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."
The White House spent an hour Friday afternoon trying to convince angry Hill staffers and human rights activists that "naming and shaming" governments that recruit child soldiers, rather than imposing Congressionally-mandated sanctions on them, will better address the problem. But advocacy leaders are upset with the administration and rejected top White House officials' contention that removing sanctions against four troubled states will be a positive move.
The White House began a conference call on the issue Friday afternoon by apologizing to the NGO and Hill community for the decision's botched rollout, which was announced only through a short official presidential memorandum on Monday and then reported on by The Cable on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. The call was off the record and not for press purposes, but a recording was made available to The Cable.
"This is a call that should have happened before you read about the administration's child soldiers' posture in the newspaper," said Samantha Power, the National Security Council's senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights. "Given the way you all heard about the implementation of the statute, I can understand why some of the reactions that you had were prevalent."
Power defended the president's decision to waive penalties under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008, which was set to go into effect this month, for Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan, and Yemen. She argued that identifying these countries as violators while giving them one more year to stop recruiting underage troops would help make progress.
"Our judgment was brand them, name them, shame them, and then try to leverage assistance in a fashion to make this work," said Power, adding that this was the first year the Obama administration had to make a decision on this issue, so they want to give the violator countries one more year to show progress.
"In year one to just say we're out of here, best of luck, we wish you well... Our judgment is we'll work from inside the tent."
But Hill staffers and advocacy leaders on the call weren't buying what Power was selling. They were upset that they learned about the decision via The Cable, and challenged Power on each point that she made.
For example, Jo Becker, advocacy director for the children's rights division at Human Rights Watch, pointed out that the law was passed two years ago.
"The law was enacted in 2008, so countries have had two years to know that this was coming down the pike," she said. "So the consequences of the law really shouldn't be taking anyone by surprise, so to say countries need a year to get their act together is really problematic."
She also disputed Power's contention on the call that "there's evidence that our diplomatic engagement and this military assistance has resulted in some changes."
"The U.S. has been providing training for years already with no real change on the ground," said Becker. "We haven't seen significant changes in practice so far from the engagement approach, so that seems to indicate to me we need to change the approach, maybe withholding programs until we see changes on the ground."
"I think the logic of engagement is something reasonable people can disagree on," Power responded. "There's probably empirical evidence on both sides."
Advocates on the call did acknowledge Chad's efforts on child soldier demobilization, but lamented that little or no progress has been seen in the DRC or with South Sudan's Southern People's Liberation Army (SPLA). But they wanted to know: If the administration believes that the threat of the sanctions has caused progress, then how does removing that threat keep the pressure on?
"Why remove that leverage now when we've seen it's been so valuable?" asked Scott Stedjan, senior policy advisor at Oxfam America
Jesse Eaves, policy advisor for children in crisis at World Vision, was one of several on the call to wonder why the administration decided to waive all sanctions, rather than using a part of the law that allows the continuation of military assistance to violator countries, along as that assistance goes toward military professionalization.
"Naming and shaming has not worked," he said. "You can give support under the law. Much of the aid that's even discussed in the justification memo that many of us have seen can still be given to these countries if they show a reasonable attempt to demobilize child soldiers."
Overall, Power wanted to point out that the administration is still intent on fighting the use of child soldiers and that waiving the sanctions doesn't mean that all pressures will stop. She promised that if these countries don't shape up, the administration will take a tougher line when reevaluating the sanctions next year.
Power repeatedly attempted to argue that the attention over the president's decision to waive sanctions was exactly the kind of public pressure needed to spur violator governments to change. However, her argument was complicated by the fact that the administration failed to tell anyone about the decision and announced it with no rollout or explanation whatsoever.
"I do think there's something different between what happened in 2008 [when the law passed] versus actually being named this week," she said. "And we're already seeing out in the field via our embassies a huge amount of discomfort and angst on the part of those countries about being branded in this way."
Power said at the end of the call that the administration plans to capitalize on the fallout from its decision. She said that the administration planned on "[u]sing the attention from this moment and the leverage of having abstained from having put the sanctions in effect right now and saying... ‘You're not going to get so lucky next time if we don't see some progress.'"
Overall, the call showed that the White House realized it botched the rollout of the decision but is standing by the decision itself. Next, they will have to defend it on Capitol Hill, where staffers are set to receive a special briefing on the issue next week.
"I think it's unfortunate that the NGO community and those in Congress who wrote the law were not involved in its implementation," said Kody Kness, an aide to Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), one of the lead sponsors of the law. "I think that's a missed opportunity."
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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.
Most officials on Capitol Hill and human rights advocates received no warning or explanation prior to the Obama administration's quiet announcement Monday that it would waive sanctions against four countries that forcibly recruit child soldiers. However, an internal State Department document obtained by The Cable sheds light on the reasons behind the Obama administration's decision to pull back on a bill that Barack Obama himself co-sponsored as a senator.
The internal document shows that the administration prepared detailed justifications for its decision to waive sanctions against countries that forcibly recruit child soldiers, arguing that working closely with troubled militaries is the best way to reform them and that U.S. security depends on such relationships. But the administration didn't share those justifications with anyone outside the administration until after the decision had been made.
On Wednesday, after The Cable reported that Obama had decided not to cut off military assistance -- as required under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act -- against Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and Yemen, the White House offered only a terse explanation for the decision. Today, we bring you the internal State Department document dated Monday, Oct. 25 (PDF) that lays out the arguments State made in favor of not implementing these sanctions. The document is signed by Obama, but we're told it was prepared by State.
The State recommendation to Obama came over the objections of top officials in its Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) bureau, sources told The Cable, but the Political Military affairs bureau (PM) argued in favor of the waivers. We're also told that the Near Eastern Affairs bureau (NEA) and the Africa bureau (AF) were heavily involved in the discussions although it's unclear what their exact positions were inside the debate.
Hill staffers and child advocacy leaders who were provided the document after Monday's announcement told The Cable they were unsatisfied with both the decision and the explanation.
"We're going to ask for some greater explanation on some of these. To do the waiver on all of the countries certainly caught our attention," said one Democratic Senate aide involved in the issue. "When using American tax money to help governments that use child soldiers, there should be a pretty high bar."
Key Senate offices to watch are those of Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Sam Brownback (R-KS), the original sponsors of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act. There was broad bipartisan support for the bill when it passed by unanimous voice vote in 2008. Other key co-sponsors at the time included then Sen. Joseph Biden and then-Sen. Obama.
"This was landmark legislation that Obama supported as a senator and now he's undercutting it. It's really a shame," said Jo Becker, advocacy director for the children's rights division at Human Rights Watch.
"The basic problem here is that the administration is taking an all-or-nothing approach. There's no doubt that the administration has legitimate interests in these countries. But they should have sought a middle ground that allows them to take the law seriously while still taking our cooperation with these countries seriously," she said.
The justification for each waiver largely tracks what a White House official told us yesterday, but adds new detail and context to the administration's position on the law and on the violator countries, all of which were identified in the State Department's own 2010 Trafficking in Persons report as systematically using underage troops.
For all the countries, the document states that progress on moving these armies away from using child soldiers is ongoing and that the United States vets anyone they work with directly to make sure they are of the proper age.
On Chad, for example, the document states that ongoing military training programs that would be cut if the law was enforced "are critical to training and influencing critical and future Chadian military leaders." Similarly, the document argues that cutting off military cooperation with the DRC would "jeopardize the United States' opportunity to positively affect the negative behavior patterns currently exhibited by the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC)."
In Sudan, ongoing training of the Southern People's Liberation Army (SPLA) would be scuttled if the law were enforced, hurting that army's progress just before the South votes on a referendum to split from the North, the document states.
Cooperation with Yemen needs to continue because that government is a key partner in the fight against al Qaeda, the document argues. "[C]utting off assistance would seriously jeopardize the Yemeni government's ability to conduct special operations and counterterrorism missions, and create a dangerous level of in the country and the region," it says.
The Obama administration quietly waived a key section of the law meant to combat the use of child soldiers for four toubled states on Monday, over the objections the State Department's democracy and human rights officials. Today, the White House tells The Cable that they intend to give these countries -- all of whose armed forces use underage troops -- one more year to improve before bringing any penalties to bear.
The NGO community was shocked by the announcement, reported Tuesday by The Cable, that President Obama authorized exemptions from all penalties set to go into effect this year under the Child Soldier Prevention Act of 2008. The countries that received waivers were Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Yemen.
The failure of the administration to consult or even warn those groups that had worked hard to pass the law caused unease and concern around the advocacy community Tuesday. Child protection advocates worried that the administration was abandoning the tactic of threatening to cut off military assistance as a means to pressure abusive regimes to stop forcibly recruiting troops under the age of 18.
"This took us totally by surprise and was a complete shock to people who are working in the field," said Jesse Eaves, policy advisor for children in crisis at World Vision, a children-focused humanitarian organization.
On Tuesday evening, a White House official explained to The Cable the reasons for the decision and the details of what it means for U.S. activity in the affected countries. Essentially, the administration decided that it could not ensure that the offending countries would be able to abide by the law in time -- the breach of which would have required Washington to pull funding. In the end, the administration's calculus weighed in favor of continuing to fund several ongoing assistance programs like military training and counterterrorism advising. They decided to give each country at least one more year to implement reforms before sanctions are brought to bear, according to the official.
"This is the first year that sanctions were to take effect and part of our thinking here has been to put countries on notice of these legal provisions that are taking effect for the first time and that progress is going to have to be made on these things if these countries are going to continue to receive assistance," the White House official said.
The official also noted that the Obama administration was keen to preserve their relationships with the governments in question and argued that engaging troubled militaries was the most effective way to encourage the reform the law was designed to bring about.
"We still think it's important to maintain a solid relationship with the governments there to ensure they provide protection to those folks," the official said. "One rationale for continuing the assistance is to help them address the very problem that is the source of the sanctions."
Inside the administration, however, The Cable has learned that there was a heated debate over whether to issue the waivers. Apparently, this debate was held inside the State Department, with the bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) and the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons arguing against blanket exemptions. The bureau of Political and Military Affairs (PM) argued for the exemptions. The PM bureau's argument won the day and the State Department submitted recommendations to the White House, which issued the waivers.
The 2008 Child Soldier Prevention Act was originally sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and wrapped into a larger bill sponsored by then Sen. Joe Biden. Durbin's office was not able to comment by deadline and Biden's office deferred to the White House.
Leading human rights activists involved in the issue were skeptical that letting abusive governments evade sanctions would have the effect of producing reform faster.
"This is the first year it's being enacted, so to waive everyone right out of the gate sends exactly the wrong message," said Jo Becker, advocacy director for the children's rights division at Human Rights Watch. "By providing a blanket waiver, the U.S. is really giving up all of its leverage to force them to change their approach to using child soldiers."
