Informed Comment

Thoughts on the Middle East, History, and Religion

Juan Cole is President of the Global Americana Institute

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Cole at Tomdispatch: Frenzy over the Pashtuns of Empire's Frontier

My essay, "Armageddon at the Top of the World: Not!: A Century of Frenzy over the North-West Frontier," has just been posted at


' Despite being among the poorest people in the world, the inhabitants of the craggy northwest of what is now Pakistan have managed to throw a series of frights into distant Western capitals for more than a century. That's certainly one for the record books.

And it hasn't ended yet. Not by a long shot. Not with the headlines in the U.S. papers about the depredations of the Pakistani Taliban, not with the CIA's drone aircraft striking gatherings in Waziristan and elsewhere near the Afghan border. This spring, for instance, one counter-terrorism analyst stridently (and wholly implausibly) warned that "in one to six months" we could "see the collapse of the Pakistani state," at the hands of the bloodthirsty Taliban, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the situation in Pakistan a "mortal danger" to global security.

What most observers don't realize is that the doomsday rhetoric about this region at the top of the world is hardly new. It's at least 100 years old. . .'

Speaking of which, Reuters reports that on Monday, Pakistani helicopter gunships deployed against Pashtun militants in the Khyber region killed 20 of them. This group, led by Mangal Bagh, is unconnected to the Old Taliban of Mulla Omar but was suspected by the Pakistani military of 'planning some attacks.' The US and NATO in Afghanistan depend on the Karachi to Khyber route to get materiel to their troops in landlocked Afghanistan, but militants on the Pakistan side have attacked the convoys and closed off the route, forcing the US to depend on Russia for transshipment of materiel instead. The US has put pressure on the Pakistani government to put down the Pakistani Taliban and reopen the Khyber pass route.

About 500,000 or one fourth of the 2 million alleged to have been more or less expelled by the military and the fighting from the Swat Valley, have returned home, despite problems of sewage and potable water.

News also comes that the Pakistani government has arrested Pashtun cleric Maulana Sufi Muhammad, a founder of the Pakistani Taliban and leader of the Movement for the Implementation of Muhammad's Law. Sufi Muhammad was the one who brokered the controversial cease-fire in the Swat Valley between the Pakistani government and the Pakistani Taliban, led by his son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah. The ceasefire broke down when the Taliban attacked neighboring areas and sought to expand the territory under their control.

Ironically, at the same time that Western observers lauded the Pakistani president's decision to arrest Sufi Muhammad and cut off negotiations with the Taliban in Pakistan, they continued to pursue peace talks with the Afghan so-called Taliban.

Meanwhile, Aljazeera English reports on British overtures to the dissident Pashtuns called 'Taliban' in the US press:

Aljazeera English reports on new tactics of the Taliban:

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Polk: Waiting for the Obama We Elected: AfPak Wars, Permanent Detainees, and Dennis Ross

William R. Polk writes in a guest editorial for IC:

Probably like most of you, I am engaged in a daily attempt to make up my mind about President Obama. I was an early supporter. And as a former Washington "player," I am aware how difficult is his position. I began to worry when he failed to grasp what I have seen to be the early window of opportunity for a new administration -- the first three months -- when the government is relatively fluid. As the months have flown by, I have seen that there are many positive things, mainly in his eloquent addresses on world problems, notably his speech at the University of Cairo on world pluralism, but also quite a few negative things. With sadness and alarm I find that my list of the negatives keeps on growing. Among them are the following:

