A top advisor to the Romney campaign argued in a book that the United States must at times negotiate with some of the world's most objectionable actors, including terrorists, rogue states, and even the Taliban.
"What kind of foreign policy can we expect from a Romney administration? In preparing for his presidential bid, Mitt Romney has carefully curated an inner circle of advisors, among them a well-regarded former U. S. diplomat named Mitchell Reiss," reads a marketing e-mail sent out last month for the 2010 book by Reiss, who served as the State Department director of Policy Planning under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and is now a senior advisor to Romney.
"In his book Negotiating with Evil, Reiss explores one of the most critical questions in foreign policy today -- when, and how, should we negotiate with terrorists? Drawing upon his experiences in Northern Ireland and North Korea, he presents an argument that the United States not only should, but at times must enter into conversations with hostile foreign elements."
Reiss became an unlikely figure in the Republican primary debates when Romney explicitly rejected Reiss's call to open up negotiations with the Taliban as a means of ending the decade long war in Afghanistan, and said no negotiations should take place with the Taliban while they are fighting American soldiers.
In his book, Reiss doubled down on that call, praising the Obama administration for opening up channels of communication with the Taliban in 2009, though he criticizes the Obama team for fumbling those interactions.
"The president appeared to recognize that the United States could not kill or capture every Taliban member," Reiss wrote. "Some would have to be co-opted, accommodated, or bargained with in order for Washington to accomplish its mission."
Reiss's travels over three years in the Middle East, Europe, and South Asia informed the writing of his book, he said in the introduction.
"The United States has numerous examples of leaders engaging with terrorists and rogue regimes," he wrote, pointing out that the founding fathers paid off the Barbary pirates for protection of American assets on the high seas and Teddy Roosevelt cut a deal with a pirate who kidnapped an American citizen in Tunisia.
Lyndon Johnson negotiated with North Korea to secure the release of 83 American prisoners captured on the U.S.S. Pueblo, Richard Nixon pressed for the release of Palestinian prisoners during a hostage crisis over two hijacked airliners, Jimmy Carter returned $8 billion in frozen assets to Iran during the hostage crisis there, and Ronald Reagan sent weapons to Iran to secure the release of U.S. hostages in Beirut, Reiss pointed out.
"American presidents have negotiated with terrorists and rogue regimes to secure the release of hostages, to arrange temporary ceasefires, and to explore whether a more permanent truce might be possible, although they have sometimes gone to great lengths to disguise their direct involvement," Reiss wrote.
George H.W. Bush negotiated with Saddam Hussein, Bill Clinton's administration sat down with Hamas and the Taliban, and George W. Bush cut a deal on weapons of mass destruction with Muammar al-Qaddafi and initiated several rounds of negotiations with North Korea, Reiss noted. His book sought to explain when the U.S. government should engage the world's worst actors -- and when it should not.
"The most powerful reason not to engage with certain enemies is the judgment that no amount of concessions will pacify their hostile behavior," he wrote. "Attempts to do so are usually termed ‘appeasement' and may result in disaster."
As for dealing with terrorists, Reiss argued that non-state actors are less dangerous and less powerful than states that wish American harm, and therefore should be treated as such. Domestic politics makes talking to terrorists tricky, but that's no reason to ignore them, he argues.
"Although terrorist groups have blood on their hands, they are responsible for relatively few deaths; over the last forty years, the number of American victims of international terrorism is roughly the same as the number of people killed by lightening," he wrote. "In short, there may be tangible benefits to talking to terrorists, and real penalties for failing to do so."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is traveling to Senegal, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, and South Africa through August 10. She is accompanied by Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, and Counselor and Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills.
Susan Walsh-Pool/Getty Images
The Obama administration is planning to release more than $1 billion of held-up funds to the Pakistani government this month, following Pakistan's opening of the supply lines to Afghanistan. But Congress can thwart that plan and at least one senator is going to try.
Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby confirmed to The Cable on Friday that the Pentagon is planning to give Pakistan $1.1 billion in Coalition Support Funds (CSF), reimbursement money that Pakistan has already spent in the joint effort to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban. The U.S. government has been holding up the money over the past six months while the supply lines were closed. Pakistan closed those supply lines after NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border in November, but opened them up again this week after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally, publically, said "we're sorry" for the mistakes that led to those killings.
Clinton didn't mention the funds when she announced the deal to re-open the supply lines. Kirby didn't say the money was a quid pro quo deal in exchange for opening up the Ground Lines of Communication (GLOC), as other officials and experts allege, but he did acknowledge that the two issues are linked.
"Now that the GLOCs are open, we intend to submit the approximately $1.1 billion in approved receipts under the Coalition Support Fund for costs associated with past Pakistani counter-terrorism operations," Kirby told The Cable. "Now that the GLOCs are open, we are prepared to move forward with these claims."
Kirby said that congressional leadership was kept in the loop during the discussions with Pakistan about re-opening the supply lines. "We look forward to working closely with Congress to process these claims," he said.
Multiple Senate offices told The Cable that the notification for releasing the $1.1 billion to the Pakistan military has not yet reached Capitol Hill but is expected in the coming days. After Congress receives the notification, lawmakers have 15 days to object to the release or the funds will go through.
Congressional anger at Pakistan is at an all-time high, and not just because of the closing of the supply lines, which have cost U.S. taxpayers about $100 million extra per month, according to Kirby. Lawmakers are upset that the Pakistani military can't or won't eliminate the safe havens in Pakistan where insurgents live and from where they launch cross-border attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Lawmakers are also upset that the Pakistani courts have condemned Shakil Afridi, the doctor who worked with the CIA to help positively identify Osama bin Laden. Afridi was sentenced last month to 33 years in jail for treason. Last week, before the deal over the supply lines was announced, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) told The Cable he would force a vote on an amendment to halt all aid to Pakistan this month, due to the Afridi case.
"My goal is that the guy who helped us get bin Laden will not be in prison for the rest of his life," Paul said in an interview.
Afridi has an appeals hearing on July 19, so Paul is planning to wait and see if the Pakistani courts reverse themselves before he uses a rare procedural move to force a vote to cut off all aid to Pakistan.
"I've decided to try to have the vote on July 20 to give them one more chance to review his case," Paul said.
Senate leadership is dead set against letting Paul have a vote on his amendment, out of concern that senators won't want to publically stand up in defense of sending more American taxpayer money to our greatest frenemy. But Paul said he plans to use Senate Rule 14 to force a vote and his office has collected 33 signatures from other senators on a petition to push for that vote. It's not clear if this legislative tactic will work, but Paul is confident.
"I can go around the leadership on that. I don't think they can stop me from having a vote. There will be a vote on Pakistan," Paul said. "It doesn't happen very often, but I have the signatures and I can get a vote."
Paul met with the State Department and Pakistani Ambassador Sherry Rehman last week. After the GLOC deal was struck this week, The Cable asked Paul spokeswoman Moira Bagley if the Kentucky senator would also try to stop the release of the CSF money. She said he would.
"Sen. Paul is dedicated to seeing Dr. Afridi -- an integral figure in finding Osama bin Laden -- released from prison in Pakistan. He is prepared to use all legislative tools possible to obtain this goal, including blocking U.S. taxpayer-funded aid to the government of Pakistan until they cooperate with this request," she said. "Should the opportunity to block these ... funds come before the Senate, Sen. Paul will urge his colleagues to do so."
The funding is technically under the jurisdiction of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, but the leaders of those committees were out of town this week and their offices declined to comment on the CSF funding because they have not yet received the notification.
Clinton did a great job negotiating the re-opening of supply routes from
#Pakistan to #Afghanistan," Senate Armed Services Committee
ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) tweeted on July 4, but it's not clear if he will support the
release of the $1.1 billion CSF. McCain is currently traveling in Afghanistan
and the Middle East, he could not be reached for comment.
If Congress does let the funds go through, that could be a key confidence-building measure between the two countries, which are trying to dig themselves out of the worst period in the bilateral relationship in over a decade.
If Congress halts the funds, the very short uptick in relations will be scuttled and the two nations will return to their all-too-familiar pattern of retaliation and recriminations. But there's little chance that Pakistan will close the supply lines, now that they are open again.
"Several trucks have gone through, and they will continue," Kirby told Pentagon reporters at a Thursday briefing. "I mean, this will continue now that the gates are open."
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
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.
The Obama administration said Tuesday it is involved in ongoing consultations with various Taliban officials, but said that a long-negotiated deal to transfer five senior Taliban commanders out of the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay is "on hold" indefinitely.
