Monday, June 30, 2008

Coming to a Boil

My apologies for the long silence.

Since we last talked, things in Pakistan have been moving slowly towards that ultimate showdown. The current PM, Gilani, has proven to be a stand-in for the real holder of PPP power - Asif Zardari. Nawaz Sharif will re-join the Parliament soon enough. He has moved significantly towards advocating reinstatement of the Judges, immediate resignation and military trial for Pervez Musharraf. The Lawyer's Movement seems to have faltered - riven with in-fighting and lack of focus. The Long March ended with more frustration and confusion than the emancipation that was planned.

But dwarfing all of that, is the war on Pakistan's borders between the Talibans (why bother with denoting the Afghan and Pakistan varieties?) and the military for the control of north west regions. Baitullah Mehsud had long declared war and the Pak Army has finally moved in. The various agreements are null and voided. The air strikes have started and the radio stations are being shut down.

In the meantime, the country is gripped with the worst Electricity shortage in a long while. Load-Shedding (shutting down grids for relief from usage) is at the highest levels since the 80s. Coupled with the intense heat, this has led to hundreds of deaths from heat across the nation. Foodstuff is still at exorbitant prices.

There is little that I can add that you have not read from recent newspaper coverage. Where does this end? I don't know. Doesn't seem to be heading to anywhere wholesome, in any case.

I have somewhat of a thought-piece on some related issues over at my blog, The Third Migration that some readers might be interested in. Read more on this article...

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Rubin: Ahmed Rashid's New Book, Descent into Chaos

Ahmed Rashid, the Pakistani author of Taliban (the largest selling university press book since the invention of movable type) has published a new book, taking up the story of Afghanistan, its region, and the U.S. where he left off. Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia is, as far as I know, the first attempt at a comprehensive account of international policy toward Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia since 9/11, and as such is utterly indispensable. (I should note that Ahmed says some nice things about me in the acknowledgments and cites me a few times.)

The book came out in the U.S. on June 3, and Ahmed spent most of the next three weeks touring the U.S. to promote it. For whatever reason, Ahmed's publicist could not manage to get him on Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, or Oprah, but he did put in appearances on Charlie Rose (video below) and CNN Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer.

Ahmed has since gone on to Canada and the U.K., where his book was reviewed by both the Sunday Times and the Times of London. He was profiled by the New York Times' Jane Perlez for the International Herald Tribune, but as far as I can see this interview never appeared in print on this side of the Atlantic. I find it strange that this first ever comprehensive account of the Bush administration's failure in Afghanistan and the complicity with the Taliban of Pakistan's military regime, written by the author of a former New York Times #1 best-seller, did not receive a single major review in the U.S. The Obama campaign really should mine it -- the book has plenty of evidence to support -- and extend -- the Democratic candidate's criticisms of the Bush administration's failure to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan. But most of all, anyone even remotely concerned with this region should buy and read it, and then recommend it to any friends and relatives who think they are not concerned with it. Read more on this article...

Rubin: Counter-Insurgency in Afghanistan -- Not a Khost of a Chance

As I have chronicled in this space, administration apologists such as Ann Marlowe and David Ignatius have been claiming Eastern Afghanistan in general and the tiny province of Khost in particular as proof of U.S. success in Afghanistan. (And has been dogging their steps.) Marlowe, whose work has been featured in the Washington Post, National Review, Weekly Standard, and Wall Street Journal, claimed in in May that, far from being resurgent, "in the 14 provinces that make up Regional Command East [RC/E] in Afghanistan [the Taliban] are a defeated military force." Ignatius, the Washington Post columnist who mistook a one-week embed for journalism, "reported" that in RC/E "the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy has begun to get some traction."

I guess they had a visit from the Republican good news fairy. I am not so blessed. I have to rely on information. Of course my information is pretty superfluous, considering that the U.S. Department of Defense reported last week that Taliban attacks in RC/E this year were up 40 percent over last year. After rebutting Ignatius on the NewsHour, I have been periodically updating the data on Taliban and other anti-government and anti-international forces attacks in Afghanistan in general and RC/E in particular. Here's the latest, covering the first 25 weeks of 2008 and comparing them to 2007.

First, total number of nationwide incidents by week, 2008 compared to 2007:

Here's the regional breakdown and total statistics (these regions are not identical to the NATO regional commands):

This shows that total incidents are up nationally by 38 percent (991 over 717). Of course this could result from the poor performance of our week-kneed NATO allies, who have no counter-insurgency skills. So let's take a look at RC/E, where the U.S. is applying all the lessons of the Petraeus doctrine:
These data show an increase of total incidents in RC/E from 1,159 in 2007 to 1,521 in 2008, an increase of 31 percent. The 2007 figures include a huge spike in week 23 of 2007, which consisted largely of about 40 small IEDs in Khost aimed to intimidate (not kill) Afghan officials and security forces. Without that one-day incident, the increase of 2008 over 2007 is 36 percent, virtually the same as nationwide.

Of course all of RC/E is not the same: what about Khost province, "the crown jewel in the American counterinsurgency strategy," according to Ann Marlowe? My source reports 269 attacks so far this year in Khost, up 22 percent from last year's total of 220. So the greatest achievement of U.S. counterinsurgency in Afghanistan has been to hold the escalation in violence in Khost to a bit more than half of the national level of increase. This actually speaks well for the U.S. team in Khost: that province directly borders on Pakistan's North Waziristan Tribal Agency, where Taliban leaders Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani maintain their sizable headquarters, including joint training with al-Qaida, without any visible disturbance from the Pakistan military. (Actually, according to Afghan intelligence, so far uncontradicted by the U.S. government, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate organized Haqqani's attempt to assassinate Afghan President Hamid Karzai in April. It is unfair to hold the civilian government in Islamabad accountable for the situation in the tribal areas or the activities of the ISI. More on this in another post.)

But if these results speak well for the U.S. team in Khost, they do not speak well for U.S. strategy. Counter-insurgency is not graded on a curve; not succeeding is failing. So far, that's still where the indicators point. Read more on this article...

Tehran’s Reaction to Military Threats

Farideh Farhi

Tehran has always been quite strident in its response to the possibility of US or Israeli attack, either identifying periodic rise of reports of imminent attack as part and parcel of “psychological warfare” to intimidate the Iranian leadership into accepting restrictions on its nuclear program (in the words of Iran’s well-known hard-line editor of Kayhan daily, Hossein Shariatmadari, to make Iran “commit suicide out of the fear of death”) or generally asserting Iran’s capability to respond to military attacks in ways that would harm the initiators of such attacks. The first sentiment was once again reiterated by Ali Larijani, Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator and current speaker of the parliament, who pointed out yesterday the routine nature of complementing the “carrot” that Tehran was just offered through the 5+1 package of incentives with the threat of “stick.”