She also criticized the official's contention that the abusive countries needed more time to become aware of the law, which was signed in December 2008. It became operative in June 2009 but couldn't go into effect until violator countries were identified in the State Department's 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, which came out in June.
"If the State Department was doing its job, governments would have been well aware two years ago that this process was underway," said Becker.
The 2010 Trafficking in Persons report identified six countries that are systematically employing the use of child soldiers. In addition to the four that Obama waived sanctions on, Burma and Somalia are also implicated. But neither of those countries receive U.S. military assistance that could be cut off as a sanction, according to the law. Therefore, Obama's waivers have the effect of preventing the law from imposing any sanctions at all this year.
The White House official said when the next State Department report comes out in June 2011, there will be another assessment of whether to impose penalties on violator countries. He also hastened to underline that the waivers weren't issued to pave the way for new military sales to any of the countries found to be using child soldiers.
In Chad, the U.S. is engaged in counterterrorism activities but also is working with the government's armed forces to deal with the spillover of refugees from the crisis over the Sudanese border in Darfur. In the DRC, the U.S. is providing training of various types, military advisors, and also military vehicles and spare parts to the Congolese army. Over 33,000 child soldiers have been involved in the decade old civil war there and the country leads the world in the use of underage troops, according to UNICEF.
With regard to Sudan, other sanctions prevent the United States from helping the Khartoum government in the North, but the U.S. is giving military training assistance to the Southern People's Liberation Army, which could end up a national army if the South votes to separate in the January referendum. The SPLA has about 1,200 child soldiers, the official said, adding that cutting off such training would only undermine ongoing reform efforts.
Yemen is a recipient of significant direct U.S. military assistance, having received $155 million in fiscal 2010 with a possible $1.2 billion coming over the next five years. Yemen is also a much needed ally for counterterrorism operations. The government is engaged in a bloody fight with al Qaeda (among other separatist and terrorist groups), and estimates put the ratio of child soldiers among all the groups there at more than half. Nevertheless, "the president believes there are profound equities with Yemen in terms of counterterrorism that we need to continue to work on," the official told The Cable.
Several outside experts pointed out the existing law already contains an exemption that would permit the U.S. government to sanction abuser countries while still providing assistance that "will directly support professionalization of the military."
"This exception gives the U.S. government very wide berth to continue to provide assistance to bring these militaries more in line with the American image of what their military should look like," said Rachel Stohl, Associate Fellow at the Washington office of Chatham House, a U.K.-based think tank. "The law allows for professionalization of these militaries, so these waivers are really disappointing and add insult to injury."
AFP / Getty images
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton departed Wednesday morning on her sixth trip to Asia, where she will visit seven countries over 13 days and meet with scores of officials and other regional actors. The highlights of the trip will be Clinton's participation in the East Asia Summit in Hanoi and a meeting with her Chinese Foreign Ministry counterpart on Hainan Island, made infamous by the April 2001 diplomatic tussle over the crash landing of a U.S. surveillance plane.
"It's a very complicated and, frankly, lengthy trip," Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told reporters Tuesday. "At every stop, the Secretary will highlight both political and economic interactions, a desire to promote U.S. exports and see a more forward engagement on economic matters."
Wednesday morning, Clinton departed Washington and headed to Hawaii, where she will first meet with military officials including Pacific Fleet Chief of Staff Rear Adm. Joseph Walsh and Adm. Robert Willard, the head of Pacific Command. Following that she will have what Campbell called a "substantial, intense interaction" with Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara that will cover "all aspects of our bilateral relationship."
Thursday, Clinton will give a "major address" on U.S. strategy toward the Asia-Pacific region at the East West Center. In addition to setting the stage for Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington (we're hearing January), the G-20 meetings next month in Seoul, and the APEC meeting next year in Japan, Clinton's speech will explain that "at the economic level, 2011 is emerging as a very consequential, in many respects make-or-break, year for the United States," Campbell said. Following that, Clinton will stop in Guam to visit U.S. troops.
On Friday Oct. 29, Clinton goes to Hanoi, where the United States is joining for the first time the East Asia Summit, with an eye toward membership in the near future. On Saturday, she will make a presentation there as "a guest of the chair." There are several bilateral meetings planned, including a conversation with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. She will also participate in the Lower Mekong Initiative meeting and meet with Indian and Russian interlocutors, Campbell said.
Sometime during her stay in Vietnam, Clinton will take a quick trip to Hainan Island, China, to meet with State Counselor Dai Bingguo. "At that session, we will review the various issues in the U.S.-China relationship, make sure that we're making adequate preparations for both the upcoming G-20 meeting, APEC, and particularly for the session that will take place in January when Hu Jintao will visit the United States, or in early part of 2011," Campbell said.
On Saturday Oct. 30, she moves on to Siem Reap, Cambodia. She will visit Angkor Wat on Sunday and meet King Norodom Simahoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh on Monday. Clinton will then head to Malaysia on to meet with Prime Minister Najib Razak and his cabinet. "I think you will see the flourishing U.S.-Malaysian relationship on full display," Campbell predicted. This will be Clinton's first visit to both countries as secretary of state.
On Wednesday, Nov. 3, the team goes Papua New Guinea to meet Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare and other senior government officials, women leaders, and environmental experts. The next stop is New Zealand, where Clinton will meet with senior government officials, including Prime Minister John Key and Foreign Minister Murray McCull. There the two sides will announce the so-called Wellington Declaration, "which will underscore our desire to see U.S.-New Zealand relations return to a significance in terms of coordination on a range of issues," said Campbell.
On Saturday, Nov. 6, Clinton will travel to Australia to join Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, and Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith in Melbourne for the 25th anniversary of the annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) to discuss regional and global security issues. Secretary Clinton will also meet with Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
She returns to Washington Monday, Nov. 8, with a final stop in American Samoa.
"We often talk about stepping up our game in the Asian Pacific region. In that formulation, the A gets a lot more attention than the P, the Pacific. You will note on this particular trip that the Secretary will be stopping in three Pacific islands," Campbell said. "This will be the longest trip of her tenure to date."
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.
Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, who laid down a marker by arguing in Thursday's New York Times that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state now, met with a host of Arab American leaders the night before to explain recent Israeli decisions regarding the peace process and assure them of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's commitment to the end goal.
Hosted by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, which is led by rumored future U.S. ambassador to Israel, Robert Wexler, Oren responded to questions from a range of groups, including the American Task Force on Palestine, the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, the Palestinian Business Committee for Peace and Reform, AMIDEAST, the American Task Force on Lebanon, the El-Bireh Palestine Society, and others.
Here are some excerpts of what Oren said:
On the Israeli attitude to the peace process:
To understand [the Israeli] perspective you need to understand that first of all Israel, and Israelis, have been through a great deal over the course of the last decade, since 2000, certainly... What is extraordinary, I believe, is that in spite of all this upheaval and violence and trauma, that a significant majority of Israelis still support a two-state solution... That's the good news. The less-than-good news is that as a result of all these disappointments and setbacks in violence, many Israelis, a significant majority, almost the same majority that supports a two-state solution, is skeptical about the ability to achieve that solution; skeptical of the Palestinian leadership's willingness to step up and make that historical peace; skeptical of the willingness of the Palestinian people specifically, and of the broader Arab world to accept a permanent and Jewish state in the Middle East; skeptical about an end of violence.
On the current status of the talks:
I won't dissemble the fact, I don't think I could dissemble the fact, that we are at an impasse tonight. We are each in our own corner -- the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Arab League, I think the administration also -- and we're looking for the right bell that will get us out of these corners and get us to the middle but not swinging, talking. And I would be misleading you to indicate in any way that I have the magic formula, that anybody has the magic formula for this. I can only assure you, again, that this government and the Prime Minister are deeply and unequivocally committed to this process.
On Netanyahu's offer to extend the settlement freeze only if Palestinians accept Israel as a "Jewish state":
The situation was created where there was a complete impasse in the talks. The PM felt that with the level of skepticism - that some measure had to be given by the Palestinians that would reassure the Israeli public, the Israeli public that feels they have made concession after concession whether it is recognition of the two state solution, the support from the bottom up, the security in the West Bank-they needed to hear something from the Palestinians that the Palestinians were serious about peace. And the Prime Minister felt that if he had that from the Palestinians-and once again this was only created by the end of the moratorium issue-that he could go to the government and try to persuade them on the extension. He did not.
On the right of return for Palestinian refugees:
We also understand that here is a final status issue, a classic one that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state means that Palestinian refugees will not be resettled there. They will be resettled in the Palestinian state and not in the Jewish statme or in any other state but not in the Jewish state. The demographic integrity of Israel will be preserved. Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state is not a tactical issue for us. It is the most fundamental issue for us. It's the absolute core of the conflict. It's what created the conflict to begin with.
On the idea of an American plan for Middle East peace:
I don't want to in any way imply that they can quickly reach this without bridging proposals by the U.S. There is a big difference between a bridging proposal and an overarching comprehensive agreement. And our fears relating to an overarching comprehensive agreement -- "this is our American version of peace" -- is that it will not meet our vital security needs, as we were talking about here earlier. And secondly that it could lead to an imposed solution. Because once it's on that table you don't know where it goes or how the tables are going to find itself. It could find itself in an international organization that could say that if the two parties do not accept this proposal they could sanctioned. That's a real fear. And in which that would put us in a very adversarial position.
On why Israel doesn't want to discuss settlements now:
Settlements -- from our perspective -- is a final status issue. It is way down the list of final status issues because settlements from our perspective are a subcategory of borders which are a subcategory of security. And so we are a long way from discussing settlements. By putting them up front, it creates a difficultly -- a political difficulty. And it further augments the skepticism that many Israelis feel about the seriousness of a Palestinian interlocutor if they're making the issue of settlements -- something that the government cannot do right now.
On the Arab Peace Initiative:
The Israeli government welcomes the Arab Peace Initiative. We welcome it as a positive contribution to the peace process. We think it's a single component of a future possible peace. We feel that it's not enough. And that the promise of normalization for withdrawal to the '67 borders would have far greater wave, and have far greater persuasive powers in the Israeli public, if the Arab world was willing to take even the minutest steps towards normalization... Israelis are generally not aware of what is in the Arab Peace Initiative. But they are aware that the Arab world is not taking any steps, even symbolic steps towards normalization. And those steps would have immense impact on Israeli public opinion.
The State Department has been stepping up both its rhetorical and punitive actions against Iran, but the question still remains whether the administration will go as far as to sanction companies based in countries where relations are delicate, especially China.
Last week, the United States announced two steps to increase pressure on Iran: President Obama signed an executive order on Sept. 29 targeting eight Iranian individuals for serious human rights abuses, and the State Department announced on Sept. 30 that it was imposing sanctions on the Switzerland-based Naftiran Intertrade Company (NICO) due to its involvement in the Iranian petroleum sector. These actions are based on the Iran sanctions legislation passed overwhelmingly by Congress and signed into law by President Obama last June.
