Focal Points Blog

What if the U.S. Actually Attempted to Seize Pakistan’s Nukes?

U.S. helicopters PakistanYesterday I posted that Pakistani fear of the United States attempting to seize its nuclear-weapons arsenal is at an all-time high. As Yochi Dreazen wrote at the National Journal, “the ease with which elite U.S. forces jammed Pakistan’s advanced air defense systems and mounted a precision operation deep inside Pakistani territory is eroding the Pakistani military’s standing in the eyes of its own people and raising new questions there about whether the U.S. could one day mount a similar push to grab Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.”

As I mentioned, one obstacle to that course of action is that

The West doesn’t know all the locations of Iran’s (however peaceful thus far) nuclear program, thus rendering preemptive bombing inevitably incomplete. Neither does the West know the location of all of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, thus making it impossible to take complete control of its program.

I also cited an article I wrote for Asia Times Online in 2009 titled Keeping Pakistan’s nukes extremist-free. I had contacted veteran British reporter Brian Coughley, South Asian defense analyst for Jane’s, who also wrote War, Coups and Terror: Pakistan’s Army in Years of Turmoil (Skyhorse Publishing, 2009). As recently as April of this year he wrote an article on Pakistan’s nuclear security for Jane’s Intelligence Review (requires paying a — steep — subscription fee). In my ATimes piece I wrote:

Cloughley’s extensive experience with the Pakistani military has left him with respect for its professionalism and much less concern for the security of its nuclear weapons than Washington expresses.

Besides, British columnist Johann Hari wrote:

Every time the US military has war-gamed sending in troops . . . it has ended in a horrific bloodbath — and the weapons still eluding their control.

Cloughley agreed.

It would, indeed, be a bloodbath if any attempt were made to insert special forces. How anyone in their right mind could even suggest such a scenario is beyond me.

Nevertheless, at my request, he provided one.

In spite of its being lunacy, the attempt . . . to clandestinely insert special forces teams . . . might well go ahead. This could be done by having them join the embassy in the guise of marine guards, or be accepted as part of a liaison or training mission, then, in civilian vehicles, moving to the various sites to attempt to take them over.

This could be concurrent with heliborne [air assault by helicopters] insertion from Afghanistan or carrier(s). There would have to be a large number of teams, but I’m not prepared to provide an assessment of how many.

The helicopter operation would have to involve complete dominance of Pakistan’s airspace, mounted from Afghanistan and carriers from the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean. This would excite the attention of the Pakistan Air Force which would attempt to deny control. The air war would be intense and end in favor of the USAF/USN, although their casualties would be high.

This would escalate into all-out war, and Pakistan would attempt to involve the UN, which would be vetoed by the US and the UK. China and Russia, for once, would join hands in condemnation. The entire Muslim world would go berserk.

It is possible — just — that some weapons could be taken over, but the sites are extremely well-guarded (although their ground-based air defenses are minimal). Fighting would be intense, with already earmarked army units coming to the aid of the guard units. By this time, the US Embassy would be under siege and all foreigners’ lives would be at grave risk. There would be chaos on a very large scale indeed.

Is Pakistan Justified in Its Fear of U.S. Takeover of Its Nuke Program?

As you may have heard, the U.S. foray into Pakistan to seize Osama bin Laden is, writes Yochi Dreazen at the National Journal, “fueling one of the country’s most enduring — and potentially dangerous — conspiracy theories: that the U.S. has designs on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and is prepared to send highly trained commandos into the country to seize control of the weapons.” First, it’s not fair to describe it as a conspiracy theory when, in fact, much of the American public, if polled, would no doubt wholeheartedly support such a campaign. Besides, writes Dreazen:

. . . the ease with which elite U.S. forces jammed Pakistan’s advanced air defense systems and mounted a precision operation deep inside Pakistani territory is eroding the Pakistani military’s standing in the eyes of its own people and raising new questions there about whether the U.S. could one day mount a similar push to grab Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

Dreazen explains that Secretary of Gates Gates tried to reassure Pakistan.

Gates told a crowd of stony-faced senior Pakistani military officers at the country’s National Defence University that the he wanted to tell them “definitively” that the U.S. had “no desire to control Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.”

The United States may not “desire” but it might feel the need to assume control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. But it’s considerably more difficult than most people are aware. The West doesn’t know all the locations of Iran’s (however peaceful thus far) nuclear program, thus rendering preemptive bombing inevitably incomplete. Neither does the West know the location of all of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, thus making it impossible to take complete control of its program.

I cited other reasons that the United States might feel the need to take such a drastic action in an article I wrote for Asia Times Online in 2009 titled Keeping Pakistan’s nukes extremist-free.

The London Independent’s Johann Hari quotes Scott Sagan, a nuclear security expert: “If Pakistan fears they may be attacked [by India or presumably jihadis], they have an incentive to take [the weapons] out of the [more secure] bunkers and put them out in the countryside.” Where, of course, there’s that much greater a chance they’ll be apprehended by jihadis.

In fact, the [New York] Times’ [David] Sanger reports that a top George W. Bush administration official expressed his fears to him that “some groups could try to provoke a confrontation between Pakistan and India in the hope that the Pakistani military would transport tactical nuclear weapons closer to the front lines, where they would be more vulnerable to seizure. Indeed, when the deadly terror attacks occurred in Mumbai [other] officials told [Sanger] they feared that one of the attackers’ motives might have been to trigger exactly that series of events.

