BEIRUT — Lebanon celebrated the 70th anniversary of its independence today with a parade of marching soldiers, sword-wielding cavalrymen, and camouflage green tanks in downtown Beirut. But the scene a 15-minute drive away presented a stark reminder of the central government's limited power. The Iranian embassy remained pockmarked from the Nov. 19 double suicide bombing, which killed 25 people and wounded 147 more, while the façade of the adjacent building was torn to shreds.
The attack was likely the handiwork of al Qaeda-linked militants -- just one of the many radical Sunni groups that are viewed as an increasingly dangerous threat by American intelligence officials and mainstream Sunni Lebanese politicians alike. Bolstered by the raging violence in Syria, these jihadist groups pose a mounting danger to the tenuous peace that has prevailed in Lebanon since the beginning of the uprising next door.
Lebanon's mainstream Sunni leadership, while condemning the Iranian embassy attack, also deplored Hezbollah's decision to intervene militarily on the side of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, which has led to an increase in Sunni-Shiite tensions and radicalization that made the bombing possible.
"I believe that if the situation will stay like this for another year, there will be no role for moderates" in either Syria or Lebanon, said Nohad Machnouk, a member of parliament aligned with the anti-Hezbollah Future Movement. "The radicals will be in the front because they are ready to die, they are ready to kill, they are ready to do anything."
ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images
The covert raid in Tripoli this weekend that nabbed an al Qaeda operative with links to the devastating 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania is more than just a professional triumph for National Security Advisor Susan Rice. It's also a deeply personal one.
Rice was the assistant secretary of state for African affairs when simultaneous truck bombs tore through the two embassies, killing more than 200 people. Colleagues from the time said the magnitude of the attack and its enormous human toll left Rice deeply shaken. They said her memories of that bloody day may have made the capture of Abu Anas al-Libi particularly gratifying.
"It was a searing experience for all of us who were involved," said Daniel Benjamin, who was the National Security Council's director for counterterrorism when the strikes occurred. "I'm sure there was some satisfaction for her that this guy will be brought to justice."
It's extremely rare for officials as senior as Rice to have such a personal connection to an individual terror attack, particularly one that took place nearly 16 years ago. Former officials who worked with Rice in 1998 say that dealing with the aftermath of the twin bombings almost certainly shaped the advice she provided to President Obama as he weighed whether to send Delta Force commandos into Libya last weekend.
"I have no doubt that her prior experiences played into her recommendations to the president regarding this operation," said P.J. Crowley, who was the top NSC spokesperson at the time of the attack.
During Tuesday's debate, President Barack Obama tempered his claims about U.S. success in fighting al Qaeda, jettisoning his oft-repeated campaign-trail claim that the terrorist organization is "on its heels."
"I said that I'd end the war in Iraq, and I did. I said we'd refocus attention on those who actually attacked us on 9/11, and we have gone after Al Qaeda's leadership like never before and Osama bin Laden is dead," Obama said during his second debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
That paragraph is part of Obama's regular stump speech, and he made nearly identical remarks at two campaign stops last week. But in those previous instances, Obama said that al Qaeda was "on its heels," a claim he didn't repeat in front of Tuesday night's national audience.
"Four years ago, I made a few commitments to you. I told you I'd end the war in Iraq, and I did. I said I'd end the war in Afghanistan, and we are. I said we'd refocus on the people who actually attacked us on 9/11 -- and today, al Qaeda is on its heels and Osama bin Laden is no more," he said in a campaign stop in San Francisco on Oct. 9.
Two days later, in another campaign stop in Miami, Obama said nearly the same thing.
"Four years ago, I told you we'd end the war in Iraq -- and we did. I said that we'd end the war in Afghanistan -- and we are. I said that we'd refocus on the people who actually attacked us on 9/11 -- and today, al Qaeda is on its heels and Osama bin Laden is dead," he said.
The attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi on 9/11 was reportedly the work of the extremist group Ansar al-Sharia, which is thought to have ties to al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM).
This month, the White House has been slowly but surely adding qualifications to its claims of progress in destroying al Qaeda, which has seen its ranks in North Africa increase recently.
For example, on Sept. 19 White House spokesman Jay Carney said that Obama's strategy in Afghanistan has "allowed us to take the fight to al Qaeda in the region in a way that we had not been able to before; that led to the decimation of al Qaeda's leadership."
By Oct. 10, after reports emerged tying al Qaeda links the Benghazi attack, Carney was specifying that al Qaeda "central" was hurting in two specific countries.
"Well, what we have said all along, what the president has said all along, is that ... progress has been made in decimating the senior ranks of al Qaeda and in decimating al Qaeda central in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region," adding that al Qaeda "remains our No. 1 foe."
Carney repeated his qualification that al Qaeda is hurting in Southwest Asia, but not necessarily in North Africa, two days later.
"[Obama] has made clear that he would refocus attention on what was a neglected war in Afghanistan, refocus our mission on al Qaeda, and decimating al Qaeda's leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- he has," Carney said Oct. 12.
In his debate Oct. 11, Vice President Joe Biden also declined to say that al Qaeda was completely decimated or on its heels during his debate with Rep. Paul Ryan.
"The fact is we went [to Afghanistan] for one reason: to get those people who killed Americans -- al Qaeda," Biden said "We decimated al Qaeda central; we have eliminated Osama bin Laden. That was our purpose."
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
In a speech Monday, former Governor Mitt Romney will criticize President Barack Obama's handling of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi and say it was probably the work of al Qaeda, the same group that brought down the World Trade Center and struck the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
"The attacks on America last month should not be seen as random acts. They are expressions of a larger struggle that is playing out across the broader Middle East -- a region that is now in the midst of the most profound upheaval in a century. And the fault lines of this struggle can be seen clearly in Benghazi itself," Romney will say in a foreign-policy-focused address at the Virginia Military Institute, according to excerpts released by his campaign.
"The attack on our consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11th, 2012, was likely the work of the same forces that attacked our homeland on Sept. 11th, 2001. This latest assault cannot be blamed on a reprehensible video insulting Islam, despite the administration's attempts to convince us of that for so long. No, as the administration has finally conceded, these attacks were the deliberate work of terrorists who use violence to impose their dark ideology on others, especially women and girls; who are fighting to control much of the Middle East today; and who seek to wage perpetual war on the West."