(1) the commitment to the war in "Af-Pak" which (I believe) will cost America upwards of $6 trillion but perhaps only a few hundred casualties since we are relying increasingly on drone bombing. Just the money costs could derail almost everything Obama's supporters hoped and thought his administration would do. That amount of money is roughly half the total yearly income (the GNP) of America. Of course, it will cost Afghanistan far more. Less dramatic perhaps but more crucial will be the further breakdown Afghan society, leaving behind when we ultimately get out an even more demoralized, fractured society and will probably lead to a coup d'etat in Pakistan, further enhancing the danger of war between the South Asian countries. The nominal leaders of Afghanistan (Hamid Karzai) and Pakistan (Asif Ali Zardari) whom we practically appointed and with whom we have chosen to work are hated by their people and are human monuments to the potential of government corruption. (Drugs, traffic in American arms even to insurgents, shakedowns of citizens, sale of public offices, outright stealing, kidnap for ransom...the list is long and as an old hand, it certainly reminds me of South Vietnam.) We now have a window of opportunity to get out of this looming disaster, but it seems that the President is determined to "stay the course." Fundamental to my worry is that I do not hear anyone around the President or he himself saying things that indicate that they know anything about Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir or India, much less "Pashtunistan" aka The Northwest Frontier. Ignorance is rarely a very rewarding guide.

(Parenthetically, I have recently read the British "how to do it" manual on "Tribal fighting on the Northwest Frontier" by General Sir Andrew Skeen. Skeen spent his life fighting the Pathans. He warned British soldiers back in the 1920s that the Pathans were "the finest individual fighters in the east, really formidable enemies, to despise whom means sure trouble." My copy is the only one I could find on the internet. it survived in a British officers' mess library. I doubt that Messrs Petraeus, McChrystal et al have ever heard of it. It makes more sense than Patraeus's Counterinsurgency Field Manual.)

(2) the choice of personnel is (to me) baffling:

In the military he has chosen to keep on Bush's Secretary of Defense (who signed if not wrote the latest version of the neoconservative-inspired US National Defense Doctrine calling for, among other things, the "right" of first striking almost anyone we choose if we don't like them), General David Petraeus whom I regard as a con man for breathing life into the Vietnam counterinsurgency program (which has never worked anywhere in the world in the last two centuries when tried by the British, the Russians, the French, the Germans or us) and General Stanley McChrystal who makes statements that sound terrifyingly like the SS. His main claim to fame appears to have come out of running the prison system in Afghanistan where, apparently, some of the worst cases of torture happened. Sy Hersh who just met with him came out of the meeting appalled. These men, allegedly, have told Obama that he could win the war in Afghanistan "on the cheap." So when his then principal military adviser gave a more sober assessment -- nearly half a million men -- Obama fired him and listened to Petraeus' siren song. Again, as an old hand, I cannot help remembering Vietnam where we went from 1,700 to half a million soldiers and still lost.

The Pentagon budget is not only enormous but contains a number of potential scandals. . . Our overseas bases now cost us over $100 billion yearly. Since the DOD sops up over half of the disposable resources of the government, Obama must get control of it. His task will be difficult because the DOD and what President Eisenhower called the "military industrial complex" have cleverly portioned out the work and procurement on the program to virtually every congressional district. Congress will opt for the program even if it bankrupts America. Congress will be Obama's enemy if he tries any reforms. Even to try, he will need able advisers and staff. He should certainly know better than to appoint the foxes to guard the henhouse.

In the State Department activities, the most attractive person is Senator Mitchell but he does not seem to have any significant power. I hope I am wrong but he reminds me of my dear friend Governor Chester Bowles after JFK fired him and used him only for window dressing. The others have their own agendas. To be generous, one has to say that Hillary has not yet shown enough to judge, but some of her statements would be hard to worsen. I assume that she has begun to run for the presidency in 2012. She reminds me of the wise saying that when a president assembles his cabinet, he has all his enemies in one room. Dick Holbrooke has a bully's approach to diplomacy in one of the touchiest spots in the world. His browbeating, hectoring, shouting "Balkan" tactics are ill-suited to Central Asia.

In the White House, I think it would be hard to find a worse choice than the new Special Assistant to the President, Dennis Ross. Three examples of his skill: a) in the early negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, when he was supposedly the honest broker, he took a more disruptive position than even the Israelis, apparently shocking even them; b) in the build-up to the Iranian elections he sponsored and organized a program to "electronically invade" Iran with destabilizing messages trying, more subtly to be sure than the 1953 CIA-MI6 coup, to "regime change" it. Whatever else could be said about the "Iran-Syria Operations Group" , it played right into the hands of Ahmadinejad and the rightwing of the ulama and the military, giving them a proof text for American interference in the elections and thus may have backfired since no issue in Iranian politics is as sensitive as the fear of foreign espionage; (c) just before his appointment to be the chief honcho on all the Middle East, Ross published a book whose message was essentially 'let's try a bit of diplomacy for a short time. Of course it won't work, but it will justify our attacking.' That is, his approach to peace-seeking is consistent and negative. Since he is now Obama's point man, we are in for deeper trouble.

