Focal Points Blog

Are Nuclear Weapons Really a “Big Sin” to Iran’s Supreme Leader?

Ayatollah KhameiniJames Risen’sApril 14 article for the New York Times on Iran’s Supreme Leader’s nuclear-weapons intentions — or lack thereof — has attracted much attention. Ayatollah Ali Khameinei, he writes, “often uses religious language when he talks about the nuclear issue, which can jar Western analysts trying to gauge the meaning of such strong statements.” It’s well known that he once issued a fatwa against the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran. As recently as February, Risen writes, Ayatollah Khameini said: “Iran is not seeking to have the atomic bomb, possession of which is pointless, dangerous and is a great sin from an intellectual and a religious point of view.”

Here are further excerpts from his pronouncements, about which I recently posted (Iran Tries to Take the Moral High Ground on Nukes). More from the February speech (the translation on his official website):

Nuclear weapons are not at all beneficial to us. Moreover, from an ideological and fiqhi perspective, we consider developing nuclear weapons as unlawful. We consider using such weapons as a big sin. We also believe that keeping such weapons is futile and dangerous, and we will never go after them.

In 2011 Ayatollah Khameini spoke about nuclear weapons at greater length.

Iran is not after an atomic bomb, and it is even opposed to possession of chemical weapons. Even when Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran, we did not try to manufacture chemical weapons. Such things are not in line with the principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Furthermore, he declared that nuclear weapons “are useless except for intimidation, massacre and a false sense of security based on pre-emptive power resulting from guaranteed annihilation of everyone.” Citing the atom bombs that the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Risen quoted him saying (emphasis added):

The use of nuclear weapons resulted not only in large-scale killings and destruction, but also in indiscriminate massacre of people. … Therefore, using or even threatening to use such weapons is considered a serious violation of the most basic humanitarian rules and is a clear manifestation of war crimes.

Risen points out, though, that:

… those comments are not only at odds with some of Iran’s behavior but also with. … remarks Ayatollah Khamenei made last year that it was a mistake for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya to give up his nuclear weapons program.

Referring to Colonel Qaddafi, Ayatollah Khamenei said that “this gentleman wrapped up all his nuclear facilities, packed them on a ship and delivered them to the West and said, ‘Take them!’ “

“Look where we are, and in what position they are now,” he added.

Risen, however, fails to note that those remarks sound less like Ayatollah Khamanei expressing his personal feelings, than stating a fact. Risen then writes:

Complicating matters further, some analysts say that Ayatollah Khamenei’s denial of Iranian nuclear ambitions has to be seen as part of a Shiite historical concept called taqiyya, or religious dissembling. For centuries an oppressed minority within Islam, Shiites learned to conceal their sectarian identity to survive, and so there is a precedent for lying to protect the Shiite community.

In response to Risen, Juan Cole examines taqiyya more closely.

Imam Ruhullah Khomeini, who led the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, demanded that taqiyya be abandoned in favor of holy war or jihad. Shiite expert Rainer Brunner argues that pious dissimulation has “completely lost its importance” in contemporary, Shiite-majority Iran.

So the idea that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the theocratic leader of a Shiite-majority Islamic Republic, would give a dishonest fatwa about a key principle in Islamic law (the prohibition on killing innocent non-combatants in war) is a non-starter. Khamenei, being in Khomeini’s tradition, is bound by the latter’s hostility to dissimulation.

That may well be, but considering his brutal record, Ayatollah Khameini’s ethical code can only be judged as selective at best. In 2009 accounts by a defector from his private guard provided insights into his ruthless policies, as well as his lavish lifestyle. For instance, the defector — considered credible by many — provided:

… new information that links Ayatollah Khamenei to the brutal assault on protestors following the presidential elections in June. The man [named Hossain Taeb] alleged to have [been] carrying out interrogations of prisoners at the notorious Kahrizak detention centre, where at least three people were tortured to death, is a key part of the inner circle. [He] is said to have run an extensive surveillance operation for the personal use of Ayatollah Khamenei for almost 15 years. Each evening the leader is said to listen to recordings of senior officials and colleague talking about him in a compilation that normally lasts 20 minutes. [Meanwhile] the leader’s second son… played a prominent role in organising the Basij militia that has meted out violence against protesters. [Like the Stalinesque touch where the emphasis is added? -- RW]

But Gareth Porter provides more evidence that Ayatollah Khameini sought to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

When the IAEA passed a resolution demanding that Iran suspend enrichment and adopt an intrusive monitoring system in September [2003]. … hardliners were arguing publicly that Iran should withdraw from the NPT rather than make any effort to convince the West that Iran did not intend to make nuclear weapons.

Sometime in September and October, Khamenei ordered the designation of the Secretary of Supreme National Security Council Hassan Rohani, who reported directly to him, as the single individual responsible for coordinating all aspects of nuclear policy. … It was Rohani himself who announced on Oct. 25, 2003, that Khamenei believed that nuclear weapons were illegal under Islam.

Still, it behooves us to revisit some of Ayatollah Khomeini’s comments for a moment.

… we do not possess a nuclear weapon, and we will not build one. … Iran is not seeking to have the atomic bomb. … using or even threatening to use such weapons is considered a serious violation of the most basic humanitarian rules and is a clear manifestation of war crimes.

Ayatollah Khomeini addresses the possession and use of nuclear weapons, but neglects to mention developing or acquiring the capability to build nuclear weapons without actually manufacturing and deploying them. One might be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that denouncing what’s known as “latent” or “virtual” deterrence is obviously implied in condemning the use of weapons.