The U.S. plan for Afghanistan took shape today when President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement to extend the U.S. security commitment in Afghanistan until 2024. The agreement was signed during Obama's surprise one-day visit to Afghanistan, which just happened to fall on the anniversary of the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Two senior administration officials briefed reporters today on a conference call from Kabul. Asked by The Cable whether the Obama administration is still negotiating with the Taliban directly and whether the administration sees Taliban participation in the future of Afghanistan, the officials said yes on both counts.
"We continue to remain in contact with various Taliban leaders and we have several indications of intense interest in the reconciliation process," a senior administration official said. "It's quite clear to us that there is a range of interest among Taliban in reconciliation and there's quite a bit of internal political turbulence within the Taliban on that score."
But the official explained that a deal under consideration to transfer five senior Taliban commanders out of Gitmo to "house arrest" in Qatar, in exchange for the release of a Westerner in Taliban custody, was stalled due to internal divisions within the Taliban's ranks.
"For reasons that appear to have to do with internal political turbulence among the Taliban, those efforts have been basically put on hold for the time being," the official said. "The Taliban understand very well what needs to happen in that channel for those talks to restart and we'll see what they do with that knowledge."
Senior U.S. lawmakers in both parties have come out against the proposed transfer of Taliban commanders out of Gitmo, arguing that they were too dangerous to be released and that the Qatari arrangement would not be enough to ensure they did not return to violence. The deal would also have set up a Taliban representative office in Qatar from which the Taliban could operate.
Last month, Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told a Washington audience that he also opposes releasing Taliban officials from Gitmo until the Taliban have shown some evidence that they are negotiating in good faith.
The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has expressed some hope that the deal would be a precursor to more positive interactions, although Afghan officials were initially upset that the United States had begun discussions with the Taliban outside their purview.
The Karzai government also has good reason to be suspicious of Taliban peace offers, considering that its most recent peace engagement with the Taliban literally blew up when a supposed Taliban negotiator detonated a suicide bomb that killed the leader of Karzai's peace council, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
Former Deputy NATO Senior Civilian Representative at ISAF Mark Jacobson, now with the Truman National Security Project, told The Cable today that the administration's comments represented new openness about its talks with the Taliban.
"I think the White House is increasingly open about U.S. discussions with the Taliban -- an indication to me that we are in a good position to move these talks along," he said. "In the end its going to have to be about Karzai and the Taliban, but both sides feel much more comfortable in direct discussions with us because both sides see us as more reliable than the others. And in the end, any agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government will require the backing and support of the United States."
On the conference call from Kabul, the administration officials rejected assertions that the Obama administration is opening itself up to charges of politicizing bin Laden's killing by signing the agreement on the one-year anniversary of the mission. They said the timing was based on the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago.
"The negotiations were completed in recent weeks... The two presidents set a clear goal for the agreement to be signed before the summit in Chicago," one official said. "It was always the president's intention to spend this anniversary with our troops. What better place to spend that time with our troops here in Afghanistan who are in harm's way."
President Barack Obama has landed in Afghanistan and arrived at the presidential palace in Kabul, where he will sign a Strategic Partnership Agreement with the Afghan government on the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.
"President Barack Obama is in Afghanistan for a whirlwind visit that will culminate in a live, televised address to the American people," a White House pool report said Tuesday.
Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai will sign the agreement shortly and Obama is scheduled to address the nation just after 7:30 EDT Tuesday evening (4 AM local time) from Bagram Airbase. The agreement commits the United States to a security presence in Afghanistan for years after the 2014 handover of control to the Afghan government, but exact troop numbers won't be decided until next year.
Obama's plane left Andrews Air Force Base just after midnight Monday and arrived at Bagram Tuesday evening Afghanistan time. He was greeted at Bagram by Amb. Ryan Crocker and Lt. Gen. Mike Scaparotti, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
"Senior administration officials said the timing of the trip was driven by the negotiations over the Strategic Partnership Agreement and by the desire of both presidents to sign the agreement in Afghanistan prior to the NATO summit in Chicago later this month," the pool report stated. "However, the officials also acknowledged that the timing coincides with the first anniversary of the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden."
At the Pentagon, defense officials released a new report on the progress of the mission in Afghanistan, required by Congress under section 1230 of the Defense Authorization Act. The report claims continued progress in the effort to defeat the Taliban and train the Afghan National Security Forces to take the lead.
"The year 2011 saw the first year-over-year decline in nationwide enemy-initiated attacks in five years. These trends have continued in 2012," the report stated. "The performance of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the close partnership between the ANSF and ISAF have been keys to this success. As a result, the ANSF continue to develop into a force capable of assuming the lead for security responsibility throughout Afghanistan."
The report did mention the dozen or so attacks on ISAF forces by soldiers in ANSF uniforms, known as "green on blue" attacks, but the report failed to note that some attempted "green on blue" attacks are never reported by ISAF because they were not successful, as reported by the Associated Press Monday.
While the Pentagon report praises the progress of allied forces in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, it excoriates Pakistan for harboring enemies of the Afghan government and accuses Karzai's government of rampant corruption.
"The Taliban-led insurgency and its al Qaeda affiliates still operate with impunity from sanctuaries in Pakistan. The insurgency's safe haven in Pakistan, as well as the limited capacity of the Afghan Government, remain the biggest risks to the process of turning security gains into a durable and sustainable Afghanistan. The insurgency benefits from safe havens inside Pakistan with notable operational and regenerative capacity," the report states.
"Additionally, the Afghan Government continues to face widespread corruption that limits its effectiveness and legitimacy and bolsters insurgent messaging."
The handover of security control to Afghan government forces continues apace, according to the report. As of March 31, 2012, 20 of 34 provinces, comprising about half the Afghan population, were under Afghan control, the report said.
The report said that ANSF numbers will reach 352,000 by Oct. 2012, which is about when the United States will make decisions regarding how many American troops to leave in Afghanistan when the drawdown of "surge" troops is complete this fall. At that time, 68,000 U.S. troops will remain, with the goal of handing over complete control to the Afghan government in 2014.
The report claims that the insurgency is severely degraded and that Taliban reintegration programs are working well.
"ANSF-ISAF operations have widened the gap between the insurgents and the population in several key population centers, limiting insurgent freedom of movement, disrupting safe havens in Afghanistan, and degrading insurgent leadership," says the report. "Continued success of the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program appears to be amplifying this trend by degrading Taliban cohesiveness."
A senior State Department official said Tuesday that the the Strategic Partnership Agreement Obama is about to sign contains within it mechanisms to get at the problem of Afghan government corruption.
The agreement authorizes "a bilateral commission with a set of working groups that will further assure the donor community, including the United States, that the Afghans are making the kind of progress that they need to make in order to demonstrate to donors that it's worthwhile to continue providing the kind of assistance that we provide," the official said.
But the Pakistan problem remains. A senior Pentagon official said that the share of attacks in eastern Afghanistan has gone up due to the activity of the Pakistan-based Haqqani network.
"The Haqqani network continues to operate networks in Afghanistan and continues to carry out attacks in Afghanistan. When we're talking about the attacks on RC-East, the Haqqani network is the major actor in the major problem area," the official said. "We will continue to work to interdict their ability to act in Afghanistan and continue to make clear to Pakistan that we expect them to take action to prevent violence emanating from its borders, impacting other countries, including its neighbor Afghanistan."
This past weekend, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) was denied entry into Afghanistan due to objections from Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Today, in an interview with The Cable, Rohrabacher recounted the episode, his longstanding feud with Karzai, and the personal intervention of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that kept him from flying to Kabul.
Last Wednesday, Rohrabacher was added as a last minute addition to the congressional delegation led by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) and including Reps. John Carter (R-TX), Michael Burgess (R-TX), Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), and Michele Bachmann (R-MN). Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH) had to drop out at the last minute, so Rohrabacher took the spot. He didn't think there would be a problem.
Following a 13-hour flight to Dubai (Rohrabacher had to fly coach because of the last minute arrangements), he and the rest of the delegation prepared to board a military transport to Kabul. But the military staff on the ground wouldn't let him get on the plane.
"I was informed that the military plane was prohibited from taking off if I was on board," he said. "The State Department had asked the Defense Department not to fly me there."
Rohrabacher, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, didn't need the administration's approval to go to Afghanistan, so he and his staff began searching for commercial flights to Kabul. That's when Clinton called.
"She made the request of me saying that Karzai was personally upset with me and doesn't want me in his country. She said that if I went, there was a real possibility there would be a real crisis on their hands," Rohrabacher said.
Clinton mentioned the recent accidental burning of Qurans on a U.S. military base and the murder of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier. She told Rohrabacher that she feared Karzai might provoke another minor crisis in the relationship if the congressman went there, and asked him not to go.
"The secretary of state was asking me in a reasonable way so I said I would comply. If she thinks it's better for our country, I would forgo this trip, but not all trips," he said. "She was afraid that Karzai might try to get some of his people out on the streets and start targeting me, so she didn't need that."