The Vice President, as you know, just reversed the final position of the Bush administration, where Bush told the Israelis that America would not approve an attack on Iran: Joe Biden essentially authorized it, saying what they decided to do was their business, not ours. But those of you who have read my occasional essays could tick off the list of potential disasters for America and the Western world such an attack would bring on. It is patently absurd to suggest that an Israeli attack (made with our weapons and implicit approval) is not our business; indeed, regardless of our weapons and our approval, the long-term consequences for our economy, our position in the world, and our exposure to terrorism would be almost impossible to exaggerate.

On the CIA I confess I am not a big admirer. It has taken on 3 tasks: gathering information, evaluating it and performing dirty tricks. It is usually agreed that over 80%, perhaps more like 95%, of the information it accumulates comes from sources that you and I can access if we have the time, energy and interest. Most of the rest comes from technology (intercepts and code breaking which appear to be valuable for counter-terrorism but, at least in my experience, are of near zero value in 'strategy'; on satellite and overflight imagery much the same can be said.) The second task, evaluation or "appreciation" is very difficult at best, but the record, at least during the Bush administration, is pretty poor. It was far better done then and during the Vietnam war in the tiny Bureau of Intelligence and Research of the State Department. The third task often leads to disasters and violates all that America should stand for. There are scores of examples to back up this statement, but one that has now come back to haunt us is the 1953 coup d'etat that destroyed an elected and popular Iranian government that, had it survived, might have avoided the 1979 Iranian revolution and relieved us of our current worries there. We should get out of the business of espionage, kidnap, torture and murder. Period. The current leadership of the CIA does not seem to have addressed these issues and President Obama has gone out of his way to grant a sort of blanket pardon in advance lest anyone fear that what he did was illegal or, more accurately, knowing that it was illegal might be called to court.

Back to the President: From my experience with life at the "brink," during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I think that the President's initiatives on cutting back nuclear weapons is perhaps the best thing he has done so far. True, it is a very modest step, leaving thousands of "devices" in place on both the Russian and American sides, only urging Israel which has hundreds of bombs to join the NPT, actually encouraging India to forge ahead with its nuclear program and so probably moving inexorably toward at least doubling the number of nuclear-weapon-armed countries rather than (as I have strenuously advocated) moving from Russo-American cutbacks to nuclear free areas and ultimately toward worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons. But, at least it is a step in the right direction.

That's for foreign affairs.

On domestic affairs, I am really not qualified, but the only senior man to whom I would give high marks is former Federal Reserve Bank chairman Paul Volker. I predict that sooner or later, however, several of the men appointed to handle the financial problems will prove to be major political embarrassments to Obama. The phrase "no banker left behind" may prove a potent slogan.

Healthcare is the really tough but literally vital issue. I doubt that many Americans realize that it takes up about $1 in each $6 in our economy but that still 50 million Americans are uninsured. A June 2009 poll showed that 85% of the American public said the system either must be fundamentally changed or totally rebuilt. I think Obama is right that this is probably the make or break issue of his presidency. But I do not find a strategy to match his rhetoric. For some reason, on this issue as on some others, he does not seem to grasp the potential advocacy -- and educational -- powers of presidency. Too bad he could not learn from Lyndon Johnson.

On the environment, I see no significant concrete steps. Perhaps on this issue is the real test of a presidency's fundamental role in a democracy: educating the public so that it can understand and cope with the present and the future. I certainly pretend to no particular wit on the environment, but it doesn't take much wit to see what is happening. Never-mind what the scientists say, one would have to be blind not to see what the photographs show us of climate change. And where does this lead? I think there can be no other answer than a cutback, either voluntarily or enforced, in our material culture. It is going to come as a great shock to Americans who have grown up with SUVs, cheap gasoline, uninsulated houses, and rampant consumerism. We had better begin to prepare ourselves and for this, the President must be our shepherd. Arguably, it is much too early in his presidency for him even to consider this role, but as we look back it was taking on a comparable role that marked the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.