But yesterday’s long interview with General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the Islamic Revolution’s Guard Corps (IRGC), with Jam-e Jam daily is noteworthy not because of his confirmation of Tehran’s determination to react to attacks but for the details he reveals regarding the current state of thinking in Tehran about the US and Israeli capabilities, and Iran’s assessment and preparation for such an attack.

The wire services have generally picked up Jafari’s counter-threats regarding what Iran would do in case of an attack by the United States (including missile attacks against Israel, chocking off the Hormuz Straight, and reliance on ideological assets throughout the Middle East). Still quite a bit of nuance has been left out regarding his thinking.

First and foremost are his thoughts about the possibility of US or Israeli attack. On this issue, Jafari deviates from the usual pronouncements and suggests that the next few months are indeed dangerous months in which the threat of military action against Iran has been enhanced by the “impasse” facing the United States. This is how he explains it:

“The analysis of political, security, and defense experts is that that the United States is in a special situation and, because of this, it is trying to implement its threats. If the conditions are really there and it finds an opportunity and it has confidence that its action will at least have a percentage of success, it will implement its threat… The limited amount of time that Bush has until the end of his presidency and also the Republican hopelessness regarding the victory of their candidate have created conditions that have led us at present to take the possibility of a military attack in comparison to other junctures more seriously. Of course, I don’t want to say that military action is certain. But in comparison to the past, it seems that the enemy sees one of the ways of exiting the impasse facing it to be military action.”

The focus on political conditions in the United States is further emphasized in Jafari’s rejection of Israel as the source of military action: “We believe that Israel is much smaller to be able to take action against the Islamic Republic alone. Hence, the axis of threats is the United States. However, this country [the U.S.] will undoubtedly benefit from the Zionist regime’s support.” He further states that this same point - that the US cannot attack Iran without Israeli support – “because of the Zionist regime very high vulnerabilities’ is a deterrent factor.”

The point made is that Iran perceives the difficulties of concealing the Israeli support for the US action combined with Israeli vulnerabilities, both because of its lack of strategic depth as well as “Iran’s external capabilities” in harming Israeli interests, as important deterrent to US military action against Iran (along with other deterrents, including the U.S.’ own particular vulnerability caused by the extensive presence of its forces in the region).

But if military action does come, then Iran’s response will be quick: “We cannot reveal the kind of action we will take. But it can be said that we see our time frame for response to be very short; this is because we see the extent of our enemy’s action to be limited and this limited extent forces us in a short period of time to give swift, decisive, and blunt responses so that they will have impact.” He later adds “unimaginable” to the list of adjectives describing the response.

Bravado and bluster aside, the point made by Jafari directly questions the argument laid out in a recent report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) that, given Tehran’s past moves and history, it will probably employ restraint and rely on a "delayed asymmetric response in a distant theater of operations (using proxies or terrorist surrogates)." Jafari is explicit in this interview that Iran will respond immediately and this immediate and blunt response, presumably begging the subsequent possibility of immediate escalation and further commitment on the part of American forces, must be taken into account in the American calculations of a limited aerial strike against nuclear facilities and/or IRGC facilities.

In short, Jafari is very clear that Tehran is ready to match the Bush Administration’s words and deeds if need arises, even at a time when the Iranian government is taking the possibility of a military attack more seriously than before. Now, to me, this is truly a scary dynamic for both countries as well as the region as a whole.

I am of course still counting or hoping that sanity will prevail in Washington. While some may explain away the US invasion of Iraq as a tragic mistake or miscalculation, nothing short of madness can account for an attack on Iran even if political expediency turns out to be the reason for some to contemplate the attack. Read more on this article...

Friday, June 27, 2008

Eissenstat: Slouching toward Disaster in Turkey

Howard Eissenstat writes from Istanbul:

Slouching Towards Disaster in Turkey

Walking the streets of Istanbul these days, you would not know that the country is facing a crisis of historic proportions. Café life remains lively, tourists continue to enjoy the beauties of the city, and conversations are centered primarily on Turkey’s dramatic advancement, cut short Wednesday evening, in the European Cup.

Admittedly, some attention is paid to the conflict between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Kemalist establishment, primarily based in the courts and in the military. A recent article by the newspaper, Taraf, caused quite a stir when it published leaked documents outlining the military’s strategy for maintaining popular support in the on-going conflict with AKP. But the common wisdom here is that, even if, as seems likely, the Justice and Development Party is closed, the basic outlines of Turkish politics will remain the same. There are reasons to believe that this assessment is dangerously optimistic.

Even those associated with the AKP seem to view the possibility of a “soft coup” through judicial intervention with considerable sanguinity. They do so for a number of reasons. First, there is a long tradition in Turkey of parties being banned and then sprouting up phoenix-like almost instantly with a new name and a slightly modified profile. The AKP’s devout Muslim base and, particularly, its leadership, have experienced two such closures in recent years, each time emerging strengthened by the experience: more sophisticated, better able to reach out to new constituencies, and, eventually, more popular than ever before. The second reason for AKP confidence is based on its pro-Western profile. Unlike previous parties with Islamist roots, the AKP has largely been associated with a “pro-Europe” stance and has worked hard, despite a strong anti-American mood in the country in the wake of the Iraq War, to maintain good relations with the United States. Finally, the AKP looks at its own electoral successes as its real ace in the hole. After all, the last time the military tried to bring the party to bring it to heel, the AKP called a general election in which it was able to win the support of multiple constituencies and which returned it to power with an even larger majority than it had enjoyed before.

Yet, in many respects, the AKP’s hand is much weaker than it imagines. The flip side to the ability of Islam-influenced parties, despite the best efforts of the Kemalist establishment, to reincarnate themselves repeatedly is that many in the military establishment have become increasingly frustrated and increasingly determined to root out what they see as “the Islamist threat” once and for all. Foreign intervention is also likely to be limited or weak. With Turkish membership to the EU now seeming a distant and unlikely dream, the European Union’s ability to coax greater liberalization in Turkey has diminished dramatically. The U.S., torn between wanting to support the notion of a democratic path for devout Muslims on the one hand, and its long-standing ties to the Turkish military and short-term strategic needs on the other, will almost certainly offer only vague and toothless pronouncements about “process” in the face of the AKP’s closure. Finally, the AKP’s recent electoral successes will not be easy to repeat. The intensification of violence in the South East and Turkey’s cross-border raids into Iraq have soured the relationship between the AKP and many Kurds. An alliance with the militantly nationalist National Movement Party (MHP) won the AKP support for a change in the constitution which would have lifted the ban on headscarves in universities at the cost of a wider program of liberalization (to no effect: the Constitutional Court, in a move that almost certainly exceeded its mandate, overturned the change). Moreover, the AKP’s economic successes are looking increasingly fragile as foreign investment slows and the AKP’s funds for local improvements dry up. The AKP is still a very popular party; but it doesn’t have the wide and diverse base of support that it once enjoyed.