The rest of the delegation went on to Kabul and met with embassy staff and members of the leadership of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, but not with Karzai. Meanwhile, Rohrabacher hung back in the United Arab Emirates and met with the emir of Abu Dhabi, the leader of the UAE military, and the UAE's minister of energy. When the delegation got back to Dubai, the representatives went on the Qatar for additional meetings before arriving back in Washington Tuesday afternoon.
Rohrabacher explained that his feud with Karzai goes back years, if not decades, and is based on Rohrabacher's longstanding and vocal support for a decentralization of power in Afghanistan and removal of U.S. financial and diplomatic support for Karzai, whom he sees as a corrupt and illegitimate leader.
Rohrabacher has been traveling to Afghanistan since the 1980s, when he worked in the Reagan White House. In 1988 he even picked up a machine gun and fought alongside the mujahideen on against the Russians near the Afghan city of Jalalabad. During the reign of the Taliban, Rohrabacher, by then a congressman, traveled to Afghanistan several times to meet with the groups that would eventually come to be known as the Northern Alliance.
The latest action to anger Karzai came when Rohrabacher traveled to an Aspen Institute conference in January with Gohmert, Steve King (R-IA), and Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), and met with the Northern Alliance to strategize on the way forward in Afghanistan.
"Serious efforts were made by the U.S. State Department to prevent this exchange of views from taking place," Rohrabacher said in a press release at the time.
It probably hasn't helped relations that Rohrabacher's subcommittee is working on an investigation strategy to bring to light the details of how Karzai and his family have enriched themselves of the last few years.
"Mr. Karzai is a very wealthy man and the tooth fairy didn't leave it under his pillow. If we don't do anything, the Taliban will take over that country and Karzai will disappear and emerge in Csota Rica with suitcases filled with money," he said. "Or even worse, our current government may push Karzai into a coalition government with the Taliban, and that would be a catastrophe and a horrible waste of American lives and resources over the last 10 years."
Rohrabacher said he didn't care much what Karzai thought about him one way or the other and promised to travel to Afghanistan again at a later time. He also claimed that Karzai is trying to prevent any members of the Afghan opposition from having direct contact with members of Congress.
"I think the reason that Karzai singled me out is that when I say something about Afghanistan people take it seriously because of my decades of experience in Afghanistan," he said. "There are few members of Congress who understand how little right Karzai has to the leadership of that government."
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
The pending deal to move senior Taliban figures from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar is part of a trade for the return of a Western prisoner, according to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).
The Obama administration's plan to move five top Taliban officials to live under house arrest in Qatar has been extensively reported but never openly discussed by administration officials. And until Feinstein confirmed it to The Cable, the fact that the crux of the deal is a swap for a Westerner had never been publicly disclosed.
"That's the framework of the exchange. But it's presented as a confidence-building measure," Feinstein said. "We are giving up people who killed a lot of people, people who were head of major efforts of the Taliban."
Feinstein said the deal involved the trade of one Westerner for the five Taliban leaders. She also confirmed the name of the Westerner in question, but The Cable has agreed to withhold that name at the request of U.S. officials out of concern for his safety.
Under the deal, the United States would reportedly place the Taliban officials under the responsibility of the Qatari government, where they would ostensibly remain under some degree of supervision and imprisonment. According to reports, 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.
But Feinstein said she opposes it.
"These are major Taliban figures, they are not minor people. And they will not be in the same kind of custody, maximum-security custody. Forget that it won't be Guantánamo, just maximum-security custody," she said. "And in my view, there's no way of knowing what they may do and what kind of propaganda they may breed."
Afghan officials have spoken about the deal as a step toward peace talks meant to end the decade-long Afghanistan war, but U.S. lawmakers suspect the released Taliban could eventually end up returning to the fight.
Feinstein said the timing of the deal, with the Taliban still actively engaged against Western forces on the battlefield, was particularly problematic. "To do this as just a confidence-building measure without any acceptance by the Taliban of any rules or agreements or anything else, and at a time when the Taliban are still carrying out raids, planting IEDS, still killing people.... I think if you're able to achieve with the Taliban an agreement then it wouldn't be as horrible as it is," Feinstein said.
The administration has sought hard to preserve the secrecy around the prisoner trade, and administration officials won't confirm any of the details publicly.
Last week, White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden denied that a deal had been struck, saying, "The United States has not decided to transfer any Taliban officials from Guantánamo Bay" after reports surfaced that the Taliban leaders in question had agreed to be transferred.
"We are not in a position to discuss ongoing deliberations or individual detainees, but our goal of closing Guantánamo is well established and widely understood," she said. "In general, any decision to transfer a detainee from Guantánamo would be undertaken in accordance with U.S. law and in consultation with the Congress."
On Jan. 31, top administration officials briefed eight senators on the deal, including Feinstein. The other senators invited to that classified briefing were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Intelligence Committee ranking Republican 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).
In a brief interview Tuesday, Levin declined to comment in any way on the trade. But he did say that he was opposed to any Taliban transfers unless it was part of a peace process.
"I believe that before there's a transfer of anybody that there should be some progress in the negotiations and discussions. That should be used as a way of promoting progress in the discussions with the Taliban, rather than doing that before those discussions have any evidence of success," he said.
McCain, in his own brief Tuesday interview with The Cable, said that a prisoner swap wasn't necessarily a bad idea in principle. But he poured cold water on the notion of linking any such swap to peace talks with the Taliban.
"If it's intended to be a ‘confidence-building measure,' that is an extreme measure. If it's a swap, it's worthy of consideration of Congress, if that is the premise of it," said McCain, a former prisoner himself. "But they're doing it as a ‘confidence-building measure.' That's not confidence building."
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
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 State Department's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman has decided to go to New Delhi on his whirlwind trip around the region to gather support for reconciliation talks with the Taliban, only days after Pakistan said he was not welcome there.
Grossman is in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) today as part of a multi-nation tour that is aimed at gaining broad buy-in for the administration's plan to start a reconciliation process with the Taliban. He left Jan. 15 on a trip that includes Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Afghanistan, and Qatar, where he reportedly will be finalizing the arrangements for the opening of a Taliban representative office in Doha.
The State Department admitted on Tuesday that Grossman wanted to visit Pakistan but that Islamabad asked him not to come, as they are finishing their overall review of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship following the Nov. 26 NATO killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghanistan border. NATO supply routes through Pakistan have been blocked ever since and the Obama administration, though it has privately offered condolences, refuses to publicly apologize for the incident.
So, to fill in time in his schedule, Grossman added a stop in New Delhi, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland revealed at Wednesday's press briefing. He'll be there on Friday, just before going to Kabul, and the stop was just added to his agenda. No word on who he'll be meeting there.
"Is that a message to Pakistan because they rejected him?" The Cable asked Nuland.
"In no way," Nuland responded. "We made clear that we would welcome a stop by Ambassador Grossman in Islamabad on this trip. You know that the Pakistanis are looking hard internally at our relationship. They asked us to give them time to do that, so he will not be going there on this trip."
Still, it's hard not to notice that Grossman is filling the time left open by his Pakistan rejection with a visit to that country's bitter rival. Nuland said India is a crucial player in the way forward in Afghanistan.
"We believe that India has a role to play in supporting a democratic, prosperous future for Afghanistan," she said. "They're very much a player in the New Silk Road initiative. These are all part and parcel of the same ‘fight, talk, build' strategy. India does, as you know, support police training and other things in Afghanistan. So it's important that we keep those lines of communication open."
This will be Grossman's second visit to India since joining the administration. He last visited India as well as Pakistan with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in October.
The Pentagon issued its report on the Nov. 25 raid where NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at an outpost along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, admitting that the U.S. military made mistakes that led to the incident. The Pentagon and State Department "deeply regret" the attack, but refuse to accede to Pakistani demands they issue an explicit apology.
"For the loss of life -- and for the lack of proper coordination between U.S. and Pakistani forces that contributed to those losses -- we express our deepest regret," the Pentagon said in a Thursday statement about the incident, which has pushed U.S.-Pakistani relations to new lows and has resulted in Pakistan cutting off supply lines for NATO forces in Afghanistan, which are still closed.
U.S. and NATO investigators found that the NATO forces "acted in self defense and with appropriate force after being fired upon." The investigators also determined "there was no intentional effort to target persons or places known to be part of the Pakistani military, or to deliberately provide inaccurate location information to Pakistani officials."
That quote refers to the Pakistani claim that NATO identified a location for the attack nine miles away from where they were actually attacking, which is what led to Pakistan telling NATO there were no Pakistani troops there troops in the area they were attacking.