[Also, writes Shaun Gregory of the University of Bradford’s Pakistan Security Research Unit] to facilitate maximum anticipation of an attack on its nuclear weapon sites (as well as to foil a quick ground strike) by India, Pakistan has located them in its west. “The unanticipated consequence,” he explains, is that the nuclear weapons are “either within or close to the more volatile tribal regions of Pakistan to the west and northwest of Islamabad.”

Still, Pakistan has the capability to keep its weapons safe. Professor Gregory describes just some of the precautions it takes with its nuclear-weapons program.

Pakistan has also designated certain facilities as no-fly zones and is acquiring specialized vehicles to prevent hijacking of nuclear materials when they’re most vulnerable — while in transit.

Other preventive measures Pakistan has taken include signing the Container Security Initiative, which provides Karachi with radiation detectors. Also, as part of a new US program called the Second Line of Defense Megaports, detectors and imaging equipment were set up in a port in southern Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has access to an International Atomic Energy Agency database for sharing information about missing radiological materials. Finally, Pakistani officials have stated that their warheads have been fitted with permissive action links (PALs), a locking device which prevents detonation without a code.

Again, that’s barring Islamic extremist infiltration of the Pakistan military and the ISI.

Retaliate in Kind Even if Doomed by a Nuclear Attack? Really?

If doomed by a nuclear attack, is there any reason to retaliate in kind? In other words, if we’re about to be wiped off the face off the earth, how does it help up us — beyond the consolation (for the 15 minutes we’ll be alive) of Biblical revenge taken to the nth degree — to decimate the attacking nation? One suspects that it’s one of the few questions about nuclear weapons that has crossed the mind of many in the American public.

In his remarkable new book How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III (Simon & Schuster), Ron Rosenbaum virtually wallows in that question. It’s been eating at him for all the years he’s been writing about nuclear weapons. At a symposium on nuclear deterrence in 2009 he actually questioned Major General C. Donald Alston, currently head of the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missile force, and at the time the Pentagon’s assistant chief of staff, Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration Headquarters, on just that point.

“If we get attacked, a surprise attack. What in your view is the morality of retaliation at that point?”

Major General Alston’s entire response was curious. (Buy the book.) But most intriguing:

“Well I guess in the position I’m in I’d say . . . response in kind.” Interesting that he doesn’t suggest that it’s necessarily what he believes is right himself. It’s “the position I’m in.” [Also, without] prompting he brings up the difficulty of deciding what “in kind” would mean.

“What would be — how would you do the calculus on what response in kind would be? So I think that [response in kind] would be one course of action but that [the president] wouldn’t be brought a singular course of action.” In other words, he’d have options other than retaliation.

Major General Alston added, “In my job I have no propensity for response in kind.” Rosenbaum concludes, “If I’m reading this right . . he’s showing a reluctance to retaliate.”

The top nuclear commander (then and now) General Kevin Chilton, chief of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), might not have approved of his subordinate’s response. Asked the same question, General Chilton replied that one issue

“. . . you have to be cautious about when discussing a philosophical or, truly, hypothetical question is that you don’t send a mixed signal that would confuse anybody about your intention.”

In other words, debate in public about deterrence on the part of the military might send the wrong signal to other nuclear-weapons states. When push comes to shove, the president may flinch and fail to issue the order to launch an attack or military command in possession of the codes that ignite the attack might waver. A united front is equally as important a component of deterrence — if you believe in that sort of thing — as the nuclear weapons themselves. The saying “loose lips sinks ships” applies not only to leaking secrets but giving the enemy the impression of a command structure that’s divided against itself.

The term “second strike” has the potential to mislead. If you’re like me, your first reaction is to think it means an enemy that goes on the offensive and launches a first strike, we retaliate, and the enemy launches a second strike. In fact, the retaliatory strike is considered the second strike. Instead of first and second strike, why not just call it attack and retaliation?

As for the actual morality of the second strike when a state knows it’s doomed, it’s helpful to refer back to how George Lakoff describes the attitude of conservatives toward the underserved. They feel that, aside from church or individual charity, federal or state assistance only enables them in their disempowerment and perpetuates its continuation. Conservatives’ idea of helping means pulling the safety net out from under the underserved and forcing them to stand on their own two feet (whether disabled or not). That’s the conservative moral code.

A similar line of thinking may inform the traditional attitude of nuclear war planners toward responding to a first strike. However unconsciously, they think that refraining from retaliating when you know you’re doomed is no longer about you. It doesn’t help the attacking state to think it’s been rewarded for its aggression. In fact, refraining from making it pay in kind not only encourages such behavior in the future, but is harmful to the state. When, though it’s of no earthly advantage to us, we launch a second strike, we may be taking the lives of the citizens and command structure of the aggressor state, but we’re saving their souls.

Microcredit on Trial: The Sacking of Muhammad Yunus

Muhammad YunusCross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

It’s final. Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus has been sacked. This week, Yunus lost his last appeal before the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, ending a two-month legal battle over whether he would be permitted to remain at the helm of the Grameen Bank, the pioneering microcredit institution he founded some thirty years ago.

