I’m starting to get really confused about what is actually going on in Pakistan’s tribal regions. Reporting in that part of the world has been so bare-boned and lacking in substance that most Americans don’t even know which stories to believe.
A case in point is the supposed death of Hakimullah Mehsud, who subsequently became the head honcho of the Pakistani Taliban movement after his predecessor- Baitullah Mehsud (no relation by the way)- was killed by a U.S. drone strike last August.
Ever since a suicide-bomber in Khost, Afghanistan claimed the lives of seven CIA officers, enemy number one for the United States in Pakistan has been Hakimullah Mehsud.
And with good reason. This was the man believed to be behind the deadliest attack against America’s Intel agency in decades. In fact, this suspicion only amplified when a video was released by the Pakistani Taliban a few weeks after the attack, portraying Mehsud in full gear next to the man you actually blew himself up, a Jordanian named Abu Malala al-Balawi. This, of course, was the only evidence the CIA needed to put a missile through his compound.
And that’s exactly what happened. In January, the U.S. launched a missile from a drone aircraft that slammed right into the middle of Mehsud’s home. U.S. officials expressed “95 percent confidence” that he was dead. Their Pakistani counterparts went a step further by declaring him “100 percent” dead.
Unfortunately, months after these assurances, it appears that Mehsud is still alive and well (minus a few injuries from the blast), proving that U.S. and Pakistani intelligence is far from perfect in a war zone. This, by the way, is the second time Mehsud has been reincarnated. Last August, he was thought to have been killed in an ensuing fight between rival Islamic militias. That too proved to be a fallacy.
So what to make of all this?
First off, this case study shows how difficult it is to verify a death in the tribal regions. Months after the Pakistani Military drove out Taliban militants in Swat and South Waziristan, foreign journalists are still barred from entering the area. With no independent observers in the area, the United States can only rely on what the Pakistanis say, which has limited Washington’s ability to obtain accurate first-hand intelligence from the ground.
Anyway, this debate over whether Mehsud is still alive or not is really just one of semantics. The Pakistani Taliban has been operating with new leadership since the beginning of this year. The same Pakistani intelligence agents that are claiming that Mehsud survived the attack are now saying that he has been demoted and replaced by his rival, Wali ur-Rehman.
The killing of Mehsud meant a lot more in January than it means today. The Pakistani Taliban has already moved on, while we still wonder if a sidelined leader is still breathing.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of Newsweek’s Declassified**
Just a few days after the group’s two top leaders were killed in a joint Iraqi-U.S. counterterrorism operation, the notorious Al’Qaeda in Iraq responded with a series of powerful and horrific bomb blasts that killed at least 69 people across the country. The attack, which occurred this past Friday, was by far the deadliest day for Iraq this year; a terrible sign of unrest that comes at the same time that Iraq’s leaders continue to haggle over who gets to form the next government.
The Associated Press has reported that a total of at least 10 bombs exploded in and around Baghdad, most of which targeted Shias in their own neighborhoods immediately following Friday prayers. By the far the most destructive by AQI was a coordinated attack just a few hundred yards away from Muqtada al-Sadr’s compound, which claimed the lives of 25 people and injured another 150. Another 14 people were killed near a Shia mosque in eastern Baghdad, and just as Iraqi civilians thought the bloodshed was over for the day, another eight died in a roadside bomb blast just north of that location.
Many analysts have predicted that last Friday’s violence could just be another sporadic attack by Al’Qaeda in Iraq, perhaps a retaliatory act for the killing of the group’s two main men, Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. This assessment is certainly possible. After all, Al’Qaeda has engaged in similar operations in the past, such its campaign last August against Iraqi embassies that left hundreds of government employees and civilians dead. Given the organization’s propensity for revenge and its track record for shock-and-awe, this argument is both highly credible and worth investigating.