The NATO explanation of the incident directly conflicts with the Pakistani military's own account of the incident, as explained by a Pakistani defense official to reporters in Washington last week. Pakistan's military has concluded that the NATO helicopters and planes strafed two Pakistani outposts intentionally, and they say that repeated pleas by Pakistani officials to halt the operation as it was being carried out were ignored.
At a Thursday morning briefing, Air Force Brig. Gen. Stephen Clark, who led the investigation, acknowledged that NATO was using the wrong map template and therefore gave the Pakistanis the wrong location during the attack
Clark also said there was reluctance to share the information about the ongoing attack with the Pakistani side because of an "overarching lack of trust" between the two militaries. The report said both sides had made mistakes during the incident due to poor coordination and communication.
At the State Department today, reporters pressed spokesman Mark Toner to explain why the U.S. government won't just say "I'm sorry," as the Pakistanis are demanding.
"We've expressed our deep regret for the loss of life and for the lack of proper coordination between the U.S. and Pakistani forces that contributed to these losses. And you know, we do accept responsibility for the mistakes that we made," said Toner. "I think there's a shared responsibility in this incident."
The New York Times reported last month that the State Department and U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter had urged the White House to issue an apology to quell Pakistani outrage, at both the official and the popular level, but the Pentagon objected.
The U.S. government is working hard behind the scenes to smooth over relations. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey called Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani on Wednesday and offered to send a briefing team to Islamabad. CENTCOM Commander Gen. James Mattis also called Kayani. Munter spoke with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar.
After being pressed several times on the question of the difference between expressing "regret" and issuing an "apology," Toner finally parsed it out the best he could.
"I think ‘we regret' speaks to a sense of sympathy with the Pakistani people, I mean, in this case, but more broadly with the people affected by any incident or tragedy and, you know, speaks to the fact that we're accepting responsibility for any of our actions that may have contributed to it," said Toner. "I don't know -- an apology -- you know, you can figure that out for your own. I can only say what we're trying to express through this investigation and through the conclusion of this investigation."
"It's pretty clear from this entire conversation that you're under orders not to use the words ‘sorry' or ‘apologize,'" one reporter said to Toner.
Toner's only response to that was: "Ok. Next question?"
Former Vice President Dick Cheney argued on Friday morning that the waterboarding of terror suspects did not amount to torture because the same techniques had been used on U.S. soldiers during training.
"The notion that somehow the United States was torturing anybody is not true," Cheney told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute at an event to promote his new book. "Three people were waterboarded and the one who was subjected most often to that was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and it produced phenomenal results for us."
"Another key point that needs to be made was that the techniques that we used were all previously used on Americans," Cheney went on. "All of them were used in training for a lot of our own specialists in the military. So there wasn't any technique that we used on any al Qaeda individual that hadn't been used on our own troops first, just to give you some idea whether or not we were ‘torturing' the people we captured."
Of course, there are some differences between the waterboarding of troops as part of their Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training and the waterboarding of suspected al Qaeda prisoners. For example, the troops in training are not subjected to the practice 183 times, as KSM was. Also, the soldiers presumably know their training will end, and they won't be allowed to actually drown or left to rot in some dark, anonymous prison.
Some in Cheney's party, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), believe that waterboarding is torture. Malcolm Nance, a counterterrorism consultant for the U.S. government and a former SERE instructor, has argued repeatedly that waterboarding is torture and called for prohibiting its use on prisoners.
"Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration -- usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia. When done right it is controlled death. Its lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threaten[ed] with its use again and again," he said.
Cheney said the George W. Bush administration had received approval for the "enhanced interrogation program" from all nine congressional leaders who had been briefed on its details: this included the leaders of both intelligence committees, the leaders of both parties, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
When asked if they thought the program should be continued, they all said, "Absolutely," Cheney said. And when asked if the Bush administration should seek additional congressional approval for the program, the nine Congressional leaders unanimously told him, "Absolutely not," according to Cheney's account.
Cheney also said the Bush administration's interrogation policies were partially responsible for recent successes in the fight against al Qaeda, includig the killing of Osama bin Laden.
"I'd make the case we've been successful in part because of the intelligence we have, because of what we've learned from men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, back when he was subjected [to enhanced interrogation]," he said.
In the one-hour discussion at AEI with the Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes, Cheney also talked about huddling with his wife and daughter at Camp David on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001. Camp David was the "secure, undisclosed location" that the Secret Service rushed Cheney to just after the attacks. Other top administration officials met him there over the follow days.
When asked if he ever broke down and cried in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, as had President George W. Bush and other top officials, Cheney said, "Not really," and then grinned sheepishly as the crowd giggled.
"You understand that people will find that peculiar," Hayes noted.
"It wasn't that it wasn't a deeply moving event," Cheney responded. "The training just sort of kicked in, in terms of what we had to do that morning and into the next day."
One of the most prominent, remaining Obama administration justifications for continuing the war in Afghanistan is the need to squash the threat of attacks on the U.S. But top administration officials don't believe there has been a terrorist threat coming from Afghanistan since at least 2004.
"The goal that we seek is achievable, and can be expressed simply: no safe-haven from which al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland, or our allies," President Obama said in his Wednesday evening speech to the nation, where he promised to withdraw 10,000 troops this year and all 33,000 surge troops by next summer.
In a conference call with reporters earlier Wednesday, a "senior administration official" said no terrorist threat from Afghanistan has been present for 7 or 8 years, well before the Obama administration surged troops there in 2009.
"On the threat side, we haven't seen a terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan for the past seven or eight years. There has been clearly fighting and threats inside of Afghanistan, but the assessment of anywhere between 50, 75 or so al Qaeda types that are embedded in Haqqani units, basically, tactical fighting units inside of Afghanistan, they are focused inside Afghanistan with no indication at all that there is any effort within Afghanistan to use Afghanistan as a launching pad to carry out attacks outside of Afghan borders," the official said. "The threat has come from Pakistan over the past half-dozen years or so, and longer."
Later in the same conference call, the "senior administration official" repeated the administration's view that there's no terrorist threat coming from Afghanistan and used that assumption to argue there will be no danger in removing the surge troops.
"And so, in taking a look at the drawdown of U.S. troops, the 10,000 this year and then the 33,000 by next summer, it is certainly the view of the people who have been prosecuting this effort from the administration that this is not going to increase the threat," the official said. "Again, we don't see a transnational threat coming out of Afghanistan in terms of the terrorist threat and it's not going to affect at all the threat in Pakistan either."
Of course, if the Taliban regain control of Afghanistan, that could all change. Obama's GOP critics were quick to criticize the president for talking extensively about wrapping up the war and apparently going against the advice of ISAF Commander Gen. David Petraeus.
"When America goes to war, America needs to win. We need to close out the war successfully, and what that means now is not nation-building. What it means is to follow General Petraeus's advice and to get those security forces built up where they can pick up the slack as we draw down," said GOP presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty.
"I think we have undercut a strategy that was working." Sen. Lindsey Graham said on CNN. "I think the 10,000 troops leaving this year is going to make this fighting season more difficult. Having all of the surge forces leave by next summer is going to compromise next summer's fighting season."
For those on both the left and right who wanted Obama to withdraw from Afghanistan even more quickly, the acknowledgement that no terrorist threat exists there only reinforces their argument for a speedy exit.
"Our troops have done everything we've asked them to. They've routed the Taliban, dismantled Al Qaeda, and facilitated democratic elections," said GOP candidate Jon Huntsman. "Now it is time we move to a focused counter-terror effort which requires significantly fewer boots on the ground than the President discussed tonight."
"It has been the hope of many in Congress and across the country that the full drawdown of U.S. forces would happen sooner than the President laid out - and we will continue to press for a better outcome," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
Meanwhile, former officials and experts complained that Obama's speech seemed to acknowledge that the U.S. will never be able to prevent the Taliban from playing a role in Afghanistan's future, but failed to spell out a diplomatic solution that addresses how to incorporate the Taliban into the Afghan government.
"I would have liked to have heard much more from him about a diplomatic strategy," Vali Nasr, a former top advisor to the late Richard Holbrooke, said on MSNBC immediately following the speech. "If you cannot end the war militarily, the only other way the war is going to go away is through some kind of deal in which the protagonists agree to a peace settlement. And we haven't done much of that. It hasn't been part of the debate about sending the troops in and it hasn't been a part of the debate of pulling troops out."
"Ultimately wars are fought on battlefields, but they have to finish around the table, and the administration hasn't really outlined how it is going to get there," Nasr said.
The Obama administration would like you to know it doesn't have much respect for al Qaeda's new leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and thinks he's an "armchair general" with a "soft" image.
Al Qaeda released a statement today announcing that Zawahri, the Egyptian-born jihadist who was Osama bin Laden's longtime deputy, "has assumed the responsibility of the leadership of the group." A senior administration official quickly sent out talking points to reporters belittling the terrorist leader, saying he has no charisma, poor skills, and can't hold a candle to his dead predecessor.