While there is no real question that the army and courts will be able to bring the AKP down, it is less clear what Turkey will look like the day after. A former member of the AKP, Abdüllah Gül will still be president and the party’s majority in parliament, slightly weakened by bans and stripped of the AKP label, will continue. Moreover, the long, sad Turkish tradition of stocking state positions with party supporters, or kadrolaşma, honed to a fine art by the AKP, ensures that, regardless of what happens, AKP apparatchiks will retain remarkable power in Turkish life.

Given these limitations, and given the determination of the Kemalists to decisively end what they understand, perhaps too simply, as the “rise of Political Islam” in Turkey, there is every reason to believe that the courts and military will not stop with the AKP’s closure, but will engage in a much wider program of rolling back the AKP’s gains and regaining control of both the bureaucracy and public discourse. While direct military intervention is by no means inevitable, it is a real possibility. The military well understands the costs of a coup, in terms of its own prestige, in terms of the economy, and in terms of Turkey’s standing abroad. But if the military feels that the basic outlines of the secular Republic can be saved in no other way, it may well take the final plunge.

If that were not a scary enough possibility, there is another one, even more likely. The AKP developed as a “party of the center-right,” which convinced its devout Sunni base that the best hope for obtaining greater acceptance of religion in the public sphere was through developing a political language that wrapped religious rights into a broader language of liberalization and expanding freedoms. Good government, a more open, tolerant society, and an expanding economy would allow the secular and the devout to come together under a common program. For a time, it seemed to be working. Now, with the AKP unable to obtain something as fundamental as the right of devout young women to wear headscarves as they go to their university classes and with many of its erstwhile allies deserting it, where are the devout to go? If liberalization and parliamentary democracy cannot deliver on basic issues, Turkey’s devout, like its military, may opt for a harder path.

Howard Eissenstat is an Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern History at Seton Hall University and a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University. Read more on this article...

Thursday, June 19, 2008



Nobody likes to apologize, not individuals, not institutions, not governments, not even the gray lady known as the New York Times. Oh, the NYT is quick to make micro-apologies, a misspelled name here, a typo there, and every once in a while a Jayson Blair is cause for contrition, but when it comes to really big stuff, at the editorial level at least, they are as unrepentant and opaque as some of the face-conscious Asian regimes they so readily criticize. So to understand the recent turnaround in NYT coverage of Burma, we have to do some reading between the lines. First compare the tone of the following NYT editorials in May with the tone of a very different sort of reported piece written in June. The NYT-owned International Herald Tribune served as an ice-breaker of sorts for a bit of contrition.

May 14, 2008 "Shame on the Junta."
"After Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar, killing tens of thousands of people, the world rushed to offer help. Most governments would be grateful. Not this one. A week and a half later, the country’s ruling generals are still blocking large-scale foreign aid. That negligence could lead to the death of tens of thousands more."

May 21, 2008" "More Shame on the Junta"
"There is no end to the criminal behavior of Myanmar’s generals. Nearly three weeks after Cyclone Nargis killed more than 100,000 people, the junta’s refusal to open the country to international help is condemning many more thousands to malnutrition, disease and, unless something is done quickly, death.

June 17, 2008 "In Myanmar, Surprising Recovery"
(International Herald Tribune)

June 18, 2008 "Burmese endure in spite of junta, Aid Workers Say"
(NYT version of IHT article)
"Now doctors and aid workers returning from remote areas of the delta are offering a less pessimistic picture of the human cost of the delay in reaching survivors. They say they have seen no signs of starvation or widespread outbreaks of disease…the number of lives lost specifically because of the junta’s slow response to the disaster appears to have been smaller than expected."


The NYT very much lives up to the New York City-centric view of the world famously depicted on a cover of The New Yorker in which mid-town Manhattan looms larger than the rest of the world combined, Asia but a frilly fringe on the edge of the map.

It should not be surprising that the NYT gazes upon a foreign and sometimes unfriendly world with hometown pride, but their pro-home team provincialism sometimes gets in the way of the news.

For those ensconced in the New York office, they tend to see the world as local opinion leaders would have them see it, and of course newspapers in other countries do the precise same thing. The US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade is a case in point, the American media, NYT included, uniformly described it as “accidental” (without evidence either way) and the Chinese media uniformly described it as “intentional.”

And the truth is still up for grabs. The possibility that it was a stupid accident is supported by subsequent reckless and negligent behavior by the US military in Iraq, but the Iraq war also teaches that very stupid actions can also be purposeful.

The best answer I could get from someone close to the source of power on what really happened with the stealth bombing of the Chinese embassy was a former White House advisor who researched the matter and concluded, “shit happens.”

The point is, nationalism is always at play in the news. It’s hard for the editors of even a fine newspaper to get sufficiently outside of themselves to see what they are doing wrong. And all the more difficult for the NYT to seriously reflect on how they might have contributed to war and destruction by championing, from the comfort of their mid-Manhattan offices, the imposition of values abroad that sound oh, so noble, when put into type and printed, but almost invariably get translated and misconstrued into cruel, condescending action when applied to a situation abroad.

That the NYT should bring idiosyncratic, familial, habitual and value-laden views to the ideally objective job of news-gathering is understandable; all newspapers are subjective and selective in what they choose to report and how they choose to report it. But the NYT is also the premier newspaper of the world's sole reigning superpower, a power which has at its disposal the most awesome, far-reaching global and interventionist military machine on the planet.

When the NYT harps on about so-called humanitarian intervention and so-called human rights, lives are apt to be changed but not always for the better. People take notice, but not without trepidation.

First, a small but conspicuous example of the latter. The NYT trampled on the human rights and dignity of Chinese-American scientist Wen Ho Lee, trying him in the court of media and pronouncing him all but guilty, even though his case was thrown out of US court. A reporter friend who visited Lee at his Los Alamos home one morning soon after the NYT started running with the story recalls the scientist's shock upon discovering he was in the news, implicitly characterized as a spy for China. Ideologically driven accusations turned his life upside down; so much for human rights.

Not too long ago, Judith Miller and other "star" NYT reporters echoed and amplified the drumbeat to war coming out of the White House and the office of the Vice-President. As a result, the NYT lent considerable credibility to the contentious and fact-challenged consensus for war.