Some in the U.S. intelligence community believe that the attack on the Benghazi consulate that killed Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans was led by the Benghazi chapter of Ansar al-Sharia, an extremist group thought to have ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), al Qaeda's North Africa affiliate.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that groups with links to AQIM were responsible for the Beghazi attack in remarks at a U.N. meeting on Sept. 26, but State Department and White House spokepersons have repeated again and again that the precise identity of the attackers remains unknown pending an FBI investigation.
Romney will invoke the original 9/11 attacks as part of his argument that Obama has failed to respond to the rapid changes in the Middle East with a proactive and coherent strategy to preserve American power and influence in the region.
"I know the president hopes for a safer, freer, and a more prosperous Middle East allied with the United States. I share this hope. But hope is not a strategy," Romney will say. "We cannot support our friends and defeat our enemies in the Middle East when our words are not backed up by deeds, when our defense spending is being arbitrarily and deeply cut, when we have no trade agenda to speak of, and the perception of our strategy is not one of partnership, but of passivity.... It is time to change course in the Middle East."
Romney will promise to increase and tighten sanctions against Iran, permanently base one aircraft carrier group each in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf, condition aid to Egypt, and "recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel."
On Syria, Romney will promise to identify opposition groups that share American values and make sure they get weapons to defeat the Syrian regime's tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. He won't say that the United States should arm the rebels directly -- only that it should make sure they get advanced weaponry.
On Afghanistan, Romney will accuse Obama of timing the withdrawal of U.S. forces based on political considerations, a reference to the fact that Obama withdrew all 30,000 "surge" forces last month. But Romney will reiterate his call to complete the withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014, so long as the conditions on the ground permit and in consultation with the military chain of command.
"I believe that if America does not lead, others will -- others who do not share our interests and our values -- and the world will grow darker, for our friends and for us. America's security and the cause of freedom cannot afford four more years like the last four years," Romney will say. "The 21st century can and must be an American century. It began with terror, war, and economic calamity. It is our duty to steer it onto the path of freedom, peace, and prosperity."
The Romney campaign held a conference call for reporters Sunday to preview the speech, which included participation by campaign foreign-policy coordinator Alex Wong and senior advisors Rich Williamson and Eliot Cohen.
Wong said that Obama has stepped away from American leadership and undermined the basis of American power. He also said the standing of the United States has been weakened in every region of the world, and likened Obama's foreign policy to that of former President Jimmy Carter.
Williamson said that Obama has a policy of weakness that is provocative to enemies and that his administration hasn't been transparent on the Benghazi attacks.
"The foreign policy of Barack Obama in the Middle East is a mess and is failing, and that should be a part of the discussion," Williamson said.
The Obama campaign preemptively released a statement calling Romney a neophyte and flip-flopper on foreign policy who has fumbled his forays into foreign-policy issues throughout the campaign.
"If Mitt Romney wants to have a debate about foreign policy, we have a message for him: bring it on... To date, all Mitt Romney has offered is bluster and platitudes. He's erratically shifted positions on every major foreign policy issue, including intervening in Libya, which he was against before he was for," Obama for America spokeswoman Liz Smith said in the statement.
"'Mainstream' foreign policy isn't what Mitt Romney is putting forward: having plans to start wars but not end them; wanting to keep 30,000 U.S. troops in Iraq indefinitely; exploding our defense spending to levels the Pentagon has not asked for, with no way to pay for it; insulting our allies and partners around the world on the campaign trail; and calling Russia our number-one geopolitical foe. If that's where Mitt Romney thinks the mainstream is, he needs to find a better compass. It's clear that on every measure, Mitt Romney fails the commander-in-chief test."
CHARLOTTE - Vice President Joe Biden highlighted President Barack Obama's decision to green light the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden as a key indicator of his qualification to be president -- but Biden didn't mention, as he has in the past, that he advised Obama against going through with the raid at the time.
"Barack understood that the search for bin Laden was about a lot more than taking a monstrous leader off the battlefield. It was about righting an unspeakable wrong, healing a nearly unbearable wound in America's heart. He also knew the message we had to send to terrorists around the world -- if you attack innocent Americans, we will follow you to the ends of the earth. Most of all, the President had faith in our special forces -- the finest warriors the world has ever known," Biden said in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for vice president.
Biden detailed the deliberations over whether or not to take the risk of violating Pakistan's sovereignty by sending Navy SEALs into Abbottabad to get bin Laden.
"We sat for days in the Situation Room. He listened to the risks and reservations about the raid. And he asked the tough questions. But when Admiral McRaven looked him in the eye and said-‘Sir, we can get this done,' I knew at that moment Barack had made his decision. His response was decisive. He said, ‘Do it.' And justice was done," Biden said, referring to Special Operations Command chief Adm. William H. McRaven.
Biden criticized Mitt Romney for saying in 2007 that "it's not worth moving heaven and earth," to catch one person. "He was wrong. If you understood that America's heart had to be healed, you would have done exactly what the president did. And you too would have moved heaven and earth -- to hunt down bin Laden and bring him to justice."
But Biden never mentioned that just before Obama made that call, the vice president told his boss not to do it.
In January, Biden told a retreat of House Democrats that he was one of the few dissenters in that Situation Room debate over the raid.
Obama said to Biden, "Joe, what do you think?" according to an account of Biden's remarks in the New York Times. Biden told Obama, "Mr. President, my suggestion is, don't go. We have to do two more things to see if he's there."
Obama made the decision to go the next day.
U.S. President Barack Obama has made his administration's successes against terrorist groups -- above all last year's killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden -- a central plank of his re-election campaign.
But according to the State Department's latest annual counterterrorism report, al Qaeda affiliates are gaining operational strength in the Middle East and South Asia, even though terrorist attacks worldwide are at their lowest level since 2005.
The report cited 2011 as a "landmark year" due to the deaths of Osama Bin Laden and other key al Qaeda operatives, and noted that the terrorist group's "core," largely based in Pakistan, had been weakened.
"I would not say that we are less safe now than we were several years ago, because the al Qaeda core was the most capable part of the organization by quite a lot, and was capable obviously of carrying out catastrophic attacks on a scale that none of the affiliates have been able to match," Coordinator for Counterterrorism Dan Benjamin said Tuesday at a briefing introducing the report.
Democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa also testified to the terrorist organization's decline, he said, though he offered a few cautionary notes.
"We saw millions of citizens throughout the Middle East advance peaceful, public demands for change without any reference to al Qaeda's incendiary world view," Benjamin said.