"The number two, Zawahiri is not charismatic," Obama's top counterterrorism advisor John Brennan said in a post-Osama mission press conference. "He has not been -- was not involved in the fight earlier on in Afghanistan... and I think he has a lot of detractors within the organization. And I think you're going to see them start eating themselves from within more and more."
The senior administration official sent out these additional talking points this morning about Zawahiri, each more insulting than the last.
- He hasn't demonstrated strong leadership or organizational skills during his time in al Qaeda or previously while in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
- His ascension to the top leadership spot will likely generate criticism if not alienation and dissention with al Qaeda.
- Unlike many of al Qaeda's top members, Zawahiri has not had actual combat experience, instead opting to be an armchair general with a "soft" image.
- No matter who is in charge, he will have a difficult time leading al Qaeda while focusing on his own survival as the group continues to hemorrhage key members responsible for planning and training operatives for terrorist attacks.
And here's the kicker:
- The bottom line is that Zawahiri has nowhere near the credentials that Osama bin Laden had.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) returned on Tuesday from a trip to Pakistan where he had two somewhat conflicting missions: deliver Congress's tough love message to Islamabad and chart a path forward for mending government-to-government relations.
Kerry gave a long readout of his trip to all Democratic senators on Tuesday at their weekly caucus lunch meeting, after which multiple Democratic senators reported they were more determined than ever to use foreign aid as leverage to pressure Islamabad to go after America's enemies living in their midst.
"Kerry notified [the Pakistani government] that there are some serious problems with their continuing to harbor terrorists like the Haqqani network," Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) said upon emerging from the lunch meeting. "He brought forcefully to the attention of Pakistan that their continuing support and harboring of the Haqqanis is creating a big problem for continuing any kind of financial support."
Levin has long called for Pakistan to take stronger action against the Islamic extremist groups in South Waziristan, which include the Quetta Shura, led by Mullah Omar. But now he is ready to put America's money where his mouth is by threatening to link such action to U.S. aid and he thinks he has his caucus' support behind him.
"I believe there is strong feeling inside the Democratic group of senators that the continued harboring of the Haqqani network and the Quetta Shura by the Pakistanis represents a real problem in terms of continuing financial support to Pakistan," Levin said.
Earlier this month, Levin told The Cable that he wants to continue certain types of military aid that are in direct support of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan but wants to more heavily condition economic aid -- such as the $1.5 billion in annual funds provided under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation signed into law last year.
Levin's committee has some sway, but the rubber meets the road at the Appropriations Committee, where Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) chairs the subcommittee that dispenses foreign aid. Leahy has long been a critic of U.S. economic aid to Pakistan.
"There are three areas of the world I'm reviewing for the appropriations bill where we may have some significant changes. That's one of the three areas," Leahy told The Cable on Tuesday.
Kerry is now in the uncomfortable position of defending ties with Pakistan. He made a robust case for continued strong relations in Tuesday morning's SFRC hearing on Pakistan with former National Security Advisor Jim Jones.
"As much as some people have reached a level of impatience or serious evaluation about where we are and where we're going, it's very clear to me that we need to be really careful and thoughtful so as to get the policy right, so as to not lose the progress that has been made," Kerry said.
Kerry said at the hearing that he conveyed the angst in Washington regarding Pakistan's behavior to top Pakistani officials and emphasized that "this relationship will not be measured by words or by communiques after meetings like the ones that I engaged in; it will only be measured by actions," he said.
To that end, Pakistan agreed to return the tail of the downed "secret" helicopter from the Navy SEALs raid on Osama bin Laden's compound, Kerry said, and expressed hope of more progress. Special Representative Marc Grossman is due to visit Pakistan later this week and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to go there soon, but that planning is in flux.
SFRC ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) sounded a note at the hearing similar to Levin's.
"The Obama administration should make clear to Pakistan's military that going after some terrorists while coddling others will not be tolerated," he said. "It should also communicate that the Pakistani military's deliberate fomenting of anti-American demonstrations to oppose U.S. initiatives and Pakistan's own civilian leadership is not acceptable."
Several senators at the hearing complained about providing aid to Pakistan while the country's citizens continue to vilify the United States.
"I'll be interested to hear what Senator Kerry has to say about these items that are -- that are non-aid items, because frankly, I'm getting tired of it, and I think Americans are getting tired of it as far as shoveling money in there to people who just flat don't like us," said Sen. James Risch (R-ID).
"The one thing I'd say to you, Senator, is that right now we have about 100,000 reasons for worrying about our relationship with Pakistan, and they're called our young men and women, and they're in uniform in Afghanistan," Kerry responded.
U.S. officials had been frustrated by Pakistan's refusal to cooperate in the mission to apprehend Osama bin Laden for over 10 years, according to government documents released Thursday by the National Security Archive.
"As the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, raises fresh questions about U.S.-Pakistan relations, newly released documents show that as early as 1998 U.S. officials concluded the Government of Pakistan ‘is not disposed to be especially helpful on the matter of terrorist Usama bin Ladin,'" stated the release on the website of the National Security Archives, which is housed at the George Washington University.
"According to previously secret U.S. documents, Pakistani officials repeatedly refused to act on the Bin Laden problem, despite mounting pressure from American authorities. Instead, in the words of a U.S. Embassy cable, Pakistani sources ‘all took the line that the issue of bin Ladin is a problem the U.S. has with the Taliban, not with Pakistan.'"
The archives posted six new documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, as part of its Osama bin Laden File. The documents date from 1998 to 2000 and therefore do not represent the policies of the current Pakistani government led by President Asif ali Zardari, nor Pakistan's policies following the 9/11 attacks. But they do show a history of deep distrust between the United States and Pakistan in the early years of the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda, despite efforts by former President Bill Clinton's administration to convince Pakistan to help bring bin Laden to justice.
According to an Aug. 21, 1998 internal memo written by then Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Affairs Karl F. Inderfurth, the Pakistani government tried to distance itself from U.S. strikes on an al Qaeda target in Afghanistan that year, which were a response to the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. "The most sincere reaction of the government of Pakistan to the Bin Laden strikes is exasperation at the unneeded difficulties this event has created for them in dealing with their domestic political situation, and in particular, in keeping the religious parties happy and relatively off the street," he wrote.
According to internal State Department talking points from November 1998, continued efforts to exert pressure on the Taliban to expel bin Laden, including efforts to convince Pakistan to put pressure the Taliban, were unsuccessful. "Time for a diplomatic solution may be running out," the memo stated.
After Clinton met with then Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif in Washington on Dec. 2, 1998, the U.S. embassy in Islamabad sent a diplomatic cable Dec. 18 that communicated their impression that the Pakistani government "is not disposed to be especially helpful on the matter of terrorist Usama bin Ladin." The cable also quoted a news article it claimed was sourced to the Pakistani government, which warned of a U.S. military or clandestine strike to get bin Laden. The article said that the Pakistani government does "not want to have anything to do with Washington's anti Osama crusade."
U.S. officials continued to press Pakistan on bin Laden throughout 1999, but got little positive response. A May 1999 diplomatic cable sent from the U.S. embassy in Islamabad expressed continued frustration with Pakistan's handling of the bin Laden issue. Top Pakistani officials told their U.S. interlocutors that they were taking the bin Laden issue seriously, but they did not know where he was and did not believe he was planning to attack the United States. One Pakistani official was quoted as admitting that Pakistan was preoccupied with "the recent increase in Indo-Pakistani tensions over Kashmir."
By November 2000, following the attack on the USS Cole and less than a year before the 9/11 attacks, the level of frustration had increased such that Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering opened a meeting with Pakistani officials "by expressing disappointment that Pakistan, whom he called a good friend of the U.S., was not taking steps to help with Usama bin Ladin," according to a diplomatic cable.
Foreshadowing the unilateral raid on May 1 inside Pakistan that ended with bin Laden's death, Pickering warned the Pakistanis that the United States "would always act to protect U.S. interests at a time and place of its own choice."
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."
CIA Director Leon Panetta and ISAF Commander Gen. David Petraeus will get new assignments Thursday, with Panetta being nominated to head the Pentagon and Petraeus replacing him at the CIA. But the CIA and the military have completely different assessments of the NATO-led force's progress in Afghanistan, placing Petraeus in charge of a bureaucracy largely skeptical of his optimistic analysis of the war.
A senior administration official confirmed Wednesday that President Barack Obama will announce the moves Thursday, along with the appointment of CENTCOM Deputy Commander Gen. John Allen to replace Petraeus and former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker to replace Karl Eikenberry as envoy to Kabul. If all the Senate confirmations go smoothly, Panetta will take over for Defense Secretary Robert Gates on July 1 and Petraeus will move to the CIA in early September. CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell would act as temporary head of the CIA over the summer.