So what's Burma to think when the world's most influential newspaper laces its factual coverage of a terrible cyclone with the impatient drumbeat for some kind of humanitarian intervention?

The government of Burma (or the "Myanmar junta" according to the NYT style sheet) may indeed be bad news but making bad news worse than it is is not good journalism.

First, a linguistic digression. "Burma" is a perfectly good English word with a long rich history; it’s used by the British press and some US news outlets. The NYT has a history of both haughty politesse (Pol Pot, the joke goes, is called Mr. Pot in the Times) and they got a lot of mileage by being among the first in the US to go from "Peking" to "Beijing", not without confusion, though, as this was assumed to be a name change while in fact it was just an orthography change, a new way of rendering in English the name for a city whose name was unchanged during the period in question. So, okay, NYT stylists, call it Myanmar if you want, but when you do so, you deprive the place of rich, nuanced associations (Burmese Days, the "cleaner, greener" land on the road to Mandalay, the Burma of U Nu and U Thant and Aung San and his daughter Suu Kyi. In its place, you impose the awkward word Myanmar, which, as with the case of Mr. Pot’s Kampuchea instead of Cambodia, you invoke a year zero mentality, a new name and a blank slate on which to project the imagination.

As for the word "junta," well, it’s just the NYT way of winking at the reader and saying, it’s a bad government. No room for subtlety there.

The New York Times, to its credit, has a good tradition of fact-collecting and thus its interventionist and jingoistic tendencies are less egregious than they might be otherwise. For an example of what happens when warped provincial American values reign supreme, one only has to look at Fox News and CNN, two influential American news sources that focus on and adulate the personalities of their own "news" stars in a triumph of style over substance, a victory of innuendo and attitude over news.

In comparison, NYT editorials, which enjoy a high degree of resonance with NYT news articles and vice-versa, are usually idealistic and issue-driven. NYT news and NYT editorial opining are rarely as far apart and disconnected as the schizophrenic voices at the Wall Street Journal, where it has been necessary to erect a firewall to separate reality-based news reporting from right-wing editorial ravings.

Thus traces of the "shame on the junta" attitude of the NYT editors can be detected in much of the NYT's coverage from Bangkok and Rangoon, most apparent in headlines and narrative frame, but also in the kind of reportage that is being called for in the field.

To put it another way, a handful of people at the New York Times have incredible influence on news narratives that shape the way many Americans see the world. Given this awesome power, it does not seem fair to victims on the ground that the powerful and free US media should be in harmony with, if not actual concert with, US government mouthpieces. Yet that is precisely what happened when the NYT chose to play the interventionist card in concert with interventionist voices in the Bush administration, with the result that powerful media voices ganged up on Burma when it was down and out.

To make blatant frontal attacks on a government which, like it or not, represents decent people suffering from natural disaster, is not very shrewd politics. And it is the height of insensitivity, if not incendiary, to make hints about regime change before the floodwaters have even receded.

And let’s suppose things had played out just a bit differently, that the presence of US ships offshore Burma led to a military confrontation, which then led to a humanitarian "rescue" through invasion. And suppose that invasion went wrong and gets all bloody because some Burmese don’t want to be colonized and things start to get violent like in Iraq. How ungrateful!

And then the information trickles out that the pretext was wrong, that delays in accepting US aid on the part of the Burmese government had not caused people to die in droves and that the local relief effort had been better than outsiders expected.

What then? Apologize and pull out? Or dig in to validate the lives lost to date? Or perhaps an endless occupation of Burma to stabilize gains, secure natural resources and introduce US-style governance?

Because the US is so powerful, minor shifts in US popular willingness to intervene or not intervene in a place like Burma can have life and death consequences for countless vulnerable people on both sides of the planet. Thus it is incumbent on a powerful information provider like the New York Times to be both circumspect and maintain a healthy distance from the powers that be in Washington. (like they did in the old days with the Pentagon Papers)

But that was then. Last month, when it came to covering Burma in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, the NYT took a triumphalist US stance; the tone of its coverage was animated by extreme pique and imperialistic impatience almost from the start.

There are indications, from the pages of the Times itself, that it willingly adopted the US government line, taking a page from the USAID playbook, as indicated in this May 9, 2008 NYT-featured "Quotation of the Day" by Henrietta H. Fore, the Bush-appointed administrator of the United States Agency for International Development:

"It's a race for time, a race to save lives."

The pressure was on, almost from day one, to put pressure on the Burmese government to open up to US aid or else you were allowing people to die. The upfront humanitarian motive was clearly to save lives --all but the most cold-hearted politicians care about that-- and rapidity of response does make a difference in disasters, as the US learned bitterly from the Bush administration’s clay footed response to the Katrina disaster, but there were political motives lurking in the background as well.

Much of the early NYT reporting on the natural disaster in "Myanmar" was, in terms of style and often in substance, infused with condescension, revealed by clues like USAID quotes and the routine use of the word “junta.”

It was further asserted that “unimaginable” things were happening in “Myanmar”, and given a blank slate with no first-hand reports, it's pretty easy for the imagination to run wild, as it did in some speculative reporting on alleged Chinese massacres in Tibet. Reading the Times day after day, the reader might easily conclude the worst because "Myanmar" is synonymous with “please invade me." The country is poor, backward, repressed, brainwashed, and the citizens are completely helpless, thus the necessity of outside help.

The main media talking point about Burma, that it needed outside help and it needed it right away, was further refined by US government organs such as USAID and the White House to mean not just any old help, but US government help with assessment teams and other pre-conditions. But government positions, when shrewdly expressed, leave as much unsaid as said. The narcissistic US media helped fill in the gaps.

There followed an inundation of reports crafted to help us to hate "Myanmar", which is shorthand for the ruling clique in charge, and to feel a burning need for change. Early evidence that Burma was indeed getting aid from the outside did not change this hegemonic narrative. How could aid from (communist) China and (poor, backward) Southeast Asia possibly do the job? Savvy Americans know the UN is slow if not hopeless, so guess what? The Burmese people need US intervention; they need it now and cannot possibly manage without it.

That’s sounds like Fox News on a good day or CNN on a bad one. So why did the independent-minded NYT allow a USAID spokesperson to set the tone of coverage? After all, the USAID is hardly a neutral player, not that the "junta-obsessed" NYT seemed to notice.

In fact, USAID has a long history of association with the CIA (USAID was described by former CIA agent Philip Agee as a "CIA tool") and even if the organization has excised most of the ghosts of its counterinsurgency past, might it not be fairly described as a tool of the current White House?