The battle has drawn attention to some key shortcomings of the microcredit movement, with Yunus’s opponents—including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina—going on the offensive. The result has been a curious situation. Many of the criticisms of microcredit are valid and deserve to be aired. Yet the effort to oust Yunus is part of an unwarranted and politically motivated attack. Moreover, when it comes to addressing the for-profit cooptation of the microcredit movement, Yunus is one of the good guys.

Officially, Yunus—who is now seventy—is being dismissed for remaining in his post beyond a mandatory retirement age of sixty for bank directors. But Yunus’ age was not an issue until, in 2007, he charged politicians like Sheikh Hasina with corruption and briefly considered forming his own political party. As the Globe and Mail reports:

He soon backed away from that plan and today he says he wants nothing to do with politics. But many people here believe Sheikh Hasina’s mistrust and anger are unabated, and the allegations against Grameen gave her a convenient opportunity to take out a potential rival.

“Remember that in 2013 the country will again have elections—this is a way to send a message not just to Yunus but to anyone else who might be considering politics,” said Lamia Karim, a Bangladeshi native who teaches at the University of Oregon and has long studied Grameen.

Karim, who regularly brings a clear and critical perspective to the microcredit debate, has a good article here on “The fall of Muhammad Yunus and its consequences for the women of Grameen Bank.”

Another layer of the recent controversy relates to a Norwegian documentary that aired last fall. It charged that Yunus had improperly redirected some $100 million in aid money from the Grameen Bank to a sister organization. However, a government committee cleared Yunus of charges last month, and there was never any accusation that he had embezzled money or personally profited from the transfer.

With regard to current dispute, I think it is evident that Yunus deserves a defense. There have long been criticisms of his management style—complaints that he is a micromanager and that he hasn’t done enough to cultivate leadership that could succeed him. But those are hardly compelling as critiques of the microcredit movement as a whole. And the age-related rationale for forcing Yunus out is clearly a pretext.

That said, while many of the attacks on Yunus himself are unfair, other criticisms of the microcredit movement that have received attention as a result of his ouster are well-founded. The Guardian mentions several of these:

Hasina has accused the Grameen Bank and other microfinance institutions of charging high interest rates and ‘sucking blood from the poor borrowers.’

The attacks on Yunus come at a time when microlending—once hailed as a model that would change the lives of hundreds of millions in the developing world—faces increasing hostility from politicians across the region.

In India, politicians have accused bankers of profiting from the poor and, in some places, have banned further lending or recovery of debts. In the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, aggressive selling by scores of unregulated microfinance firms has pushed huge numbers of already desperately poor farmers deeply into debt.

I wrote a profile of Yunus in the Fall 2009 issue of Dissent, where I described the context of such criticisms:

Viewed modestly, placed among an assortment of tools for helping the poor, micro-loans can be fruitfully pursued along with other initiatives; in this vein, the progressive governments of Venezuela and Bolivia have each explored options for expanding microcredit as part of their policies for fostering small business. But to the extent that microcredit serves an ideological function—reinforcing the belief that an unrestrained market works to the advantage of even society’s least fortunate—it can prove tragically counterproductive….

As microcredit has spread throughout the world, it has spawned a growing faction of practitioners who contend that micro-lending should not be dependent on donations. In order for it to make a really significant impact, they believe, it must be profitable enough to attract private investment. Seeking to tap mainstream capital markets for their work, the bankers in this school prefer to use the term “microfinance” to describe their efforts. The tension between them and the more socially minded, profit-averse “microcredit” institutions now represents a major conflict in the field.

Some predict that the number of microfinance lenders will soon dwarf the number of institutions operating on some version of the Grameen model. The Economist noted in 2005 that, “some of the world’s biggest and wealthiest banks, including Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank, HSBC, ING and ABN Amro, are dipping their toes into the water.”….

[A]s the desire of micro-financiers to turn a profit has come into the picture, a heated debate has emerged over the question: What is an acceptable interest rate to charge the poor?

While microcredit is relatively new, usury is very old. A legion of subprime mortgage brokers, credit card companies, payday lenders, and pawnshops have made amply clear that there is nothing inherently beneficent about lending to those of limited means.

The Grameen Bank’s core loans, according to Yunus, are made at a relatively modest interest rate of 20 percent. Those who have looked critically at the issue argue that, after adding taxes, fees, and mandatory savings deductions, and then measuring annual interest rates using the norms of U.S. banking, even Grameen and other socially driven microcredit bodies regularly deal in loans that charge between 30 and 50 percent interest. With for-profit microfinance institutions, the rates can be much higher. In recent years, reporters for Business Week and the New Yorker have pointed to micro-lenders in Mexico who charge interest between 110 and 120 percent.

Compared with the demands of a loan shark exacting 200 or 300 percent interest, these terms might be considered an improvement. But they strain credibility when presented as instruments of poverty relief.

In short, microcredit is not necessarily harmful. But when made an extension of neoliberal market fundamentalism, it certainly is.

You wouldn’t know it from his detractors, but Yunus recognizes this. Among major players in the microcredit world, Yunus has been one of the most vocal about denouncing the movement’s profiteers. In January he wrote a fine op-ed in the New York Times entitled, “Sacrificing Microcredit for Megaprofits.” There he argued:

In the 1970s, when I began working here on what would eventually be called “microcredit,” one of my goals was to eliminate the presence of loan sharks who grow rich by preying on the poor. In 1983, I founded Grameen Bank to provide small loans that people, especially poor women, could use to bring themselves out of poverty. At that time, I never imagined that one day microcredit would give rise to its own breed of loan sharks.