Petraeus will resign his military commission when he moves to the CIA. But he is not likely to jettison his opinions about the war in Afghanistan, which are much rosier than the assessments that have been coming out of the intelligence community.
"It is ISAF's assessment that the momentum achieved by the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2005 has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in a number of important areas," Petraeus testified on March 16 before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "The progress achieved has put us on the right azimuth to accomplish the objective agreed upon at last November's Lisbon summit, that of Afghan forces in the lead throughout the country by the end of 2014."
He went on to commend the progress of the Afghan security forces and the Afghan police, praising the success of the troop surge in Afghanistan as providing space for the government led by President Hamid Karzai to increase its responsibilities throughout the country. He also praised the Pakistani military's efforts to root out insurgents in their midst.
That analysis is quite different from the intelligence community's latest National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan and Pakistan from last December, which stated that large areas of Afghanistan were still vulnerable to quick takeover by the Taliban and that Pakistan was still supporting insurgents in both countries.
The leaked NIE caused a rift between the CIA and the Pentagon, with military officials claiming that the intelligence community was not up to date on progress is Afghanistan. With Petraeus now heading to the CIA, he will be charged with evaluating his own rosy assessments of the course of the war.
"The specific guy who was responsible for producing a positive prognosis is now going to a job where he has to judge his own prognosis and grade his own work," said Stephen Biddle, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The institutional culture of the military is generally optimistic and can do. The institutional culture of the intelligence community is generally skeptical and pessimistic."
Petraeus is an unusually open-minded and intelligence-friendly military officer, Biddle said, but he will nevertheless face a culture clash at the CIA's Langley headquarters.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, also expressed some reservations about Petraeus becoming CIA director.
"In Iraq, at CENTCOM and in Afghanistan, Gen. Petraeus has been a consumer of intelligence and has commanded DoD intelligence resources. But that is a different role than leading the top civilian intelligence agency. I look forward to hearing his vision for the CIA and his plans to make sure the CIA is collecting the type of intelligence that policymakers need," she said in a statement e-mailed to The Cable.
It is true, Biddle noted, that Petraeus doesn't have a lot of experience in the intelligence community, but that hasn't previously been a disqualification for the job. "That was also true of lots of past CIA directors," he said.
A more natural promotion for Petraeus might have been to the role of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright is seen as the leading contender for that post due to his closeness to Obama, and despite accusations that he slept with a drunk subordinate - charges on which he was cleared.
Panetta is set to take over the Pentagon this summer, where he will work directly with Petraeus, who will still be serving as ISAF commander. The summer, typically known as Afghanistan's "fighting season," will represent Panetta's first test as secretary of defense. A senior administration official said that Panetta was initially reluctant to take the job, but finally agreed on April 25.
"Leon loved being the director of the CIA and it showed... It was a difficult decision for him to leave the agency," the official said. "The president asked him, Leon thought about it, consulted with his spouse and family, and on Monday evening, he said yes."
The transition planning at the Pentagon is already underway. Marcel Lettre, formerly the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, shifted earlier this year to a new role in Gates's office, managing the transition process for Gates's departure and his successor's arrival. Jeremy Bash, Panetta's chief of staff at the CIA and a former colleague of Lettre's on the staff of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, also could become Panetta's chief of staff at the Pentagon.
Of course, Panetta will immediately be tasked with weighing in on a host of personnel changes at the Pentagon. Will Deputy Secretary Bill Lynn stay on? Nobody knows. Panetta will also have a role in picking the next Joint Chiefs chairman and the next vice chairman if Cartwright, as expected, gets the promotion. A game of musical chairs among senior military officers could also see new jobs for Supreme Allied Commander Europe Adm. James Stavridis, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, Gen. Ray Odierno, and many others.
Meanwhile, will Petraeus, out of uniform and out of the Defense Department, be able to confine himself to the job of producing objective intelligence analysis and stay away from policymaking?
"General Petraeus has deep experience in the areas of intelligence and as director of the CIA I think he would clearly understand what the role is there," the senior administration official said.
The White House has begun its next comprehensive review of the war in Afghanistan. But don't expect it to resolve the political struggle over the course of the war: The review won't examine policy options and won't weigh in on how the war effort should be modified going forward.
The National Security Staff began what they are calling the "annual Afghanistan-Pakistan review" two weeks ago and is now in the "data collection" phase, a senior Obama administration official told reporters on a conference call Tuesday afternoon. NSS staff went on a 12-day trip to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Brussels recently to gather data for the review, and reports from various agencies and outposts are due this week. When that step is completed, the second phase of the review will begin. In early December, the White House plans to move to the third and final phase, which will be about organizing its findings. Some of those findings will be shared with Capitol Hill and perhaps the public in the second half of December or early January.
But unlike the last administration Afghanistan policy review, which resulted in Obama's troop surge decision last March, this review team is being told not to make policy recommendations. That work will be left to the National Security Staff (the new name for the National Security Council) to deal with after the review is completed.
"The president defined our task, and that is simply that we are to assess how this approach is working," the official said. "He specified that this is a diagnostic look at the strategy. It is not, on the other hand, prescriptive. That is, we are not in the business of formulating policy alternatives or different courses of action or so forth."
The interagency team will focus on two questions in conducting the review. First: Is the strategy on the right path, and are the resources committed producing the desired results? Secondly, is the pace of those results sufficient to match the timelines that Obama set during his March speech on the war effort?
"Our bywords are ‘path' and ‘pace,'" the official said.
Neither the exact findings of the review, nor details of the metrics used by the administration to measure progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan, will be released to the public. But when pressed, the official described the broad categories of metrics the administration is utilizing.
There are eight general categories of metrics, three focusing on Afghanistan, three focusing on Pakistan, and two focusing on the overall counterterrorism effort, the official said. The sub-metrics will gauge a number of factors, including trends in violence, the degree to which local areas are controlled by the Afghan government , and the quality and quantity of Afghan security forces.
The question of whether Pakistan is making progress on combating insurgents operating inside its borders is a "very fundamental underlying question for the review," the official said. "We do not dispute that there are still safe havens in Pakistan which are fundamentally part of the equation for our campaign in Afghanistan and getting at those safe havens is fundamental to our approach."
The official defended the administration's decision to keep most of the details of the metrics as well as the details of the review and its conclusions out of the public view.
"This is designed to be an inside the administration perspective," the official said. "There will some sharing of findings at the end of the process, but there's no intent now to share internal metrics and measurements, because since we're in an active conflict zone, the degree to which we share these kinds of details could put lives at risk and jeopardize the kind of progress we're trying to generate."
At the end of the review process, the review will compile a list of policy issues that need to be addressed and tee those up for the National Security Staff to deal with in the first six months in 2011. But don't expect the White House to voluntarily share the details of those discussions either, the official warned.
"There's a good deal that we don't intend to make public."
When 29 countries meet in Lisbon for the NATO summit on Nov. 19, the goal will be to define what the future of the alliance -- built to fight the Cold War -- will be, in the less defined but arguably more dangerous world of the 21st century.
"We're launching NATO 3.0," Ivo Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, told a group of foreign policy wonks Friday morning at the New America Foundation. (Version 1.0 began after World War II; version 2.0 spanned from the end of the Cold War until today, apparently.) "It is no longer just about Europe… It's not a global alliance but it is a global actor."
In addition to unveiling the new "strategic concept," which will include new focuses on missile defense and cyber security, the summit will tackle thorny issues such as NATO's relationships with rising world powers, and how the alliance should conclude its current non-Europe mission, the war in Afghanistan.
"We need to look for opportunities to work with countries we haven't worked with before, like India, China, and Brazil," Daalder said. "The question of whether NATO will be operating globally is solved. It's done. We're there."
With the recent announcement that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will attend the summit, the focus on Russia will be front and center. There will be some kind of an announcement of NATO's intention to resume cooperation with Russia on missile defense that was scuttled after the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.
There's no decision yet whether that will be a formal agreement with detailed plans for cooperation, but there will be definitely be a separate announcement that NATO will institutionalize and expand its missile defense activities on its own, Daalder said.
"NATO will be in the business of defending its territory from ballistic missile attack," he said.
Of course, reports today note that Turkey is standing in the way of that agreement, but that's one of the things the summit is meant to address.
Daalder was optimistic about the progress of the war in Afghanistan, saying that although the formal evaluation of the current strategy is forthcoming, he already sees great progress in battling the Taliban and in the training of the Afghan security forces. He expects the transfer of provinces to Afghan control to begin in the first half of 2011.
