Thursday, June 3, 2010

I wasn't planning to comment on the recent events involving Israel and the flotilla of humanitarian aid.  The event has received saturation media coverage and, as an expert neither on the Middle East nor international law, I didn't feel I had anything new or valuable to contribute.  However, readers have requested we address the topic, so I have no choice but to bow to their wishes (the customer is always right!) and add my two cents.

First of all, the fact that this ended with multiple deaths is tragic and was utterly avoidable.  I'm not adequately equipped to wade into debate over the legality of Israel's actions, so I'll hold my tongue - but do check out the excellent discussion taking place over at Opinio Juris.

I do, however, feel sufficiently qualified to share the sentiments put forward by Stephen Walt and Dan Drezner - what the f*** were the Israelis thinking?  They had to understand that this overreaction would have overwhelmingly negative consequences for them, and that having commandos forcibly board would inevitably lead to bloodshed.  As the ever-astute Jon Stewart put it, perhaps those on board the ship thought the Israelis were greeting them with "commando-shaped pinatas." (Clip starts at 3:45)

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Furthermore, I am disappointed in the response from the Obama Administration, which refused to condemn the incident and watered down the UN Security Council statement.  The Administration could potentially use this tragedy to bring about meaningful change in Israel, by privately pressuring Netanyahu to make serious concessions while publicly protecting the Israeli government to offer political breathing space.  That would be a delicate balancing act, and unfortunately I have yet to see any evidence to support that theory.

In addition to not being qualified to debate the legality of the incident, I also think that discussion is a bit of a sideshow.  This was not an isolated incident; it is symptomatic of and caused by the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian deadlock.  Immersing ourselves in the minutiae of international law may be missing the forest for a single tree, because the relevant issue isn't this incident, it's the situation as a whole.  There can be no resolution to this tragedy nor a way to prevent future iterations without a comprehensive peace process, involving and satisfying all relevant parties.

Perhaps the fallout from this shoot-out will be the catalyst for breaking the decades of regional stalemate.  But the overall situation is static: the Netanyahu government remains intransigent, Hamas refuses to recognizes Israel's right to exist, regional governments use the issue as a soapbox to enhance their "pro-Muslim" and "anti-West" credentials among their own radicals, and pro-Israel groups in America retain their influence.  I'm not holding my breath for change. 

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Apparently the nothing I discussed is actually substantial enough to draw attention from militants, who attacked the jirga proceedings yesterday.  In a perverse way, this is a positive sign for Karzai.  Empty talks pose no threat to the Taliban, and therefore are unlikely to prompt a response.  But a concerted attack indicates that they view the jirga as a threat.  In a strange way, this attack serves to increase the legitimacy and potential of Karzai's peace talks.

I remain skeptical that the Afghan government will actually implement any governance improvements, but having a peace jirga attacked by militants is a twisted victory in the public information war.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The BBC has a question: can a jirga without rebel leaders bring Afghanistan peace?

The answer, obviously, is a resounding no.  Duh.

But if the jirga is a kind of peace conference, it is rather one sided. The insurgents' leaders are not there. Hizb-e-Islami, a small militant group which has sometimes fought with the Taliban, said the jirga was of "no importance". "The participants of the jirga are state favourites," said a statement released by the group. "They have no power of decision. It is only a consultative jirga - without any participation of the Mujahideen." 
 So what's going on with Karzai?  Clearly the U.S. is backing this initiative, but only tepidly.  The Embassy released a statement of support, but the process hasn't been emphasized by any of the leading American policymakers, most notably McChrystal, Holbrooke, and Clinton.  NATO is in favor as well, but let's be honest: this jirga is nothing but empty talk.  Karzai and Co. can continue talking the talk of governance and reconciliation, but without clear results, real progress, changes will not be forthcoming.  And if we've learned one thing about Karzai over the past (almost!) decade, it's that he is willing to talk nice, but not follow through.

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