On Monday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a new report that identified 16 companies as having sold petroleum products to Iran between Jan. 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010. Of those 16, the GAO reported that five have shown no signs of curtailing business with Iran. Three of those companies are based in China, one in Singapore, and one in the UAE.
There are some positive signs, however, that international pressure is having an effect on companies' willingness to do business in Iran. Several firms -- hailing from Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, India, and the United Kingdom -- told the GAO that they are halting their refined petroleum business with Iran.
But leading senators aren't convinced that the holdouts are planning to follow suit. They are pressing the Obama administration to use the new sanctions law to punish those who won't go along -- especially if they are from China.
"The GAO report released today provides encouraging evidence that the comprehensive sanctions legislation passed by Congress earlier this year is indeed persuading many companies to stop selling gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Iran. We applaud those firms that have taken this responsible and important step," said Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) joint statement. Lieberman and Collins had requested the GAO report in July.
However, the success of sanctions legislation has only made it "even more imperative" that the Obama administration pressure countries that have maintained their ties in Iran, the senators stated. "We are particularly concerned that the majority of the companies that GAO identifies as still selling gasoline to Iran are in China. We urge the Administration to complete its own investigations swiftly and enforce the sanctions law, comprehensively and aggressively, against any violators," the statement read.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg told reporters last week that the State Department was looking at additional firms' business in Iran and would consider more direct sanctions through a two-step process that takes up to 180 days. But he added that the administration was first trying to negotiate with foreign governments to stop the companies' activities in advance of imposing penalties.
"We are following the process outlined in the statute," said Steinberg. "If we find credible evidence [of firms violating the sanctions], then we go to the next stage, which is to conduct an investigation ... and then we would make a decision," Steinberg said.
One of the main concerns on Capitol Hill is that, as countries pull out from Iran, other countries will take over contracts, thereby nullifying the effect of the sanctions and enriching themselves at other countries' expense -- a practice known as "backfilling."
The administration and Congress worked hard to convince Japan and South Korea to impose unilateral measures against Iran, which they did, but there's particular concern that China will simply come in and take over those contracts.
Kyl and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week on this very issue, pointing out reports that China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) replaced the Japanese firm Inpex and agreed to invest around $2 billion to develop Iran's South Azadegan oil fields last year.
"The Administration, by continuing to ignore blatant violations of our sanctions laws by Chinese companies, has undermined our sanctions regime on Iran. It has sent the message to our friends and allies -- many of which have taken the difficult steps to reduce their economic ties with Iran -- that others will be let off the hook," Kyl said Sept. 30.
"If President Obama genuinely believes that a nuclear-armed Iran is not acceptable, he must stand by those words and apply the authority Congress has given him to punish all who are violating U.S. sanctions laws, particularly China," said Kyl. "Time is of the essence."
Steinberg addressed the issue of backfilling in his briefing, saying that such activity would provoke actions under the sanctions legislation. "We've made clear to all our international partners that we are strongly discouraging substitution. And of course, were there to be substitution that came within the ambit of the act, it would raise questions under the act," he said.
Bob Einhorn¸ State's senior advisor on Iran and North Korea sanctions, is the man responsible for delivering that message and he traveled to Beijing last week to press the Chinese not to undermine the sanctions. It's not clear yet if he was successful.
In a July 29 hearing, Einhorn referenced a previous GAO report that identified 41 foreign firms with a petroleum interest in Iran. "There are a number of entities that are very problematic. I have to say that a number of them have been engaged in sanctionable activity," he said in testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform committee.
Complicating matters are the persistent rumors that China may have secured some type of immunity from additional sanctions as part of their agreement to support U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929, which established relatively benign sanctions against Iran as punishment for its continued pursuit of nuclear weapons capability.
Undersecretary of State William Burns said at an Oct. 1 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the State Department had competed an internal review of the companies noted in the GAO report and would make more determinations soon, but he cautioned not to expect too many companies to be singled out for punishment.
"There are probably -- there are a number of cases, less than 10, in which it appears that there may have been violations of the Iran Sanctions Act. Most of those appear to involve activities that have stopped, in other words, involving companies that have pulled out of business in Iran, but there are a couple that appear to be ongoing," he said.
Capitol Hill observers have been encouraged by the administration's recent moves -- but are still not convinced they constitute enough of a commitment to increasing pressure on Iran. Staffers say that the administration's new forceful tone and rhetoric are a marked improvement, even if they are only fulfilling the actions required by the sanctions legislation.
What's clear is that the administration is not yet finished implementing sanctions against firms doing business with Iran, and Congress will be pressing it not to back down from punishing companies from countries that may take retaliatory measures.
"Many in Congress are worried that the administration will fall for Iran's latest bid to buy a reprieve from sanctions by appearing interested in negotiations," said one senior GOP senate aide. "Congress will not let up on the pressure on the administration to go after Iran and those who are supporting it, namely, the Chinese."
"U.S. citizens are reminded of the potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure. Terrorists have targeted and attacked subway and rail systems, as well as aviation and maritime services," the alert stated. "U.S. citizens should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling."
Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy told reporters in a Sunday conference call that the travel alert was the result of "cumulative" reporting about ongoing terrorist intentions to attack European sites, not one "eureka" piece of information that caused the U.S. government to spring to action immediately. He also reiterated that the warning did not advise Americans to not go to Europe.
He said the alert was to remind American travelers in Europe to take common-sense precautions, such as noticing unattended packages and moving away from loud booms when they are heard. He encouraged all Americans traveling to Europe to sign up on the State Department's travel registration page, so the U.S. government can know to try and find them if something happens.
"Avoid public demonstrations, avoid civil disturbances. Don't discuss your travel plans or where you're going with others or where others may overhear them. Know what you're doing, be aware of your circumstances around you. If you see something that looks untoward, move away from it and inform law enforcement personnel. If you see unattended packages, or such, move away from them and inform law enforcement," Kennedy said."Now is the time to issue a Travel Alert, and the situation, I think, can be really summed up by what Secretary Clinton said couple of days ago, which is that we all know that al Qaeda and its networks of terrorists wish to attack both European and American targets," he said, appearing to downplay the alert.
He refused to say when the State Department began considering issuing the alert, but said it had been discussed for weeks.
If the threat was even more serious, the State Department could have issued a Travel Warning, which would actually recommend that Americans defer travel.
"And so the material that we have available to us, fully analyzed, fully reviewed, and the weight of the material is such that a Travel Alert is the appropriate answer," Kennedy said.While such a broad alert is extremely rare, there are some similar examples in the recent past. Last month, the State Department issued a Worldwide Travel Alert urging U.S. citizens to exercise caution due to possible anti-U.S. demonstrations in response to plans by a Florida church to burn Qurans.
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."
Top Israeli officials, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Soviet dissident turned Israeli parliamentarian Natan Sharansky, reacted with disappointment Wednesday to comments by former President Bill Clinton casting Israel's Russian immigrant population as an obstacle to the Middle East peace process. Sharansky even accused Clinton of inappropriately trafficking in ethnic stereotypes about Israelis.
"If the reports of President Clinton's comments are accurate, I am particularly disappointed by the president's casual use of inappropriate stereotypes about Israelis, dividing their views on peace based on ethnic origins. I must add that these are uncharacteristic comments from a man who has always been a sensitive and thoughtful listener and conversation partner," said Sharansky, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
As reported first by The Cable, Clinton identified the Russian community as the ethnic group inside Israel least amenable to a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians. The former president, speaking in a roundtable with reporters Monday in New York, also suggested that because Russian and settlers' offspring comprised an increasing proportion of the Israel Defense Forces, forcibly removing settlers from the West Bank as part of a peace deal might be more difficult.
"An increasing number of the young people in the IDF are the children of Russians and settlers, the hardest-core people against a division of the land. This presents a staggering problem," Clinton said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also reacted strongly Wednesday, calling Clinton's comments "distressing," according to the Israeli news wire Ynet.
"As a friend of Israel, Clinton should know that the immigrants from the former Soviet Union have contributed and are making a great contribution to the advancement, development and strengthening of the IDF and the State of Israel. Only a strong Israel can establish solid and safe peace," Netanyahu reportedly said.
Sharansky also denied that he participated in a conversation with Clinton years ago where he used his Russian identity as a reason to oppose a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians.
On Monday, Clinton recalled a conversation, telling reporters that Sharansky said, "I can't vote for this, I'm Russian... I come from one of the biggest countries in the world to one of the smallest. You want me to cut it in half. No, thank you."
Sharanksy responded Wednesday: "I was never at Camp David and never had the opportunity to discuss the negotiations there with President Clinton. It may be that he had in mind our conversations at Wye Plantation years before, where I expressed my serious doubts, given the dictatorial nature of the PA regime, whether Mr. Arafat would be willing to bring freedom to his people, an essential element of a sustainable peace," said Sharansky. "History has shown that these concerns were justified."
The Cable reported that Clinton was referring to Sharansky's opposition to the 2000 Camp David accords but, after reviewing the transcript, it was clear that Clinton was referring to discussions he had with Sharansky during negotiations over the 1998 Wye River Memorandum.
Yisrael Beitenu, an Israeli political party whose supporters are made up of mostly Russian immigrants, called Clinton's comments "crude generalizations." Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, one of the leaders of the party, said that nobody should attempt to divide Israeli groups in such a way.
"The immigrants of Russia contributed to the development of the state of Israel in every field, including science, culture, sports, economy and defense. This year, the entire country is celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Russian aliyah. This shows that the Israeli people are united," the Jerusalem Post reported her saying.
Not all Israeli leaders were upset. Coalition Chairman and Russian immigrant Zeev Elken praised Clinton's remarks. "I am proud of former President Clinton's distinctions. He made the right distinction that the Russian speakers and settlers have been carrying the Zionism banner in the State of Israel in recent years," he told Ynet.
Clinton's staff did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.
A bipartisan group of senators are circulating a new letter urging President Obama to speak out publicly to pressure the Palestinian leadership not to abandon the Middle East peace talks.
The new initiative comes ahead of the Sept. 26 deadline expiration of Israel's 10-month settlement construction moratorium, which presents the first obstacle to the direct peace talks being spearheaded by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly stated that he will withdraw from the negotiations if settlement construction resumes, but Israeli leaders have been equally adamant that they will not extend the moratorium.
President Obama has told Jewish leaders to ignore negative public statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas, calling it all part of the diplomatic game. But the administration has publicly called on Israel to extend the freeze, at least in part.
Lawmakers, who have also bristled at the administration's public pressure on Netanyahu, are now calling on Obama to make it clear to Abbas that even if the freeze isn't extended, he should stay at the table.