Yet just because it’s credible does not necessarily mean it is correct. Last week’s operation could be something different entirely, and much more serious at that. Despite numerous setbacks in manpower and capability over the past three years, Al’Qaeda is still strong and able to plan and carry out operations against targets before Iraqi intelligence gets a whiff of them. Last Friday’s act of terrorism was highly coordinated, with bombs hidden in cars and bombs tucked along roads going off within a two-hour time span. The fact that most of the targets were Shias demonstrates the unbending resilience and fortitude of AQI, as well as their inability to except defeat in their overall mission of creating as much chaos in Iraq as entirely possible. Reigniting sectarian warfare is still an overarching goal, and if violence keeps coming, Shia militias like Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army may be inching to pull the trigger.
If this is the case, then I’m afraid that terrorism in Iraq is anything but over. It couldn’t come at a worst time either; tens of thousands of American forces are scheduled to redeploy out of the country this summer, and Iraq’s leaders have still not managed to cobble together a coalition government that is both representative of the Iraqi population and capable of delivering the basic services that all Iraqis are entitled to.
But there is a larger lesson to be learned here as well, a lesson that unfortunately has not been heeded by U.S. counterterrorism officials. No amount of targeted killings against senior Al’Qaeda in Iraq figures (as well as senior Al’Qaeda figures in the Pakistani tribal belt) will destroy the movement, let alone bring a level of measured peace to the country.
This is not to suggest that the operation against al-Masri and al-Baghdadi was unnecessary. In fact, escalating the campaign against AQI should be applauded with the utmost vigor, not only because these campaigns keep the pressure on the group as it tries to reinsert its role as a spoiler, but also because it helps the Iraqi Security Forces improve their intelligence gathering capabilities. Iraq’s military is taking the lead in many different missions across the country, and the more they continue to do so, the better off they will be in terms of execution.
Even so, assassinating AQ figures will not really hamper the organization in the long run. AQI has survived this type of setback before. When Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in the summer of 2006, the organization quickly regrouped and brought Iraq to the brink of a full-on civil war between the country’s two main sectarian groups (particularly in Baghdad). This has been emulated in the work of terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman as well, a man of impeccable credentials who right argues that “al-Zarqawi’s death did not end AQI attacks and…following the killing, violence attributed to the group actually increased.” This does not even mention the gravity of the attacks, which happened to kill dozens of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi civilians in the months that followed al-Zarqawi’s assassination.
Like in 2006, AQI may reach a similar comeback. This could all be pure speculation, or it could a sign of things to come. For the sake of Iraq’s survival as a modern state, I hope I am wrong.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of the Economist**
When Dr. Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University talks about terrorism, I tend to listen. But when he talks about what the U.S. Government is doing wrong in the War on Terrorism, then I jump up and print his article for future reference.
Hoffman’s new piece in this month’s National Interest is just the latest in a string of papers worth reading for anyone intrigued by the topic of terrorism. The surprising thing is that Hoffman does not reveal anything that isn’t already known in the intelligence community; he only reiterates a point he’s been making time and again in his work for the past some-odd years. But it’s an enlightening point nonetheless, and one that I’m afraid the White House has yet to embrace.
Boy do I love rumors. And if there is anything I love more than rumors, its rumors that originate inside Washington, which usually has the effect of spreading around town and taking on a life of their own once newspapers get a hold of them.
Such is the case with a rumor now circulating in the Beltway that President Barack Obama is working feverously on a new Middle East peace plan. And God knows that we need it…the process has been stalled for the past decade.
Israel’s policy of unconditional settlement building, along with Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to even sit down with the Israelis, has made peace some sort of alien concept for the past ten years. The United States hasn’t helped the situation either, partly due to its taken-for-granted support of Israel and partly due to President Obama’s inability to take provocative steps (like sanctions and termination of the American aid pipeline) to get talks started.
So for obvious reasons, an American-imposed peace plan is generating a lot of excitement in the blogosphere…and on the twitter feeds for that manner. But we should be cautious that such a move is actually taking place within the White House, because let’s face it, the administration hasn’t been all that united on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to begin with. Dennis Ross, Obama’s chief Mideast Policy advisor, is staunchly pro-Israeli (so much so that some people are starting to question whether he is more sympathetic to Israel than the United States), while VP Joe Biden is probably still hot under the collar over his embarrassing trip to Israel last month. And of course there’s George Mitchell, who is the administration’s point man on current negotiations (or lack thereof) and who seems to be enduring a level of frustration that even a patient diplomat like himself cannot bear.