First of all, though, even though he was never a marja (a grand ayatollah empowered to make decisions in religious law), it’s a mistake to overlook the fondness for hair-splitting that theological authorities of all stripes share with lawyers (the “How many angels can fit on the head of a pin?” syndrome). In other words, Ayatollah Khameini may see actual nuclear weapons and their deployment as a sin, but not the capability to manufacture them.

Let’s return now to Risen’s statement that he “often uses religious language when he talks about the nuclear issue, which can jar Western analysts trying to gauge the meaning of such strong statements.” The “jarring” or disconnect may occur because of a natural tendency on our part to hold a religious leader — who just happens to be the leader of a state — to a higher standard. The truth is, Ayatollah Khameini probably hedges and equivocates like any ruler. His disinclination to live up to the ethical and spiritual standards to which a religious leader ought to aspire shouldn’t serve as an excuse to avoid treating him and his people like statesmen and negotiating with them in good faith.

Negative Nostalgia: Nuclear-Weapons Labs a Throwback to Cold War

Cross-posted from the Project on Government Oversight Blog.

We’ve been saying for some time that the U.S. nuclear weapons complex is a relic of the Cold War. Now it seems even the Department of Defense (DoD) has had enough, according to a Pentagon memo obtained by POGO, and is calling out the Department of Energy (DOE) for its refusal to downsize its nuclear weapons laboratories. POGO sent a letter to Members of Congress today—along with a copy of the leaked DoD memo—urging them to ensure that DOE does not circumvent the congressional funding process and pour even more money into its oversized lab system. We also urged DOE to follow DoD’s lead by closing redundant lab space and by placing a cap on contractor compensation at the labs.

The DoD memo appears to have been written in response to a new interagency council comprised of DOE, DoD, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The council is looking for ways “to engage in interagency long-term strategic planning” for the DOE labs. Simply put, the interagency council could create new missions for the nuclear weapons labs and could allow the agencies to funnel funding into DOE nuclear projects without congressional approval.

But, at a time when President Obama is calling for a “leaner” military and the Administration is considering shrinking the nuclear stockpile to reflect the realities of the 21st century, DOE nuclear labs should be getting smaller too.

As the DoD memo notes, experts have been urging DOE to downsize its labs (including the three nuclear weapons laboratories) since the end of the Cold War. The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy concluded in 1995, “the DOE laboratory system is bigger and more expensive than it needs to be,” and there is “excessive duplication of capabilities among the labs.”

However, funding for the labs now exceeds Cold War levels, due in part to lobbying by the DOE lab directors. According to the DoD memo, the Administration’s plans to increase funding to $8.6 billion per year over the next ten years is almost 70 percent higher than spending during the Cold War in constant dollars. In another leaked memo obtained by POGO, an official from the Office of the Secretary of Defense noted that the DOE labs want to take on new missions as a way to justify their oversized infrastructure.

By contrast, the DoD has undertaken five Base Realignment and Closure rounds, or BRACs, since 1988, closing 21 laboratories and eliminating excess capacity. This past November, a DOE Office of Inspector General report concluded that DOE should carry out a BRAC-like review of its labs, which could lead to consolidation or realignment—which are ultimately money-savers for the labs and for taxpayers.

And, as we point out in the letter, taxpayers are footing a hefty bill for the labs. Seven of the top fifteen officials at the three nuclear weapons labs make more than the Administration’s $700,000 executive compensation cap. In theory, any amount above the compensation cap shouldn’t be a burden on taxpayers, as the labs are required to pay for the difference out of their own profits. However, because the labs use their government-granted award fees to pay the difference, taxpayers end up picking up the slack. For instance, in 2009, taxpayer dollars covered all of former Sandia Lab Director Tom Hunter’s $1.7-million salary.

What’s more, the DOE is clearly resistant to transparency, keeping under wraps the justification for the labs’ award fees. Since, 2009, the department has denied the public timely access to its revealing Performance Evaluation Plans (PEPs) and Performance Evaluation Reports (PERs), which POGO called “perhaps the single most important information available to hold NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration] accountable” in a letter to President Obama. We’ve only been able to see recent PERs due to the efforts of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, which filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the NNSA for access to the documents.

Congress needs to step in. POGO echoes the call of other experts who believe the DOE must reevaluate its oversized, outdated lab system. Instead of giving the DOE lab complex a blank check to continue to grow, it’s time to end the bloat.

Mia Steinle is an investigator for the Project on Government Oversight .

Drug-Law Reform Genie Freed From Bottle at Summit of the Americas

Presidents Obama and Juan Manuel Santos at Cartagena.

Presidents Obama and Juan Manuel Santos at Cartagena.

For the second time since assuming office, President Obama met with the hemisphere’s leaders at the sixth presidential summit in Cartagena, Colombia on April 14 and 15. At first glance, the summit’s theme, “Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity,” would have been better stated as “Disconnecting the Americas.” The presidents could not come to consensus on a final declaration that had long been in the works in draft form. Brazil’s harsh criticisms of U.S. monetary policy were widely applauded. Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner left the summit early, after the United States refused to go along with a statement endorsing Argentine’s right to the Malvinas Islands, insisting on U.S. neutrality in the dispute between Argentina and Great Britain (where they are known as the Falkland Islands). The biggest tension, however, emerged over Cuba. While the rest of the hemisphere remained remarkably united around the idea that Cuba should participate in the next summit, scheduled for 2015, Canada and the United States remained steadfast in their opposition. (This ticking time bomb may very well derail future hemispheric summits.) To add insult to injury, the United States was deeply embarrassed by serious allegations of U.S. Secret Service agents drinking to excess and cavorting with prostitutes, harking back to the image of Latin America as a U.S. playground (a la Havana 1959).