"We are seeing the corner and we can peek around it. The strategy we have embarked upon… that's beginning to work," he said. "The Taliban has been hurt significantly by the introduction of 30,000 additional troops… We've been quite successful in hitting them quite hard… We see a beginning of a change in the fight in most places."
As for NATO expansion, an administration official said that NATO's position on adding new countries has not changed, meaning that the door is still open for Macedonia and Georgia, although the official didn't identify any signs that there would be movement on those applications. Ukraine, which had wanted to become a member, no longer seeks to join NATO.
The official said the sessions will also address the issue of whether to keep some 200 nuclear weapons stationed in Europe, a debate that is not yet resolved.
"Stay tuned. This will be an issue that will be discussed up until the last minute," the official said.
Dozens of U.S. and Pakistani officials are meeting this week at the State Department in 13 different working groups spanning all elements of the U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogue, but the real action is in a few, select side meetings, where participants tell The Cable that the Obama team is taking a markedly tougher tone with the Pakistanis than before.
One key meeting Wednesday afternoon was between National Security Advisor in-waiting Tom Donilon and what's known as the "core" group of Pakistani officials: Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, and Ambassador Husain Haqqani.
President Barack Obama dropped in on that meeting and stayed for 50 minutes, according to an official who was there, and personally delivered the tough love message that other top administration officials have been communicating since the Pakistani delegation arrived. Obama also expressed support for Pakistan's democracy and announced he would invite Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to the White House in the near future.
Earlier Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dropped in unannounced on another meeting between Special Representative Richard Holbrooke and Kayani. She delivered the message that Washington's patience is wearing thin with Pakistan's ongoing reluctance to take a more aggressive stance against militant groups operating from Pakistan over the Afghan border. A similar message was delivered to Kayani in another high-level side meeting Wednesday morning at the Pentagon, hosted by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, two senior government sources said.
The message being delivered to Pakistan throughout the week by the Obama team is that its effort to convince Pakistan to more aggressively combat groups like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba will now consist of both carrots and sticks. But this means that the U.S. administration must find a way incentivize both the Pakistani civilian and military leadership, which have differing agendas and capabilities.
"The Obama side is calculating that Pakistan's military can deliver on subjects important to the U.S. but doesn't want to, while the civilian leadership in Pakistan wants to, but isn't able," said one high-level participant who spoke with The Cable in between sessions.
The carrots are clear. A State Department official confirmed to The Cable that the two sides will formally announce on Friday a new $2 billion military aid package for Pakistan, focusing mostly on items that can be used for counterterrorism. Unspecified amounts of new funding for the reconstruction effort related to the Pakistani flood disaster are also on the table. In exchange, the United States not only wants increased Pakistani military operations in North Waziristan and Baluchistan, but also increased operational flexibility for U.S. special forces operating inside Pakistan's borders.
The sticks are less clear. Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad argued in a New York Times op-ed Tuesday that the Obama administration should threaten to take down terrorist havens in Pakistan, without Islamabad's consent if necessary. The Carnegie Endowment's Ashley Tellis wrote that the United States should condition aid to Pakistan on increased cooperation and even consider throwing more support toward India's role in Afghanistan, an idea the Pakistanis despise.
The timing of these op-eds and the change in the Obama administration's tone is not being seen by many as a coincidence.
The Pakistanis believe that their extensive efforts to expand military operations in South Waziristan don't get enough recognition in Washington. They also say privately that whatever incentives the United States is offering are not enough to compensate for the huge political and security risks that would come with a full-on assault on insurgent groups they have tacitly supported for decades.
Hanging over the whole discussion are reports that the United States is supporting and even providing escorts for the reconciliation talks in Kabul between the Afghan government, led by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and senior Taliban officials. The New York Times reported Wednesday that these talks were going on without the approval or involvement of the Pakistani government, ostensibly to prevent elements of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) from moving to thwart them.
"Pakistan is still resisting [moving on groups in North Waziristan] because it still hasn't fully finished with its ongoing operations [in South Waziristan] and also because it doesn't know what will happen with the talks with the Taliban and would much rather not antagonize the Haqqani network at this juncture," said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.
Nawaz noted that the Strategic Dialogue with Pakistan has now reached the third set of meetings, and that there is more pressure to show concrete results to validate the need for such a high-level format. "I hope there will be some clarity on what the objectives are on both sides and also some clarity on red lines so we don't have to relive this movie again and again," he said.
Nawaz also predicted that another point of contention will permeate the chatter in the hallways between Pakistani and American interlocutors -- Pakistan's desire to have Obama visit sometime soon.
"The big underlying issue that won't be on the agenda but will probably be discussed is President Obama's upcoming visit to India and that he won't be coming to Pakistan," he said. "It will point to the imbalance in the relationship."
In a read out, the White House said that Obama has committed to visit Pakistan some time in 2011.
Qureshi, Holbrooke, and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah will talk about all these issues at a joint Brookings/ Asia Society event Wednesday evening.
The U.S. government is working furiously to counter a plot to attack several European public targets, CIA chief Leon Panetta told the head of Pakistan's intelligence community Wednesday.
The plot, to attack multiple public targets in several European capitals, was slated to occur in late November, according to Panetta. After capturing one of the prospective attackers en route from Pakistan's FATA region, the U.S. government authorized the CIA to step up drone strikes inside Pakistan to unprecedented levels while working with various allied governments to kill or capture the two to three dozen militants reportedly preparing for the operation.
The strikes being planned focus on soft targets, such as tourist attractions and public meeting spaces. No targets were believed to be in the United States, although the targets could very well have American citizens present.
Panetta, traveling in Islamabad, met with Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI) Wednesday to brief him on what American intelligence services have discovered about a series of Mumbai-style attacks planned by al Qaeda in cooperation with Pakistan's Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, the military group responsible for the devastating attacks in India in November 2008.
The Cable received a read-out from a high-level source who was briefed directly on the Panetta-Pasha meeting. The CIA is asking Pakistan to allow expanded permissions to increase the intensity of drone strikes inside Pakistan -- which are already at record levels --and allow greater access for U.S. and associated forces operating inside Pakistan.
According to The Cable's source, Panetta told Pasha that the U.S. already has in custody one of the alleged attackers, a German citizen of Pakistani origin named Siddiqui. He was captured leaving Pakistan's FATA region and is now currently being held at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.
The attacks were planned for late November and allied intelligence agencies are employing all resources at their disposal to round up the rest of the perpetrators, with the understanding that the threat has not yet been neutralized.
"Unless you have killed or captured all 24 to 36 operatives, how can you be sure the plot is foiled?" the source said.
According to the source briefed on the Panetta-Pasha meeting, there were no targets inside the United States for the plot, but the high-value European targets that were reportedly on the list of sites to be attacked could very well have American citizens present.
European governments have already been taking precautionary measures. The Eiffel Tower was evacuated for the second time Tuesday and the U.K. government is holding its official threat warning level at "severe," the second highest level, which means that "a terrorist attack is highly likely."
Panetta told Pasha that the drone strikes will escalate further in the coming days and pressed him for information that might aid the search and increased access to Pakistani intelligence data on the groups involved.
Pasha, in turn, asked Panetta for any remaining intelligence the U.S. is holding on the groups and individuals it was targeting. Pasha wants the ISI to be in the loop on any related CIA operations. The tone of the meeting was friendly, but extremely tense, the source said.
The Pakistani government is cooperating fully with the CIA, but concerns linger that elements not completely under the government's control may still be holding out, protecting friends in and allegiances with groups such as the Haqqani Network.
The crisis couldn't come at a worse time for the Pakistani civilian government led by President Asif Ali Zardari. Zardari has been under increasing attack by elements in the Pakistani military and the ISI, who have been pressing for his ouster and using elements within the media and judiciary to bolster their cause.
Pasha, as well as Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is said to be working with the civilian government on the imminent threat. But simultaneously, elements of the military and intelligence services are increasing their behind-the-scenes opposition to the Zardari government.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declined to comment on the specifics of the threat Wednesday after meeting with EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton in Washington.
"Now with regard to the intelligence reports of threats, we are not going to comment on specific intelligence, as doing so threatens to undermine intelligence operations that are critical in protecting the United States and our allies," Clinton said.
"As we have repeatedly said, we know that al-Qaida and its network of terrorists wishes to attack both European and U.S. targets. We continue to work very closely with our European allies on the threat from international terrorism, including the role that al-Qaida continues to play."
As the Afghan government counts the votes cast during Saturday's parliamentary elections, the United States is working hard to train the bureaucrats that will run the local and provincial governments that will be crucial to increasing the Afghan government's credibility.
The U.S. mission is based on the goal of handing over swaths of Afghanistan to local governments, which would allow U.S. troops to leave the country. But corruption and mismanagement at all levels of Afghanistan's government is the single largest obstacle to achieving an orderly transition to Afghan control and convincing local citizens to reject the Taliban.