Is this supposed peace plan actually a real thing? Well, yes and no.
From what I’ve heard so far, it looks as if the Obama administration is going to wait a little longer before they decide to implement an American-led peace push. Some officials in the administration, particularly those involved in U.S. Middle East policy, are saying that the President’s main priority is still getting “proximity talks” forward, which would probably be a dismal failure anyway. Of course, I take everything that the White House says with a grain of salt, because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of those issues that can create deep schisms between high-ranking administration officials. Actually, it seems like this is occurring already, with Envoy George Mitchell calling an American plan “premature.”
Whatever the administration decides to do, I hope they wait for the proximity talks to fail first. You can only use the most important tool at your disposal after all others are exhausted, and a unilateral peace plan by the United States is the sharpest tool the country has. Doing it now, just as Mitchell and Clinton are trying to get indirect talks back on the table, simply doesn’t make sense.
Patience is the key here. Look what happened when the President rushed earlier on in the process…he got rebuffed and humiliated by Benjamin Netanyahu over settlements, and lost a whole lot of credibility with Arabs at the same time.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of Marc Lynch at FP.com**
President Barack Obama is experiencing his first sigh of relief in quite a long time when it comes to the Iranian nuclear stalemate. Chinese President Hu Jintao, who has been the main bulwark against western pressure defender on Iran, has finally agreed to sit down and discuss the possibility of further economic sanctions.
This could not have come at a better time for the White House. Let’s face it; the United States hasn’t been all that successful when it comes to bringing the world together. Key players, like Turkey, Brazil, and Lebanon, don’t have the same worry about Iran’s nuclear program as western powers do. To them, Iran is exercising their international right to civilian nuclear energy. Even if these countries were suspicious about Iran’s nuclear program, they would be hard pressed to actually do something about it; all three have extensive commercial ties with Tehran that they surely don’t want to destroy (especially in today’s sour economic environment).
But with China on board- at least for now- the possibility of stronger economic sanctions at the U.N.S.C. may be edging closer than anyone imagined. But let’s not get our hopes up; these are only discussions, and Beijing as a long history of opposing economic sanctions as a legitimate foreign-policy tool. After all, the Chinese are still selling products to North Korea, Burma, and Sudan, states that are hardly democratic and respectful to their own people.
Yet high hopes aside, this got me thinking about economic sanctions (it’s ok, call me a nerd). And I arrived at a pretty pedestrian conclusion; sanctions are not an end in itself, but they can work depending on the country being targeted and the environment in which its used.
History is indicative of sanctions falling short of their main objective, which is to weaken an adversary or at least change regime behavior. Despite three decades of strong economic sanctions on the Iranian economy, nothing beneficial has resulted for the United States. In fact, these same punishments have only emboldened the Iranian regime to act in a more provocative fashion. Iran’s support for terrorist groups in the Middle East continues unabated, and of course, Tehran’s nuclear program is still pressing on without any difficulty (and no, technical problems don’t count).
And you can’t forget about other examples, like Iraq, where an unsuccessful sanctions regiment was used as an excuse to start drawing up plans for a preemptive invasion.
But sanctions aren’t all bad (and here is where country and environment come into play). What about the Libyan example, where economic pressure essentially forced Muammar Gaddafi to abandon his WMD program? Sure, it took close to thirty years of U.S. saber-rattling to finally get Gaddafi to clean up his act, but a persistent campaign did eventually work.
I’m not naïve; sanctioning alone wasn’t the only factor in squeezing Gaddafi. The Libyan Government was already feeling the heat from decades of international neglect, partly due to Gaddafi’s support for terrorism and partly due to Libya’s crumbling domestic infrastructure. But sanctions put his whole predicament over the edge. And the result was nothing but transformative…an end of nuclear proliferation in North Africa.