Yet what was refreshing about the Cartagena meeting was that these differences were aired in public. Though conflict has taken center stage in previous summits, most were highly scripted events that provided more of a photo op than a meaningful forum for debate. This time, debate – and discord – took center stage.

The lasting legacy of the Cartagena summit, however, will likely be the beginning of a serious regional debate on international drug control policies. With the apparently adept leadership of Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, the issue was discussed at a private, closed-door meeting of the presidents – according to press accounts, it was the only issue discussed at that meeting – and Santos later announced that as a result of the presidents’ discussion, the Organization of American States (OAS) was tasked with analyzing the results of present policy and exploring alternative approaches that could prove to be more effective. A topic long considered taboo – the U.S. “war on drugs” – is now being seriously questioned and debate on new strategies – including legal, regulated markets – is officially on the regional agenda.

The significance of this development cannot be underestimated. For years, Washington has used its economic and political muscle to squash any dissenting opinions from Latin American governments. Academics and other experts who proposed alternative policies were ostracized as “legalizers,” even if that is not what they were proposing. The “L” word could not even be mentioned in official circles. In fact, the present debate is not about outright legalization per se but rather legal, regulated markets. Administration officials, nonetheless, continue to misconstrue the issue. At the summit, President Obama said that drug traffickers could “dominate certain countries if they were allowed to operate legally without any constraint.”

Now, Latin American governments have turned the tables, taking on a leadership role in considering alternative policies. Numerous sitting presidents – including Santos, Guatemala’s Otto Pérez Molina, Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla and even Mexico’s Felipe Calderon – are lamenting the failure of present policy to stem the flow of illicit drugs or reduce the violence associated with the drug trade. There is also widespread frustration that while Latin American countries are paying a high political, social, and economic cost from both drug trafficking and drug policies themselves, Washington’s approach to the drug issue remains on auto-pilot, with no serious debate evident on Capitol Hill or in the White House.

Guatemala’s president, retired general Otto Pérez Molina, has emerged as the primary promoter of rethinking the drug war and has insisted that all alternative options must be on the table, including legal, regulated markets. On March 24, he hosted a Central American regional summit, “New Routes Against Drug Trafficking.” Though all of the region’s presidents initially accepted the invitation to participate, the presidents of El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras dropped out at the last minute (Honduras sent its Vice President) – no doubt due at least in part to U.S. pressure. Indeed, Pérez Molina’s initiative has brought more U.S. officials to the region than at any moment in recent history, including Vice President Joe Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Under Secretary of State, Maria Otero, and the top drug policy official at the State Department, William Brownfield. Nonetheless, those present at the Guatemala meeting point out that a lively debate took place and it helped ensure that the drug issue was raised at the summit.

While making clear that no change in U.S. policy is in the offing, Washington has reluctantly agreed to participate in a debate. At a press conference with President Santos on April 15, President Obama said: “I think it wouldn’t make sense for us not to examine what works and what doesn’t, and to constantly try to refine and ask ourselves, is there something we can do to prevent violence, to weaken these drug traffickers, to make sure that they’re not peddling this stuff on our kids and they’re not perpetrating violence and corrupting institutions in the region,” hastily adding, “I’m not somebody who believes that legalization is a path to solving this problem.” In a presidential election year, the administration is no doubt going to tread very carefully when it comes to the drug issue.

The United States is no doubt pleased that the OAS was tasked to study the issue. The Secretariat of its Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) is traditionally led by someone appointed by the U.S. government (presently it is former U.S. diplomat, Amb. Paul Simons) and it is widely perceived across the region as a U.S.-driven agency. However, ultimately, CICAD’s agenda and focus is dictated by member states. The burden is now on those member states advocating reform to ensure that the OAS effectively carries out its mandate to explore all alternative policies and to include in the discussion relevant experts and organizations with significant expertise, such as the Pan American Health Organization.

Present international drug control policies are deeply-rooted and change will no doubt come slowly. However, as a result of the Cartagena summit, for the first time a meaningful debate on developing and implementing drug control policies that are more humane and effective is underway. The genie is out and will be very hard to put back in the bottle, as much as U.S. officials might try.

Coletta A. Youngers is the Latin America Regional Associate with the International Drug Policy Consortium and a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Iran Errata: Israel “Tunes up” Iran for U.S.

If you watch crime shows on television or read crime fiction, you’re no doubt familiar with the term “tune him up.” It’s defined at Urban Dictionary as: “A beat down especially when administered by the cops.” Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but what seems implied is that the victimizer-turned-victim is being “tenderized” to make him more amenable to questioning and admitting to his guilt (lack thereof notwithstanding).

At IPS News, Gareth Porter writes (emphasis added):

In a blog post in The National Interest, Paul Pillar, former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, wrote that the “Western message to Tehran” seems to be, “(W)e might be willing to tolerate some sort of Iranian nuclear program, but only one consisting of facilities that would suffer significant damage if we or the Israelis later decide to bomb it.”

Greg Thielmann, senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, said in an interview with IPS, “There are Americans who believe it is important to keep all Iranian facilities at risk in case Tehran decided to build a nuclear weapon [but that] is more an interest of the Israelis than of the United States”.