There are, of course, for President Obama as for all previous presidents, myriads of issues, but one that I believe will haunt him for his own term and beyond is moral and constitutional: What are we doing -- and what will we be seen to be doing -- to the vast but unknown number of prisoners -- terrorists, freedom fighters, accidents -- we are holding indefinitely, without charges, without recourse to the courts or that fundamental right in our heritage from the struggle against tyranny, habeas corpus. What we are doing at Guantanamo, Bagram and an unknown number of other "secret" prisons is, as the courts have rightly, if belatedly and guardedly, held, a violation of our legal system. We don't need the courts to tell us that it certainly a violation of our moral code. Obama began by urging transparency on this sordid issue, but he backed off . His Justice Department is now appealing a US District Court order that the Supreme Court decision on habeas corpus rights for Guantanamo also applied to a set of prisoners at Bagram who apparently arrived there by rendition or who, at least, are non Afghans. Of course, the most sordid issue is the evidence of sodomy, rape and torture captured in the photograph collection that Obama first wanted to release and then changed his mind. Those who profess to know say that what these pictures show is truly horrible. Some have compared them to the vivid record the Nazis kept of their sadism. Even pragmatically, since they are known -- indeed known worldwide -- it is questionable to say the least that hiding them will protect our reputation. For what little it is worth, my opinion is that making a clean breast of the evil and making an apology -- as we have repeatedly urged other countries to do in comparable cases -- would be or could be the beginning of the resurrection of America.

So it is that I read with further dismay . . . [a recent] article in The Washington Post [entitled] . . . "U.S. Rebuffs U.N. Requests for Guantanamo Visits, Data on CIA Prisons. . . "

# # #

I am waiting for the Obama we elected to show up. I hope this drama does not follow Samuel Beckett's script.

William R. Polk was the member of the Policy Planning Council responsible for North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia from 1961 to 1965 and then professor of history at the University of Chicago where he founded the Middle Eastern Studies Center. He was also president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. His most recent book is Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism & Guerrilla Warfare from the American Revolution to Iraq (New York: HarperCollins, paper edn. 2008).

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Kurdistan's 'Change' Claims Advance in Sulaimaniya;
US Withdrawal From Iraq Could be Affected by Kurdish-Arab Conflict

On Sunday, the Change List in the Kurdistan Regional Government elections made the startling claim that it had won in Sulaimaniya, a long time stronghold of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan of aging Iraqi president Jalal Talabani. Noshirvan Mustafa, the leader of Change, broke with the PUK two years ago, alleging corruption and abuse of human rights. (Mustafa's first name is spelled a lot of different ways in the wire services because it is Persian but most reporters based in Iraq are used to Arabic, so they transliterate out of that language).

Presidential candidate Halo Ibrahim Ahmed of the rival Progress List, who is challenging incumbent Massoud Barzani, also alleges corruption in the running of Iraqi Kurdistan.

McClatchy reports two narratives about the election. One, from the Kurdistan Alliance establishment, claims 80 percent turnout and free, happy voters. The Change List charged that the turnout was more like 55 percent and that there were abuses such as pressure at the voting booths, canvassing around them, and Peshmerga soldiers trying to vote multiple times.

Reuters has more on the opposition's allegations of poll violations.

If the Change List were to capture a significant number of seats in the 111-member Kurdistan Regional Government parliament, it could have an impact at the margins on the way the confederacy is governed. But the likelihood is that the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Massoud Barzani and Talabani's PUK will continue to run the place jointly, and Barzani will retain all the extensive prerogatives of the presidency.

The NYT reports that Gorran is hoping for some 45 seats in the 111-member parliament but that outside observers peg their likely share as about a third. That is an earthquake in Kurdistan politics, even so. So Kurds worry that Baghdad might exploit internal differences among the Kurds to assert greater influence in the northern confederacy.

