targeted by a new generation of private armies whose ranks include paramilitaries who disarmed earlier this decade. Unlike the ideologically driven death squads of the 1990s, these new militias are focused on drug-trafficking. Colombian police put the number of new armed groups at eight. But the New Rainbow Foundation, a Colombian NGO that investigates the war, puts the number at 82 and says they have between 4,000 and 10,000 fighters. The militias often clash with guerrillas and with each other for control of land that can be used for growing coca - the raw material for cocaine - or for smuggling narcotics.
Human-rights groups also accuse these new militias of working hand-in-glove with legitimate businesses to take control of large swaths of land to mine gold, drill for petroleum and produce palm oil for Colombia's booming biofuels industry. Says Jorge Rojas, who heads Codhes, "In almost every case where there is a big palm-oil development, there is widespread forced displacement." Adding to the confusion, members of the Colombian Army have been accused of killing civilians and dressing them up as rebels and of driving farmers off their land in guerrilla strongholds.
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