The Iranian facility that Israeli is most interested in keeping at risk is Fordow, the underground uranium facility near the city of Qom. Porter again.

Reza Marashi, the former State Department specialist on Iran and now research director at the National Iranian-American Council, said … the Israelis who have “turned their inability to destroy Fordow into a major issue”.

But (emphasis added again) …

While the demand on Fordow clearly responds to a U.S. need to accommodate Israel, it is also in line with Obama administration efforts to intimidate Iran by emphasising that it has only a limited time “window” in which to solve the issue diplomatically [before Israel decides to] strike Iran’s nuclear facilities in the absence of progress toward an agreement guaranteeing Iran would not go nuclear.

In other words, the United States is letting Israel “tune up” Iran with threats in hopes that Iran will agree to the United States and the P5 +1′s points in negotiations. (In Istanbul on April 14, relations were cordial, lending cautious optimism to the next meeting in Baghadad on May 23.) Besides, Tehran, it’s for your own good because otherwise we’ll be unable to prevent our henchman, Israel, from unleashing the full force of its fury on you.

Allow us, now, to return to the assertions that we “might be willing to tolerate some sort of Iranian nuclear program, but only one consisting of facilities that would suffer significant damage if we or the Israelis later decide to bomb it” and “it is important to keep all Iranian facilities at risk in case Tehran decided to build a nuclear weapon.”

How, you may be asking yourself, can one expect a state to agree to purposely leave itself vulnerable? Odd as it sounds, it’s not unprecedented. Missile defense is infused with the same line of, if not magical, wishful thinking. It works like this: conventional thinking on nuclear strategy holds that missile defense upsets — “destabilizes” — the whole nuclear-deterrence apple cart. Russia, for example, is considered vulnerable to an initial nuclear strike by the United States, during which many of its nuclear weapons in land-based silos would be wiped out. Also, many of those launched at the United States would be destroyed while in the air by U.S. missile defense (in our dreams: our missile defense systems are years — decades even — from that kind of capability).

Anyway, the crux of this theory is that since Russia knows that under this arrangement it’s going to lose missiles both on the ground and in the air, it’s motivated to build more to compensate. In other words, the United States would be safer if it refrained from implementing missile defense and maintained a calculated vulnerability. (I’ve elaborated on this elsewhere.)

Israel wants Fordow less fortified against attack — to come complete, as it were, with a self-destruct button. Meanwhile, the United States is turning Fordow into a self-destruct bottom for the negotiations. At PBS Frontline Tehran Bureau, Muhammad Sahimi writes that in an interview, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said:

The way to confront this strategy of Iran’s [stalling and exploiting divisions among its adversaries] is to demand explicit conditions calling for ceasing all uranium enrichment, removal of all enrich[ed] uranium from the country, and its exchange for material which cannot be [used to] develop nuclear weapons, and agreement to give up the underground facility in Qom [the Fordow site].

But assuming that [this] accurately reflects the Obama administration’s goals and demands … they will be non-starters and will doom the negotiations before they even get under way.

Because …

Iran built the Fordow uranium enrichment site precisely to have a fallback facility if its other sites, such as those in Natanz, Isfahan, and Arak, are attacked and destroyed. The site is effectively indestructible at present.

In fact, though, it may be much adieu about nothing.

… even though the prowar factions in the United States and elsewhere still refer to it as a “secret site.” … most Western media reports fail to inform the public … that the site is also monitored and safeguarded by the IAEA. I cannot imagine any scenario under which Iran, and in particular the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the state’s most powerful organ, will agree to dismantle Fordow.

In other words, it’s as if by including the Fordow proviso, the United States and the P5+1 are intentionally sabotaging the negotiations.

U.S. Thinking on Afghanistan Is Not Just Magical, But Hallucinatory

Taliban negotiateThe recent decision by the Taliban and one of its allies to withdraw from peace talks with Washington underlines the train wreck the U.S. is headed for in Afghanistan. Indeed, for an administration touted as sophisticated and intelligent, virtually every decision the White House has made vis-à-vis Afghanistan has been a disaster.

On Mar. 15 the Taliban ended preliminary talks with Washington, because, according to a spokesman for the insurgent organization, the Americans were being “shaky, erratic and vague.” The smaller Hizb-i-Islami group followed two weeks later.

That both groups are refusing to talk should hardly come as a surprise. In spite of the Obama administration’s talk about wanting a “political settlement” to the war, the White House’s strategy makes that goal little more than a mirage.

The current U.S. negotiating position is that the Taliban must cut all ties with the terrorist group al-Qaeda, recognize the Afghan constitution, lay down their arms, and accede to a substantial U.S. military presence until at least 2024. The U.S. has 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, its allies another 40,000. The current plan calls for a withdrawal of most of those troops by the end of 2014.

What is hard to figure out is why the White House thinks any of its demands—with the exception of the al-Qaeda proviso—have even a remote possibility of being achieved? Or exactly what the Americans think they are going to be “negotiating” with Mullah Omar of the Taliban, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of Hezb-i-Islami, or Sirajuddin Haqqani of the Haqqani Group?

The Obama administration’s initial mistake was to surge some 33,000 troops into Afghanistan with the aim of beating up on the resistance and forcing it to negotiate from a position of weakness. That plan was always an illusion, particularly given the ability of the insurgents to fall back into Pakistan to regroup, rearm, and recruit. In any case, the idea that 140,000 foreign troops—the 330,000-member Afghan National Army (ANA) is incapable of even defending itself—could defeat a force of some 25,000 guerillas fighters in a country as vast or geographically formidable as Afghanistan is laughable.