"Neither side should make threats to leave just as the talks are getting started," the group of senators wrote in the letter (PDF) dated for release Sept. 24, obtained by The Cable.
The initial draft is signed by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Bob Casey (D-PA), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), and Richard Burr (R-NC), but they circulated a "dear colleague" letter (PDF) Monday calling on more lawmakers to join.
The senators praised Netanyahu for staying at the table even though the beginning of the process was marred by violence.
"Following the brutal murder of four innocent Israeli civilians by Hamas militants at the start of the negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not abandon the talks," the senators wrote. "We also agree with you that it is critical that all sides stay at the table."
Administration officials have indicated that a compromise may be in the works. Former President Bill Clinton said Monday, "I believe there is a fix they can both live with."
Experts said the letter was a gentle push for the Obama administration to sharpen his stance toward Abbas as the end of the freeze rapidly approaches.
"Obviously this is a direct message to President Abbas, and President Obama, that many in Congress...want the Palestinian leadership to stop making what they see as threats and to put public pressure on the Palestinian Authority to move their position," said one Capitol Hill insider who had seen the letter.
"Many Capitol Hill office see Abbas quitting the talks over the settlements as him using the same issue he was clinging to when trying to set preconditions for the talks in the first place."
(Correction: Netanyahu's title corrected to "prime minister.")
Russian immigrants to Israel have emerged as a central obstacle to achieving a Middle East peace deal, according to former President Bill Clinton. He voiced fears that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which increasingly consists of soldiers hailing from this community, might not be fully willing to oppose Israeli settlers as a result.
In a roundtable with reporters during his Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York, Clinton made his most extensive remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is spearheading.
"An increasing number of the young people in the IDF are the children of Russians and settlers, the hardest-core people against a division of the land. This presents a staggering problem," Clinton said. "It's a different Israel. 16 percent of Israelis speak Russian."
According to Clinton, the Russian immigrant population in Israel is the group least interested in striking a peace deal with the Palestinians. "They've just got there, it's their country, they've made a commitment to the future there," Clinton said. "They can't imagine any historical or other claims that would justify dividing it."
To illustrate his view on the Russian immigrant community, Clinton related a conversation he had with Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident turned Israeli parliamentarian, who he said was the only Israeli minister to reject the comprehensive peace agreement Clinton proposed at the Camp David Summit in 2000. The proposal was eventually rejected by Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
"I said, ‘Natan, what is the deal [about not supporting the peace deal],'" Clinton recalled. "He said, ‘I can't vote for this, I'm Russian... I come from one of the biggest countries in the world to one of the smallest. You want me to cut it in half. No, thank you.'"
Clinton responded, "Don't give me this, you came here from a jail cell. It's a lot bigger than your jail cell."
Clinton used the anecdote to explain the Russian immigrant population's attitude toward a land-for- peace deal with the Palestinians. "[Sharansky] was nice about it, a lot of them aren't," Clinton said.
Clinton then ranked the Israeli sub-national groups in order of his perception of their willingness to accept a peace deal. The "most pro-peace Jewish Israelis" are the Sabras, who he described as native-born Israelis whose roots there date back millennia, because they have the benefit of historical context. "They can imagine sharing a future."
Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated from Europe and have been in Israel for one or more generations are the next most supportive of a peace deal, Clinton said.
The "swing voters" are what Clinton called the "Moroccans": North African Jews who immigrated to Israel in the 1970s. He described them as right-of-center citizens who nevertheless want normal, stable lives.
"When they think peace is possible, they vote peace. When they think it's not, they vote for the toughest guys on the block," Clinton said.
Regarding the settlers, Clinton said that their numbers had grown so much since 2000 that their longstanding opposition to giving up their homes in exchange for peace might be more entrenched and therefore a bigger challenge than before.
"In 2000, you could get 97 percent of the settlers on 3 percent of the land. Today, you have to give almost 6 percent of the land to get 80 percent of the settlers," said Clinton. "There were 7,000 settlers in Gaza and it took 55,000 Israeli forces people to move. Somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 settlers will have to be moved out of the West Bank."
Clinton spoke extensively about the positives and negatives he sees in the ongoing direct peace talks launched by the Obama administration.
"I'd say their chances are at least 50-50," Clinton said optimistically.
The Palestinians' internal divisions, specifically the lack of Palestinian control over the Gaza Strip, present another problem, but one that a peace deal could help solve, he suggested.
"That makes it more difficult for Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu to make a deal and to wonder what a deal means," he said. But if there's a deal on the table, that would create enough pressure for an election in Gaza that President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party would win, Clinton argued.
"I believe if there were an election in Gaza today, Fatah would win because of the greater prosperity and the greater security produced under Abbas and Fayyad," Clinton said, adding that Fatah only lost in Gaza elections because of intra-party faction fighting that saw many candidates run against others in their own party.
There are some factors that point to improved conditions for making a peace deal as compared to 2000, said Clinton. He pointed to the fact that two-thirds of Israelis trust Netanyahu to make a peace deal, more than when Ehud Barak was negotiating, according to Clinton. Also, he said that he has faith that the current Palestinian Authority leadership is serious about reaching a settlement.
"They won't do what Arafat did, they won't get up to the deal and lose their nerve. They know what the future looks like."
In the long term, Israelis will face increased pressures, Clinton said. Because of the high Palestinian birth rate, Israel will become a Palestinian-majority state sometime in the next 30 years, if it does not give up the West Bank.
"Then they will have to decide either to be a Jewish state or a democracy, but they cannot be both. They don't want to face that. They don't want to face not only the international legitimacy question but also the internal identity crisis."
Moreover, Clinton said, Hamas militants will soon have military technology that will allow their relatively low-damage attacks on Israeli population centers to have greater accuracy and lethality.
"It's just a matter of time before the rockets have a GPS system on ‘em and a few rockets will kill a whole lot of people. Netanyahu understands that," said Clinton.
He also said that Arab leaders were on board with Middle East peace now more than ever, partly because they now have Iran as a boogeyman to deflect attention from their unpopular policies.
"They think they've got a real enemy in Iran now, so they don't need a faux enemy in Israel to keep people in the street directed at somebody besides them."
Before pontificating on the peace process, Clinton seemed to realize he was stepping into some sensitive territory, but decided to proceed nonetheless.
"I wouldn't say too much about this if Hillary weren't Secretary of State and in charge of these negotiations, so I'm darned sure not going to say too much now," he said, before going in depth on the issue for over 10 minutes.
Josh Rogin / Foreign Policy
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.
Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, both recently returned from touring parts of northern Pakistan devastated by widespread flooding, pledged to increase U.S. government aid to the region.
"I've seen a lot of disasters since I entered the government a long time ago... but what I've never seen before, and what I doubt anyone has ever seen it before, is the way millions of people are spread out across an area the size of Italy, clinging to dykes, living outside the refugee camps, waiting for the water to recede so they can go home," Holbrooke said on a conference call Monday morning. "But there are no homes to return to."
The United States will increase its commitment by $76 million, the State Department announced, bringing its assistance package to $345 million. The United Nations called for $2 billion in aid relief for Pakistan over the weekend, on top of their original $459 million appeal, which is now 80 percent funded.
The new U.S. assistance will be spent immediately on food aid. "There continues to be significant unmet needs in basic food assistance," Shah said, noting that Pakistani leaders had told him that 50 percent of immediate food needs were not being satisfied.
The money will not come out of the funds set aside as part of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Pakistan aid bill. $60 million of that legislation's $1.5 billion commitment for this fiscal year have already been diverted to flood-related disaster assistance, and more will likely be reprogrammed in that direction as the response continues. "The amount and details and so on has to be decided on a case to case basis in consultation with the Congress," Holbrooke said.
But Holbrooke made clear that the United States and the international community is not committing to rebuilding Pakistan alone over the long term and the Pakistani government would have to take the lead.
"The international community is not going to be able to pick up the full costs of the reconstruction phase, the tens of billions of dollars. The international community has been quite generous already," Holbrooke said.
Despite his best efforts, Holbrooke didn't completely avoid becoming embroiled in media controversies during his latest trip to Pakistan. The U.S. Embassy had to deny that Holbrooke made a statement that the United States would not "accept slackness" from the Pakistani military in the war on terror.
Also, Pakistan's Dawn newspaper reported that Holbrooke told reporters in Pakistan that he believed that Pakistan's civilian leadership would survive the latest crisis, saying, "I don't see evidence that the government is drowning."
Nevertheless, Holbrooke sounded pessimistic about the ability of Pakistan to handle the fallout from the flood disaster on its own. When asked Monday if the government in Islamabad would ever have enough money to dig themselves out of the crisis, Holbrooke said, "Nobody knows... probably not."
President Obama, in a private conference call Wednesday, told an audience of Jewish leaders to discount non-constructive statements made by Israeli and Palestinian leaders as Middle East peace talks move forward, saying that such remarks are all part of the negotiating game.
The groups represented on the call were from across the Jewish religious spectrum: They included the orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, the conservative Rabbinical Assembly, the reform Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.
Obama implored the rabbis on the call to publicly support the talks, and to try to rally their own people to support the negotiations. The call was timed in advance of the start of the Jewish high holy days, when the Rabbis see the largest turnout of the year among their congregants. Along those lines, he asked them to discount statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas when they say things in public that make the talks seem doomed. That's mainly for the local television cameras, Obama said.
"I guarantee you over the next four months, six months, a year, in any given week there's going to be something said by someone in the Palestinian Authority that makes your blood boil and makes you think we can't do this," Obama said, according to a recording of the call provided to The Cable. "We're going to have to work through those things."
He emphasized that he would give the same message to Arab groups, regarding statements by the Israeli government they might find objectionable.
"What you're going to see over the next several months is that at any given moment, either President Abbas or Prime Minister Netanyahu may end up saying certain things for domestic consumption, for their constituencies and so forth, that may not be as reflective of that spirit of compromise we would like to see. Well, that's the nature of these talks," Obama said.
Obama referred directly to statements made by both leaders this week that seemed to show an unbridgeable gap over whether Israel must extend its 10-month partial settlement construction freeze, which expires on Sept. 26. The next round of the talks, to be held in Sharm el Sheikh and Jerusalem next week, will be the last official round before the deadline.
"There is going to be an immediate set of difficulties surrounding the existing moratorium on settlements," Obama admitted, pointing out the public positions of the two leaders.
"On one hand, you have Prime Minister Netanyahu saying ‘there's no way I can extend it.' There's President Abbas saying ‘this has to be extended for these talks to be effective," Obama said. He maintained that there was a compromise to be struck.
"I am absolutely convinced that both sides want to make this work and both sides are going to be willing to make some difficult concessions," Obama said. He did not specify what a potential compromise would look like.