And of course Laura Bush, the non-political White House wife who was granted a public relations concession to Myanmar as a cause celebre, was all over the airwaves condemning her pet country while singing praise of US prowess within 48 hours of the cyclone striking land.

(see Huffington Post: “Laura Bush Discusses Jenna's Wedding During Myanmar Press Conference")

Laura Bush, when she managed to stay on message, made a point that was immediately picked up on by the US media: the “junta” must quickly accept US aid.

The tone set by the First Lady was aped by the lesser stars of the US journalistic universe, such as CNN, which given the antics of television news and surreptitious attempts to videotape in border areas of Burma, took the words “must quickly accept US aid” to mean, the junta "must quickly accept CNN." And of course this all backfired; CNN broke news etiquette by becoming the focus of its own reportage, (a rambling sequence by a CNN reporter breathlessly sneaking down a hotel staircase with his handycam pointing every which way while he stealthily evaded Burmese security personnel real and imagined comes to mind)

CNN produced the opposite of the intended effect, guaranteeing delayed entry due to its cat-and-mouse games with the admittedly irritable Burmese authorities who ended up tightening rules on visas and, as CNN pointed out, wasting time in pursuit of foreigners in violation of the law.

Compared to that, the Gray Lady’s coverage was relatively sober, but she too tapped her old toe to the tune of Laura Bush in an inimitable NYT kind of way.

Looking through the voluminous number of reports filed on Burma in the NYT archives for May and June 2008, certain patterns emerge. For the better part of six weeks the NYT coverage is animated by an impatient, pro-US government narrative arch. But the tone starts to change midstream and by late June it has gone from "Unimaginable Tragedy if Myanmar Delays Aid," to a mea culpa of sorts, with the revelation on June 18 that the delay in aid was not a big deal.

It's partly a story of improved reporting due to improved access, something journalism-shy countries like China and Burma need to better understand. The earliest stories lack telling detail, they sound as if they were assembled from wire services and phone calls in an air-conditioned condo in Bangkok and indeed they probably were, as Seth Mydans did not have immediate access to the country he was writing reams about.

But Mydans was soon joined by others, some on the ground inside Burma, as NYT coverage of the cyclone swelled during May.

What follows are the headlines of that period. It is worth pointing out that headlines are rarely chosen by writers, and in some cases even go against the grain of what writers are trying to say, but generally the texts alluded to below are in harmony with their headlines.

"Myanmar Reels as Cyclone Toll Hits Thousands"
“Bodies Flow Into Delta Area Of Myanmar,
"Myanmar Votes as Rulers Keep Tight Grip on Aid."
“When Burmese Offer a Hand, Rulers Slap It”
“U.N. Leader Tells Myanmar's Regime There's 'No More Time to Lose'”
“Myanmar Government Still Blocking Large-Scale Relief; Death Toll Rises Again”
“Aid Groups Say Some Myanmar Food Aid Is Stolen or Diverted by the Military”
“U.S. Frustrated by Myanmar Military Junta's Limits on Aid in Wake of Cyclone”
“Myanmar's Children Face New Risks, Aid Groups Say”

By May 18, the pressure to "do" something was full bore; nothing heightens reader anxiety and sense of urgency like the plight of children. But then, the reporting style shifts, adopting an increasingly cynical tone, looking for victimizers instead of victims.

“2 Weeks After Cyclone, Burmese Leader Pays First Visit to Refugees”

“Myanmar Camps for Survivors Seem to Be for Headlines Only”
“Myanmar Junta Begins Evicting Cyclone Victims From Shelters”
“Gates Accuses Myanmar of 'Criminal Neglect' Over Aid”

After a month of emotional grandstanding and angry accusations, the coverage becomes muted by a sense of US resignation, a world-weary sense of letting go.

“Myanmar: Navy Aid Ships To Leave”

The pro-interventionist mood and pique at lack of access more or less concludes with an an Op-ed from Madeleine Albright who opines that assertive humanitarian intervention is good (she did it in Kosovo) but the politics of Iraq war have weakened US ability to continue doing same with any credibility.

The NYT coverage wasn’t all a one-way street though, the reporters are too good for that. Two or three weeks into the crisis, the NYT editorial line invoking US politics of urgency was challenged by a counter-current, a new narrative coming in from reporters and aid workers in the field.

“More Help Trickles In as U.N. Chief Visits Myanmar”
“In Cyclone Relief, Monks Succeed Where Generals Falter”

By June, the idea that Burma might just be capable of pulling itself up by its own bootstraps starts to kicks in and gains strength, culminating in the June 18 piece suggesting that maybe Burma did okay without US aid after all.

The June 18 non-mea culpa mea culpa states there was no starvation nor widespread evidence of disease, and notes that observers in the field were less pessimistic than expected.

“Those who survived were not likely to need urgent medical attention, doctors say. “We saw very, very few serious injuries,” said Frank Smithuis, manager of the substantial mission of Doctors Without Borders in Myanmar. “You were dead or you were in O.K. shape.”

As if to explain why they got it wrong for so long, the June 18th piece also includes this irrelevant, almost comical piece of information, comparing floods to earthquakes. “But those who survived were not likely to be injured in the aftermath by falling rocks or collapsing buildings, as often happens during natural disasters, like the earthquake in China."

Didn’t they know it wasn’t an earthquake from day one? Did it take NYT analysts six weeks to determine it unlikely for there to be many injuries from falling rocks in the pancake flat, muddy Irrawaddy Delta?

Kudos to the informal US ambassador in Rangoon for helping clear up smoke made by earlier US government remarks.

Shari Villarosa, “the highest-ranking United States diplomat in Myanmar, formerly Burma” is quoted as saying “I’m not getting the sense that there have been a lot of deaths as a result of the delay.”

The next few lines represent quite a change of tone for the Times, not only is Myanmar referenced as Burma, but the junta is twice referred to as “government” rather than junta. Words really do make a difference.

"The United States has accused the military government of “criminal neglect” in its handling of the disaster caused by the cyclone…But relief workers say the debate over access for foreigners and the refusal of the government to allow in military helicopters and ships from the United States, France and Britain overshadowed a substantial relief operation carried out mainly by Burmese citizens and monks."

Pro-US pique is not entirely absent from the apology implicit in the June 18 report, nor is it ever explained why USAID should figure so prominently in NYT thinking about Burma.

“Myanmar’s government says it issued 815 visas for foreign aid workers and medical personnel in the month after the cyclone. But some aid workers were never allowed in, including the disaster response team from the United States Agency for International Development.”

But in the end, the June 18 article succeeds because it quotes identifiable people in the field. It's called journalism, and it contributes most concretely to the turnaround in NYT coverage, as can be seen in this uplifting note towards the end.