But it has….

To ensure that the small loans would be profitable for their shareholders, [microfinance banks] needed to raise interest rates and engage in aggressive marketing and loan collection. The kind of empathy that had once been shown toward borrowers when the lenders were nonprofits disappeared. The people whom microcredit was supposed to help were being harmed. In India, borrowers came to believe lenders were taking advantage of them, and stopped repaying their loans.

Commercialization has been a terrible wrong turn for microfinance, and it indicates a worrying ‘mission drift’ in the motivation of those lending to the poor. Poverty should be eradicated, not seen as a money-making opportunity.

It is uncertain what will happen next to Grameen, and whether future changes will end up benefiting the bank’s poor borrowers. But this much is clear: efforts to vilify Yunus should not obscure his very important warning about microfinance’s alarming wrong turns.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website Democracy Uprising.

Mercenaries Once Again Operating at the “Tip of the Spear” in Africa

Private Military and Security CompaniesOne has to wonder what the old generation of independence activists in Africa, those who fought for freedom across the continent, would think of the current state of affairs. Over 30 years since the OAU Convention for the Elimination of Mercenaries in Africa, ‘Modern Day Mercenaries’ are once again operating across the continent. In their current guise, these mercenaries are now known as Private Military and Security Companies (PMSC’s), and while they have evolved from their notorious ancestors in some key (and positive) ways, the lineage is still strong. Fundamentally, these are still armed civilians operating for profit and private companies, rather than under the flag of any particular state and thus are not recognized as soldiers under the Geneva Conventions.

While the majority of PMSC’s are not involved in direct hostilities (but rather are providing logistical functions), there are a number of PMSC’s that Brookings Institute scholar Peter Singer would say are operating at the “tip of the spear,” and therefore closer to the traditional conception of mercenaries. From Djibouti hiring Blackwater to hunt pirates off its coast, to the training of a battalion in the DRC by Protection Strategies Inc (under the auspices of AFRICOM), these descendents of the mercenaries that plagued the continent during the post-colonial period are once again becoming prevalent on the continent.

The activities (and widespread abuses) of PMSC’s in Iraq and Afghanistan have been widely documented. There are at least as many contractors in these two countries as there are military personnel (with nearly 200,000 operating in the 2 countries as of 2010), and the notorious abuses of contractors at Abu Ghraib have long been etched into the public’s psyche. Moreover, the name Blackwater (now known as Xe Services) will forever be associated with the infamous massacre at Nisoor Square in 2007 – for which none of the Blackwater employees were held fully accountable (although a recent appeals court decision means that justice may yet be forthcoming after the case was initially dismissed).

Aside from their prevalence and criminal acts that have gone unpunished, there has also been a great deal of criticism over the financial effect of using PMSC’s including massive overbilling, alleged waste and uncompetitive bidding processes for government contracts. The Commission on Wartime Contracting set up to investigate and give recommendations on these issues has yet to submit their final report (due in July this year), but the latest interim report by the CWC suggests that the U.S. government needs to drastically reform its use of contractors. And yet despite these abuses, the lack of criminal accountability, and the accusations of financial impropriety, there seems to be a consensus in Washington at least that PMSC’s are here to stay. In the current discourse there is no mention of whether we should be using PMSC’s, but rather how can we use them in such a way that avoids wasting money and attracting bad publicity.

Thus it is against such a background that we see an increase in the prevalence of PMSC’s on the African continent. Expert David Isenberg has written about the possibility of PMSC’s exploiting the crisis in Libya to extract a profit. UN reports have said that PMSC operations amount to a new form of mercenary activity, and that their use could be a threat toward human rights and self determination. In addition, the lack of accountability and enforcement when it comes to crimes and abuses by PMSC employees is a worrying sign; how can the principles of human rights and the rule of law be improved on the continent if the use of such actors in Africa is on the rise?

If PMSC’s are really here to stay, then their lack of accountability for criminal acts (not just using civil remedies such as tort law) needs to go. On this there can be no compromise, whether you see PMSC’s as either a necessary evil or a progressive use of the private sector in a fragmented international system.

Laurence Hull is a former Foreign Policy In Focus intern at the Institute for Policy Studies. He lives in London, UK and is studying history and international studies at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.

One Group of Students Proves Immune to Bin Laden-Death Fever

Students celebrating bin Laden death(Pictured: Harvard students celebrating the killing of bin Laden.)

One week ago, some DC-area college students wondered if finals would be canceled because of Osama Bin Laden’s killing and the celebrations that ensued. Others, as I can attest, asked professors for extensions on their final exams.

Students were wondering about having to take their exams because hundreds had stayed up until the early Monday morning hours celebrating Bin Laden’s death in front of the White House. The school newspaper at American University, where I teach, quoted a student as saying, “The scene was unbelievable. People were climbing trees and singing, it was a completely unplanned gathering…. For a day we weren’t Democrats or Republicans. We were all Americans.” Others gathered on American University’s quad, singing the national anthem and chanting USA! USA! USA!