"This upended the group's longstanding claim that change in this region would only come through violence. These men and women have underscored in the most powerful fashion the lack of influence al Qaeda exerts over the central political issues in key Muslim majority nations."
Though AQAP benefited from the long and tumultuous political transition in Yemen, Benjamin said he expects the trend lines to go "in the right direction" under new president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Syria, on the other hand, remains a major cause for concern with no solution in sight. The New York Times reported Sunday that Muslim jihadists are "taking a more prominent role" in the resistance.
"We believe that the number of al Qaeda fighters who are in Syria is relatively small, but there's a larger group of foreign fighters, many of whom are not directly affiliated with al Qaeda, who are either in or headed to Syria," Benjamin said.
Iran remains the preeminent state sponsor of terrorism, according to the report, as its Lebanese client, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, is engaging in the most active and aggressive campaign since the 1990s.
Of the more than 10,000 attacks carried out in 70 countries, 64 percent occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, but both Afghanistan and Iraq saw a decrease in the number of attacks from 2010.
In Africa, there was an 11.5 percent uptick in attacks, a result of Nigerian militant group Boko Haram's more aggressive strategies and tactics. Despite criticism from Congress, the Obama administration has refused to designate Boko Haram a terrorist organization on the grounds that its attacks are not representative of its general ideology, though the State Department did designate three of its leaders terrorists in June.
The report also mentions the Haqqani network, a Taliban-affiliated group attacking NATO troops in Afghanistan. On Thursday, the Senate voted unanimously to pass a resolution urging the State Department to add the network to the list of terrorist groups, which would become effective with President Barack Obama's signature.
A group of 27 foreign policy, security, and Middle East experts sent a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama on this week criticizing the administration's counterterrorism-focused approach to Yemen and urging the White House to heed policy recommendations geared toward "achieving a successful democratic transition" in the war-torn Gulf country, which experienced a popular uprising last year that ousted longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Although the United States has "drastically increased the number of drone strikes" against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the letter states, this strategy "jeopardizes our long-term national security goals." A comprehensive focus on Yemen's economic and political problems, it continues, "will better serve the stability of Yemen and, accordingly, our national security interests, rather than ... direct military involvement."
The letter, spearheaded by the Yemen Policy Initiative, a dialogue organized by the Atlantic Council and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), outlines several diplomatic, political, economic, humanitarian, and security policy recommendations that include increasing assistance to democracy-building institutions, working with the international community to immediately address Yemen's "food security needs," sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Yemeni capital Sanaa, and rethinking the strategy of drone strikes, which the signatories argue "could strengthen the appeal of extremist groups."
"The real essence [of the letter] was that we have a new government in Yemen, and what we need to do is recalibrate or rebalance the relationship to make it clear to both the Yemenis and to the American people that our interests and the focus of our efforts there are not solely AQAP," former U.S. ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine told The Cable. "Al Qaeda is a short-term, immediate issue ... we need to took to the medium-term and long-term."
Stephen McInerney, executive director of POMED, argues that while U.S. policy in Yemen is "shortsighted" and "too narrow," AQAP is still a real threat.
"By no means are we downplaying counterterrorism issues," he said in a short interview with The Cable.
U.S. diplomats were actively involved in negotiating the power transfer agreement that resulted in Saleh's official ouster in November 2011, and President Obama signed an executive order in May green-lighting sanctions against parties that try to disrupt the transition. In April, the White House authorized a campaign of stepped-up drone strikes against terrorists in Yemen. The Yemeni military, under new President Abd-Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, has recently concentrated on routing AQAP militants from their strongholds in southern Yemen and claims to be making progress.
There are also indications that the Obama administration is taking a broader approach to its Yemen policy. Earlier this month, a delegation from the U.S. House of Representatives visited Sanaa, where congressmen met with government officials as well as businesspeople, NGO representatives, and civil--society leaders. Last week, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) director Rajiv Shah also traveled to Sanaa and announced that the agency would give an additional $52 million to Yemen in 2012.
It's a start, the letters' signatories say, but they'd like to see more.
"The U.S. does have a broad policy of engaging both in security cooperation and development assistance, but unfortunately most Yemenis don't perceive U.S. engagement to be that way," Danya Greenfield, deputy director at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, told The Cable. "We need to clearly articulate that the U.S. is really invested in their long-term development ... to ensure that there is ongoing sustainable security both for Yemen and the U.S."
In a rare moment of bipartisan unity in the Senate, Democrats and Republicans joined together to admonish Pakistan for its treatment of the doctor who helped the United States find Osama bin Laden.
At a Senate Appropriations Committee markup this morning, senior senators from both sides of the aisle took turns accusing Pakistan of supporting terrorism, undermining the war in Afghanistan, extorting the U.S. taxpayer, and punishing Shakil Afridi, the doctor who worked with the CIA to find Bin Laden and was sentenced this week to 33 years in jail for treason. One senior senator predicted the Pakistani government was about to fall.
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the heads of the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee, co-sponsored an amendment to the fiscal 2013 foreign affairs funding bill that would withhold $33 million in foreign military aid to Pakistan -- one year for each year of Afridi's sentence. That amendment came on top of new restrictions in the bill that would withhold all counterinsurgency aid to Pakistan if Islamabad doesn't reopen trucking routes for supplies for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
But senators' frustration with Pakistan was not limited to recent events; they piled on with criticism of Pakistan's government, military, and intelligence services' actions throughout the war in Afghanistan. All agreed that the U.S.-Pakistan relationship as currently arranged was dysfunctional and undermining U.S. national security interests.
Graham started by pointing out that the Senate is proposing reductions in next year's emergency funding for Pakistan by 58 percent from the president's request.
"When it comes to Pakistan, every member of this committee is challenged to go home and answer the question, ‘Why are we helping Pakistan?'" he said. "We can't trust Pakistan, but we can't abandon them."
"If we don't get those truck routes open so we can serve our troops in Afghanistan, we're going to stop the funding ... I do not expect Americans to sit on the sideline and watch the negotiations turn into extortion," said Graham.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) launched into a widespread criticism of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), the country's premier spy agency.
"I have long believed that Pakistan, especially the ISI, walks both sides of the street when it comes to terror," she said, noting that most leaders of the Taliban and the Haqqani network are assessed to be living in Pakistan. She also spoke about the Afridi case.
"He was not and is not a spy for our country. This was not a crime against Pakistan. It was an effort and locate and help bring to justice the world's No. 1 terrorist," she said. "This conviction says to be that al Qaeda is viewed by the court to be Pakistan ... I don't know which side of the war Pakistan is on."
Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL) went next and said Feinstein's sentiments about Afridi were shared by many in the Senate. He was followed by Leahy, who said he was "outraged" about the Afridi case and said Pakistan public statements criticizing terrorism don't match its actions.
"It is Alice in Wonderland, at best, but it is outrageous in itself. If this is cooperation, I would hate like heck to see opposition," Leahy said.
"Pakistan is a schizophrenic at best ally," Graham said as he introduced the amendment to cut funding over the Afridi situation. "They are helping the Haqqani network ... which is basically a mob trying to take over parts of Afghanistan. And the ISI constantly provides assistance in Quetta on the Pakistani side of the border."
"The situation with the doctor is a classic example of not understanding the world the way it is," Graham said. "We need Pakistan, but we don't need a Pakistan that cannot see the justice in bringing bin Laden to an end."
Graham then took a shot at Pakistan's civilian government, which is often at odds with the military and the intelligence agencies.
"This government is about to fall. They are not serving their own people," Graham said.
Feinstein did chime in at the end of the debate with praise for Pakistan's new ambassador to Washington, Sherry Rehman.
"To me this is a very sad day. I have met the new Pakistani ambassador," Feinstein said. "She is a brilliant woman, she speaks fluent English, she has had a distinguished career.... This is just very hard to reconcile."
The amendment passed unanimously 30-0.
Top Obama administration officials briefed eight senior Senate leaders Tuesday on a pending deal to transfer as many as five Taliban prisoners from the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar.
The Cable staked out the classified briefing in the basement of the Capitol building Tuesday afternoon. The eight senators who attended the briefing were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Intelligence Committee heads Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Senate Armed Services chiefs Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ), and Senate Foreign Relations Committee leaders John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN).
The identities of the administration briefers were not shared, but we were told it was a high-level interagency briefing team.
All of the senators refused to discuss the contents of the briefing as they exited the secure briefing room in the Senate Visitors' Center. But Levin and McCain both discussed the issue in question before entering the briefing, namely the administration's negotiations with the Taliban over transferring the Taliban prisoners into Qatari custody.
Levin told reporters Tuesday that the briefing was "about the ongoing Taliban reconciliation efforts." Levin is open to the idea of transferring Taliban members to Qatar, but said the devil was in the details.
"It depends on what assurances we have from the [Qatari] government that they are not going to be released," Levin said. "But I also think the Afghans have to be very much involved in any discussions and any process. They weren't for a while."
"We're not releasing them. As I understand it they will be imprisoned in Qatar," Levin continued. But can the Qataris be trusted to keep them behind bars? "That's the question," Levin said.
Levin said he didn't know what the United States was getting in exchange for transferring the prisoners to Qatar, where the Taliban are preparing to open an office. But he said the possible transfer was not a significant concession to the Taliban, provided the prisoners remain in custody. "If that's what [the Taliban] are getting, it's not much of a gain [for them], going from one prison to another."
McCain, talking to reporters before the briefing, lashed out at the idea that the prisoners would be moved to Qatar in a possible exchange for a Taliban statement renouncing international violence, as has been reported.
"The whole idea that they're going to ‘transfer' these detainees in exchange for a statement by the Taliban? It is really, really bizarre," McCain said. "This whole thing is highly questionable because the Taliban know we are leaving. I know many experts who would say they are rope-a-doping us."
McCain said that Congress probably can't stop the administration from going ahead with the transfer if that's what it decides.
"I don't think right now we can do anything about it, but these people were in positions of authority. One of them was responsible for deaths of several Americans," said McCain, referring to reports that the prisoners being considered for transfer include Mullah Khair Khowa, a former interior minister, Noorullah Noori, a former governor in northern Afghanistan, and former army commander Mullah Fazl Akhund.
Is McCain confident that the Qataris will keep the Taliban prisoners locked up? "No I am not. And the Taliban don't think so either, otherwise the Taliban wouldn't want them transferred," he said.
McCain said he was last briefed about the potential deal in December.
Some of the confusion about the negotiations was caused when the State Department's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman said on Jan. 22 that talks with the Taliban were a long way off and that no deal to transfer prisoners had been finalized. Grossman was in Kabul when he made the statements and he traveled to Qatar the next day.
On Jan. 28, several former members of the Taliban government said that talks with the United States had begun over the prisoner transfer. "Currently there are no peace talks going on," Maulavi Qalamuddin, the former minister of "vice and virtue" for the Taliban, told The New York Times. "The only thing is the negotiations over release of Taliban prisoners from Guantánamo, which is still under discussion between both sides in Qatar."
At Tuesday morning's open hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Chambliss pressed Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director David Petraeus, and National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Director Matthew Olsen to confirm that the Taliban under consideration for transfer were still viewed as too dangerous to release by the U.S. intelligence community.
"It appears from these reports that in exchange for transferring detainees who had been determined to be too dangerous to transfer by the administration's own Guantánamo review task force, we get little to nothing in return. Apparently, the Taliban will not have to stop fighting our troops and won't even have to stop bombing them with IEDs," Chambliss said. "I have also heard nothing from the IC[intelligence community] that suggests that the assessments on the threat posed by these detainees have changed. I want to state publicly as strongly as I can that we should not transfer these detainees from Guantánamo."
Clapper said he stood by the original intelligence community assessments, which concluded that the Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo were too dangerous to be released.
"I don't think anyone in the administration harbors any illusions about the potential here," said Clapper. "And of course, part and parcel of such a decision if it were finally made would be the actual determination of where these detainees might go and the conditions in which they would be controlled or surveilled."
Olsen, who led the review task force that evaluated the Guantanamo detainees in 2009, confirmed that the 5 prisoners being considered for transfer "were deemed too dangerous to release and who could not be prosecuted," but Olsen said he had not evaluated those five prisoners since then.
Petraeus said that his staff had been asked for a more recent evaluation of the five prisoners and that the CIA completed risk analyses based on different possible conditions for the Taliban prisoners' transfer.
"In fact, our analyst did provide assessments of the five and the risks presented by various scenarios by which they could be sent somewhere, not back to Afghanistan or Pakistan, and then based on the various mitigating measures that could be implemented, to ensure that they could not return to militant activity," Petraeus said.
Last month, Barack Obama's administration resisted provisions codifying the right to detain prisoners indefinitely, arguing that putting such language into law was unnecessary and redundant. Now, the administration is using those very provisions to defend its detention of a suspected al Qaeda militant in federal courts.