“It’s been overwhelmingly impressive what local organizations, medical groups and some businessmen have done,” said Ruth Bradley Jones, second secretary in the British Embassy in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. “They are the true heroes of the relief effort.”

pc Read more on this article...

Monday, June 16, 2008

Toward Genuine “Afghanization”: A Guest Article by Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh

Note from Barnett R. Rubin: The following article by Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh, PhD, Director of the Center for Studies of International Relations (CERI) Program for Peace and Human Security, CERI/Institute of Political Science, Paris, was scheduled to appear in Le Figaro on June 12, the day of the International Conference in Support of Afghanistan in Paris. It did not appear due to an "industrial action," as they say in the UK. I thought it was worth sharing with readers. Tadjbakhsh co-led a recent joint research project between CERI-Sciences Po and Kabul University on gaps in perceptions between Afghans and the international community on models of peace and methods of peacebuilding in Afghanistan.

Toward Genuine Afghanization

By Shahrbanou Tadjbaksh

There could have been a lot of blaming during the fourth donor conference for Afghanistan on June 12 in Paris when the Afghan government received an additional $20 billion for the next five years. When 90 percent of all public expenditures depend on international assistance, the stakes must have been high.

As subtext to the nice speeches, donors, including bilaterals and international financial institutions, could have pointed their long fingers, united for once, at the staggering problem of corruption, weak budgetary execution, inefficient delivery, financial mismanagement, inability to raise taxes and incomplete administrative reforms. They inevitably raised their concerns with absorption capacity.

Afghan government officials, if they had prepared themselves by reading the recent Oxfam/ACBAR damning report on Aid Effectiveness released in March, could have retaliated by reminding donors that only $15 billion of the $39 bn originally pledged had been disbursed so far, and out of those, 40 % has returned to donor countries in corporate profits and consultant salaries. They could have lamented that two thirds of assistance bypasses the government completely, and that too much has been driven by donors’ own priorities, rather than theirs. The under-resourced agriculture sector was a prime example. They could also have pointed their fingers, although a shorter one since they were in the needy seat, at the lack of coordination, transparency and accountability of donor aid. A timid voice could have for example, but most probably didn’t, remind everyone that the last time they met in London, the outcome document known as the Afghanistan Compact had 77 measurable benchmarks for the Afghan government but none for donors.

These technicalities were the background of negotiations in Paris around the Afghanistan National Development Strategy, a hefty 260 page document, written in that grand language of international bureaucracy. Sure there were a large number of consultations with at least the informed and organized civil society actors at the national and sub-national levels during the two years of preparation of the ANDS. In the language of development assistance, the box of “bottom up” consultation was ticked. The question remains however as to whether this so-called Afghan document which proclaims the Afghanization of the development process is understood, or even known, by ordinary Afghans. How much have, at the end of the day, years of strategizing, negotiating, and planning changed the every day life of ordinary Afghans? Until they see tangible results in their every day lives, the Afghan population will most probably not buy into all these grand bargains.

It may be propitious to recall that 2/3 of Afghans are illiterate and that more than three quarters live in rural areas, very far from urban centers where aid has concentrated. Yet, it is the ordinary Afghans that really want things to work, not because of some instrumental reason of regional stability, curbing international terrorism, or preventing institutional failure, but because they simply want a better life. And simply put, their lives in the past seven years have not all that improved tangibly.

Perception studies, including one that was recently carried out jointly between France’s Institute of Political Science and Kabul University, echo back incessive complaints about insecurity, and not only violence but also and especially lack of economic security. When they consistently ask for jobs and education, they are saying that they need to have the ability to understand the terms of that grand bargain and of its values in order to take genuine part in the reconstruction of their country. They should be heard loud and clear.

Their dissatisfaction also emanates from a rising feeling of injustice, of historical experience with abandonment, of unkept promises, of hugely differentiated salaries, of uncontrolled corruption, so manifestly visible in the form of kitsch mini palaces constructed in the midst of garbage festered streets of Kabul, where invalids of past wars sit begging. There is no denying: the malaise points to a serious erosion of trust. Although the mistrust between donors and the government could have stolen the day in Paris, the most problematic one for everyone is the potential erosion of trust between the Afghans and their state.

Assuming that the international community is ready to hear the alarming message that trust has been eroded to dangerous levels, what can it really do? Surely trust is more easily broken than restored. Yet it must start by revising its own role in building and not breaking that trust that should be forged between the state and society. Until four crises are resolved, the cycle of mistrust will only spiral up and the technical list of what should be done will only grow longer.

First, the international community should deal with the crisis of state legitimacy. Afghans, no matter how entrepreneurial in spirit, want an authority to put order to their lives, protect and provide for them. During times of crisis, authority, control and discipline become inevitably coveted, and the incapacitated state becomes as evil in collective conscious as the predator one. Ancien regimes are then vindicated: During the Taliban there was at least security, and during Najibullah, the government at least controlled prices of primary goods in the market.

Let there be no hesitation, the state is needed in Afghanistan and the international community cannot substitute for it. And state building starts by improving the legitimacy and efficiency of the government which then translates into its authority. Aid that undermines this authority can do harm. The way that the government has handled aid, with a combination of corruption and lack of capacity is fast discrediting it in the eyes of the population. But, in fact, it is the entire international architecture of aid that has been faulty so far.

Second, rushed timing should give way to slower pace that can bring in a lot more Afghan “buy in”. Time used to seem urgent back in 2001 for immediate deployment of international troops, instant democracy, abrupt opening up to market forces, and short term projects designed to show rapid results. In this rush to provide quick fix solutions and imported models, the national context and the nature of Afghan society was largely ignored. What was the use of formal, often modelled after Western institutions of democracy, when literacy levels were so high? What was the use of a rushed liberal market economy when national production was at a stand still, and the main lucrative part of the national economy, drug production, happened to be illegal and very receptive to informality? The market was captured through rampant monopoly and speculation, imports zapped up local incentives, and prices skyrocketed. When instant trade was prioritized over long term agriculture, the every day bread became tied to volatility of global food crisis and Pakistani politics. Massive and sustained investment in agriculture through irrigation and dam constructions, in job creation through public works, and in the education system are long term projects long overdue that could prevent future vulnerabilities.