Aljazeera English has video on controversies over the election procedure among Iraqi Kurds abroad:

Analysts in China, which has recently had some ethnic violence itself, worry that Arab-Kurdish conflicts over places like Kirkuk in Iraq's north could destabilize the region. (Note to American readers: such a conflagration would be highly likely to draw the US military right back into Iraq on a large scale and derail Obama's withdrawal timeline.)

When the dust settles from the election, the issues left over regarding Kurdistan's constitution and its relationship with Arab Iraq will come to the fore. These can be guessed at if we consider this piece from a couple of weeks ago, translated from the PUK press by the USG Open Source Center:

Iraqi Kurdish editorial blames 'enemies' for delay of vote on constitution
Kurdistani Nuwe
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Document Type: OSC Translated Text . . .

Iraqi Kurdish editorial blames "enemies" for delay of vote on constitution

Text of article by editor-in-chief Kawa Muhammad entitled "The regional constitution", published by Iraqi Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) newspaper Kurdistani Nuwe on 15 July

The Independent High Electoral Commission in Iraq (IHEC) has finally announced that it cannot hold a referendum on the (Kurdistan Region) constitution on 25 July. Although the possibility was already there that owing to the lack of sufficient time, the IHEC could not make necessary preparations for the referendum, the announcement coincided with US Vice-President Joe Biden's visit to Iraq - his visit and its agenda have created lots of debate in Iraq.

As far as the Kurdistan Region is concerned, the sandstorm was not the only obstacle to his Arbil visit, which forced him to speak to (Iraqi) President (Jalal) Talabani and (Kurdistan Region) President (Mas'ud) Barzani on the phone. It seems opponents of the regional constitution had an effect. How?

Some Iraqi parties and groups which oppose the idea of Kurdistan having its own constitution, along with some chauvinistic groups and individuals as well as pressures from regional states, all have had an impact on Iraqi Prime Minister (Nuri) al-Maliki to seek a suitable opportunity to obstruct Kurdistan's constitution. Thus, he exploited Biden's visit to convince him sway Kurdish leaders from passing the constitution under the pretext that it might restrict solving the pending problems between Bagdad and Arbil. We should be aware that the real reason behind these pressures and pretexts is their fear that Kurdistan might become even stronger if it were to have own constitution, as well as rights enshrined in the Iraqi constitution, and that this might strengthen Kurdistan's political and constitutional will and establish an independent Kurdish state in future. Only this and nothing else is the core of the issue.

It is appropriate to concentrate on those internal individuals and parties in the Kurdistan Region who were against the constitution recently and tell them: Dear brothers the same constitution that you said it would create a dictator and did not define Kurdistan Region's borders the same constitution made Kurdish enemies hysteric as it strengthens the Kurdish nation's roots and increases its political options. Thus, I tell you do not make the rejection of the referendum your achievement, because this is not an "achievement" to be proud of.

(Description of Source: Al-Sulaymaniyah Kurdistani Nuwe in Kurdish -- daily newspaper published by Iraqi Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK))'

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Afghanistan See Attacks Rise on Eve of Election

Update: Taliban in Kunduz in Afghanistan's north attempted to assassinate warlord Muhammad Qasim Fahim on Sunday, but failed. One of his bodyguards was wounded in the attack. There are few Taliban in the north, but there are some Pashtuns in Kunduz and some of them have been radicalized. The violence underscores how perilous the security situation is in the run-up to the election, as below.

Afghanistan is on edge ahead of the August 20 presidential elections, given the uptick in Taliban violence in the Pashtun areas. On Saturday, a team of 7 Taliban wearing bomb vests attacked a bank and a police station in Khost, near the Pakistan border. Afghan official sources said that all 7 were killed, but the NYT says residents told it that they could still hear gun battles late Saturday in the city.

There was also significant violence last Tuesday. In fact, July seen the most bloodshed in Afghanistan since 2002. A British soldier was killed on Saturday, bringing the UK death statistics for its troops in Afghanistan to 20 so far in July.

Aljazeera English has video:

Incumbent President Hamid Karzai is putting pressure on the some 90,000 US and NATO troops in his country, pledging to seek a formal agreement about when and under what circumstances the foreign troops can deploy violence in Afghanistan.