Amid the celebrations, several students in my class “Anthropology of Life in the United States” stepped back to ask about the larger significance of what they’d witnessed. “I heard students running through the hallways yelling, ‘Osama Bin Laden is dead! Turn on the news,’’” wrote one student, Hallie, in her final exam, due the day after Bin Laden’s killing. “Why are we celebrating death and violence? I read on one of my friend’s [Facebook] status, ‘Party Tuesday Night—Amurica [sic] Themed. Kill Terrorists. That is a prime example of how death and war [are] normal in the United States,” she continued. “Though the subject is more complicated than I can describe…death and violence should never be celebrated.”

A Japanese student, Sanshiroh, offered an outsider’s perspective. Referring to hundreds of billions of dollars in annual U.S. military spending, he observed, “the global military supremacy of the United States almost seems to be the national identity. As teenagers play [the warfighting video game] ‘Call of Duty,’ military casualties no longer get reported anymore, and college students gather to celebrate the death of the leader of the enemy, warmaking has definitely been normalized and become the American way of life.”

Another student, Christine, agreed, saying, “It is clear that warmaking is not a temporary state of mind for U.S. American[s]. Boys play with G.I. Joe dolls and watch movies featuring soldiers killing. War has become intertwined with notions of patriotism and the American economy itself.

“With millions of Americans shouting a raucous yelp of ‘USA! USA! USA!’ upon learning of Osama Bin Laden’s death, it is clear that our identity as a nation is tied to our military prowess,” Christine’s exam continued. Pointing to the size of the military industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about in his farewell address, she wrote, “massive military spending has become intertwined with the fabric of our country’s values.”

Hallie, one member of this generation that’s been at war for half her lifetime, offered a similarly broad historical perspective just a day after Bin Laden’s killing: “The United States was founded through war and has never stopped. We have been involved in at least 200 military interventions [since World War II]. With the wars today, it is clear that there is no military solution, and if we keep spending money on the wars and going into debt, our empire is going to crash…. The habit will not be broken until something major happens.

“We used to be a nation focused on justice,” Hallie concluded her essay, “but now we are a nation focused on controlling the world through means of violence and power. What have we come to?”

I, for one, am very thankful we didn’t cancel finals.

Thanks to Fukushima Nuclear Terrorism Got a Whole Lot Easier

When we think of nuclear terrorism, we think of a nuclear bomb smuggled into an American city. Or, perhaps, a plane crashing into a nuclear reactor. But nuclear terrorism suddenly got a whole lot easier than planning either of those scenarios. Suddenly, it’s as easy as emptying a pool of water. At Japanese news site Asahi, Fumihiko Yoshida reports about spent-fuel-rod pools like those that overheated in Fukushima for lack of cooling water.

“If pools were damaged by a terrorist attack and water was lost, the scenario would be the same as what occurred at the Fukushima plant,” said [Allison Macfarlane, associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University].

Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists explains how such damage might occur.

. . . a possible cyber attack . . . could instantly kill a regional grid that provides electricity to nuclear power plants and on-site backup electrical systems, resulting in a Fukushima-type disaster.

In other words, instead of setting off a bomb or targeting a reactor directly, terrorists could cause a Fukushima-type disaster by instead targeting the functioning of spent-fuel-rod pools. At least one world leader is taking this to heart. Yoshida again.

Several days after the crisis began on March 11, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the expanding threat of a nuclear catastrophe in Japan had changed his thinking on the safety of nuclear power.

“It certainly caused me to reconsider the projects of building civil nuclear power plants” in Israel, he said. [Physicist and one-time White House national security advisor Frank] Von Hippel’s interpretation of this comment is that considering the instability in the Middle East today, Netanyahu’s new position reflects, at least to some extent, security concerns about the potential use of nuclear power plants as “radioactive bombs” if they are targeted for attack.

Not only are the damaged reactors at Fukushima leaking radiation, they’re discharging ideas how to turn nuclear reactors into terrorist weapons.

Decapitating the Head of the Snake: bin Laden and Our Inner Avenger

Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan referred to killing Osama bin Laden as “decapitating the head of the snake known as al Qaida.” Bloodthirsty choice of words, especially considering that decapitation has been one of al Qaeda’s preferred modes of execution, most notoriously, Daniel Pearl at the likely hands of 9/11 “mastermind” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

In the past, when humans were beheaded as punishment, the instrument of death was usually an axe or guillotine. Leave it to members of al Qaeda to take throat cutting to extremes. Perhaps they hoped Allah would accept a victim thus butchered as a sacrificial offering.

But inviting the comparison to al Qaeda by using decapitation as an image may have been Brennan’s point. It’s as if he were saying: we shot him in cold blood, but at least we didn’t decapitate him like al Qaeda.

Speaking of barbarism, Focal Points readers are aware that I’ve been questioning what seemed like the cold-blooded killing of bin Laden. Upon learning, again from Brennan, of the fear that bin Laden may have donned a suicide vest, which was theoretically possible while the SEALs swept the compound, I’ve withdrawn my objections on that count.

Legal reservations, such as acting on information gained under torture (of course, those raising that objection conveniently forget that heretofore they’ve adhered to the conviction that information obtained during torture isn’t trustworthy). More to the point is political assassination as, at the New Yorker Jeffrey Toobin reminds us.