The provision in question, Section 1021 of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), "reaffirms the military's existing authority to detain individuals captured in the course of hostilities in accordance with the law of war." That authority was given to the administration in the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed by Congress after the 9/11 attacks. The Obama administration initially threatened to veto the defense authorization bill because it contained a stronger version of Section 1021, but then revoked its veto threat after House and Senate negotiators tweaked the language.
The provision nonetheless faced opposition from civil rights organizations and some senators, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), out of concern that it could be used to justify indefinite detention of anyone suspected of terrorism, including American citizens.
President Obama specifically criticized section 1021 in his signing statement on the day the defense authorization bill became law.
"Section 1021 affirms the executive branch's authority to detain persons covered by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) (Public Law 107-40; 50 U.S.C. 1541 note). This section breaks no new ground and is unnecessary. The authority it describes was included in the 2001 AUMF, as recognized by the Supreme Court and confirmed through lower court decisions since then," Obama wrote. "My Administration will interpret section 1021 in a manner that ensures that any detention it authorizes complies with the Constitution, the laws of war, and all other applicable law."
Now, thanks to Brookings Institution scholar Benjamin Wittes, we learn exactly how the administration is interpreting that section of the law: It is using it to defend the indefinite detention of Musa'ab al-Madhwan, a Yemeni citizen who has been imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for years.
"The government has filed its opposition to cert in the case of Al Madhwani v. Obama-a Guantanamo habeas case," Wittes wrote on his Lawfare blog. "Al Madhwani's cert petition seeks review of this DC Circuit opinion affirming his detention. That opinion, in turn, affirmed District Judge Thomas Hogan's earlier opinion. The government's argument is interesting because it explicitly invokes the new language in the NDAA."
In an interview, Wittes noted the irony of the administration using the legal provision it resisted in defending its arguments against Madhwani now, but said the administration had been consistent in how it defines the application of the authority to detain prisoners indefinitely.
"The administration says the provision is unnecessary and redundant and then this shows up in their brief, but merely as support of their interpretation of the prior law. There's no hypocrisy here," Wittes said. "It would be weird of them not to cite an on-point federal statute that supports their argument."
Still, one of the supporters of the provision in Congress, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), told The Cable Tuesday that the administration's embrace of his provision was disingenuous. "I guess it's a high form of flattery," McCain said.
Another sponsor of the provision, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), told The Cable Tuesday that although the administration strenuously opposed earlier versions of the provision, the administration didn't outright oppose the final version, despite the unenthusiastic signing statement. "I'm not at all surprised that they used a provision that they ultimately didn't oppose in their briefs," he said.
The mission to kill Osama bin Laden was years in the making, but began in earnest last fall with the discovery of a suspicious compound near Islamabad, and culminated with a helicopter based raid in the early morning hours in Pakistan Sunday.
"Last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden. It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground," President Obama told the nation in a speech Sunday night.
"Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body," he said.
Sitting in a row of chairs beside the podium were National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director Leon Panetta, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullin, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Vice President Joe Biden. White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and Press Secretary Jay Carney stood in the back with about a dozen White House staffers.
Since last August, Obama convened at least 9 meetings with national security principals about this operation and the principals met 5 times without the president, a senior administration official said. Their deputies met 7 times formally amid a flurry of other interagency communications and consultations.
ABC News reported that the principals' meetings were held on March 14, March 29, April 12, April 19 and April 28.
Last week Obama finally had enough intelligence last to take action. The final decision to go forward with the operation was made at 8:20 AM on Friday, April 29 in the White House's Diplomatic Room. In the room at the time were Donilon, his deputy Denis McDonough, and counterterrorism advisor John Brennan. Donilon prepared the formal orders.
On Sunday, Obama went to play golf in the morning at Andrews Air Force Base. He played 9 holes in chilly, rainy weather and spent a little time on the driving range, as well. Meanwhile, the principals were assembling in the situation room at the White House. They were there from 1:00 PM and stayed put for the rest of the day.
At 2:00, Obama met with the principals back at the White House. At 3:32 he went to the situation room for another briefing. At 3:50 he was told that bin Laden was "tentatively identified." At 7:01 Obama was told there was a "high probability" the high value target at the compound was bin Laden. At 8:30 Obama got the final briefing.
Before speaking to the nation, Obama called former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Three senior administration officials briefed reporters late Sunday night on the surveillance, intelligence, and military operations that ended with bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. operatives.
"The operation was the culmination of years of careful and highly advanced intelligence work," a senior administration official said.
The stream of information that led to Sunday's raid began over four years ago, when U.S. intelligence personnel were alerted about two couriers who were working with al Qaeda and had deep connections to top al Qaeda officials. Prisoners in U.S. custody flagged these two couriers as individuals who might have been helping bin Laden, one official said
"One courier in particular had our constant attention," the official said. He declined to give that courier's name but said he was a protégé of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and a "trusted assistant" of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, a former senior al Qaeda officer who was captured in 2005.
"Detainees also identified this man as one of the few couriers trusted by bin Laden," the official said. The U.S. intelligence community uncovered the identity of this courier four years ago, and two years ago, the U.S. discovered the area of Pakistan this courier and his brother were working in.
In August 2010, the intelligence agencies found the exact compound where this courier was living, in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The neighborhood is affluent and many retired Pakistani military officials live there.
"When we saw the compound where the brothers lived, we were shocked by what we saw," one official said.
The compound was 8 times larger than the other homes around it. It was built in 2005 in an area that was secluded at that time. There were extraordinary security measures at the compound, including 12 to 18 foot walls topped with barbed wire.
There were other suspicious indicators at the compound. Internal sections were walled off from the rest of the compound. There were two security gates. The residents burned their trash. The main building had few windows.
The compound, despite being worth over $1 million, had no telephone or internet service. There's no way the courier and his brother could have afforded it, the official said.
"Intelligence officials concluded that this compound was custom built to hide someone of significance," the official said, adding that the size and makeup of one of the families living there matched the suspected makeup of bin Laden's entourage.
The intelligence community had high confidence that the compound had a high value target, and the analysts concluded there was high probability that target was bin Laden, one official said.
When the small team of U.S. operatives raided the compound in the early morning hours Sunday Pakistan time, they encountered resistance and killed three men besides bin Laden and one woman. The three men were the two couriers and one of bin Laden's sons. The woman was being used as a human shield, one official said. Two other women were injured.
