Focal Points Blog

Will Taliban Freed in the Bergdahl Trade Come Back to Haunt U.S. Soldiers?



In the New York Times, Eric Schmitt and Charlie Savage report on the exchange of five Taliban who had been imprisoned at Guantánamo for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a prisoner of the Afghan Taliban since 2008.

The five Taliban detainees at Guantánamo, including two senior militant commanders said to be linked to operations that killed American and allied troops as well as implicated in murdering thousands of Shiites in Afghanistan, were flown from Cuba in the custody of officials from Qatar, who will accompany them back to that Persian Gulf state.

Less than enthusiastic about the deal, Representative Mike Rogers (R-MI), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, made the traditional case.
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It’s Always Been Too Easy to Justify Civilian Casualties



In a recent post I asked how Boko Haram justified the depths of depravity to which it descends. It includes not only kidnapping schoolgirls, but mass-murdering civilians and perhaps even cannibalism. Its leader Abubakar Shekau’s reply, as reported by Adam Nossiter and David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times mirrors a justification sometimes used by other Islamist militants: “the sole purpose of its violence was to demonstrate the incapacity of the Nigerian state.”
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Iran Knows Nukes Would Be Detrimental to Its National Security


Arak nuclear reactor in Iran

Arak nuclear reactor in Iran

In the New Yorker, Robin Wright profiles Javad Zarif, Iran’s Westernized foreign minister who also acts as its chief nuclear negotiator (no link because it’s behind a paywall). While she writes as if she accepts the conventional wisdom that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons and MUST BE STOPPED, we’re in Ms. Wright’s debt for the revealing glimpses into Zarif’s character that she provides. She writes that “Zarif is an affable man, with a disarmingly unrevolutionary grin” and “a quick wit.” She quotes Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) who said, “He is thoughtful. He is real.”
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Red Mud and Other Messes


Mud Spill

Cross-posted from

It was one of the worst environmental disasters in Europe. In October 2010, near the town of Ajka in northern Hungary, a reservoir wall containing the industrial sludge pond of an alumina plant collapsed and more than a million cubic meters of toxic red mud swept across the countryside, through several villages, and into the rivers feeding the Danube. Ten people died, and more than 120 were injured. The pictures of the disaster are astonishing.

Accidents happen. But this was not a complete surprise. As early as 2006, the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River declared this particular pond to be “at risk” of polluting the area around the river. Moreover, Hungary had gradually been weakening the legal framework for environmental protection.
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Did the U.S. Revive Operation Paperclip for a Terrorist?



In the New York Times, Mark Landler reports about a new biography a legendary CIA operative titled The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, by Kai Bird.

Mr. Bird explores Mr. Ames’s shadowy path in the Middle East, where he formed an unlikely friendship with the intelligence chief of the Palestine Liberation Organization and used it to try to draw the Israelis and Palestinians together in peace negotiations.

The book comes complete with what looks like a bona fide scoop about the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, which killed 63 people, 17 of them Americans. Among them were eight CIA officers, including Ames himself. Landler writes that

… in sifting through the long-dead embers from the embassy bombing, Mr. Bird makes a startling assertion: that an Iranian intelligence officer who defected to the United States in 2007 and is still living here under C.I.A. protection, oversaw the 1983 bombing, as well as other terrorist attacks against Americans in Lebanon.

… “This is a classic intelligence dilemma,” he continued. “When do you deal with bad guys? When do you agree to give them asylum? In my opinion, this goes over the line.”

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5 Not-So-Fun Facts About Nuclear Weapons


In a piece titled Nuclear Weapons Modernization: A Threat to the NPT? in the May issue of Arms Control Today, Hans Kristensen reports that “all of the world’s nuclear-weapon states are busy modernizing their arsenals and continue to reaffirm the importance of such weapons.” Bear in mind that it’s been 46 years since the five nuclear-weapons states that signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), along with states without nuclear weapons, agreed (albeit in vague language) to work toward nuclear disarmament. Writes Kristensen:

None of them appears willing to eliminate its nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future.

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Romania’s Fragile New Left

Rogozanu, Costi

Costi Rogozanu of CriticAtac

Cross-posted from

Romania is perhaps the last place to expect an independent Left to take root. Unlike in Poland or Hungary or Yugoslavia, a critical socialist movement didn’t emerge in response to the orthodox Communists in power. And the Social Democrats that crawled from the wreckage of the 1989 revolution – first as part of the National Salvation Front and then in their own Social Democratic Party – embraced a politically and economically conservative platform. They signal left, as the Romanian joke goes, but turn right.

But Romania’s New Left has begun to coalesce. A group of young intellectuals – academics, journalists, writers – launched CriticAtac a few years ago to discuss “banks, the health system, trade unions, state institutions and services, elections, public policies, the Church, urbanism and any other topics of major public interest” and to do so “without academicism, snobbery or preciousness.” The group’s irreverence is evident in its own self-description: “Our ideology is leftist, but we are not a sect and we don’t go around patting each other on our backs for the brilliant and concerted line of our ideas.”
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Nuclear Weapons Are an Aging Society, Too

Nuclear Test for FPIF

In 2004 anthropologist Joseph Masco wrote a seminal article for the August issue of American Ethnologist titled Nuclear technoaesthetics. He followed that up with a book titled The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico (Princeton University Press, 2006). In his article, which addresses, among other things, the effects on the mentality of nuclear scientists after nuclear testing was banned, he reproduces the thoughts of a former deputy director of nuclear weapons technologies at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

For 50 years the Nuclear Weapons Program relied on nuclear testing, complemented by large-scale production, to guarantee a safe and reliable stockpile. New weapons were designed, tested, and manufactured on a regular basis. If [they] discovered a defect, its significance could be established by nuclear testing. If the defect was serious, it could be repaired by the production complex. Even if the defect was not significant, the weapon was likely to be replaced by a more modern system in only a few years. As the stockpile ages far beyond its anticipated life, we can expect a variety of defects which will break the symmetries which were used in the design process. This means that weapons gerontology is far more challenging than designing new weapons. We are sometimes accused by anti-nuclear activists of wanting [new] facilities … in order to design new weapons. My answer is that we know how to design new weapons. But we do not know how to certify the safety, reliability and performance of weapons as they age.

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Intrepid Swiss Public Rejects Purchase of State-of-the-Art Fighter Jets

The Swedish-made Gripen that Swiss voters turned down.

The Swedish-made Gripen that Swiss voters turned down.

Cross-posted from Politically Inclined.

In a rare showing, the mountainous Swiss are making headlines. No, not for the controversial anti-immigration vote in February that European Union members lamented over, but rather the rejected referendum that concerned the purchase of 22 Gripen fighter jets. This would have been a landmark shift for the staunchly neutral confederation on the heels of an embarrassing aerial incident, but voters narrowly nixed the proposal with 53.4 percent against it and 46.6 percent who supported the purchase.

So did they get it right?
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Nuclear Weapons Are Like the Wedding at Cana


Remember the story in the Gospel of John from the Bible’s New Testament about the first miracle of Jesus Christ? To refresh your memory, Jesus attended a wedding with his mother and disciples (what, he couldn’t get a date?), in a village called Cana, which may have been in Galilee in northern Israel. When the wine ran out, he converted containers of water into wine. John also told us about the miracle of the loaves and fishes, which entailed Jesus feeding thousands with five barley loaves and two small fish.

The U.S. government can be pretty miraculous, too. It’s demonstrated a capability to perform a similar act to Jesus, but with nuclear weapons. The more they disappear, it seems, the more magically others reappear to replace them.
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