. . . it’s worth noting that the apparently universal acclaim for the killing [of bin Laden] represents a major shift in American perceptions of such actions. Following the revelations of C.I.A. assassination plots by the Church Committee, in the nineteen-seventies, President Ford issued Executive Order 11905 (later 12333), which stated, No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.

But, personally, this author is most disturbed by the celebration over a killing, the likes of which he’s never witnessed in the United States. It likely surpasses public reaction to Hitler’s death. As I previously wrote

How does Americans celebrating bin Laden’s killing look to the rest of the world? An NBA player, of all people, has an idea.

[Chris] Douglas-Roberts [was] disturbed by the ensuing celebration. It reminded him of the response in Afghanistan — which was also captured on television — following 9/11. “We just looked like the Afghan people, a decade later,” he said.

Still, that doesn’t absolve myself and those who share my view from taking a look in the mirror as well. At Guernica, Noam Chomsky writes:

We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic. . . . his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s.

Would we be big enough to contain the glee welling up in us?

Whether or not we’re willing and able to confront our inner avenger is up to us. But, it’s imperative that we refrain from celebrating for the record lest we reduce ourselves to the level of those publicly gloating over bin Laden’s killing.

Could the Death of bin Laden Become a Cornerstone of Peace in Afghanistan?

Panetta PetraeusAccording to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Leon Panetta, the U.S. never informed Pakistan about the operation to assassinate al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden because it thought the Pakistanis could “jeopardize the mission” by tipping off the target.

Maybe, and maybe not. This is, after all, the ground over which the 19th century “Great Game” was played, the essence of which was obfuscation. What you thought you saw or knew was not necessarily what was.

The “official” story is that three CIA helicopters—one for backup—took off from Jalalabad, Afghanistan and flew almost 200 miles to Abbottabad, most of it through Pakistani airspace. Pakistan scrambled jets, but the choppers still managed to land, spend 40 minutes on the ground, and get away.

Is it possible the helicopters really did dodge Pakistani radar? During the Cold War a West German pilot flew undetected through the teeth of the Soviet air defense system and landed his plane in Red Square, so yes. Choppers are slow, but these were stealth varieties and fairly quiet. But at top speed, the Blackhawks would have needed about an hour each way, plus the 40 minutes on the ground. That is a long time to remain undetected, particularly in a town hosting three regiments of the Pakistani Army, plus the Kakul Military Academy, the country’s equivalent of West Point. Abbottabad is also 35 miles from the capital, Islamabad, and the region is ringed with anti-aircraft sites.

Still, it is possible, except there is an alternative scenario that not only avoids magical thinking about what choppers can do, but better fits the politics of the moment: that Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) knew where Bin Laden was and fingered him, estimating that his death would accelerate negotiations with the Taliban. Why now? Because for the first time in this long war, U.S. and Pakistani interests coincide.

Gen. Hammad Gul, former head of the ISI, told the Financial Times on May 3 that the ISI knew where he was, but regarded him as “inactive.” Writing in the May 5 Guardian (UK), author Tariq Ali says that a “senior” ISI official told him back in 2006 that the spy organization knew where bin Laden was, but had no intention of arresting him because he was “The goose that laid the golden egg.” In short, the hunt for the al-Qaeda leader helped keep the U.S. aid spigot open.

Indeed, bin Laden may have been under house arrest, which would explain the absence of trained bodyguards. By not allowing the al-Qaeda leader a private militia, the ISI forced him to rely on it for protection. And if they then dropped a dime on him, they knew he would be an easy target. As to why he was killed, not captured, neither the U.S. nor Pakistan wanted him alive, the former because of the judicial nightmare his incarceration would involve, the latter because dead men tell no tales.

As for the denials: the last thing the ISI wants is to be associated with the hit, since it could end up making the organization a target for Pakistan’s home-grown Taliban. If the ISI knew, so did the Army, though not necessarily at all levels. Did the Army turn a blind eye to the U.S. choppers? Who knows?

What we do know for certain is that there is a shift in Pakistan and the U.S. with regards to the Afghan war.

On the U.S. side, the war is going badly, and American military and intelligence agencies are openly warring with one another. In December the U.S. intelligence community released a study indicating that progress was minimal and that the 2009 surge of 30,000 troops had produced only tactical successes: “There remains no clear path toward defeating the insurgency.” The Pentagon counter-attacked in late April with a report that the surge had been “a strategic defeat for the Taliban,” and that the military was making “tangible progress in some really key areas.”

It is not an analysis agreed with by our NATO allies, most of which are desperate to get their troops out of what they view as a deepening quagmire. A recent WikiLeak cable quotes Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Union, saying “No one believes in Afghanistan anymore. But we will give it 2010 to see results.” He went on to say Europe was only going along “out of deference to the United States.” Translation: NATO support is falling apart.

Recent shifts by the Administration seem to signal that the White House is backing away from the surge and looking for ways to wind down the war. The shift of Gen. David Petraeus to the CIA removes the major U.S. booster of the current counterinsurgency strategy, and moving Panetta to the Defense Department puts a savvy political infighter with strong Democratic Party credentials into the heart of Pentagon. Democrats are overwhelmingly opposed to the war but could never get a hearing from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a Republican.

The last major civilian supporter of the war is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but Gates, her main ally, will soon be gone, as will Admiral Mike Mullen, head of the Joints Chiefs of Staff. The shuffle at the top is hardly a “night of the long knives,” but the White House has essentially eliminated or sidelined those in the administration who pushed for a robust war and long-term occupation.

