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Archive for January, 2009

Ahmed Rashid: US can succeed where USSR failed

January 29, 2009 1 comment

In a lengthy essay in The National, an Abu Dhabi-based English-language daily, Afghan author Ahmed Rashid writes that the U.S., despite failures during the Bush administration, can still find victory in Afghanistan.

Rashid has an interesting point of view: As he narrates at the start of the essay, he was in Kandahar in 1979 when the Soviets began shelling. But he says the Soviet apparatus was far too backward and positively antique to effectively meet the challenges it faced in Afghanistan.

Barack Obama has pledged to withdraw US troops from Iraq while stepping up the American commitment in Afghanistan. He has yet to fully flesh out the policy he will pursue, but seems to understand that what is required is a “comprehensive surge” that goes beyond new troops and new tactics to increase and coordinate development and reconstruction, provide security to the Afghan people and embark on a diplomatic initiative to bring Afghanistan’s multiple meddling neighbours together to stabilise the country and end the sanctuary the Taliban still enjoy in Pakistan. Obama has appointed a special envoy to the region, the seasoned senior diplomat Richard Holbrooke, and has begun to get tough with the Karzai government over corruption and the drugs trade.

The Bush administration lacked an overarching strategy for Afghanistan and its neighbours, and Obama does not want to repeat that mistake. He has already announced orders to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and he will soon make a historic speech in a Muslim capital, where he is likely to repudiate Bush’s “global war on terror” and announce a policy of talking to militant groups, including the Taliban, while continuing the pursuit of global jihadists. Bush left regional diplomacy largely in the hands of the Pentagon, while Obama will restore the role of the State Department. Several senior administration officials have acknowledged that they cannot “shoot their way to victory” in Afghanistan.

—David Graham, Trinity ’09 and editor

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Setback for Obama on Gitmo

January 29, 2009 Leave a comment

We have seen numerous examples of the Obama administration attempting to slow the decision process on a variety of fronts, from economic stimulus to troop withdrawal in Iraq. But perhaps the best example has been Guantanamo Bay, where the administration sought a freeze on all proceedings there while officials decided on the best course of action, balancing pledges to close the prison camp in Cuba with the need to deal with the prisoners contained therein.

That strategy was dealt a blow today when a military judge in Guantanamo today denied a request to delay hearing for Saudi citizen Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri by 120 days. Col. James Pohl said he found the government’s argument that the delay would better serve the interests of justice unpersuasive.

The government, Pohl wrote, sought a delay because if cases went ahead, the administration’s review could “render moot any proceedings conducted during the review”; “necessitate re-litigation of issues”; or “produce legal consequences affecting options available to the Administration after completion of the review.”

“The Commission is unaware of how conducting an arraignment would preclude any option by the administration,” said Pohl in a written opinion, which was obtained by The Post. “Congress passed the military commissions act, which remains in effect. The Commission is bound by the law as it currently exists, not as it may change in the future.”

The judge wrote that “the public interest in a speedy trial will be harmed by the delay in the arraignment.

Stay tuned to see if this causes any further problems for the administration. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs struck an optimistic tone.

Asked at a news briefing whether the decision would hamper the administration’s ability to evaluate the cases of Guantanamo detainees, Gibbs replied: “No. Not at all.”

—David Graham, Trinity ’09 and editor

NYT’s Cohen: Arabiya interview signals end of War on Terror

January 29, 2009 Leave a comment

Roving New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, reporting from Tehran, makes the bold statement that President Obama’s interview with Al Arabiya signals a shift from the ideological War on Terror to a strategic struggle against terrorist groups.

What’s left is what matters: defeating terrorist organizations. That’s not a war. It’s a strategic challenge.

The new president’s abandonment of post-9/11 Bush doctrine is a critical breakthrough. It resolves nothing but opens the way for a rapprochement with a Muslim world long cast into the “against-us” camp. Nothing good in Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan or Iran could happen with that Manichean chasm.

Sounds a bit too aggressive to me, but maybe he’ll be proven right. Also not buying: Iran.