Overall, Obama told the rabbis that he believed both Netanyahu and Abbas were serious about peace and said the first round of talks last week in Washington exceeded his expectations.
"I am stunned at how cordial and constructive the talks were," he said.
But Obama's main message on the call was a plea to the rabbis to actively support the talks, or at least not to actively undermine them.
He asked the religious leaders to help him promote the talks among Jewish communities both in American and Israel, and "to give these talks a chance and not look for a reason why they won't succeed."
Regarding interfaith relations in the United States and the treatment of Muslim Americans in particular, Obama again asked the rabbis for help. "It is very important for leaders in the Jewish [community] to speak from a deep moral authority in making sure that those Muslim-Americans trying to practice their faith in this country can do so without fear or intimidation," he said.
He did not mention the Park 51 Community Center project by name.
On Iran, Obama argued that the sanctions announced by the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and others were having an effect on the regime in Tehran.
"Every assessment that we've seen so far is that the degree of international coordination that's being implied in enforcing these sanctions is unprecedented and the Iranian regime has been shocked by our success," Obama said. He said the Israeli assessment matched his own.
While the peace talks and the Iran threat are not necessarily linked, Obama told the rabbis that resolving Israel's disputes with its neighboring Arab states would increase Iran's isolation.
Obama also delivered a message of urgency regarding the peace talks. "If that window closes, it's going to be hard to reopen for years to come," he said. "We're not going to get that many more opportunities."Obama wished all the rabbis "L'shana Tovah," which means Happy New Year in Hebrew, and "Todah Rabah," which means thank you.
"With you I hope and pray this year will be a year of health and happiness, joy and justice, and ultimately perhaps a year of peace," he said.
A Florida group's plan to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11 could hurt the international mission in Afghanistan and put allied troops at risk, the head of NATO said Tuesday.
"I strongly condemn that. I think it's a disrespectful action and in general I really urge people to respect other people's faith and behave respectfully. I think such actions are in strong contradiction with all the values we stand for and fight for," said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. "Of course, there is a risk that it may also have a negative impact on the security for our troops."
Rasmussen's comments came just one day after Afghanistan commander Gen. David Petraeus issued a statement criticizing the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, which plans to burn copies of Islam's holy book for 10 reasons they explain on their website.
"It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort in Afghanistan," Petraeus said.
Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the head of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, told CNN that the issue was already a hot topic of discussion among Afghans and said, "We very much feel that this can jeopardize the safety of our men and women that are serving over here in the country."
The Associated Press reported that hundreds of Muslims in Kabul have already rioted in protest of the planned Koran burning.
Rasmussen is in Washington to meet with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the White House Tuesday afternoon. Topping the agenda are metrics for assessing progress in Afghanistan, as well as preparations for the upcoming NATO summit in Lisbon in November.
In a wide-ranging discussion with reporters, Rasmussen expressed guarded optimism about the progress of the war in Afghanistan, where about 40,000 NATO troops are fighting alongside American soldiers and marines.
Rasmussen said he agreed with President Obama's decision to begin the transition of authority over security matters from allied forces to the Afghan government, including troop withdrawals, in July 2011. He said the pace of withdrawals were to be determined by conditions on the ground, and that the goal was to complete the transition by the end of 2014.
"I can tell you when it will begin, I can tell you when it would be completed, but I can't tell you exactly what will be the time differences between these two points," he said about the transition, predicting an announcement regarding the beginning of the transition at the Lisbon conference.
He acknowledged that there is an ongoing process to identify which provinces to transition to Afghan control first, and what metrics to use in judging progress on goals. He said it was premature, however, to say which provinces might be ready first or what specific metrics might be used.
"We will not leave until we have finished our job... A handover doesn't mean an exit," he said. NATO forces will have an ongoing role, which will include the presence of a base in Kabul that will allow them to continue to provide support at some level in perpetuity, he said.
On the ever-puzzling issue about what to do regarding Afghan government corruption, Rasmussen said that the international community must keep up political pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai but said that he believes Karzai is sincere about cooperating with the NATO-led coalition on this issue.
"He realizes that it is a prerequisite for gaining the trust of his own people that he and his government fight corruption determinedly," he said. "I really do believe he will do what it takes."
Rasmussen said the Lisbon conference will address a host of issues, including tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, NATO cooperation on missile defense, and cyber warfare. He also endorsed a NATO missile defense shield and extended an offer to Russia to participate. (Russia has shown little enthusiasm for missile-defense cooperation.)
On nuclear weapons, Rasmussen said that while he shared Obama's goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, for the time being nukes will remain in Europe as part of NATO's posture. He said the conference will not come out with specific numbers for the reductions of nuclear weapons based in Europe.
"We will not give up nuclear capabilities as a central part of our deterrence policy," he said.
Your humble Cable guy is on vacation, but sending along this briefing skipper, in which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. These are the highlights of Thursday's briefing by Special Envoy George Mitchell:
Jason Reed-Pool/Getty Images
Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback is calling on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to publicly denounce the impending trial of a journalist and blogger facing execution at the hands of the Iranian regime.
The journalist, Shiva Nazar Ahari, who has been imprisoned in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison since December, goes on trial Sept. 4 for crimes such as "anti-regime propaganda," "acts contrary to national security through participation in gatherings," and "enmity against God." The last charge can carry a death sentence.
Her activism and defense of political prisoners, which included acting as the spokesman for the Committee of Human Rights Reporters, has raised the ire of the Iranian government for years. Conservative writers have been calling on President Obama to personally call for her release.
"I am urging you and President Obama to press the Iranian regime for the immediate release of Ms. Ahari ... It is crucial for the United States to advocate for brave Iranian citizens like Ms. Ahari, and I hope you will do all you can to secure her release." Brownback wrote to Clinton Aug. 31. "Obviously, time is of the essence."
According to the State Department's 2009 Human Rights Report on Iran, authorities arrested Ahari and two of her colleagues from the Committee for Human Rights Reporters on Dec. 20 as they were headed to Qom for the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who had been one of the leading spiritual figures behind Iran's reform movement.
"According to human rights organizations, authorities arrested seven of the nine leaders of the organization during the year and pressured the group to close its Web site," the report said.
Clinton did call for Ahari's release in June, on the one year anniversary of the highly disputed Iranian presidential election that sparked a wave of violence and suppression. She also called on Iran to release human rights defenders Narges Mohammadi, Emad Baghi, Kouhyar Goudarzi, Bahareh Hedayat, Milad Asadi, and Mahboubeh Karami, as well as the three American hikers who have been detained without charge for over a year and a missing former FBI agent, Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007.
The State Department has been stepping up its public advocacy on behalf of imprisoned Iranians lately. Clinton gave her first public condemnation of the detention of Baha'i faith leaders last month. None of the political prisoners or hikers has, as of yet, been released.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday designated Pakistan's largest Taliban umbrella group as an official "foreign terrorist organization."
The group, known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which took credit for the attempted May 1 bombing of New York's Times Square, is now threatening to attack Western aid workers assisting Pakistan with its ongoing flood crisis, according to State Department officials.
Last fall, the Pakistani Army launched an ambitious offensive aimed at rooting the group out of its stronghold in South Waziristan, but top leaders such as Hakimullah Mehsud and Wali Ur Rehman, who the United States has named "specially designated global terrorists," remain at large.
The TTP is widely suspected of being involved in the 2007 assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. A 2009 suicide attack on the U.S. consulate in Peshawar was led by the TTP.
President Obama's top counterterrorism advisor John Brennan said in May that the TTP was "closely allied" with al Qaeda. "They train together, they plan together, they plot together," he said. "They are almost indistinguishable."
Because U.S. law requires that an organization pose a direct threat to the United States in order to be listed, the TTP's claim of involvement in the Times Square bombing attempt was significant. Now, the U.S. government can prosecute anyone giving "material aid" to the TTP, and the government can freeze the group's assets in the United States.
Lawmakers and some experts had been calling on the State Department to take action sooner.
"We cannot wait any longer to go after this group with everything we've got. This organization poses an existential threat to the safety of not only our soldiers fighting abroad, but also Americans here at home. It's time we dealt them with using every tool at our disposal," Sen. Chuck Schumer, NY, said in May.
Spokesman P.J. Crowley detailed the ties between the TTP and al Qaeda:
"TTP and al-Qaida have a symbiotic relationship; TTP draws ideological guidance from al-Qaida, while al-Qaida relies on TTP for safe haven in the Pashtun areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border. This mutual cooperation gives TTP access to both al-Qaidas global terrorist network and the operational experience of its members. Given the proximity of the two groups and the nature of their relationship, TTP is a force multiplier for al-Qaida," Crowley said.
States Coordinator for Counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin focused on the Times Square episode:
"Faisal Shahzads attempted attack on U.S. soil highlights the direct threat posed by the Pakistani Taliban Todays actions put the TTP and its sympathizers on notice that the United States will not tolerate support to this organization, which has inflicted great harm to U.S. and Pakistani interests," said Benjamin.
Alarm bells went off in Washington Thursday when the Pakistani media reported that USAID chief Rajiv Shah had visited a relief camp run by a group associated with terrorists. But according to the aid agency, that's simply not the case.
Pakistan's Dawn newspaper was the first to allege that Shah, who has been touring the flood-ravaged region, had stopped in the town of Sukkur Wednesday to drop off two trucks of emergency supplies in a relief camp supposedly run by Falah-i-Insaniat (FI), which it described as "the latest reincarnation of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the humanitarian arm of the banned terrorist organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)." The group is said to have longstanding ties to both Pakistan's main spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and al Qaeda.
Yahya Mujahid, the spokesman for Jamaat-ud-Dawa, reportedly claimed that the group distributed Shah's supplies. Dawn reported that the camp's entrance featured a large banner that read "Relief Camp -- Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation."
But Rick Snelsire, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, said in a statement that Shah visited the Double Session High School in Sukkur, where 1,200 Pakistanis displaced from their homes are seeking refuge. This school "is under the supervision of the government of Pakistan," noted Snelsire. "At no time during his visit did Dr. Shah encounter or meet with any members of a banned extremist organization."
Shah also announced another $50 million in U.S. disaster relief aid, bring the total U.S. commitment to Pakistan up to $200 million. The additional money will come from funds appropriated under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Pakistani aid bill.
The incident highlights how the flood disaster has become a competition between Islamic charities and groups and the government of Pakistan, aided by the international community. Although the United States has been the largest international aid donor following the floods, there are few signs that Pakistanis' views of the United States have improved.
In an event at the Brookings Institution this week, retired general Jehangir Karamat, who served as chief of staff of the Pakistani Army and as ambassador to the United States, said that negative Pakistani media coverage was to blame.