A surge of sanity? Well, at least some careful poll reading. According to the Associated Press, six in 10 Americans want out of the war. Among Democrats 73 percent want to be out in a year, and a USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 72 percent of Americans want Congress to address an accelerated withdrawal. With the war now costing $8 billion a month, these numbers are hardly a surprise.

Pakistan has long been frustrated with the U.S.’s reluctance to talk to the Taliban, and, from Islamabad’s perspective, the war is largely being carried out at their expense. Pakistan has suffered tens of thousands of civilian and military casualties in what most Pakistanis see as an American war, and the country is literally up in arms over the drone attacks.

The Pakistani Army has been deployed in Swat, South Waziristan, and Bajaur, and the U.S. is pressing it to invade North Waziristan. One Pakistani grumbled to the Guardian (UK), “What do they [the U.S.] want us to do? Declare war on our whole country?” For the 30 million Pashtuns in the northwest regions, the Pakistani Army is foreign in language and culture, and Islamabad knows that it will eventually be seen as an outside occupier.

A poll by the New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan’s northwest—home and refuge to many of the insurgents fighting in Afghanistan—found some 80 percent oppose the U.S. war on terror, almost nine in every 10 people oppose U.S. attacks on the Taliban, and three quarters oppose the drone attacks.

The bottom line is that Pakistan simply cannot afford to continue the war, particularly as they are still trying to dig themselves out from under last year’s massive floods.

In April, Pakistan’s top military, intelligence and political leadership decamped to Kabul to meet with the government of Harmid Karzai. The outcome of the talks is secret, but they appear to have emboldened the parties to press the U.S. to start talking. According to Ahmed Rashid, author of “Taliban” and “Descent into Chaos,” the White House is moving “the fledgling peace process forward” and will “push to broker an end to the war.” This includes dropping “its preconditions that the Taliban sever links with al-Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution before holding face-to-face talks.”

Given that in 2008 the Taliban agreed to not allow any “outside” forces in the country and pledged not to pose a danger to any other country, including those in the West, this demand has already been met. As for the constitution, since it excluded the Taliban it will have to be re-negotiated in any case.

While there appears to be a convergence of interests among the major parties, negotiations promise to be a thorny business.

The Pentagon will resist a major troop drawdown. There is also opposition in Afghanistan, where Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara minorities are deeply suspicious of the Taliban. The Karzai government also appears split on the talks, although recent cabinet shuffles have removed some of the more anti-Pakistan leaders.

Then there is the Taliban, which is hardly a centralized organization, especially since U.S. drone attacks and night raids have effectively removed more experienced Taliban leaders, leaving younger and more radical fighters in charge. Can Taliban leader Mullah Omar deliver his troops? That is not a given.

Both other insurgent groups—the Haqqani Group and Hizb-i-Islami—have indicated they are open to negotiations, but the Americans will have a hard time sitting down with the Haqqanis. The group has been implicated in the deaths of numerous U.S. and coalition forces. To leave the Haqqani Group out, however, will derail the whole process.

The U.S. would like to exclude Iran, but as Rashid points out, “No peace process in Afghanistan can succeed without Iran’s full participation.” And then there is India. Pakistan sees Indian involvement in Afghanistan as part of New Delhi’s strategy to surround Pakistan, and India accuses Pakistan of harboring terrorists who attack Indian-controlled Kashmir and launched the horrendous 2008 attack on Mumbai that killed 166 people.

Murphy’s Law suggests that things are more likely to end in chaos than reasoned diplomacy. But self-interest is a powerful motivator, and all parties, including India, stands to gain something by ending the war. India very much wants to see the 1,050-mile TAPI pipeline built, as it will carry gas from Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan and Pakistan, to Fazilka, India.

A lot is at stake, and if getting the peace process going involved taking out Osama bin Laden, well, in the cynical world of the “Great Game,” to make an omelet, you have to break eggs.

Back in the Victorian era the British Army marched off singing a song:

We don’t want to fight but by jingo if we do
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and we’ve got the money too

But in the 21st century most our allies’ armies don’t want to fight, ships are useless in Afghanistan, there aren’t enough men, and everyone is broke.

For 33 years the people of Afghanistan have been bombed, burned, shot, tortured and turned into refugees. For at least the moment the pieces are aligned to bring this awful war to an end. It is time to close the book on the “Great Game” and bring the troops home.

More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches From the Edge.

WikiLeaks: Gitmo Guards’ Rewards System for Detainees Backfires

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the fifty-second in the series.

The story of Yasser Talal Al Zahrani offers one of the most mysterious, and ultimately tragic, narratives in the “Gitmo Files” published by WikiLeaks this past week. The son of “a senior official in the Saudi Interior Ministry, reportedly holding the rank of abid, or brigadier,” the seventeen-year-old al Zahrani reportedly left home, having just completed the eleventh grade, “after hearing that sheiks from neighboring [sic throughout] towns were saying jihad in Afghanistan (AF) was a religious duty.”

He first travelled to Karachi, Pakistan, financing “the trip himself with saving he had earned selling perfumes to hajj pilgrims.” In Karachi, al Zahrani hooked up with a man named Saria al Makki, who travelled with him to Konduz, Afghanistan.