As a series of recent attacks demonstrate, the surge failed to secure Kandahar and Helmand Province, two of its major targets. While NATO claims that insurgent attacks have fallen as a result of the U.S. offensive, independent data collected by the United Nations shows the opposite.

In short, after a decade of war and the expenditure of over $450 billion, Afghanistan is a less secure place than it was after the 2001 invasion. All the surge accomplished was to more deeply entrench the Taliban and elevate the casualty rate on all sides.

The second U.S. error was to estrange Pakistan by wooing India in order to rope New Delhi into Washington’s campaign to challenge China in Asia. First, Obama ditched his campaign pledge to address the volatile issue of Kashmir, the flashpoint for three wars between Indian and Pakistan. Second, the White House ignored India’s violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and allowed it to buy uranium on the world market—the so-called 1-2-3 Agreement—while refusing that same waiver to Pakistan. Add the American drone war and last November’s deadly attack on Pakistani border troops, and most Pakistanis are thoroughly alienated from the U.S. And yet a political solution to the Afghan war without Islamabad is simply impossible.

The U.S. demand to keep Special Forces troops in Afghanistan in order to continue its war on “terrorism” is not only a non-starter for the insurgents—the Taliban are, after all, the target of thousands of deadly “night raids” carried out by these same Special Forces—it is opposed by every country in the region save India. How the White House thinks it can bring the Taliban and its allies to the table while still trying to kill and capture them, or maintain a military presence in the face of almost total regional opposition, is hard to figure.

The more than 2,000 yearly night raids have eliminated many of the senior and mid-level Taliban leaders and atomized the organization. When it comes time to negotiate, NATO may find it has literally hundreds of leaders with whom it will have to cut a deal, not all of whom are on the same page.

That the insurgency would lay down its arms has a quality of magical thinking to it. Not only is the insurgency undefeated, but according to a leaked NATO report, captured Taliban think they are winning. The report—based on 27,000 interrogations—also found that “Afghan civilians frequently prefer Taliban governancy over GIROA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan], usually as a result of government corruption, ethnic bias and lack of connection with local religious and tribal leaders.”

There is no popular support for the war, either in Afghanistan, the U.S., or among its allies. The most recent ABC Poll found that 69 percent of Americans want the war to end, and according to a poll in the Financial Times, 54 percent of the British want to withdraw immediately.

As for supporting the Afghan constitution, why would an undefeated insurgency that sees its enemies in disarray and looking at a 2014 U.S.-NATO withdrawal date, agree to a document they had no part in drafting?

None of this had to happen. Back in late 2007, Saudi Arabia carried a peace offer from the Taliban in which they agreed to cut ties to al-Qaeda—a pledge they reiterated in 2008—and accept a time table for foreign troop withdrawals. In return, a national unity government would replace the Karzai regime until elections could be held, and the constitution would be re-written.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations ignored the offer, apparently because they thought they could bring the Taliban to heel. It was thinking that verged on the hallucinatory.

The trump card holders these days are holed up in the high peaks or hiding in plain sight. Opium is booming in Helmand Province because the Taliban are protecting farmers from drug eradication teams, even blowing up tractors that are used to plow the crop under.

As the 2014 withdrawal date looms, the White House’s options are rapidly narrowing. If it holds to its plans to quarter troops in Afghanistan, the insurgency will fight on, and Washington’s only regional ally will be India, a country that can deliver virtually nothing toward a peace agreement. If it insists the insurgency recognize the Karzai regime and the constitution, it will be defending a deeply corrupt and unpopular government and a document that excluded the participation of country’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtun. Pashtuns make up the core of the Taliban.

How the U.S. managed to get itself into this mess needs to be closely examined. The State Department under Hillary Clinton has become little more than an arm of the Pentagon, and the White House has shown an unsettling penchant for resorting to violence. In the meantime Afghanistan is headed for a terrible smashup.

The World Bank estimates that 97 percent of Afghanistan’s economy is military related. The war is drawing to a finish, and there is no evidence that the U.S. or NATO has any intention or ability to keep the aid spigots wide open. Europe is in the middle of an economic meltdown and the U.S. economy is struggling.

NATO provides about $11 billion a year to support the Afghan army, a figure that will probably drop to about $4 to $5 billion after 2014. There is already talk of reducing the 335,000-man Afghan army to a more manageable and less expensive force of 230,000.

There is a window of opportunity, but only if the Obama administration takes advantage of it. A strategy that might work—when it comes to Afghanistan there are no guarantees—would include:

• A ceasefire and stand down of all offensive operations, including the highly unpopular “night raids.”

• Shelving any long-term plans to keep combat troops or Special Forces in the country, and shutting down the drone war in Pakistan.

• Urging the formation of a national unity government and calling for a constitutional convention.

• Sponsoring a regional conference aimed at keeping Afghanistan neutral and non-aligned.

• Insuring aid continues to flow into Afghanistan, particularly aimed at upgrading infrastructure, improving agriculture, and expanding education.

At home, the Congress should convene hearings aimed at examining how the U.S. got into Afghanistan, who made the key decisions concerning the war and regional strategy, and how the country can avoid such disasters in the future.

It may be too late and, in the end, NATO may tuck its tail between its legs and slink out of Afghanistan. But the deep divisions the war has created will continue, and civil war is a real possibility. The goal should be to prevent that, not to pursue an illusory dream of controlling the crossroads to Asia, a chimera that has drawn would be conquerors to that poor, ravaged land for a millennium.