None of this is to say that unilateral sanctions on Iran will work. In fact, I don’t even think that sanctions at the U.N. level will work, unless they are strong and wisely implemented. The Iranians are intent on building a nuclear capability, and it appears that nothing will deter them from taking the next step. But before we totally insult economic sanctions as a national security policy- which I have done on this blog before- maybe we should take an in-depth look into history.
The question for policymakers now is whether Iran will follow the Libyan path.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of Lara Friedman of at Americans for Peace Now**
Remember that brief post I put up a week ago about the uprising in Kyrgyzstan?
Well guess what… there is more news about the small Central Asian nation surfacing from the wires. Evidently, the interim government has announced that the former president of Kyrgyzstan- Kurmanbek Bakiyev- has decided to fax over his official resignation (as if he had a choice).
So I guess the revolt is over; Bakiyev has been transported to neighboring Kazakhstan, his relatives are in exile, and his defense minister has been arrested. The interim government is now in firm control over the capital (ironically headed by a former member of Bakiyev’s administration), and Kyrgyz analysts are jumping up and down in celebration of a new era.
The question that is now on everybody’s mind is what the U.S. response will be. With a brand new government in power, bloggers (including yours truly) are jumping on their computers, pounding on their keyboards and trying to predict what will happen next.
So without further hesitation, here is my take; anyone who is expecting some sort of new renaissance in U.S. foreign-policy towards Kyrgyzstan will be disappointed. It’s going to take a lot more than the collapse of a feeble and corrupt government to change how the United States looks at Central Asia.
Historically, Washington has never really cared about what leaders in Central Asia have done. For over two decades, the region has been dominated by authoritarian governance, human rights abuses and political patronage; the epitome of corruption and nepotism. Independent media outlets have been routinely shut-down by government authorities, journalists have been imprisoned by the state, and internet access is usually cut-off when dissidents try to organize rallies against political elites. Yet all this time, the United States hasn’t blinked an eye to the abuses.
For the past half-decade, the main priority for the U.S. was making sure the Manas air-base in Kyrgyzstan was open and ready to rock. 50,000 American troops passed through the base last year on their way to Afghanistan, and with more troops on their way to Kandahar this summer, you can bet that Washington is going to do everything in its power to keep it functioning.
As long as U.S. troops are fighting in Afghanistan, this will be America’s primary objective in Central Asia, regardless of what type of government exists. The promotion of democratic reform may have to wait for a few more years. Come July 2011, then we’ll see if this calculus changes.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of FP’s Shadow Government**
After two busy days of back-to-back-to-back meetings with some of the world’s most crucial players in the international system, President Barack Obama can finally take a brief moment to pause and regroup. His Nuclear Security Summit in Washington D.C. – the biggest global gathering on American soil since World War II- was largely successful for the President’s nuclear agenda. I’m not going to go over all of the agreements that were made on both a bilateral and multilateral basis (I would be in this room all night if that were the case), so here’s the official communique that was released at the end of the conference. By the way, this wasn’t the only document that was released. For a full picture, check out this link at The Cable.
So congratulations to President Obama for a job-well done. His staff tirelessly made arrangements for 47 world leaders to travel to the nation’s capital, a difficult task in and of itself. The conference was successfully concluded without any major diplomatic incident (minus this hilarious exchange between the South African and UAE delegations. And the two-days of talks actually produced a brief, yet worthwhile document, towards Obama’s goal of locking up all loose nuclear materials in four years.
There’s one problem though; Israel, America’s “special ally,” chose not to participate in the nuclear summit at a head-of-state capacity. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly canceled the trip a day or two before the summit began, and instead sent a mid-level diplomat (Dan Meridor) to take his place.
Was this another deliberate snub by the Israelis, in line with last month’s decision to announce more settlements in East Jerusalem as soon as VP Joe Biden landed in Tel Aviv? Some may be inclined or tempted to think so, but this would be highly inaccurate.