Still, words do not alter the fact that the post-Gaza challenge facing Obama is immense. Here in Iran, where anti-American rhetoric is too significant a pillar of the 30-year-old Islamic Revolution to be lightly sacrificed, the response to the president’s interview was cool. It came as the government, citing the Israeli assault on Gaza, approved a bill to investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes anywhere in the world.

President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad said change under Obama was good but would only be credible if America apologized to Iran for its role in the 1953 coup, among other things. The hard-line daily Kayhan said: “Obama follows Bush’s footsteps.”

—David Graham, Trinity ’09 and editor

Karzai: In the crosshairs?

January 29, 2009 Leave a comment

The New York Times reports that as part of his effort to refocus American military actions in the Muslim toward Afghanistan, President Barack Obama is reconsidering the strong backing afforded Afghan President Hamid Karzai during the Bush years.

During his whirlwind world tour this summer, undertaken to prove that he had foreign policy bona fides, Obama captured headlines for criticizing Karzai, saying he needed to do more as the U.S.’s ally. Some of that rhetoric was toned down after his meeting with the leader in Afghanistan, but the hard line is back.

Pushing Obama in this direction are Veep Joe Biden, a longtime Karzai critic, and Richard Holbrooke, the veteran Clinton-era diplomat and Obama’s other special envoy, this time for Pakistan and Afghanistan.

This is being sold—you guessed it—as a departure.

The officials portrayed the approach as a departure from that of President Bush, who held video conferences with Mr. Karzai every two weeks and sought to emphasize the American role in rebuilding Afghanistan and its civil institutions.

They said that the Obama administration would work with provincial leaders as an alternative to the central government, and that it would leave economic development and nation-building increasingly to European allies, so that American forces could focus on the fight against insurgents.

Read more…

Obama in Al Arabiya interview: ‘Americans are not your enemy’

January 27, 2009 1 comment

Following closely on his promise, delivered in the inaugural address, to “seek a new way forward” with the Muslim world, President Obama gave his first foreign interview and first interview from the White House to Al Arabiya television. It was broadcast Monday night.

Obama’s interview has caused the spilling of barrels of ink and pixels already–as much for the fact that he gave it to the Dubai-based, Saudi-owned channel as for what he said in it.

Let’s recap some of the highlights from the speech. The president began with a conciliatory tone:

And so what I told [special envoy George Mitchell] is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating — in the past on some of these issues –and we don’t always know all the factors that are involved. So let’s listen. He’s going to be speaking to all the major parties involved. And he will then report back to me. From there we will formulate a specific response.

He reiterated his prior line on Iran: he attacked Iranian conduct, but still stressed the need to speak directly to Iran (he also delivered the now-requisite preface about the greatness of the Iranian people and the Persian civilization; I find this habit of irrelevant recourse to ancient history annoying, distracting and Orientalist). Read more…

A central question for the Barack Beat

January 26, 2009 Leave a comment

Where does the United States go first to shape then sustain Muslim world policy in the Barack Obama presidency?

The argument for Gaza becomes weighty if the index is human misery, misery on a level, even without international coverage (limited by Israeli censors). It is pitched most poignantly in the Will Youmans blog posted on the Palestine Center website.

As President Barack Obama assumes office, his first diplomatic overture to the region should be to immediately address Palestinian suffering in Gaza. Treating Gaza’s health care crisis with action would go a long way to address the urgent medical needs of Gazans and re-position the United States, whose image suffered tremendously due to the government’s complicity in the recent Israeli offensive, as a force of good in the region.

As Palestinian hospitals and doctors struggle to care for the wounded, any medical relief steps by the United States would help fill an urgent shortage in medical care, and send a powerful message to the Arab world. Amjad Atallah, director of the Middle East Task Force at New America, proposed early on that the United States should “do something to show everybody, the Arab world, the Muslim world, that the US cares and empathizes with the casualties that have resulted from this conflict.”[1] He recommended the United States set up a field hospital on the Egyptian-Gaza border with the International Committee of the Red Cross shuttling the injured out of Gaza.

Is Youmans, a 24/7 Palestine watcher, right? What would be the consequence of this bold act for other steps forward in hearts and minds diplomacy, with George Mitchell, he of Irish peace fame, in the driver’s seat for the Obama administration?

Read more…