"[W]hat happens between Pakistan and the U.S., the positive side doesn't come up in the media. The negative side comes up in the media, in discussion. And that takes over the whole discourse on U.S.-Pakistan relations," he said. "But I think in informed circles it's very much known what the U.S. is doing for Pakistan."
The Obama administration is quick to point out that the United States has actively engaged in relief efforts in Pakistan, including the dispersal of $1.5 billion in Kerry-Lugar funds. Officials point also to the bilateral Strategic Dialogue initiated in Washington earlier this year as evidence of improving ties between the two countries.
But although Shah is technically the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the flood area, the U.S. response is actually being coordinated by the office of Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the immediate aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, in contrast, USAID was formally in the lead, and the agency ran a "war room" to coordinate relief efforts across the U.S. government.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley confirmed that "responsibility would continue to rest with Richard Holbrooke" in managing the aid effort, adding that Shah continues to play a pivotal role.
The politics in Pakistan are more complex than in Haiti, however, and Holbrooke's office may be better positioned to manage the interagency effort this time around. The Pakistan aid effort "comes within a broader strategy in terms of the nature of our relationship with Pakistan, as well as supporting Pakistan in its own efforts to deal with the extremist elements within its borders," noted Crowley. "So our strategy with respect to Pakistan is broader than is the case with Haiti."
There is also a functioning government in Pakistan to work with, which was not the case in Haiti.
Holbrooke's aide Vali Nasr explained the value of using Holbrooke's team and relationships in Pakistan to spearhead the flood relief effort.
"The U.S. was able to react very quickly, largely because of the interagency teams that it has put together, especially in the SRAP -- the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan -- which has made for much more rapid turnaround to addressing these kinds of issues," Nasr said at Brookings.
UPDATE: The Washington Post reported that Shah bumped into the LET during his visit to Sukker. "U.S. officials said after Shah's visit that they had not been aware of the Islamist charity's role at the camp and that they have no control over which organizations helped when and where," the Post said.
The State Department's top spokesman cautioned reporters Tuesday not to take snippets of edited remarks on the Internet by the "Ground Zero mosque" imam and use them to brand him a radical, lest they repeat the mistakes made by the media in calling former USDA official Shirley Sherrod a racist based on edited clips of her promoted on conservative websites.
Imam Feisal Rauf, the spiritual leader of the proposed Park 51 community center in lower Manhattan, is on his State Department-sponsored trip to the Persian Gulf right now, giving speeches in Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates about what it's like to be a Muslim in America.
Rauf has been traveling on behalf of the department since 2007 on trips sponsored by both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. He belongs to the progressive Sufi sect of Islam and has been praised as a bridge-builder even by conservative pro-Israel bloggers, such as the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, who has had extensive interactions with him.
But activists who oppose the Park 51 project have pointed to various statements by Rauf to build the case that he's dangerous radical. For example, yesterday Pamela Geller of the blog Atlas Shrugs posted a clip of excerpts from a speech Rauf gave in 2005. Those excerpts include Rauf saying:
We tend to forget, in the West, that the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than al Qaida has on its hands of innocent non Muslims. You may remember that the US-led sanctions against Iraq led to the death of over half a million Iraqi children. This has been documented by the United Nations. And when Madeleine Albright, who has become a friend of mine over the last couple of years, when she was Secretary of State and was asked whether this was worth it, said it was worth it. [emphasis Geller's]
P.J. Crowley, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs, told reporters Tuesday that they shouldn't be quick to take those remarks out of context.
"I would just caution any of you that choose to write on this, that once again you have a case where a blogger has pulled out one passage from a very lengthy speech. If you read the entire speech, you will discover exactly why we think he is rightly participating in this national speaking tour."
The Cable asked Crowley directly, "Is he the Muslim Shirley Sherrod?"
Crowley responded, "That's a good cautionary tale for everybody."
The University of South Australia's Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre has the full transcript and full audio recording of Rauf's 2005 remarks. Here are some excerpts not posted by the Atlas Shrugs blog:
On the bonds between Islam and Judeo Christianity:
We are united with Christians and Jews in terms of our belief in one God. In the tradition of the prophets. In our tradition of scriptures. The Jewish prophets, Jesus Christ and John the Baptist and Mary are in fact religious personalities and prophets of the Islamic faith as well...
From the point of view of Islamic theology, Islamic jurisprudence and Islamic history, the vast majority of Islamic history, it has been shaped or defined by a notion of multiculturalism and multireligiosity, if you might use that term. From the very beginning of Islamic history Islam created space for Christians of various persuasions, of Jews and even of Muslims of different schools of thought within the fabric of society.
On religious freedom:
A necessary part of this is to embrace and to welcome and to invite the religious voices in the public square, in the public debate, on how to build a good society. So multiculturalism, in my judgment, involves not only differences of culture and ethnicity but also multireligiosity, and that's where the challenge and the rub comes in for many because there is a perception that multireligiosity must mean the potential conflict between different religious voices in the public square. I, for one, believe that that is not in fact the case.
On religious tolerance:
[O]ur law, our sense of justice, our articulation of justice, must flow from these two commandments of loving our God and loving our neighbour, and if we are not sure of how to articulate the love of God in the public square we certainly can allow each person and each group of each religious group to choose to love God in the vernacular and in the liturgy that it chooses and it prefers, but it gives us a broad basis of agreement on which we can love our fellow human beings and this, I suggest, is the mandate that lies before us today as we embark on this 21st Century and is the mandate and the homework assignment that lies ahead of us.
On Islam and terrorism:
The broader community is in fact criticising and condemning actions of terrorism that are being done in the name of Islam... What complicates the discussion, intra-Islamically, is the fact that the West has not been cognisant and has not addressed the issues of its own contribution to much injustice in the Arab and Muslim world. It is a difficult subject to discuss with Western audiences but it is one that must be pointed out and must be raised.
Acts like the London bombing are completely against Islamic law. Suicide bombing, completely against Islamic law, completely, 100 per cent. But the facts of the matter is that people, I have discovered, are more motivated by emotion than by logic. If their emotions are in one place and their logic is behind, their emotions will drive their decisions more often than not, and therefore we need to address the emotional state of people and the extent to which those emotions are shaped by things that we can control and we can shape, this is how we will shape a better future.
Rauf is in Doha, Qatar, now, where in addition to giving a speech on Muslim life in America at a local university, he is meeting with government officials and NGO representatives and will hand out gifts and treats to children at the Doha Youth Center, Crowley said.
Although Rauf is getting questions about the controversy from his interlocutors and from the press in the areas he is visiting, don't expect him to talk about the Park 51 project, Crowley said.
"It's been suggested that through this tour he's going to be promoting this center, that's not true, or that he's going to be fundraising and that's not true," said Crowley. "He has chosen not to comment on the center so we can't be accused of doing things that are not consistent to the goals of the international program he's participating in and we respect those decisions."
Crowley also shot down another story in the conservative blogosphere today speculating that Rauf's wife Daisy Kahn will join the State Department-sponsored trip. Khan has elected to stay in the United States, he said.
As the drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq accelerates, the thousands of Iraqi citizens who have worked with the U.S. military since the 2003 invasion face an even more uncertain future. Congress is calling on the administration to devise a new plan to help them.
In 2008, a shocking article in the New York Post written by U.S. Marine Owen West described the harrowing experience of translators and aides to U.S. troops in Iraq as they try to escape the threats on their lives and transition to a better life in America. An excruciatingly long process full of bureaucratic hurdles faced these refugees, to the point that even then-ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker wrote to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to complain of "major bottlenecks" in the system.
For those who have made it the United States -- and over 35,000 Iraqi refugees have arrived since 2003 -- they then face another set of near-insurmountable challenges. Your humble Cable guy has come across several young Iraqis, mostly women, who found themselves with no job, no money, and no place to live once they made it to the Washington, DC area. Eligible for one-time grants ranging from $900 to $1800, most have trouble finding work and are still fighting with the State Department for permanent residence status. Many were completely dependent on the kindness of the soldiers they had worked with in Iraq, and many returning veterans have taken former translators and their families into their homes.
Congress held hearings and eventually passed legislation in 2008 to expand the services for Iraqis who had worked with the U.S. military, largely due to the work of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who led a campaign to bring attention and resources to the issue right up until his death.
But now, as the U.S. military leaves Iraq, Congress is calling on the administration to do more.
Twenty-two senators and congressmen wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates Friday to demand the administration come up with a comprehensive plan to support the thousands of Iraqis who have worked for the U.S. military.
"Time is of the essence in developing a plan to address this looming crisis as the August 31, 2010 withdrawal date rapidly approaches," the lawmakers wrote. "The United States has a moral obligation to stand by those Iraqis who have risked their lives -- and the lives of their families - to stand by us in Iraq for the past seven years, and doing so is also in our strategic self-interest. Providing support for our Iraqi allies will advance U.S. national security interests around the world, particularly in Afghanistan, by sending a message that foreign nationals who support our work abroad can expect some measure of protection."
The lawmakers praise the State Department for speeding up the visa process but lament that only about 2,000 visas have been issued out of the 15,000 visa limit State has set for such Iraqis. The process still takes over a year and requires hundreds of dollars in fees many refugees can't afford. Specifically, the lawmakers are asking the administration to speed up the resettlement process, expand the visa program to include Iraqis who worked for non-governmental organizations, and consider an airlift of Iraqis who are in danger as the withdrawal date approaches.
The letter was authored by the chairmen of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) and Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL). Hastings added a provision to the fiscal 2011 defense policy bill calling for a plan to expedite resettlement of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis at risk as troops withdraw from Iraq.
At the commission's July hearing on the issue, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration Eric Schwartz said that the Obama administration is devoted to improving the resettlement program for Iraqis who can't return home and will triple the number of those resettled to the United States this year.
Schwartz also said he authorized a doubling of the one-time grant refugees are given when they arrive in the United States.
"It won't eliminate the enormous challenges faced by new arrivals, nor will it address the longer-term adjustment needs that are addressed by the Department of Health and Human Services, but it will help to ensure that incoming arrivals have a roof over their heads and have sufficient provisions for their first months in the country," he said.
President Obama's special envoy to Sudan, retired Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, could be on his way to a new job in Kenya as the White House prepares a new approach to Sudan ahead of a January referendum that analysts fear could split the country into two separate nations -- or even spark a new civil war.
The news comes in the wake of a contentious principals-level meeting at the White House last week, in which Gration clashed openly with U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice over the direction of Sudan policy.
At the meeting, Rice was said to be "furious" when Gration proposed a plan that makes the January referendum a priority, deemphasizes the ongoing crisis in Darfur, and is devoid of any additional pressures on the government in Khartoum.
According to multiple sources briefed on the meeting, Gration's plan was endorsed by almost all the other participants, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and will now go the president for his approval. Rice was invited to provide a written dissent. Vice President Joseph Biden did not attend.