The reason that Israeli P.M. Benjamin Netanyahu chose not to attend Obama’s conference is well-known; he didn’t want his country’s nuclear arsenal to be under assault from Arab countries, particularly Egypt and Turkey. And from a strategic standpoint, it makes sense. Israel is the only nuclear-weapons power in the Middle East (although they haven’t technically declared that they have nukes to begin with), and Arab nations have long used Israel’s nuclear capability as an excuse to start looking into nuclear research on their own. Of course, America’s ambiguous policy doesn’t help either; Washington looks the other way on Israel’s nuclear program, but gets all hot-and-bothered when Iran or other Arab nation’s show an interest in nuclear technology. But that’s a whole other story.
Israel may have managed to escape criticism earlier this week. But come next month, when the world once again comes together to look at the Non-Proliferation Treaty (to which Israel will certainly be an attendee), expect a barrage of complaints from Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the like. Questions like, “well if Israel is allowed to have nukes, then why can’t we?” will be asked. And if the United States doesn’t provide a good answer to this question, the threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East may very well expand to uncontrollable levels.
The Israelis can expect Washington to do its bidding next May when the topic comes up. But at what cost to its credibility in the Persian Gulf?
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of the Economist**
By now, I’m sure everyone has heard that President Obama is hosting the largest international gathering in Washington since the immediate aftermath of World War II (and if you are not familiar with this story, then I suggest you get out from under that rock). The issue on the docket is none other than…you guessed it…nuclear weapons and the threat such weapons pose to global peace and security. But we aren’t talking about the immediate impact of nukes per say, nor is the conference focusing on nuclear-aspirant states, like Iran or North Korea. Rather, the topic is how to secure loose nuclear material and lock this stuff up before terrorists or criminal organizations get their hands on it.
All I have to say is “it’s about time.” While the Cold War threat is over, and while the world is much more interdependent in the security spheres than it once was several decades ago, nuclear weapons still pose an existential threat to world in general. Thousands of tons of loose plutonium and uranium stocks are scattered throughout the former Soviet Union, and many of the storage facilities that house these radioactive stocks are under less than sub-par security. Hospitals that work with radioactive isotopes- mainly for cancer treatment- are not really protected the way they ought to be protected, which again poses an enhanced risk that some uranium could somehow be stolen by terrorist groups with dangerous ambitions.
I’m just shocked that a Nuclear Security Summit took this long to happen. Scattered uranium and plutonium is not a new problem, and yet security measures have continued to be lax at best. In fact, this lack of concern could have had a devastating ripple effect back in 2003, when Al’Qaeda officials in Saudi Arabia were close to purchasing a smuggled bomb from Russia. Luckily, the plot was intersected and destroyed by the Saudi Government, but such an example shows how quickly plutonium and highly enriched uranium can fall into the wrong hands.
Herein lies Obama’s nuclear summit, whose goal is an ambitious one at that; lock down all nuclear material in four years, promote a global plan to better monitor the trafficking and transport of nuclear material, and entice states to give up their own stocks. It sounds like a tough hill to climb, but Obama has gotten off to a good start. He held a personal one-on-one meeting with the president of Kazakhstan- a country that inherited over 1,000 nuclear bombs when the Soviet Union dissolved- and has quickly struck a deal with the Ukraine, whose leaders agreed to relinquish its bomb-grade uranium for economic assistance.
But Obama- and the world- still has a long way to go. The summit only lasts for 2 days, which is such a short period of time that I don’t know if you can even consider this summit and actual summit. And as with all international conferences, other interests are at play. Pakistan is not going to end its nuclear production because India could exploit the situation and capitalize on the opportunity by building more nukes of its own. Israel won’t destroy its arsenal unless perhaps Arab states normalize relations and Iran ends its own quest for a nuclear program. Europe is not as concerned with nuclear terrorism as the United States is, and some even question whether new security measures are cost-effective (nuclear security is expensive). Obama is, after all, one man. He can’t control everything.
But challenges aside- and there are a number of them- just the fact that 47 leaders have decided to participate in this conference demonstrates how serious the world deems the nuclear weapons related threats, like nuclear terrorism. A united policy on nuclear security would be a bonus.