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.

Militias Still Have the Run of Libya

IHS’ Richard Cochrane reports that despite some success the interim government has had ahead of the planned June 2012 national elections in bringing militias to heel — 8,000 militiamen are now “pledged” to become border guards — several obstacles remain to the National Transitional Council’s efforts to establish a secure state. A plan to distribute payments to militiamen and their families — essentially, a plan to secure legitimacy for the NTC in the fighters’ eyes — has been undermined by the NTC’s reliance on militias to manage the payments. The result of which, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, has been an uneven, unaccountable distribution of the money:

Names have been omitted from payment lists and others erroneously added, sparking angry protests, some of which have descended into violence. Local media has reported several incidences of militia groups plundering payment centres located in rival neighbourhoods, or in areas deemed to be insufficiently loyal to the spirit of the revolution.

This is the least of the government’s militia problems, though. Only in March did militia leaders agree to “turn over to the interim government strategic sites, such as airports and border crossings,” to the NTC (the AFP’s correspondent for Libya, Dominique Soguel, hinted that given Libya’s size and limited infrastructure, official control of airports is a much-needed objective for the NTC to accomplish). While separatist stirrings in eastern Libya received substantial attention from the government — and a relatively swift political response that has somewhat dimmed the prospects of federal autonomy — ongoing fighting in southern Libya has reportedly left dozens dead in the past few months. Although the non-Arab minority population in the region supported the NTC, tribal rivalries — and, in the International Crisis Group’s view, a lack of a functioning judicial system or police force — have flared up. To the north, on Libya’s western coast, Berber and Arab militias continue to clash. In both the south and west, the NTC’s armed forces have had a difficult time imposing cease fires. One reason for this is that “even when government security forces are dispatched to resolve crises, there is no guarantee that they will be the strongest force in the area,” an IHS report noted, though the main hindrance is still the NTC’s difficulties in co-opting the new armed groups and the old state machinery.

Outside support for the NTC remains limited. The outcome of a trans-Saharan conference on border security is presumably up in the air following the coup in Mali. And the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) is “not a peacekeeping mission but was there to assist the Libyan authorities to help them create the necessary institutions to govern the country and ensure the respect of fundamental rights for all,” a spokesperson told Xinhua recently, also noting in a press conference that “the main responsibility of disarming and integrating the militias” falls to the NTC.

Of course this is the case: an externally imposed agreement would not be regarded as legitimate. But so far, the NTC has failed to do either on its own, as one cannot expect a “third force” in the form of a peacekeeping mission — and it is not clear the NTC even desires such a mission. But it is one thing to subpoena oil majors like Eni SpA and Total SA over their past conduct in Libya, and quite another to do so over all these armed groups, especially those in Misrata who make incursions into refugee camps near Tripoli. Perhaps the trial of of Saif al-Islam Qadhafi, who will probably be triedf in Libya, instead of going to France or the ICC, will send a message — though the biggest problem now is not holding Qahdafi loyalists accountable, but gaining authority over the NTC’s ostensible followers. That message, though, is not being received well by human rights groups and the UN, which suspect the proceedings may amount to a kangaroo court since, as noted above, the NTC has not yet set up judiciary.

At this point, the NTC has to hope that in keeping its electoral schedule, that the militias do not engage in voter intimidation, though some militias are reportedly already looking to set up political arms to run in the Constituent Assembly elections. “If the leaders of local militias were to decide to intervene to influence the outcome of an election, there is no power or authority that could stop them,” North Africa watcher George Joffe told Agence France Presse. Libya may yet prove to be the exemplar of Obama’s foreign policy, but not in the way that advocates hoped last year when NATO intervened should the ongoing violence affect the electoral process, which is almost certainly going to be happen — the question is not “if?” but “to what extent?”

The “Hot Potato” of the Summit of the Americas: Cuba’s Absence

The Summit of the AmericasAs a rule, anything the New York Times says about developments in Latin America should be taken with a couple of handfuls of salt. The paper regularly does its readers a disservice by painting a picture of developments in the region created in the spirit of the Monroe Doctrine. Case in point: an April 12 report titled “Trade, Energy and Drugs Are Topics for Obama at Summit of the Americas” by correspondent Jackie Calmes, which made the claim that “For the most part, the tension over Cuba seems mostly to be behind Mr. Obama.” According to Calmes, “Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, announced earlier this month that he would boycott the meeting in Colombia because Cuba, as usual, was not invited, but he failed to persuade other leftist leaders in the region to do the same,” and that Cuban President Raul Castro “said he did not want to attend anyway, sparing Mr. Obama the prospect of any photo opportunities with a Castro.”

Of course, we have no way of knowing whether Castro actually said that and neither does the Times. However, according to the Associated Press, the Cuban leader had expressed a desire to attend the meeting but was “delicately” told by the Summit host, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, that that would be impossible because it would put U.S. President Barack Obama in the position of “facing an awkward meeting with the Cuban leader or having to boycott the summit himself.”

The 6th Summit of the Americas was scheduled for April 14-15 in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. According to the Falklands/Malvinas-based Merco Press, “Though the summit’s official agenda ranges from technology to poverty reduction, Cuba was once again shaping into the No. 1 hot potato for those gathering in the Caribbean port city.”