The US military lacks enough good translators of Pashto into English, and is contracting out the work of finding them, not always with success. You know, if the Bush administration had just started training a few thousand US military personnel in Pashto in 2001 when it was clear that the US was going into Afghanistan, we wouldn't be in such a bind. But somehow I don't think the previous administration was all that interested in a resource-poor, petroleum-free region.

The USG Open Source Center translates a discussion on Iranian radio with an Afghan critic of President Karzai, who complained about Karzai's decision to skip the presidential debate held recently:

' Afghan Observer Says TV Debate Lost Attraction Without Karzai
Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran External Service
Saturday, July 25, 2009
Document Type: OSC Translated Text. . .

(Presenter) The first TV debate in history of the newly-born democratic Afghanistan took place on 23 July. The hotly awaited TV debate which was broadcast on the two television stations and one radio station which private Tolo Television owns was supposed to be held among prominent presidential candidates Hamed Karzai, Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. But President Hamed Karzai declined an invitation for the debate and as a result a podium for him was left empty in the centre of the television studio.

Dr Abdullah, a former foreign minister, and Dr Ghani, a former finance minister, two of the leading challengers for the presidency, comfortably answered questions in the two main languages of Afghanistan, Dari and Pashto. It was not serious debate more or less looked like interview and briefings of the candidates on various policies, including national integrity, security, economy, education, foreign policy and social and political structures.

Not only Afghans but the people all around the world who follow up the Afghan situation closely were keen to see Hamed Karzai in front of the two other major candidates who had challenged him. According to Afghan politicians Hamed Karzai did not show up in the debate merely because he could not provide satisfactory responses to all the questions by his rivals. Speaking on the issue, Afghan observer Assil Noori says Karzai's failure to attend the TV debate was not happy news for millions of Afghans and even his supporter.

(Noori) There is no doubt that the TV debate was supposed to be one of the major events in history of a country like Afghanistan. However, absence of Mr Karzai reduced the value and significance of the debate. In fact, the debate lost its attraction without Mr Karzai and everyone was expecting Mr Karzai to be there to defend his policies and to provide responses to the questions and criticism of his rivals. However, his failure to attend the debate caused a situation of dismay even among his supporters. In general it was a useful and it was a good start for more debates and we hope to see Mr Karzai in the upcoming debates by the mass media.

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Kurdistan Elections fateful for Iraq

Aljazeera English reports on the Kurdistan elections:

For the first time in recent memory, the two major Kurdish parties (which are in a sense clans and clan allies) are facing significant opposition, as from the Goran or Change Party.

Critics of the joint government of Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party and (Iraqi President) Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which are in coalition with one another as the Kurdistan Alliance, charge that the Alliance is corrupt, authoritarian and inefficient. They say that Barzani has jailed journalists for 'libel' and encourages a cult of personality (his picture is everywhere). Those who are on the outside of the ruling clans are often disadvantaged and sometimes they have rioted, as even at Halabja, a shrine to the genocide against the Kurds launched by Saddam Hussein in 1988.

The likely winner, incumbent Massoud Barzani, seems on a collision course with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki over Barzani's determination to incorporate into the Kurdistan confederacy the disputed oil province of Kirkuk, a plan to which Arabs and Turkmen, as well as Iraqi nationalists, object.

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Ahmadinejad Bows to Khamenei on First Vice President

This issue of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's appointment of Esfandiyar Rahim-Masha'i as his first vice president came to a head on Friday. Rahim-Masha'i, the father of Ahmadinejad's daughter-in-law, had offended the hard liners last year by saying Iranians are friends of the Israeli people (as opposed to the 'Zionist regime.')

Ahmadinejad was presumably, by his appointment of Rahim-Masha'i, trying to signal three things.

1. He is not just a puppet of the hard liners, or even of Khamenei (Ahmadinejad portrays himself as a populist standing up to the fat cats and elites on behalf of the little person, a message he could hardly keep on point if he is just a hired gun of . . . the elite).