It wouldn't be the first battle Gration has won over how to deal with the brutal regime of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, an indicted war criminal who has driven his nation to ruin since coming to power in a 1989 military coup. Gration advocates closer and more cooperative interactions with the ruling National Congress Party, which he sees as the best way to influence its behavior, along with a de-emphasis on public criticism of the regime's deadly tactics.
The tension between Gration and Rice goes back to the early days of the administration. In June 2009, ABC News reported that Rice, who has long advocated a tougher line on Khartoum, was "furious" when Gration said that Darfur was experiencing only the "remnants of genocide." The State Department quickly confirmed that its official position is that genocide is ongoing.
Now, Gration's penchant for gaffes and his poor relations with communities of interest may have finally taken its toll, observers say.
"The fact that he's being rotated out of this position suggests that he may have won a number of battles but lost the war. If people were overwhelmingly happy with his performance, it seems odd you would move him out to be ambassador of a neighboring country," said John Norris, executive director of the Enough Project, a leading Sudan anti-genocide advocacy organization.
Gration, who has been the administration's point man on Sudan for more than a year, is currently considering taking the job of U.S. ambassador in Nairobi, according to multiple sources both inside and outside the administration. Discussions are ongoing and no formal offer has been made, but as of one week ago Gration was said to be lobbying hard to keep his Sudan portfolio if he moves to Kenya.
Gration has wanted to be envoy to Kenya for some time, according to multiple administration sources. If he is successful in keeping his role in Sudan policy, he would be hugely influential on three major Africa policy issues: Sudan, Kenya, and Somalia, which is largely managed from the embassy in Nairobi.
The more likely scenario is that if and when Gration is sent to Kenya -- assuming he passes a Senate confirmation process that will likely be contentious -- he would have to relinquish the Sudan portfolio.
"The special envoy job is a full-time job, as is being ambassador to Kenya during this crucial time," Norris said. "I can't imagine they would place one person in charge of both."
One administration source said that the plan had been to nominate Gration during the congressional recess, as to avoid a lengthy confirmation debate, but that plan was no longer operative and Gration would be nominated and confirmed through the usual process. Gration's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Leading figures in the Sudan advocacy community have long been critical of Gration, whom they see as too cozy with the Khartoum government and wholly uninterested in applying additional pressures on Sudan's government in response to rising violence.
When the administration rolled out its new Sudan policy last October, Secretary Clinton promised that both carrots and sticks would be used to influence Bashir's behavior. "Assessment of progress and decisions regarding incentives and disincentives will be based on verifiable changes in conditions on the ground. Backsliding by any party will be met with credible pressure in the form of disincentives leveraged by our government and our international partners," she said.
But though Sudan is under a variety of unilateral and multilateral sanctions, the administration never publicly identified what additional pressures it was bringing to bear. That, combined with Gration's statements about the need to engage Khartoum positively, have led most observers to conclude that no additional pressures were ever applied.
"During the last year and a half, we've seen increased violence in Darfur and the deadliest months in five years, we saw an election that was completely compromised without any resulting sanctions, we've seen a deepening of the rifts that could cause a resumption of war between the north and the south. None of these have elicited from the Obama administration anything more than an occasional statement," said John Prendergast, CEO of the Enough Project. "This has given a clear green light to the regime in Khartoum to pursue its warmongering as usual. Gration has overseen this policy."
Administration officials played down the conflict between Rice and Gration, saying that such meetings are supposed to be deliberative. "This is a policy debate. People often disagree. If they didn't, what's the point of having the meeting?" one White House official said.
Regardless, for Sudan watchers, the hope is that the president will finally weigh in and make his views known, to settle the internal debate.
"There's always going to be divisions inside an administration," said Prendergast. "This is the first time you have a clear choice placed directly in the hands of the president. It's time for him to step up."
Meanwhile, the world is bracing for an eruption in Southern Sudan. Khartoum has been caught fomenting violence between southern groups, agreements on borders and revenue sharing are nonexistent, and the conduct of the last election gives nobody confidence the referendum is on track.
Analysts worry that the international community and the U.S. in particular are missing their last opportunity to prevent Bashir's government from undermining the credibility of the referendum to a degree where armed conflict would break out.
"Good diplomacy backed by serious pressure can potentially prevent this from happening, but that's what's so disappointing; we have poor diplomacy with almost no pressures whatsoever," said Prendergast. "It's a worst-case scenario."
AFP / Getty Imgaes
It's extremely unusual for the State Department to change a travel warning to American citizens based on a complaint from the destination country, but that's exactly what happened this week after the Israeli government protested, State Department officials admitted Wednesday.
On August 5, State issued a travel warning to all American citizens in a response to rocket attacks that hit both Israel and Jordan. The warning included the line, "rockets have been fired recently into the Eilat and Aqaba areas. U.S. citizens in Eilat and southern Israel are advised to ascertain the location of the nearest bomb shelter." No similar warning was issued for Jordan.
The Israeli tourism ministry protested privately and publicly, saying, "This advisory gives a prize to terror and undermines regional stability and the sense of security that Israel gives to everyone who enters the country.... Differentiating Israel from its neighbor that actually suffered loss of life is improper and lacks balance."
On August 10, State issued the new travel warning, which replaces the August 5 notice and doesn't mention Eilat at all, only saying, "U.S. citizens in the area should be aware of the risks and should follow the advice of the Government of Israel's office of Homefront Command."
After spokesman P.J. Crowley defended the change Tuesday, one sarcastic State Department reporter asked Crowley on Wednesday, "Can any country complain about the travel advice that you give and have it changed? Or is that just a privilege that's accorded to Israel?"
Crowley responded that the change was made in part because there was a disparity between the Israeli travel warning and the lack of a similar warning for Jordan. He also argued that disseminating the information through what's called a "warden message," which only goes out to U.S. government personnel, was sufficient.
"We decided, upon further review ... that the warden message was the appropriate way, because we were talking about one specific incident, to communicate this threat information. And that's why we withdrew the language from the Israeli travel warning," he said.
The State Department press corps was not satisfied. They pressed Crowley on whether their assessment had changed, and if not, why they chose not to inform American citizens of the ongoing risk? Here's the exchange:
Q: But I was under the impression that the -- that the responsibility of the State Department was for the safety and security of American people and to let them know when there are -- when there are threats.
MR. CROWLEY: True. All true.
Q: And now you -- now you've -- now you've removed the -- the word "Eilat" does not even appear in the new travel warning.
MR. CROWLEY: That's true.
Q: And it's still dangerous for Americans to go there, you believe.
MR. CROWLEY: That's true.
Q: So why would you take it out?
MR. CROWLEY: We took it out because we felt that a warden message was the more appropriate way to communicate a particular risk factor for Eilat.
"I'm not denying it's unusual to change a travel warning two times in two weeks," said a State Department official, speaking on background. The official said State took the blame for the error.
"We listened to what Israel had to tell us but it was a process failure here at the Department," the official said.
The rocket attacks were an isolated incident, not a trend, so the State Department now believes a travel to Eilat is OK, Crowley said. "I think Americans should feel free to travel to Israel and should take appropriate precautions knowing that there are still risks involved in visiting that country."
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Robert Satloff and the Middle East Policy Council's Chas W. Freeman, Jr., squared off Tuesday at the Nixon Center to debate whether Israel is really a strategic asset or a strategic liability for the United States. Here are some excerpts.
On the overall question of whether America's relationship with Israel is worth it:
Robert Satloff: My job today is to make the case why Israel and that relationship is a strategic asset. I will go even further. I will argue that Israel and the US-Israel relationship is -- both in objective terms and compared to any other relationship we have in the ME -- a strategic bonanza for the U.S.: not just an asset, but a downright bargain ... I don't think there's anyone in this room who would disagree with the contention that there is no country in the Middle East whose people and government are so closely aligned with the U.S. ... We share a way of governing, ways of ordering society, ways of viewing the role of liberty in individual rights and ways to defend those ideals. Now, some realists tend to dismiss this as soft stuff with no strategic value. I disagree. The commonality of culture and values is at the heart of national interests.
Chas Freeman: Clearly Israel gets a great deal from us. It's pretty much taboo in the U.S. to ask what's in it for Americans; I can't imagine why. What's in it and what's not in it for us to do all these things for Israel? I think we need to begin by recognizing that our relationship with Israel had never been driven by strategic reasoning. It began with President Truman overruling his strategic and military advisors, in deference to political expediency ... There's no reason to doubt the consistent testimony of the architects of major acts of anti-American terrorism on what motivates them to attack us ... Some substantial portion of the many lives and the trillions of dollars that have we so far spent in our escalating conflict with the Islamic world must be [measured against] the costs of our relationship with Israel.
On the wisdom and results of U.S.-military support to Israel:
RS: [There's a] long list of military-related advantages that Israel brings to the U.S., directly by its own actions and through the bilateral relationship -- contingency planning, Israeli facilities available to the U.S. as needed, the U.S. has deployed early morning radar for missile defense, supplementing Americans' missile defense assets, the U.S. has been stalking war reserves in Israel for 15 years now ... Israel as a prime source of effective counterterrorism and counterinsurgency tactics which have played an important role in America's fight in Iraq, Israel as an important innovator ... add all this up and Israel, through its intelligence, its technology, lessons learned from its own experience in counterterrorism and asymmetric warfare, has saved American lives.
CF: Thanks to congressional earmarks, we also often pay half the costs of Israeli research and development projects, even when, as in the case of defense against very short -range unguided missiles, the technology being developed is essentially irrelevant to our own military requirements. In short, in many ways, American taxpayers fund jobs in Israeli military industries that could have gone to our own workers and companies. Meanwhile, Israel gets pretty much whatever it wants in terms of top of the line military equipment ... and we pick up the tab. Meanwhile, Israel has become accustomed to living on the American military bill ... Military aid to Israel is sometimes justified by the notion of Israel as a test bed for new weapons systems and operational concepts. But no one can identify the program ... All originated with Israel and members of Congress ... What Israel makes, it sells not just to the United States but to China, India, and other major arms markets outside our country. It feels no obligation to take U.S. interests into account when it transfers weapons and technology to third countries, and does so only under duress.
On U.S. economic aid to Israel:
RS: Do a cost-benefit analysis; I invite you to do this. Over the last 30 years, 30-plus years of the U.S. relationship with Israel and the U.S. relationship with our Arab friends in the Gulf -- what do you find? To secure our interests in the Arab-Israeli arena, the U.S. has spent $100 billion in economic assistance to Israel, plus another $30 billion to Egypt and small change to a couple of other places. Our losses in human terms: 255 Americans in the Beirut Embassy barracks bombings and a handful of others in terrorism in that part of the region. On a state-to-state basis, I would argue that investment has paid off very handsomely. Now compare that with the Gulf. Look at the massive costs we have endured to ensure our interests there.
