Saturday, April 3, 2010

To my esteemed colleague, Jeff Schneider:

You wrote that the news of a vote in Sadr City to determine which candidate the Sadrist MPs would support was a positive development.  I respectfully disagree.  Or, if you prefer the immortal words of Dan Aykroyd, Jeff, you ignorant slut.

First of all, these "elections" are entirely unmonitored.  As the New York Times reported,

There were no lists of eligible voters, no one was required to show identification and apparently there was no way to prevent people from voting more than once...
Zaman Jabar, 30, who helped organize the process, said traditional election standards like registering voters and requiring identification were not necessary.
“We know all the voters in our sector here,” he said. “All of them are our people.”
Forgive me for being dubious that Mr. Jabar knows every resident in the Sadr City area of Baghdad.  The situation cries out for fraud.  I don't think al-Maliki or Allawi are able to overrun the polling places with their supporters to sway the results, but I do believe that the lack of formal accounting mechanisms will allow Muqtada al-Sadr to declare his support for which candidate he decides.

In short, the entire "election" is a sham, and the end result will be the same - whichever party does the best job bribing Sadr will get his support.  And the bribing has already begun.  Juan Cole relays the news that al-Maliki already began releasing Sadrist political prisoners.

Furthermore, Sunni-Shia divisions are driving this process, not democracy. 

Friday, April 2, 2010

The headline from Sadr City, March 10, 2004:

Militants take control of huge Baghdad slum / Sadr City locked up by gunmen loyal to rebel Muslim cleric
The headline today?
Iraq's Sadrists hold vote for prime minister choice
What a difference an effective COIN operation makes.

Sadr City, the Shia dominated slums of Baghdad -- long oppressed, forgotten, and marginalized under the Ba'athist regime of Sadam Hussein, was once the most dangerous area of Baghdad. The powerful, yet irregular mehdi army, under the command of Muqtada al-Sadr, once rejected the new Iraqi government -- and American forces -- to the last. They attacked armed patrols and civil servants alike, and directly opposed the central government of post-invasion Iraq.

Today, the story is very different:
(Reuters) - Supporters of anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stood in long lines on Friday to vote their choice for prime minister of Iraq in a two-day referendum that carried no government sanction or legal weight.

The unusual plebiscite is organized by Sadr's political movement, which won about 40 seats in a March 7 parliamentary election and stands to play a kingmaker role in the next government, was intended to determine the public favorite for prime minister after squabbling among election winners.
The background?

(more after the jump)

Poor Admiral Robert Williard had to go before the House Armed Services Committee this past week. He went as the head of US Pacific Command -- but he left as a defender of common sense and geology.

The cause of his title shift? Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), who was worried that the US Navy's decision to station an additional 8,000 personnel and their families on the island of Guam would, well, perhaps you need to see it for yourself:

This is a rare occurrence for me, but for commentary, I must defer to the National Review:

"Presumably, when you're the head guy of a major fleet for a big-time navy, you've got plenty of other ways of filling your time other than reassuring congressmen on whether miscellaneous land masses are likely to tip over and sink."
Only in America my friends!

In all fairness, Rep. Johnson's office released the following statement,
"The subtle humor of this obviously metaphorical reference to a ship capsizing illustrated my concern about the impact of the planned military buildup on this small tropical island."
I'm not buying it, and I doubt it will be enough to free him from the mockery of that series of tubes we call the internets.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

By: Elise Crane

This week’s subway bombings in Moscow sharply displayed the consequences of ignoring the complexities of conflict. Last April, the Kremlin declared the war in Chechnya officially over and formally ended its counterterrorism campaign in the republic. However, death squads continue to flourish, Ramzan Kadyrov is hardly a competent—nor uncorrupt—leader and, as Monday’s tragedy so glaringly demonstrated, the conflict is far from over.

Moscow’s continued refusal to address the root causes of the Chechen separatist drive virtually ensures that the violence will continue. Although the Chechen movement took an admittedly virulent turn with the injection of radical Islam in the mid-1990s, at its heart, it is fueled by historical grievance and unaddressed trauma.

Due largely to Vladimir Putin’s stranglehold on Russian media, emblematized by Anna Politkovskaya’s untimely death (which was, ironically, blamed on Chechen terrorists, but the likely culprit presents a much more chilling picture), the Russo-Chechen conflict has been broadly portrayed as a classic “good versus evil” story. This is a dangerous simplification and neglects crucial historical facts that must be acknowledged if we hope to end the devastating conflict.

Twenty years ago, in the post-communist ideological vacuum, Chechens saw an opportunity to attain independence after a legacy of brutal Russian domination. What began as a separatist movement became, with the import of radical Islam as a mobilizing factor, part of the global “war on terror.” This allows Russia to present its atrocities in Chechnya as a legitimate response to the plague of Islamic fundamentalism.

For Chechens, Islam injects a degree of global community and financial support in their quest for independence. Radical Islam places the separatist cause under the aegis of virulent Arab jihadists alien to the Chechen historical experience.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Suspicions confirmed: Shahram Amiri, one of Iran's most important nuclear scientists, defected to the United States last June.

The story broke almost a year ago -- Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast claimed that Saudi Arabia

"has handed over Iran's nuclear scientist Amiri to America...he is among 11 jailed Iranians in America"
Now we know that that is untrue, and Iran as a lot of egg on their face. Especially after Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hasan Qashqavi maintained that:
"Amiri's fate is Saudi Arabia's responsibility."
In a massive coup for the CIA, Amiri (as reported by ABC news) voluntarily defected to the CIA while on Hajj in 2009, after a long courtship with the CIA through intermediaries inside Iran. He has, for the past year...
(more after the break)

Robert Baer, GQ - "A Dagger to the CIA"

Kathy knew that there was a time when only seasoned field operatives were put in charge of places like Khost. Not only would an operative need to have distinguished himself at the Farm; he would've run informants in the field for five years or more before earning such a post. He probably would have done at least one previous tour in a war zone, too. And he would have known the local language, in this case Pashto. Kathy skipped all of this. Imagine a Marine going straight from Parris Island to taking command of a combat battalion in the middle of a war.