There are 43 nations participating in the summit; only two – the U.S. and Canada – oppose Cuba’s participation. On April 12, a pre-summit foreign ministers meeting is said to have failed to agree on a last minute proposal to invite the island nation

However, reading Calmes’ report one might get the impression that the issue of Cuba’s participation in the leadership gathering had ceased to be much of an issue and Correa was isolated in his position. No mention was made of the statement made weeks ago by Bolivia’s President Eva Morales that “We have arrived with the conviction that this must be the last summit without Cuba.” Or, of Santos’ statement: “I hope this is the last summit without Cuba.”

Nor did the Times report note that the recent visit to the US by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff came following her stay in Cuba and consultations with President Castro. While in Havana she criticized the existence of the U.S. base and prison at Guantanamo Bay, and the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

Perhaps more revealing of the Times’ approach to the unfolding situation was its failure to note the symbolism of – or indeed, even report on – the pre-summit visit to Havana of Mexican President Felipe Calderon, where, according to Prensa Latina, he expressed “His government’s interest in bringing relations with Cuba to the highest level.” Calderon arrived in Cuba April 11 for a two-day visit.

According to Reuters, “Calderon said on Wednesday upon his arrival in Havana that ‘in spite of our natural and different points of view about various issues,’ an effort would be made during the visit to ‘take our bilateral relation to its best level’.”

“We want to broaden trade and investment between Cuba and Mexico,” Calderon told journalists in Havana. ““We are interested in cooperating in health, education, culture and sports, as well as in bilateral exchanges in energy,” said Calderon. “My visit is due mainly to the friendship and brotherhood existing between the two peoples.”

From Cuba Calderon flew to Haiti and from there was on to the Summit in Colombia.

As it turned out that the exclusion of Cuba was indeed a big hot potato at Cartagena de Indias and it is clear the issue is not going away. Despite the wishes of Washington and Ottawa this was almost certainly
the last time the pushy norteamericanos determine who comes to summits and who does not.

Carl Bloice, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, is a columnist for the Black Commentator. He also serves on its editorial board.

Bolivian President Morales Bows to Pressure and Cancels Amazon Highway

Bolivian President Evo Morales announced that he would rescind the contract awarded to Brazilian company OAS to build a road through the Amazon rainforest. This is the most recent complication in the production of the three-part road, intended to link Brazilian ports in the Amazon with those in Peru and Chile, resulting in better infrastructure that would encourage investment and trade in Bolivia. The $420 million construction project is primarily funded by the Brazilian bank BNDES, who is responsible for coming up with 80% percent of the project’s financial backing. For a variety of reasons, the construction of the road has become highly controversial. Indigenous groups–who have traditionally served as Morales’s support base, protested the road’s construction, which intends to cut through Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park or Tipnis. The cancellation of the contract with OAS by Morales casts further doubts about whether the road will ever be fully completed.

The road’s unpopularity sparked mass protest from over 1,500 Bolivians, primarily indigenous groups and their supporters, who marched 500km for 60 days to La Paz earlier this year. Critics of the road have suggested that this is an example of Brazil’s regional hegemony in Latin America, arguing that Morales has abandoned his promises to advocate for environmental and indigenous rights. In a piece run by the Guardian at the time of the protests, Ernesto Sanchez, one of the organizers, expressed concern that, “The highway is being built for Brazil so that it can export its products to Bolivia…Here we’d only be left with debts because all the benefits go to Brazil.” In response, Morales claimed that the road would no longer extend into the TIPNIS region. This decision was made in response to the overwhelming opposition from indigenous and leftist Bolivian groups.

Recent developments produced additional speculation as to whether the road’s construction will continue. According to oneBBC report, “the firm had repeatedly ignored instructions and failed to meet various contractual obligations.” Speculation has also been made that Morales’ next goal is to rescind the contracts for completing the other two parts of the road, between Villa Tunari and San Ignacio de Moxos. President Morales said, “We’ve started a process to annul the road construction contract, which was granted to OAS, because the company hasn’t complied (with the terms),” according to The Chicago Tribune, which has also reported that Morales claimed that “the company had suspended work ‘without justification or authorization.’”

It is unclear whether the road project will now have the impetus to continue or whether OAS will be compensated.

Melissa Moskowitz is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Time for the Cut-Off: A Global Day of Action Against Military Spending

GDAMS in India.

GDAMS in India.

“Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: It will still grow, because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership. In fact, the defense budget will still be larger than it was toward the end of the Bush administration.”
President Obama, speaking at the Pentagon, Jan. 5, 2012

Despite our profound indebtedness, the state of the U.S. economy, and the outcries of the Occupiers, Obama’s statement confirms fears that military spending will continue to grow over the next 10 years. In real terms, the base military budget is going to remain at levels higher than at any point during the Bush administration.

While most Americans have grown weary of our lengthy wars, influential profiteers have lobbied hard for their persistence. Although President Obama has been hailed for his diplomatic efforts by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, the themes (and consequences) of U.S. military strategy have not differed greatly from the Bush era.

This election year has been particularly telling. Employment has undoubtedly been on the forefront of American minds, and according to IPS scholar Janet Redman, “the idea of spending money overseas is entirely unpalatable to the many people who feel economically squeezed right now.” As a result, the Pentagon has scrambled to convince the public that a cut in defense would equate to enormous job loss. In October, a controversial job study by the Aerospace Industries Association was repeatedly quoted by officials concerned by the purported “million” layoffs that could occur from a decrease in the defense budget.