After a series of high-profile spats with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the administration is shifting its anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan to include a greater focus on lower-level officials.
A significant part of this effort consists of a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded program, which gives thousands of Afghan government officials a crash course on governing and anti-corruption techniques. After the program concludes, these officials are then sent out to form the foundation of Afghanistan's civil service.
The U.S. government funds and supports the Afghan Civil Service Institute, the makeshift university in Kabul where bureaucrats are trained, through the Afghan Civil Service Support Program, which was launched last February. The institution, which is Afghan-run but U.S.-supported, has graduated 11,000 sub-national government officials and expects to reach a total of 16,000 by the end of the year. It teaches five basic bureaucratic functions: procurement, strategy and policy, human resources, project management, and finance.
"Getting people competent in a few basic skills... things that make a government function is so critically important," said Alex Thier, USAID's director of the office of Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs in Washington. "You could have the best ministers, but if you don't have anyone at the local level that is making sure that the ministries function, none of that stuff gets done."
Thier describes the program as a crucial aspect in the drive to establish the conditions that will eventually facilitate the departure of U.S. forces.
"If we're talking about stability in Afghanistan and we're talking about creating a minimally competent government, you have to have people with basic skills. After 30 years of civil war, you don't have those people anymore," he said.
But finding competent candidates, and then convincing them to work for the Karzai government or its subsidiaries, is no easy task, said Thier.
"It is not exactly the greatest time in Afghan history to be a civil servant. The government officials are being targeted and it's very difficult to serve in this environment."
The school has a specific curriculum for anti-corruption efforts, but the point of building up the Afghan civil service is so that better governance will reduce the opportunities for corruption altogether.
"Corruption is a very high priority and basic tools to allow for financial management and budget management are essential to that," said Thier.
The recently trained and deployed Afghan bureaucrats are facing their biggest test in the coming weeks. All 250 seats of the Afghanistan's lower house, called the Wolesi Jirga, were up for grabs last weekend.
The election results aren't expected to be final until the end of October -- but don't take that as a problem, a senior administration official said.
"So the election... will actually play out over a series of weeks. And we just want to make clear that that's fully expected."
As for the integrity of the elections themselves, which is already under suspicion, the Obama administration's position is that the ballot had better checks and balances protecting against fraud than the disputed 2009 presidential polls. Nevertheless, the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), which vets complaints, has a majority of Karzai-appointed commissioners, raising questions about its objectivity.
"Our sense is that both the [Independent Elections Commission] but also the complaints commission, the ECC, are in manning, leadership and process improvements over the 2009 version," the senior administration official 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."
Kai Eide, the recently ousted head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, paid a visit to the State Department Thursday morning.
Eide's contract wasn't renewed following a very public fracas with his second in command, Peter Galbraith, over how to handle the widespread fraud in the recent reelection of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Galbraith accused Eide of having him fired for speaking out about the fraud. Eide himself may also been cashiered for being seen as too close to Karzai.
Apparently a little bitter, in his parting words to the U.N. in New York Wednesday, Eide took a broad swipe at the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan, warning of a military-focused strategy and urging international forces in Afghanistan not to expand the surge into new civilian areas.
Via the fine UN Dispatch blog, Eide said:
The military surge must not be allowed to undermine equally important civilian objectives and the development of such a politically driven strategy. It must not lead to an accelerated pressure for quick results in governance and economic development efforts, which could divert resources from a long-term approach to civilian institution building and economic growth. Furthermore, it must not lead the military to expand their engagement into key civilian areas, such as those I just mentioned. That could result in a situation where the international community becomes more entrenched rather than a situation where the Afghans are more empowered.
So what was Eide's message when he met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Special Representative for Af-Pak Richard Holbrooke this morning in Foggy Bottom? Apparently it was about peeling off some of the Taliban through some sort of political engagement.
"There isn't any question that our policy has to include an opportunity for those people fighting with the Taliban to rejoin the political process," Holbrooke told an audience at the Brookings Institution Thursday. "I would estimate that 60 to 70 or more percent of those people fighting with the Taliban are not ideologically supportive of al Qaeda at all and are not necessarily supportive of the Taliban supreme leadership."
Clinton acknowledged the need to start separating the die-hard Taliban from the hangers-on in her July speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, but no real engagement is happening, at least that we know of. Holbrooke said the idea existed on paper but never got any real traction.
The closest thing publicly announced was a conference in Tokyo set up by Japanese parliamentarians last November, in which Afghan government representatives discussed Taliban engagement with a range of international representatives.
Also at Brookings, Holbrooke denied, again, that he is somehow secretly working on the Kashmir issue or dealing with India policy in any way, as is rumored around Washington.
"I am not negotiating issues between India and Pakistan," he said. "It's not my job nor would it be productive if I were to undertake it."
In his landmark strategy speech Tuesday, President Obama stressed the importance of Pakistan to the success of the fight against terrorism and extremism in South Asia, but he didn't offer many details. One reason could be that there are no new concrete deliverables or changes in approach related to Pakistan to announce, and all of the ideas Obama has for advancing the relationship are waiting for Pakistani buy-in.
Conventional wisdom in Washington is that that Obama didn't want to trigger Pakistani sensitivities by talking too much about the U.S. military operations there. In reality, the substance of any new items of cooperation Obama is proposing to Pakistan are a long way from being finalized.
At West Point, Obama talked about the need to help Pakistan economically, build Pakistani civic institutions, and even work on some sort of rapprochement between Pakistan and India, all while pressing Pakistani leaders to do more to confront extremists in their midst.
"Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interests, mutual respect, and mutual trust," Obama said. "We will strengthen Pakistan's capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries, and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe-haven for terrorists whose location is known, and whose intentions are clear."
But everything Obama said regarding Pakistan was already administration policy, so what's new as of Tuesday's announcement? Nothing yet.
"Beyond what the president said in his speech in terms of a roadmap for building U.S.-Pakistan relations, I do not believe there is anything else [planned or agreed at this point]," a State Department official involved in the issue said in an interview with The Cable.
Last week, The Washington Post reported that Obama sent Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari a letter, delivered by National Security Advisor James L. Jones, offering Pakistan a new strategic relationship with the U.S. in exchange for really tackling the extremist problem once and for all, in what some insiders are calling a "grand bargain."
But the State Department official downplayed the significance of the letter (which he had not personally seen), describing the administration's outreach to Pakistan as a "methodic, long run policy."
"We're not pivoting this relationship on any big transaction," the State Department official said. "I do not believe the new Pakistan strategy is based on suddenly introducing a big offer on the table to get the Pakistanis to carry out a specific act. It's trying to really build a long-term partnership that hasn't existed in a long time."
Then on Wednesday, the New York Times came out with a story about how Obama had secretly authorized a significant expansion of U.S. military and intelligence operations inside Pakistan, including expanded drone strikes targeting Afghan Taliban in addition to those insurgents attacking the Pakistani government.
But even the Times piece acknowledged, regarding Obama's Pakistan expansion, that "the Pakistanis, suspicious of Mr. Obama's intentions and his staying power, have not yet agreed."
Pakistani sources told The Cable that Zardari has not responded to Obama's letter and while the Zadari government was generally open to greater cooperation, negotiations could take months.
That didn't stop Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from testifying today to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "We will significantly expand support intended for Pakistan to develop the potential of their people." Of course, that's true based on the Kerry-Lugar Pakistan aid bill, which passed in September, and other initiatives, but that's not new.
Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar, R-IN, honed in on the gaps in the administration's announced strategy.
"It is not clear how any expanded military effort in Afghanistan addresses the problem of Taliban and al Qaeda safe havens across the border in Pakistan," he said. "If these safe havens persist, any strategy in Afghanistan will be substantially incomplete."
Underlying the dynamic is the open question of whether the Pakistani military, which has been getting attacked ruthlessly and repeatedly by extremists lately, has either the capacity or the will to expand its fight to militants who are only interested in creating havoc on the other side of the Afghan-Pakistan border.
"[The Pakistani military] feels that they're stretched; they feel that they need to maintain [their ties to the Afghan Taliban] due to potential hostilities with India and uncertainty about the long-term American presence," said J Alexander Thier, director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the United States Institute of Peace.
He said getting Pakistan's government to give up supporting the Afghan Taliban, "out of all of this stuff, is the hardest sell."
Shuja Nawaz, director for South Asia at the Atlantic Council, said that until the Pakistanis respond to Obama's overtures, there is no "grand bargain."
"Basically I think it's a reaffirmation of the commitment to Pakistan," he said, "which is probably all the president can do in letter form."
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.
In which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. Here are the highlights of today and yesterday's briefings by spokesman Ian Kelly:
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.