-Daniel R. DePetris
Another one of the “Stans” is in extremely hot water. And no, it isn’t a major Taliban counterattack in Afghanistan or another deadly suicide-bombing in Pakistan. Nor is it another government-sponsored suppression of protests in Uzbekistan. No, this national development is occurring in Kyrgyzstan, a semi-isolated Central Asian nation of a meager 5 million citizens.
So what’s the big news? Well, take a look at any twitter feed (especially this one) or blog out there and you will come to the conclusion; ordinary Kyrgyz residents have taken to the streets and have beaten back Kyrgyzstan’s formidable security and intelligence services in the capital city. I guess people are sick and tired of living in a desolate a corrupt environment with no economic opportunity; an astounding 33 percent of the Kyrgyz population is under the poverty line.
I personally have no in-depth knowledge or understanding of Kyrgyzstan…or Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan for that matter. Central Asia is largely a blur to me, but thanks to the good folks over at registan.net, this ignorance is starting to go down considerably (over time, I’ve come to appreciate the unique political culture of these ex-Soviet republics). But I do know a few things.
For one, the pictures of the riots are much more violent than I ever imagined. When I heard of this supposed coup-attempt, I quickly jumped to the conclusion that it was yet another branch of the existing government trying to pressure a current president to resign. But this could not be further from the truth; people are dying on the streets, the security forces are firing their guns towards large crowds without a slice of concern over casualties, and people are picking up arms themselves and firing in return. 74 people have been killed so far, and that figure is sure to rise as the night progresses.
But with the violence escalating, and with rumors of the government collapsing under the weight of the protesters, you have to wonder what’s next for Kyrgyzstan.
I’m always a little skeptical of street protests, regardless of where they occur. On the one hand, the people of Kyrgyzstan are exercising what should be their democratic rights in denouncing and protesting the government’s corruption and ineptitude. On the other hand, dozens of people are being killed. There are so many things going on up-to-the-minute that it’s downright impossible to say that the opposition has won.
The ironic thing is that street protests haven’t really been all that useful for the Kyrgyz’s before. The administration being driven out today is the same administration that was brought to power by protests in 2005.
Check out the #freekg twitter feed and registan.net for up-to-the-second news, because the situation is getting interesting. The United States may even be shaking in its boots. After all, a large sum of NATO’s supplies trickles into Afghanistan from Kyrgyzstan.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of Nathan Hamm at Registan.net**
It’s been a busy and stressful week for President Obama’s defense team. After months of painstaking negotiations behind closed doors and after a year of crunching the numbers, the Obama administration has finally released its Nuclear Posture Review to the American public; a nice label to what a common person would call America’s official nuclear weapons policy.
For anyone interested in the full text of Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review, here it is, courtesy of Joshua Keating at FP.com
For those who want to get to the nuts-and-bolts of the review, and I don’t blame you if you do (whose going to sit through 72 pages?) these are the statements that jump out:
“The fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons, which will continue as long as nuclear weapons exist, is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners.”
“With…improvements in U.S. missile defenses…the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks – conventional, biological, or chemical – has declined significantly. The United States will continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks.”
“The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”
In laymen’s terms, the United States will no longer direct nuclear weapons against countries that are both nuke-free and following global nuclear protocol. As for those with nuclear weapons (like Russia and China) and those who continue to obstruct nuclear inspection (like Iran, Syria and North Korea) beware, because you aren’t covered.
Without getting too much into the details of the report, here’s the bottom line: President Obama had to strike a balance between his supporters on the left and his opponents on the right. Like every policy the President implements, he has to take domestic politics into consideration. By decreasing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense policy (“fundamentally” for deterrence purposes), Obama appeases Democrats who have longed questioned the validity and importance of nukes in the 21st century.
But just in case military hawks on the other side of the aisle were content on raising a stink, the President explicitly stated that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States will sustain safe, secure, and effective nuclear forces.” For Republicans who may have been worried that the Obama administration was somehow going to diminish U.S. nukes altogether (which would have been impossible anyway), this gives them at least some comfort in the years ahead.
Overall, it’s a pretty sound document. What was everyone expecting, a complete 180-degree turn?
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of Stephen Walt at FP.com**