T. Christian Miller, Mark Hosenball, and Ron Moreau, Newsweek - "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight"
America has spent more than $6 billion since 2002 in an effort to create an effective Afghan police force, buying weapons, building police academies, and hiring defense contractors to train the recruits—but the program has been a disaster. More than $322 million worth of invoices for police training were approved even though the funds were poorly accounted for, according to a government audit, and fewer than 12 percent of the country's police units are capable of operating on their own.

Paul Romer, Prospect Magazine - For richer, for poorer
Imagine that a government in a poor country set aside a piece of uninhabited land. It invites a developed country to enter into a new type of partnership, in which the developed country sets up and enforces rules specified in a charter. Citizens from the poorer country, and the rest of the world, would be free to live and work in the city that emerges. It could create economic opportunities and encourage foreign investment, and by using uninhabited land it would ensure everyone living there would have chosen to do so with full knowledge of the rules. Roughly 3bn people, mostly the working poor, will move to cities over the next few decades. To my mind the choice is not whether the world will urbanise, but where and under which rules. Instead of expanding the slums in existing urban centres, new charter cities could provide safe, low-income housing and jobs that the world will need to accommodate this shift. Even more important, these cities could give poor people a chance to choose the rules they want to live and work under.

Jeffrey Gettleman, Foreign Policy - Africa's Forever Wars
I've witnessed up close -- often way too close -- how combat has morphed from soldier vs. soldier (now a rarity in Africa) to soldier vs. civilian. Most of today's African fighters are not rebels with a cause; they're predators. That's why we see stunning atrocities like eastern Congo's rape epidemic, where armed groups in recent years have sexually assaulted hundreds of thousands of women, often so sadistically that the victims are left incontinent for life. What is the military or political objective of ramming an assault rifle inside a woman and pulling the trigger? Terror has become an end, not just a means.

Steve Coll, The New Yorker (online) - Battlefield Tourist
Another aircraft carried James Gandolfini, star of “The Sopranos.” I was hoping to find him at the elders shura in Marjah, briefing COIN doctrine: “Believe me, we’re gonna take care of you people.”

Monday, March 29, 2010

The feud between the U.S. and Israel escalated another notch yesterday, with a report that the U.S. would consider abstaining from a United Nations Security Council vote critical of Israeli settlements in east Jerusalem.

As one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, the U.S. can veto any issue that comes before the Council.  The U.S. has traditionally killed any attempt to use the UN as a platform for criticizing Israel.  If America were to abstain, the resolution condemning Israel for constructing settlements in east Jerusalem could pass.  This would be a significant break from past practice and clear evidence of a fissure between Obama and Netanyahu.

I don't actually expect the U.S. to abstain.  This story is based on an unsubstantiated report, not a declaration from the U.S. government, and could be nothing more than a rumor.  Furthermore, this would be a major deterioration in the U.S.-Israel relationship, and I don't believe President Obama is interested in taking that step.

Instead, I read this as a clear warning from Washington to Israelis.  It would appear that Obama is heeding the advice from the George Mitchell camp over the Dennis Ross camp, and taking a harder line.  The situation brings to mind the oft-quoted quip allegedly uttered by President Clinton after a meeting with Netanyahu in the 1990s, recounted by Andrew Exum earlier today

He thinks he is the superpower and we are here to do whatever he requires.
In short, this is a subtle message from Obama to Netanyahu - we hold the power here, and don't you forget that.

Breaking News:

Two female suicide bombers, who's explosives were packed with metal rods and bars, detonated their devices 45 minutes apart in two Moscow subway stops this morning, killing at least 38, and injuring over 100.

If the FSB claims are to be believed, the bombers were tied to the northern Caucuses -- Chechnya. The bombers appear to be from the elite "Black Widow" squads of the Chechen Insurgency.

If the FSB is right, it appears that Doku Umarov has made real his threat that:

"Blood will no longer be limited to our (Caucasus) cities and towns. The war is coming to their cities."
the Chechen rebel leader made those remarks during in an interview on the unofficial Islamist website

This attack, while horrific in and of itself, will have far reaching impacts on the Russian government. It is a direct challenge to Vladimir Putin's strong-man image -- something that Mr. Putin will respond to in a direct, violent, and unflinching way.

Mr. Putin's immediate response?

(more after the jump)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Politico's Laura Rozen has a behind-the-scenes piece up about the debate within the Obama Administration on Israel policy.

Sources say within the inter-agency process, White House Middle East strategist Dennis Ross is staking out a position that Washington needs to be sensitive to Netanyahu’s domestic political constraints including over the issue of building in East Jerusalem in order to not raise new Arab demands, while other officials including some aligned with Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell are arguing Washington needs to hold firm in pressing Netanyahu for written commitments to avoid provocations that imperil Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and to preserve the Obama administration's credibility.
I think it's a mistake to portray this as a dichotomous choice between supporting Netanyahu and holding his feet to the fire.  Both sides here have merit.  Israel is a functioning democracy, and only an old-fashioned realist would entirely disregard the domestic political forces that impact Netanyahu's decision-making process.  Conversely, if Israel continues to blatantly disregard American requests without punishment, any remaining credibility the U.S. has in the region as an honest broker will be lost.

Obviously there is no easy solution.  But Mitchell's point cannot be disregarded - the Obama Administration must extract some concessions from Israel, particularly regarding settlements, or any hope of progress towards peace will be damaged.

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