One U.S. helicopter was downed due to unspecified "maintenance" issues, one official said. The U.S. personnel blew up the helicopter before leaving the area. The team was on the ground for only 40 minutes.
A senior defense official told CNN that US Navy SEALs were involved in the mission.
No other governments were briefed on the operation before it occurred, including the host government Pakistan.
"That was for one reason and one reason alone. That was essential to the security of the operation and our personnel," one official said. Only a "very small group of people" inside the U.S. government knew about the operation. Afterwards, calls were made to the Pakistani government and several other allied countries.
"Since 9/11 the United States has made it clear to Pakistan that we would pursue bin Laden wherever he might be," one official said. "Pakistan has long understood we are at war with al Qaeda. The United States had a moral and legal obligation to act on the information it had."
Americans abroad should stay indoors be aware of the increased threat of attacks following bin Laden's killing, the State Department said in a new travel warning issued Sunday night. State also issued a specific travel warning for Pakistan.
"Al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers may try to respond violently to avenge bin Laden's death and other terrorist leaders may try to accelerate their efforts to attack the United States," one official said. "We have always understood that this fight would be a marathon and not a sprint."
The State Department's top spokesman cautioned reporters Tuesday not to take snippets of edited remarks on the Internet by the "Ground Zero mosque" imam and use them to brand him a radical, lest they repeat the mistakes made by the media in calling former USDA official Shirley Sherrod a racist based on edited clips of her promoted on conservative websites.
Imam Feisal Rauf, the spiritual leader of the proposed Park 51 community center in lower Manhattan, is on his State Department-sponsored trip to the Persian Gulf right now, giving speeches in Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates about what it's like to be a Muslim in America.
Rauf has been traveling on behalf of the department since 2007 on trips sponsored by both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. He belongs to the progressive Sufi sect of Islam and has been praised as a bridge-builder even by conservative pro-Israel bloggers, such as the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, who has had extensive interactions with him.
But activists who oppose the Park 51 project have pointed to various statements by Rauf to build the case that he's dangerous radical. For example, yesterday Pamela Geller of the blog Atlas Shrugs posted a clip of excerpts from a speech Rauf gave in 2005. Those excerpts include Rauf saying:
We tend to forget, in the West, that the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than al Qaida has on its hands of innocent non Muslims. You may remember that the US-led sanctions against Iraq led to the death of over half a million Iraqi children. This has been documented by the United Nations. And when Madeleine Albright, who has become a friend of mine over the last couple of years, when she was Secretary of State and was asked whether this was worth it, said it was worth it. [emphasis Geller's]
P.J. Crowley, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs, told reporters Tuesday that they shouldn't be quick to take those remarks out of context.
"I would just caution any of you that choose to write on this, that once again you have a case where a blogger has pulled out one passage from a very lengthy speech. If you read the entire speech, you will discover exactly why we think he is rightly participating in this national speaking tour."
The Cable asked Crowley directly, "Is he the Muslim Shirley Sherrod?"
Crowley responded, "That's a good cautionary tale for everybody."
The University of South Australia's Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre has the full transcript and full audio recording of Rauf's 2005 remarks. Here are some excerpts not posted by the Atlas Shrugs blog:
On the bonds between Islam and Judeo Christianity:
We are united with Christians and Jews in terms of our belief in one God. In the tradition of the prophets. In our tradition of scriptures. The Jewish prophets, Jesus Christ and John the Baptist and Mary are in fact religious personalities and prophets of the Islamic faith as well...
From the point of view of Islamic theology, Islamic jurisprudence and Islamic history, the vast majority of Islamic history, it has been shaped or defined by a notion of multiculturalism and multireligiosity, if you might use that term. From the very beginning of Islamic history Islam created space for Christians of various persuasions, of Jews and even of Muslims of different schools of thought within the fabric of society.
On religious freedom:
A necessary part of this is to embrace and to welcome and to invite the religious voices in the public square, in the public debate, on how to build a good society. So multiculturalism, in my judgment, involves not only differences of culture and ethnicity but also multireligiosity, and that's where the challenge and the rub comes in for many because there is a perception that multireligiosity must mean the potential conflict between different religious voices in the public square. I, for one, believe that that is not in fact the case.
On religious tolerance:
[O]ur law, our sense of justice, our articulation of justice, must flow from these two commandments of loving our God and loving our neighbour, and if we are not sure of how to articulate the love of God in the public square we certainly can allow each person and each group of each religious group to choose to love God in the vernacular and in the liturgy that it chooses and it prefers, but it gives us a broad basis of agreement on which we can love our fellow human beings and this, I suggest, is the mandate that lies before us today as we embark on this 21st Century and is the mandate and the homework assignment that lies ahead of us.
On Islam and terrorism:
The broader community is in fact criticising and condemning actions of terrorism that are being done in the name of Islam... What complicates the discussion, intra-Islamically, is the fact that the West has not been cognisant and has not addressed the issues of its own contribution to much injustice in the Arab and Muslim world. It is a difficult subject to discuss with Western audiences but it is one that must be pointed out and must be raised.
Acts like the London bombing are completely against Islamic law. Suicide bombing, completely against Islamic law, completely, 100 per cent. But the facts of the matter is that people, I have discovered, are more motivated by emotion than by logic. If their emotions are in one place and their logic is behind, their emotions will drive their decisions more often than not, and therefore we need to address the emotional state of people and the extent to which those emotions are shaped by things that we can control and we can shape, this is how we will shape a better future.
Rauf is in Doha, Qatar, now, where in addition to giving a speech on Muslim life in America at a local university, he is meeting with government officials and NGO representatives and will hand out gifts and treats to children at the Doha Youth Center, Crowley said.
Although Rauf is getting questions about the controversy from his interlocutors and from the press in the areas he is visiting, don't expect him to talk about the Park 51 project, Crowley said.
"It's been suggested that through this tour he's going to be promoting this center, that's not true, or that he's going to be fundraising and that's not true," said Crowley. "He has chosen not to comment on the center so we can't be accused of doing things that are not consistent to the goals of the international program he's participating in and we respect those decisions."
Crowley also shot down another story in the conservative blogosphere today speculating that Rauf's wife Daisy Kahn will join the State Department-sponsored trip. Khan has elected to stay in the United States, he said.
The good news about U.S. efforts to combat terrorist financing is that "al Qaeda core," the senior leadership of the organization, is so low on funds that its affiliates are forced to look outside the network to fund their activities.