Third is the imperative to better understand and accept the nature of Afghan society, even if it may not be modelled after the expectations of external agents of “modernization”, the hidden word behind all the talk about “reconstruction”. Ultimately, Afghan traditional society is inherently collectivist and religious. Tribal leaders, local councils (shuras/jirgas), religious actors (ulemas), and religious institutions such as the mosque and the madrassas provide moral authority in communities. They have considerable potential to strengthen bonds, pass on information, perform charity and redistribution of resources, and even provide security. Yet government officials and western donors are often reluctant to genuinely engage with them either for lack of familiarity or stereotypes that they are opposed to modernization. But these perceptions miss the point. It is necessary to establish genuine dialogue in Afghanistan about the “modernization” project underlying the grand bargains and how it can reconcile with traditional society. That conflict is played out every day in the National Assembly and among the 95 political parties. It is a genuine conflict and should not be avoided, denied or manipulated. Yet caution is necessary: It is the Afghan state and society that need to take the lead in defining the relationships. External actors have to understand how they work, but be very careful about denying their role or trying to eliminate them with their own understandings, and one may say prejudice, towards secularism and modernity. Fourth, the ownership of the peace process is ultimately in the hands of the Afghans themselves. This may be an obvious statement but it is not enacted. Negotiations with the Taliban for example are being carried invariably both by the government and by different international actors, often in secret, sometimes along contradictory dictates, and always unclear about what is the power that is going to be shared. Shrouded in this ambiguity, peacemaking is not a national reconciliation project that can be properly owned by the Karzai government and the Afghan people. There needs to be a national campaign of peace, one that will surely be slow, and rift with ethnic, clan and religious interests. But the international community should trust that the battle is now going to be using political instruments and no longer in the battle field, if it genuinely trusts the democracy it imposed.

If the political project should be Afghan owned, so should be the military one. The Afghan army is suffering from lack of capacity, training and equipment, while the number of international troops increases. Surely Afghans, who have learned about war the hard way, know their territory and the tactics of their enemies, better than others? It is legitimate to ask why the country which was supposed to gain sovereignty still has its security provided by international forces whose timetable and mandate have not been put through a vote in the national assembly.

If the international community continues to think instrumentally about Afghanistan in its quest to defeat so-called international terrorism, and does not trust the Afghans’ pace, their values, their resilience, and ultimately, their sovereignty, peace will remain a fantasy no one can afford anymore.

Read more on this article...



On June 9, 2008, Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich stood up on the floor of the US Congress to read 35 Articles of Impeachment against US President George W. Bush.

Given House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's clout as Democratic enforcer and the correspondingly muted reaction from fellow lawmakers, --Pelosi has made it repeatedly clear impeachment is "not on the table" —it might appear that Kucinich stands alone.

Would that it were not so, for America’s inability to come to terms with its own wrongdoing continues to disappoint a dispirited world.

The US was once widely admired for its democratic spirit, expressed not so much in word as in deed. The US was once a beacon of freedom, not in the junk-food sense of the "Freedom Fries" served up under reigning president George W. Bush, but by quiet example, offering refuge and amnesty to people from the world over.

The example of the American Revolution, the Bill of Rights and a far-sighted Constitution have been a source of inspiration to oppressed peoples at home and abroad for over two centuries.

What happened?

Incessant and inhuman warring abroad has led to creeping fascism and a dimunition of human rights at home. Contemptuous disregard for national sovereignty, habeas corpus, old-fashioned decency, and just about anything that gets in the way of the commander in chief is threatening to destroy the values enshrined by the US Constitution.

Some of the problems are systemic, but exacerbated by individual megalomania and greed A dysfunctional military-industrial complex, uncannily predicted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower back in the 1950's, has become a sordid reality today thanks to Bush/Cheney patronage of Halliburton and other war-profiteers who coolly rake in profits from a cruel and unnecessary war.

Other problems stem from idealism itself, wrecks along the bumpy and pot-holed road paved with good intentions. Bombing or otherwise coercing people to be free and democratic makes a mockery of idealism.

Is it too late to impeach? It won't be easy, it will distract from the "feel-good" politics of hope that the Democratic Party strategists want to employ in the upcoming election, but America, as a whole, has not earned its feel-good moment yet.

For America is stuck in a dead-end war whose architects and executors are as unapologetic as hardened criminals. Bush has lowered the bar of law so low he acts as if the law is a weapon to protect the powerful and punish the powerless. As if human rights apply only to foreign adversaries.

That John McCain is a hawk is a given, he basically promises more of the same, though he could break with Bush to salvage his candidacy.

But why has Democratic nominee Barack Obama grown so much more hawkish when he didn’t start out that way?

Who’s doing the advising in the Obama camp when the arguably most charming politician to come along in a generation makes slavish promises to Israeli hardliners that he can't possibly keep, while issuing a veiled threat to go to war with Iran, parroting the belligerent "all options are on the table" talk of Bush Jr?

Perhaps it has something to do with wanting to be taken seriously, it also reflects the nature of advice given. The mainstream media, for example, always has time for hawks like Henry Kissinger, and even retired generals reading from script, but dismisses as frivolous Congressional peace advocates such as Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul.

Timidity and tunnel vision are expected of serious presidential advisors too. As former Obama advisor Samantha Powers and former mentor Reverend Wright learned the hard way, speaking candidly results in not being taken seriously.

UCLA political scientist Richard Baum, formerly a China factotum in the administration of George Bush Sr, made a show of quitting as advisor to Hillary Clinton over remarks she made last month about possibly boycotting the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. His dissent was a rare kerfuffle for a would-be presidential advisor. But where was his outrage about Hillary’s support for the war in Iraq and her far more egregious fear-mongering on Iran? Not within purview?

The compartmentalization of subordinates is useful to diffuse responsibility and avoid tough moral questions, especially as “serious” candidates are pressed to show a cold-hearted willingness to kill foreigners in the name of American ideals.

Democratic Party kingmaker Nancy Pelosi set the rules of engagement, loyally echoed by both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama during their long battle for party supremacy; impeachment is off the table, invasion of Iran is on.

This formula needs to be reversed, the tables turned.

The US must turn its angry, interventionist gaze within, the revolution to re-establish the values that Americans claim as a birthright must begin at home. To begin to heal, to achieve closure, let alone hope for atonement, war criminals must be taken to task for a gratuitous war.

Before Guantanamo prison is closed down forever, perhaps the men who justified torture as policy would like to spend a bit of time familiarizing themselves with the facility from the inside, orange jumpsuits optional.

To make amends, the US has to demonstrate that no one is above the law, especially those with the power to put fellow citizens in harm’s way.

Granting amnesty to the powerful while ruthlessly imprisoning the poor –America has more people behind bars than any other country— establishes a precedent bad for human rights everywhere.

If the unwarranted invasion of sovereign nations is to be kept on the table while fixing faults at home is not, then America's precipitous and rocky detour from the democratic road will soon reach a point of no return.

pc Read more on this article...