On the contrary, Miriam Pemberton and William Hartung have argued that “maintaining Pentagon spending at current high levels while pushing the burden of budget cuts on domestic programs would result in a net loss of jobs nationwide.” To be fair, military spending does create a lot of jobs, but more jobs are created by other sectors. Put simply, other sectors of the economy can create more jobs than the military industrial complex—and for less. Costofwar.com cites construction, education, and even home weatherization as more sustainable and stimulative industries.

President Obama has explicitly embraced national security as one of his campaign issues. For example, he has opened a joint military base with Australia in order to “play a larger and long-term role in shaping [the East Asian] region and its future.” Because this is essentially the equivalent of Russia opening up a base in Cuba during the Cold War, it’s no surprise that China has reacted negatively to the decision. It appears that the U.S. government will continue to leverage its military in order to maintain control over resources. Moves like this prove that pre-emption is still a prevailing theme of U.S. foreign policy. Unfortunately, preemption not only produces backlash but is also inordinately expensive.

From Australia to AFRICOM, the Pentagon continues to extend its global reach. The costs of war already far outweigh the benefits, but the way our spending looks, war will be an enduring staple of our economy. According to military researcher Nick Turse, “recently, the Army sought bids from contractors willing to supply power plants and supporting fuel systems at forward operating bases in Afghanistan for up to five years.” Withdrawal of troops seems to be a subjective term. Where is the drawdown we have been told about?

In a roundtable with young graduates, Janet Redman advised our future leaders that “it is time to realize that the world outside of the U.S. is not just a threat — it is our global community. Our global economy desperately needs an alternative to militarization. If you are frustrated that your government is spending money on violence instead of job creation, if you are tired of elite defense contractors from the 1 percent sucking tax dollar coffers dry, if you see our “defense” system as offensive, check out demilitarize.org, and connect with activists and advocates in your area to protest.

Already, more than 130 groups in at least 39 countries are involved in the second annual Global Day of Action against Military Spending, which is set for Tuesday, April 17 — Tax Day in the United States. From street theater in Dhaka, demonstrations in Istanbul, a parliamentary debate in Yaoundé, protests against military bases in Okinawa, a peace village in Oslo, a high-level seminar at the UN in Geneva, a flash mob in Oakland, Tax Day leafleting in Bethlehem, PA, and a “walk of shame” in Washington DC, we will be occupying the global military industrial complex and advocating investments in people. Join us!

Emily Norton is an intern at the Institute of Policy Studies.

Annan’s Syria Plan Another Olive Branch Assad Will Crush?

Annan and Assad.

Annan and Assad.

Cross-posted from the United to End Genocide Blog.

UN-Arab League Envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan for Syria has not failed. No, Syrian troops and heavy weapons have not been withdrawn from cities as called for, but as of April 12 in Syria, there have been no reports of significant government attacks. For at least the time being, a ceasefire seems to be in place. Of course, President Assad in a letter said he reserved the right to respond to “terrorist” attacks and large protests expected tomorrow will put him to the test. In all likelihood, the plan as set out by Annan will not be realized, but any failure will not be his, but that of Assad.

For all the criticism of Annan and his plan in recent days, his efforts have made unified action by the international community, led by the UN Security Council, more likely. No longer can Russia and China, the countries that have blocked past efforts at strong resolutions and action, hide behind the argument that strong diplomatic efforts have not been exhausted. The next step should be what Bruce Jones of the Brookings Institution calls “diplomatic overtime”. UN monitors should be rushed in as soon as possible. Perhaps the plan can be salvaged or the halt in killing be extended.

If as has happened in the past, the Assad regime fails to live up to its promises the next step should be a strong, unanimous UN Security Council resolution that clearly condemns Assad, implements an arms embargo, refers the leaders of the Syrian regime to the International Criminal Court and sets a clear deadline before, as they say in UN-speak, “all necessary measures” are taken to protect civilians in Syria. This is the spirit of the Responsibility to Protect — a graduated escalation of options before force may be used as a last resort.

Now is not the time for force. The likelihood of even more bloodshed and deaths of civilians is too great, the disunity of the opposition groups too strong and the will of the international community too weak. It is not possible to establish “safe zones” without boots on the ground, air strikes and a willingness or at least preparedness to escalate. But the time for such intervention may be nearing and the will of the international community to carry it out is growing with each olive branch that Assad chooses to crush, not to mention each civilian life that is taken (over 1,000 Syrians have been reportedly killed since Assad said he accepted Annan’s peace plan).

The international community should continue to support Annan’s plan and use the next days to pursue “diplomatic overtime” but it should also prepare for the next steps that may need to be taken. If an intervention is to take place to protect civilians it should be multilateral (see Bruce Jones’ suggestion for a stabilization force in Foreign Policy) and come with the endorsement of the UN Security Council. That will be largely up to Russia and China. However, the lead of regional powers can make a difference. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are already arming the opposition. Turkey has warned that further attacks across its border (two people were killed in a Turkish refugee camp when Syrian forces opened fire across the Turkish border) could lead it to invoke NATO help protect its borders.

For now Annan’s plan is the least worst option in a sea of bad to horrible ones. It may very well fail to be implemented as designed but it has already succeeded in pausing the most intense period of fighting since the crackdown began 13 months ago. Moving forward, Annan’s plan will not be a failure if this latest legitimate effort at peace unifies the UN Security Council for real pressure on Syria, mobilizes regional support for further action and demonstrates to the world that this is not about an interventionist western policy but about a regime thumbing its nose at the world, even as civilians continue to die in large numbers.

Daniel P. Sullivan is the Director of Policy and Government Relations for United to End Genocide.

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