CF: Identifiable U.S. government subsidies to Israel total in $140 billion since 1949 ... in either case, Israel is by far the largest recipient of American giveaways since WWII and the total would be much higher if aid to Egypt and Jordan, Lebanon, and support for displaced Palestinians in refugee camps and the occupied territories were included. These programs have complex purposes but are justified in large measure in terms of their contribution to the security of the Jewish state. Per capita income in Israel is now around $37,000, on par with the UK. Israel is nonetheless the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, accounting for well over one-fifth of it. Annual U.S. government transfers run at well over $500 per Israeli, not counting cost of tax breaks for private donations and loans that are not available in any other country.
On the effect of the peace process:
RS: First, I would argue that a strong Israel with a strong U.S.-Israel relationship at its core has been central to what we now know as the peace process and second, in historical terms, the peace process has been one of the most successful U.S. diplomatic initiatives in the last half century. In the words of one knowledgeable observer, "The peace process has been a vehicle for American influence throughout the broader Middle East region, and has provided an excuse for Arab declarations of friendship with the U.S. even as Americans remain devoted to Israel. In other words, it has helped to eliminate what otherwise might be a zero-sum game." ... Oh, I forgot to mention that observer I mentioned earlier as praising the peace process for eliminating the zero-sum game in the Middle East: Chas Freeman. Thank you, Chas."
CF: There's all the time we put into the perpetually ineffectual and basically defunct peace process ... I think one of the reasons that there is no support of any kind from the Arab world for George Mitchell's efforts to recreate or revive a dead peace process is that there's no confidence in the ability of the U.S. to play a mediating role. We are, in the famous words of one member of the previous peace-making exercise, Israel's lawyer.
On the drag the U.S.-Israel alliance has on American outreach to the Arab world:
RS: I'm perfectly willing to stipulate the following: Arab leaders like to harangue U.S. presidents, U.S. ambassadors, U.S. special envoys, and even U.S. generals about Israel. I don't think we have to have a debate about that. The point of contention is whether their harangues have strategic importance. Does Arab talk match Arab walk? ... Instinctively, we all know that it doesn't; we just lacked the data to support it. Thanks to outstanding research by my Institute colleague David Pollock, who crunched the numbers on a half-dozen indicators of U.S.-Arab relations for twenty Arab states over a ten-year period, we now have the data. And the results are crystal clear-the key principle is "watch what we do, not what we say." And, importantly, this applies both to Arab governments and to Arab publics. Except for episodic and passing moments, like the period around the spring 2003 U.S. attack on Saddam's Iraq, and notwithstanding public opinion poll data to the contrary, the actual, measurable trajectory of U.S.-Arab relations-travel, education, trade, security relations, etc.-has been consistently up.
CF: Political costs to the U.S. internationally of having to spend our political capital this way are huge ... The need to protect Israel from mounting international indignation about its behavior continues to do grave damage to our global and regional standing. It has severely impaired our ties with the world's 1.6 billion Muslims. But it has also cost us much of our followership in international organizations. These costs, I think, are far more serious than the economic and other burdens of the relationship. Against this background, I think it's a little short of remarkable that something as fatuous as the notion of Israel as a strategic asset to the U.S. could have become the unchallengeable conventional wisdom in the U.S., which it is. Perhaps it's as someone once said: People more easily fall victim to a big lie than a small one.
Now that the al-Shabab terrorist group has claimed responsibility for the deaths of dozens of people in Uganda, the White House wants to make sure everybody knows it is well aware of the threat the group poses and has been on top of the situation.
According to the National Counterterrorism Center, al-Shabab is "the militant wing of the Somalia Council of Islamic Courts that took over most of southern Somalia in the second half of 2006."
The State Department designated al-Shabab as a terrorist organization in February 2008. The group is compiled from different clans, is mostly focused on attacking the transitional government of Somalia and its allies, such as African Union peacekeepers, but has ties to al Qaeda and a growing interest in global jihad, the NCTC said.
A senior administration official told reporters Tuesday "there are indications that al-Shabab was indeed responsible for [the Uganda attack] and that its claim of responsibility is real." The U.S. government has focused on the group for some time, the official said. Al-Shabab has threatened attacks against the United States, but the Uganda bombing was the group's first foray outside Somalia.
The official said that al-Shabab's ties to al Qaeda are longstanding and deep. There are also a number of U.S. citizens who have traveled to Somalia to join up with the group.
"Its agenda is very similar to al Qaeda's agenda. It advances a distorted and perverted version of Islamic goals and agenda. It has engaged in terrorist tactics inside of Somalia extensively. It is responsible for the assassination of a number of Somali peace activists, international aid workers, numerous civil society figures, as well as journalists," the official explained.
The Obama administration has taken several small but specific steps against al-Shabab. In April, Obama signed Executive Order 13536, which seeks to block finances for the group's leaders and others who are actively interfering with peace in Somalia.
The U.S. is also supporting the African Union Mission for Somalia (AMISOM) with money and supplies, and providing assistance to refugees as well. The White House is coordinating its actions against the group with other regional actors.
As for which part of al Qaeda this group is linked up with, the administration says it's probably more than one.
"The al-Shabab organization and individuals within al-Shabab have contacts and associations with both al Qaeda in East Africa as well as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula." The latter group is based in Yemen and reportedly trained "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a Chicago-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009.
The official took issue with a recent analysis of Somalia by Bronwyn E. Bruton of the Council of Foreign Relations, which suggested that increased U.S. focus on the group and the presence of U.S.-supported Ethiopian troops in Somalia is feeding al-Shabab's popularity.
"The council sort of suggests that the right answer is some kind of I think they call it ‘constructive disengagement' and sort of a pulling back from the problem. And I think that what we've seen in Kampala is a good example of why that's not a viable way forward," the official said.
The new and temporary head of the NATO ISAF mission in Kabul has a clear message in the wake of the firing of Gen. Stanley McChyrstal: Don't worry, everything about the mission will stay exactly the same.
That message, which British Lt. Gen. Nick Parker communicated through an interview with NATO television today, is meant to reassure local and international stakeholders that there won't be disruptions in the complex ongoing operations by NATO forces. He also expressed sadness about the sudden ouster of General McChrystal, but echoed President's Obama's call to focus not on the drama, but on the job at hand.
"Nobody expected this to happen. We wouldn't have planned it or chosen it, but it makes no difference," Parker said. "What we're doing continues yesterday, today, tomorrow - there isn't any change, so I think we want to be very careful about not making too much of something which is very sad, we all regret it, but nothing here has changed at all - we continue with our mission."
"But this is more than a man, this is about the mission and we all know that and there's a group of people in Afghanistan who are completely committed to the NATO mission and we will not miss a beat and I can absolutely assure you that nothing will change."
Amb. Mark Sedwell, NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, echoed Parker's contention that there will be no change in the strategy to following the change in leadership.
"That strategy remains the basis of the campaign and the campaign remains on course," he said.
The Obama administration, led by National Security Advisor Jim Jones, was heavily involved in the Israeli government's decision to appoint an "independent public commission" to investigate the Gaza flotilla incident and pushed Israel to speed up the process in order to head off any attempts for increased pressure at the United Nations.
Over the last week, there were a flurry of high-level interactions between top administration officials and their various Israeli interlocutors. A State Department official told The Cable that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and that Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg, Special Envoy George Mitchell and others were working the phones as well. Barak also spoke with Vice President Joseph Biden, who was traveling in the region.
But in last couple of days, the final details were worked out between the White House and Prime Minister's office, specifically by Jones and Israeli national security advisor Uzi Arad, according to an Israeli official. The National Security Council was much more involved than the State Department, with NSC Director Dan Shapiro in Israel to help and Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren playing a role as a go-between as well, the official said.
The message Obama officials delivered was twofold. First, they wanted to make sure Israel appointed international members to the commission who were credible. William David Trimble from Northern Ireland and Ken Watkin, a former judge advocate general of the Canadian Armed Forces, will be on it.
The other Obama message to the Israelis? Speed it up. They wanted Israel to get the commission members settled on and announced as much as a week before the Israelis were ready. The Israeli official said that the detailed and extensive consultations with the Obama people are why it took so long.
"Our sense was that they were hopeful this commission announcement would come speedily and get this issue off the agenda so we could put it behind us," the official said. "Now, nobody can complain that Israel hasn't established a committee with international representation."
The direct and pivotal involvement of Jones is telling because he is also the official widely suspected (but not confirmed) to have been the source of the reports that the White House was telling foreign leaders it planned to support a separate international investigation if one was initiated at the U.N.
That story, put out by Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol and denied by the White House, caused significant angst inside the Israeli government and diplomatic sources said it could have been an attempt to put pressure on Israel to speed things up.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley spoke about Kristol's allegation Monday. He promised the U.S. would support the Israeli investigation but refused to forswear U.S. support of whatever U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon might propose in the coming weeks.
"We stand by Israel and we'll voice our strong views against any action that is one-sided or biased by any international organization," Crowley said. "I'm not aware that the secretary general has yet made any decisions on steps the UN might take. We'll listen to what the secretary general has in mind and make a judgment then."
That type of hedging is exactly what many Israel supporters, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), are concerned about.
"AIPAC calls on the Obama administration to act decisively at the United Nations and other international forums to block any action -- including alternative investigations supported by the Secretary General -- which would isolate Israel," the group said in a statement.
They also point to the White House's statement Sunday on the commission, which they see as tepid because it included a terse warning to Israel along with word of support.
"While Israel should be afforded the time to complete its process, we expect Israel's commission and military investigation will be carried out promptly. We also expect that, upon completion, its findings will be presented publicly and will be presented to the international community," the statement said.
Going forward, there is still a lot of concern among Israelis about the prominent role Jones is playing in the shaping of the administration's Israel policy. The conventional wisdom is that Jones, along with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, are the ones inside the administration pushing for a harder line vis-à-vis Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, while Biden, the NSC's Dennis Ross, and to an extent Special Envoy George Mitchell are said to advocate a position more sensitive to Netanyahu's own political situation.
Former Middle East Negotiator Aaron David Miller said that it's natural for the NSC, and therefore Jones, to manage U.S.-Israeli issues that involve the overall tone and "high politics" of the relationship, as opposed to Mitchell, who handles issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian talks.
"When it comes to the overall relationship, the NSC is in charge," Miller said, adding that top administration officials seem to be converging around the realization that public pressure on Netanyahu can only be so effective.
"Those divisions have somewhat surrendered to reality, because in the end to get anywhere you have to work with the Israeli government," he said.
The government of Turkey is not satisfied with Israel's commission and is pledging to do its own investigation. Crowley said that was Turkey's right. The Israeli official said Israel's commission was not crafted "in any way to appease Turkey."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.