The bad news is that the Taliban has plenty of money. And the European decision not to share some financial data is hurting America's ability to go after the funds, the U.S. Treasury Department's assistant secretary for terrorist financing, David Cohen, told a crowd at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Wednesday.
Al Qaeda is "in the worst financial shape it has been in for years," Cohen said, though he qualified that statement soon afterward. "Al Qaeda is not disabled, nor is it bankrupt."
Al Qaeda affiliates in Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula have been forced to rely less on the leadership and have taken up "independent fundraising activities," including drug trafficking, kidnapping for ransom, and extortion, Cohen said.
However, "unlike al Qaeda, the Taliban is not experiencing much financial stress," he added, explaining that the Taliban has plenty of money to conduct terrorist attacks, train and recruit soldiers, and fight against U.S. troops.
"The Taliban still has the funding necessary to fundamentally challenge our core national security objective of bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan," said Cohen.
Europe is being unhelpful on two fronts, Cohen complained. First of all, U.N. Security Council 1267, which is aimed directly at al Qaeda and the Taliban, "has come under attack, particularly in Europe," he said.
The resolution designates certain financiers for punishment and European courts are weighing cases regarding protections for those on the list. Cohen said subsequent resolutions provided for comprehensive reviews that address those concerns. Fifty-eight names have been taken off the list already, some because they are no longer financing terrorists and some because they died, he said.
More seriously, the European Parliament's February decision not to share data with the U.S. Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP) has "created a gap in our ability to track financial transactions of terrorist organizations around the world," he said.
Since the data is stored on servers in Europe, the United States can't get at it, but Cohen said negotiations are ongoing and he hopes U.S. explanations about how the U.S. intends to use the data will allow an agreement to be signed soon.
"As of today, we have shared over 1550 TFTP reports with our colleagues," he said, "but ... the continued operation of the TFTP is in doubt."
So why didn't the administration list al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as a terrorist group until this week? Well, it's kind of a long process to get a group listed and the U.S. wanted to coordinate with the international community.
That's what the State Department's top counterterrorism official Dan Benjamin said Wednesday morning about the announcement that AQAP would now be officially considered a terrorist organization and its leaders would be treated as terrorists. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton decided to list AQAP December 14, less than two weeks before underwear bomber Umar Faourk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a Detroit-bound jetliner but nearly a year after AQAP took shape, but it's just now become official.
"AQAP announced only announced itself as a group in late 2008 or early 2009, so the wheels began turning then," Benjamin said, "This is a long and deliberative process... you have to build quite a base of information so it can withstand litigation."
Politico reported that Clinton made the decision last month, but Benjamin explained that making the call and making it official by notifying Congress are two separate things. He said that notification was timed to coincide with a similar action by the UN, which was announced Tuesday.
"We could have done it in mid-December, we wanted to make sure we had international support. It was done concurrently with UN, where it is now designated under the 1267 regime," said Benjamin, "That's been another emphasis that we've brought to this work, we want to build international solidarity and make it clear that this is not just America's counterterrorism effort, it's really a global one."
Benjamin joined Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday morning about Yemen. He said he plans to travel to Yemen "very soon."
Feltman testified that Yemen has been a top foreign policy issue for the Obama administration since day one. Even though AQAP only emerged recently, they are just one instance the Islamic extremist activity that has been building in Yemen for years. He also had some sober assessments of the Yemeni government.
"We are not naïve about our Yemeni partner," said Feltman, "The government's ability to provide services and exert authority is inconsistent," he added, noting that the Yemeni government's actions on human rights also are a cause of concern.
Today kicks off a torrent of Congressional involvement in the Yemen issue. In addition to the SFR hearing, House Armed Services will hold a hearing Wednesday afternoon on AQAP and the Senate Homeland Security committee will hold its first of two hearings looking into the Christmas Day attack.
Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakar al-Qirbi was reportedly on the Hill Tuesday meeting with leaders of both parties and he also met with National Security Advisor Jim Jones.
Asked whether the State Department's designation of AQAP as a terrorist group paved the way for the first joint strikes in Yemen only a few days later, Benjamin said there was no correlation.
"I wish we had that kind of heft in the State Department," he joked.
UPDATE: Senate Foreign Relations chairman John Kerry, D-MA, will also meet with al-Qirbi Wednesday, his office just announced.
As the United States widens its understanding of the terrorism threat to include countries like Yemen and Somalia, its neighbor across the Gulf of Aden, the State Department inspector general's office is warning about another potential breeding ground for insurgents: Nigeria.
Of course, the underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab hailed from there, but his case is seen as an aberration because he grew up in the most advantageous of circumstances. But according to a new report made public Monday, Nigeria is at risk of becoming the same type of breeding ground for violent extremism that America is now battling in so many other places around the globe.
"Government neglect is provoking disaffection that, if left unchecked, could lead to the growth of insurgency or even terrorism," the report states. "Increased desertification in the North and a growing population mean increased competition for already scant land and water resources. In the South, where unemployment among youths is widespread, vandalism against infrastructure such as pipelines is almost a way of life. Newly armed groups of youths readily join in the sabotage activities and kidnappings, upping the stakes for control of the energy resources of this area. Nigeria is also haunted by ethnic and political conflicts that have erupted in violence on multiple occasions in recent years. Despite all these issues, Nigeria is crucial as a U.S. partner and regional leader."
The U.S. mission in Nigeria faces severe problems, the report also notes. Despite being funded to the tune of half a billion dollars, it doesn't have the budget to meet program requirements, the housing for State Department staff in Nigeria is dilapidated, and there is a lot of trouble staffing up the diplomatic mission there properly, the IG found.
Now, not all Foreign Service assignments are created equal. So it may come as no surprise that the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria is not considered a plush posting, and morale there, especially in the consular section, is a challenge.
The result is that both in the embassy in Abuja (where the underwear bomber's father visited) and the consulate in Lagos are staffed with relatively junior personnel who aren't working in their specialties they were trained for.
"Despite a robust package of incentives, staffing Lagos and Abuja is hard, with many officers in stretch assignments, working out-of-cone, on excursion tours, or on directed first assignments. These staffing woes, an operating budget that lags behind program funding, and aging facilities in Lagos reduce the efficiency of diplomatic operations," the report states.
To add to the challenge, the task of issuing visas in Nigeria is also unique. Anyone who has opened an email from a purported Nigerian businessman seeking help with a bank deposit understands.
As the report puts it,
"Sophisticated patterns of fraud have an impact on protecting visa and passport integrity."