In Konduz, detainee was taken to a place called the Taliban Center. He spent one month training under an individual named Khair Allah on the use of the Kalishnikov rifle, the Makarov pistol, hand grenades, and in field training. The detainee was then assigned a guard position at a second line post between Konduz and Taloqan.

The American Taliban fighter, John Walker Lindh, remembered Abu Ammar distinctly, in part because he was little more than a kid when they fought together in Afghanistan.

Lindh identified detainee as Abu Ammar from Saudi Arabia. He further stated that detainee was one of the youngest, which is why he stood out. Lindh stated detainee was approximately seventeen years old and was always joking and talking. Detainee…was involved in foo services. Detainee was always at front line base camps…

When the front line crumbled under the pressure of American fire power, “the group retreated to Konduz where coalition forces surrounded them.” Lindh reported that while there, al Zahrani “helped in a kitchen of an Arab guesthouse (as a cook) in Konduz after fleeing from the front lines.” Just over a week later, Konduz fell, and al Zahrani’s group cut a deal with the Northern Alliance, “Allowing fighters to leave with their weapons and travel to Mazar-E-Sharif, AF, where they would surrender.” What happened then is a bit confused, but the report notes that

On the eleventh day of Ramadan, the fighters traveled to Mazar-E-Sharid where they turned in their weapons and were taken to the Qala-I-Jangi prison. The day after they arrived at the prison, detainee and others were taken to a square in the prison yard. Detainee heard gunfire and explosions coming from the prison and then a firefight ensued injuring detainee in the leg and foot. He fell to the ground and remained in the same position until nightfall, when other prisoners retrieved him and carried him back to the underground prison. They remained there for seven days before they were forced to surrender.

A month later, he was turned over to the American forces, and processed to Guantanamo Boy shortly thereafter.

From what can be gathered in al Zahrani’s assessment, he was quite a handful. In the five years he spent in Guantanamo, Abu Ammar racked up over one hundred disciplinary infraction reports detailing all manner of disruptive incidents, including

assault, failure to follow instructions/camp rules, using provoking words and gestures with the guards, threatening the life of a guard, damage to property, inciting a disturbance, exposing himself to guards, possession of both weapon and non-weapon type contraband, and cross block talking. The detainee had twelve reports of disciplinary infraction for assault in 2005. The detainee’s most recent assault was committed on 13 November 2005 when he punched a guard in the jaw upon being returned to his cell. The detainee has numerous cases of verbal harassment and threats towards guards…The detainee was a major participant in the voluntary total fast of 2005-2006. The detainee has notes of conducting PT, to include combative type training, and at least twice has taunted guards claiming to want to fight. On 11 July 2005, detainee told a guard that he would use a knife to cut his stomach open, cut his face off, and then drink his blood, smiling and laughing as he said it.

Major General Jay Hood, who authored the report, determined that al Zahrani’s antics were enough to keep him held indefinitely in Gitmo detention, despite the fact that the Saudi was basically of no use to al Qaeda or the Taliban, much less the United States Government.

No reporting indicates detainee served in a leadership or operational planning capacity….detainee’s exposure to the jihadist element in Afghanistan is unremarkable and less than many other detainees. The information detainee is assessed to know about the Taliban and events in Qala-I-Jangi is limited beyond what he has already provided. It is assessed the intelligence to be exploited from detainee is limited, and it would probably be dated and not tactically or strategically critical…most reporting indicates detainee was probably the average mujahid…

As it turns out, while al Zahrani may have been the average mujahid, he made a name for himself at Guantanamo for being one of four inmates to successfully commit suicide. Three months after the assessment was conducted by Hood, al Zahrani and two other detainees simultaneously killed themselves in their cells. According to the Washington Post,

Zahrani, in Cell A-8, was the first detainee to raise concern among guards. One guard passed his cell and thought the silhouette under his sheets looked too small. When guards inspected further, they found the sheet concealing random items and Zahrani hanging from a noose in the darkness… Some of the guards were “very emotional,” according to the report [on the suicides]. “I feel that the guards and myself on Alpha block did an inadequate job monitoring the detainees that night to make sure that they were following the rules as to show some kind of skin while sleeping,” said one guard, who name was redacted from the documents.

Inadequacy was only the tip of the iceberg. An investigation later demonstrated that

guards had become lax on certain rules because commanders wanted to reward the more compliant detainees, giving them extra T-shirts, blankets and towels. Detainees were allowed to hang such items to dry, or to provide privacy while using the toilet, but were not supposed to be able to obscure their cells while sleeping.

Guards told officials that it was not unusual to see blankets hanging in the cells and that they did not think twice when they passed several cells on the night of June 9, 2006, with blankets strung through the wire mesh. Authorities believe the men probably hanged themselves around 10 p.m., but they were not discovered until shortly after midnight on June 10.

How al Zahrani was able to get his hands on all this good-behavior swag given his extensive list of misdemeanors was never explained. What is clear, however, is that al Zahrani was slated for release at the very moment he decided to take his own life. “Zahrani, according to Guantanamo records, was next on the ‘Saudi DMO’ list, which meant he was imminently going to be part of a “Detainee Movement Operation” that would have transferred him to Saudi Arabia’s reintegration program and ultimately to freedom.” He was twenty-one years old.

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