Monday, June 9, 2008

Who is Making Tehran’s Iraq Policy?

Farideh Farhi

I have to admit that I am quite mystified by the never-ending search for finding the one person that “really” makes policy in Iran. The latest example of this search can be found in David Ignatius’s Washington Post column in which we are informed that it is really not the “bombastic” Ahmadinejad but the “soft-spoken” commander of the Qods Force of Islamic Revolution’s Guard Corps (IRGC), Brigadier General Qassem Soleimani, “who plays a decisive role in his nation's confrontation with the United States.” Soleimani’s name has in fact been in the news for a while because of his reported role in brokering the cease-fire that restored calm in Basra in March.

Perhaps it is the history of the United States’ dealings with most Middle Eastern countries (Israel and Turkey excepted) and the tradition or habit of dealing with one man as the ultimate decision maker that creates the hope or aspiration to find the one person that holds the key to Iran’s policy making process. Or perhaps it is the tendency, when in doubt or short evidence, to go with the fad of the moment.

I understand that it is now in vogue to talk about the IRGC in general and the Qods Force as the THE power in Iran (with consequential impact throughout the Middle East). I have not found this argument to be very convincing. My take continues to be that the military in Iran has traditionally been and continues to be under civilian control, even if the Guards hierarchy as well as its individual members have and do play an important role in Iranian politics. The birth of the Islamic Republic was inextricably linked to the Iran-Iraq War and as such it should not be surprisingly to anyone that the body and individuals that played important roles in that war continue to be influential. Ironically, to my mind, the comparable country in this regard has always been Israel, another Middle Eastern political system born and bred in war.

In any case, even if there has been a rise in the power of hard-line IRGC men, I find the focus on one individual quite unpersuasive, particularly since the sources that have talked about Soleimani’s key role in Iran are all from outside of Iran (in the case of Ignatius' piece, the source is one “Arab who meets regularly with Soleimani”).

This is not to say that someone like Soleimani has no influence in Iran's decision making process. From what I understand, although I cannot be sure, Soleimani sits in the committee for regional affairs of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council-- consisting of him as well as the chief of intelligence of IRGC, the deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs (who also heads the Foreign Ministry's Iraq Desk), Mohammd Reza Baqer, a team of experts on Iranian-Arab relations and Iran's ambassadors to Arab countries (Hassan Kazemi-Qomi in the case of Iraq). Focusing in particular on developments in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories, the task of this committee is to advise on the appropriate policies to be pursued. But the final decision makers are civilians (some well known because of their institutional positions and others like the head of supreme leader Khamenei's security office, the cleric Asghar Hejazi or his chief of staff Mohammad Golpayegani - also a cleric - wielding less publicized influence).

Furthermore, regarding Iran’s Iraq policy, I just can't believe that Soleimani wields more (or for that matter less) influence or has more input in the decision making process than let us say the current head of IRGC, Mohammad Ali (Aziz) Jaafari, who prior to his current position was in charge of setting up IRGC's Strategic Center, a center tasked with drawing up a new command structure and military strategy, preparing the country for the changing regional environment and the kind of foreign military confrontation it may have to face; or Iran’s Iraq ambassador Kazemi Qomi, reportedly himself a former Qods force member.

These key individuals and many others must be in constant interaction to set and reassess policies that are partially shaped by a long-term interest in a relatively calm Iraq that maintains close political, economic, and security relations with Iran and also developed in reaction to Iraq’s complex domestic dynamics and US plans for that country.

Within this context one does not need to search for a scheming and all powerful individual like Soleimani to figure out that the Iranian leadership as a whole, in all its contentious variety, would have to be engaged in constant conversation and planning (and at times improvisation) about how to stunt plans that would make the US military presence in Iraq permanent or make that country a launching pad for an attack on Iran (rejection of this possibility was by the way precisely the assurance Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was repeatedly giving Iranian leaders in his current visit to Tehran).

One also doesn’t have to be a genius to guess that, hunkered down in a security and paranoid mode due to the escalating economic and political pressures (not to mention military threats) faced in the past couple of years, the Iranian policy makers are trying very hard to convince the Bush Administration, from my point of view hopefully successfully, that an attack on Iran will be costly. Read more on this article...

Where Have Old Friends Gone? U.S.-Turkish Relations Since the Iraq War (cross-posting)

From the field

Video link to the annual Campagna-Kerven lecture at Boston University. The annual lecture is hosted by Boston University and it features some of the premier voices on modern Turkey. This year's speaker is Henri J. Barkey of Lehigh University, whose analysis includes some disconcerting conclusions, in particular his prediction that the Turkish high court will declare the Ak Party illegal.

"Henri J. Barkey, chair of the department of international relations at Lehigh University, gives the 2008 Campagna-Kerven Lecture on Modern Turkey, the 13th in the series. He discusses a changing international system beginning with the end of the Cold War, new perceptions between the United States and Turkey, and different national interest issues within each country." Read more on this article...

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Rubin: NPR -- Poppies to Perfumes in Afghanistan

Ivan Watson of National Public Radio broadcast a story from Jalalabad this morning about Gulestan's effort to develop the essential oil and fragrance industry in Afghanistan:
Since the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, poppy production has skyrocketed in the country. The Afghan heroin industry is by far the largest in the world.

For the past several years, a group of Afghan and foreign businessmen has been trying to offer an alternative, by urging farmers to grow flowers for perfume instead of for drugs. But it has been a frustrating and costly project.

Shafiq Azizi is a perfume distiller. When he isn't picking flowers in Nimla garden, a green oasis in the dry hills of eastern Afghanistan, he works in a hot, dusty parking lot in the city of Jalalabad. He darts between a network of steel pipes and drums, dumping fragrant ingredients such as cedar wood into a giant metal vat.

By boiling the ingredients, Azizi extracts valuable oils, which can be sold on the international market for thousands of dollars per gallon.

There are a few small inaccuracies in the story. In particular it credits the U.S. government with providing aid but does not mention the larger investment made by Gulestan's founders from their own resources. It also does not mention Mathieu Beley, who was not in Jalalabad when Watson visited. Beley is the president of Gulestan and played an essential role in establishing and operating the company. The story also identifies Abdullah Arsala, founder of the Red River Essential Oils company as an entrepreneur (which is correct) but does not mention that he comes from an important family of the region. His father was killed fighting the Soviets in 1982, and he was raised by his uncle, commander Abdul Haq, who was executed by the Taliban in October 2001.

The NPR website also has a video, which you can see here. A 2006 study of Gulestan, done for the Aga Khan Development Network, is here. Read more on this article...