UPDATE: Several readers write in to point out that another problem is the fact that Nigeria's president Umaru Yar’Adua has been missing for over six weeks!
As Washington works itself into a tizzy over whether to release Guantánamo prisoners following the underwear bomber incident (President Obama announced earlier this week that he wouldn't transfer any of them back to Yemen "at this time"), news of a secret Pentagon report is being bandied about as proof that "recidivism" of released GTMO prisoners is on the rise.
Oh, how easily we forget that the whole idea of measuring the recidivism of Guantánamo detainees was debunked last May. The original baseline for saying that the trend of recidivism is on the rise was founded in this front-page New York Times article by Elisabeth Bumiller, which stated that the Pentagon had found that one in seven, or 14 percent, of released GTMO prisoners had "returned to terrorism or militant activity."
There were several problems with the reporting, not the least of which was that there is no way to determine if the alleged militants "returned" to the fight because there were never proper legal procedures at Guantánamo to determine if the prisoners were guilty in the first place.
That language was removed from the story after Bumiller's piece was torn apart by the Times' public editor Clark Hoyt, who said the article was "seriously flawed and greatly overplayed."
Moreover, as Hoyt pointed out, the one in seven number failed to distinguish between those who were "suspected" of militancy and those who were "confirmed" to have done something violent. "Had only confirmed cases been considered, one in seven would have changed to one in 20," Hoyt wrote.
Independent analyses put that number even smaller. Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann at the New America Foundation looked into the numbers even further and found that both confirmed and suspected military rates of released Guantánamo prisoners as of last summer was one in 25, or about 4 percent.
But none of that critical analysis made it into this Jan. 7 LA Times article by Julian E. Barnes and Christi Parsons, which cites a new and also secret Pentagon report to argue that now 20 percent of released Guantánamo prisoners have "resumed extremist activity."
The story says that both conservatives and liberals dispute the figures (although I haven't seen where the number is said to be an underestimation), but fails to point out that the 14 percent figure from May was disputed by the very paper that reported it.
Bloomberg's story on the report did a better job of explaining that the numbers are suspect, at best.
In an interview with The Cable, Bergen noted that beside the fact that the numbers are inflated, the Pentagon's insistence on classifying the underlying information makes the numbers wholly unverifiable.
"The 14 percent is based on a ‘trust us, we can't tell you,'" said Bergen, adding that the 20 percent figure in the LA Times story "defies credulity."
When a Guantánamo prisoner joins the fight against America, that's a huge propaganda coup for the extremists and they tend to announce it in a way that's noticeable, he added. "I'm enormously skeptical that there are these levels of releases joining the fight because I think we would know about it."
The White House has now confirmed that President Obama will announce the addition deployment of 30,000 new U.S. troops to Afghanistan, as well as a plan to start withdrawing troops in July of 2011.
Two administration officials briefed reporters on a conference call Tuesday afternoon ahead of Obama's Tuesday evening speech at the West Point military academy. The officials called the increase a "surge" and said that while the withdrawal would begin in July 2011, the pace and end point of the withdrawal would be determined by Obama at a later time.
"This surge will be for a defined period of time," one of the officials said, "What the president will talk about tonight is a date ... by which he will begin to transfer the leadership role to our Afghan partners."
"He will not tonight specify the end of that process or the pace at which he will proceed. That date and process will be determined by conditions on the ground."
The idea of a time frame for withdrawal of U.S. forces is a controversial one, especially among lawmakers, who reacted strongly to reports of a three-year time frame Tuesday morning. The White House later denied those reports to The Cable.
One of the administration officials sought to preempt criticisms of a set date for withdrawal by saying that leaving the withdrawal endpoint flexible would prevent Afghans from simply stalling until American troops leave.
"If the Taliban thinks they can wait us out, they are misjudging the president's approach," the official said, while adding, "It does put everyone under pressure to do more, sooner."
Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, has already come out against the White House plan to begin withdrawal in 2011.
The 30,000 figure includes two or three full combat brigades plus one full brigade-sized element focused exclusively on training Afghan security forces. All new combat troops will be partnered with Afghan forces in some fashion.
The new strategy will also include a beefed-up commitment to Pakistan, although the administration officials declined to give specifics. More on that later....
As President Obama gets ready to roll out his new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, some leading Democrats are focusing on the cost of the pending troop escalation. But they are unlikely to apply actual legislative pressure on the White House to find the money.
The debate was heightened by the introduction of a bill by House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-WI, and John Larson, D-CT, a member of the House leadership, that would impose a 1 percent surtax on most Americans to pay for the wars.
But as with most bill introductions in Congress, House leadership has no plans to actually move the bill and most insiders recognize it as a way for those Democrats who oppose escalation to stake out a semi-critical posture while also seeming to be fiscally responsible.
"That's a message bill, not one we will pass," one very well placed Democratic source told The Cable.
Congressional Quarterly has also reported that defense appropriations subcommittee Chairman John Murtha, D-PA, acknowledged that "he knew the bill would not be enacted and that advocates of a surtax were simply trying to send a message about the moral obligation to pay for the wars."
Rough estimates put the cost of any escalation at about $1 million per added troop, per year. Obama is expected to announce Tuesday the deployment of 30,000 new soldiers and Marines, which would make the price tag at least $30 billion in 2010, in addition to the ongoing costs of fighting the wars with currently deployed resources.
The Obama administration pledged upon taking office to move to "honest budgeting" for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and did include war costs as part of its formal fiscal 2010 budget request. But that request, around $130 billion, will be insufficient to pay for war operations this fiscal year and a supplemental spending bill is expected in early Spring.
The White House also placed a $50 billion "placeholder" in its budget projections for fiscal 2011 and beyond, a figure nobody believes is enough to keep the war machine humming, no matter what new strategies are announced. So the Obama administration's promise to pay for the wars was doomed to be broken even before a troop escalation was contemplated.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Monday that there would not be a "lengthy discourse" on how Obama intends to pay for his new strategy in his speech Tuesday at West Point.
"I think the president will... elude to the cost. I don't know if it gets down to the granularity of the exact dollar amount for each and every thing," Gibbs said, "Some of that's going to depend on logistical decisions that are ultimately made."
More broadly, Obey has not been shy about his skepticism about a continued U.S. commitment to Afghanistan. When giving the money for fiscal 2010, he went out on a limb and warned that he might not be willing to support funding for the wars if progress wasn't shown in one years' time. Those comments were widely criticized.
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.