2. Ahmadinejad is tolerant of Iranian liberals. Rahim-Masha'i has been accused of favoring religious pluralism (saying that all the great religions are true) and of declaring that "Islamism" is outmoded and its era over with (thus he is accused of being a 'post-Islamist' in Asaf Bayat's terminology). The appointment may have aimed at mollifying some of the reformists?

3. Ahmadinejad is not the crackpot on the question of Israel that his opponents in the presidential race, such as Mir Hossein Mousavi, had painted him.

Of course, if those were his goals, they were unlikely to be achieved in this way, and now the whole thing has in any case come undone.

The Friday prayers sermon this week was led by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a consummate hard liner. He delivered a no-holds barred attack on the reform movement as undermining both the clerical ideology of the iranian state and the success in cutting Iran off from foreign interference. The USG Open Source Center translated these passages from Iranian radio:

'The main issue is that Velayat-e Faqih (guardianship of a religious jurisconsult [demand for rule of the top cleric]) is a principle for our people, and the other basic principle for our people is to safeguard the revolution. But there are some individuals who do not want to accept that the vali-e faqih (supreme jurisconsult [cleric]) has the final say. They do not obey the guidelines of the supreme leader. They regard the supreme leader as supportive of a particular faction. They even sometimes make childish remarks. They are nothing, however, compared to the wave of the loyal ummah [Muslim community] who are ready to sacrifice their lives for the leader.

However, the duty of the Friday prayer leader is to give warning. I would like to explicitly say from this podium that our people love vali-e faqih [clerical ruler], and they will hold fast to this banner up to their last breath and the last drop of their blood. (People chanting: "God is great, Khamene'i is the leader, death to those against the vali-e faqih) [clerical ruler] . . .

This is an explicit message to those bat-natured individuals who do not hear this call. This is not just the call of the Friday prayers. We are aware of some private insulting meetings. We are aware of the plots against Velayat (guardianship of a religious jurisconsult). You should know that you do not have the power to stand up to this wave (of people).

. . . You are supporters of Velayat and you will remain supporters of Velayat. . .'

Jannati went on then to another key value of the hard liners, which is xenophobia or keeping Iran isolated from close connections with the Western Powers, on the grounds that when they could, these Powers put the dictatorial Shah on the throne and used him to keep control of Iranian resources such as petroleum. Jannati says,

' The second position that the enemy has targeted is the culture of fighting against arrogance [Western hegemonic powers]. This culture has brought us dignity. It has its foundations in the Koran and Islamic traditions. We (God) appointed prophets in every society to worship God and dispel arrogant powers . . .

. . . The imam was the individual who said that America is the great Satan. He taught this to the people.

The 30-year slogan of "down with America" comes from the same teachings. (People chanting: "Down with America")

Unfortunately, in the past one or two months, some individuals have assaulted this culture. They have broken the taboo of being in touch with foreigners. Some individuals say that for victory they need a social shock, along with a foreign shock -- foreign shock means foreigners' media support for rioters.

One does not know who to share the sadness with when our country's esteemed intelligence minister provides us with a piece of news. In the past couple of months some headquarters (within the country) have contacted foreign embassies, including the British embassy, more than 100 times. England is the old musty colonialist, the same England that our people have seen nothing from rather than acts of treachery, deceit, and craftiness. What is the objective behind your contacts with foreigners?

(Chants of indistinct slogans in support of the cleric's remarks)

Some people affiliated with certain political groups have said themselves that they contacted American officials before the (12-June presidential) election to ask them to wait for a government that would come to power after Mr Ahmadinezhad's to establish relations (with Iran). You wretched people! Is having relations with America a gift that you so anxiously await? America is only and merely seeking its own interests. You wretched people, think of the people (of this country).'

Beyond those two points, Jannati denounced the opposition for plotting to keep society riled because they did not like the outcome of the election. He rejected the reformists' call for a referendum on the election, insisting that the election was itself the referendum. (The opposition maintains that there was widespread fraud in reporting the election results):
' The fifth point is about the power of the Islamic state. Thank God, our Islamic state is powerful and of course it uses this power in the service of the people and promotion of the status of Islam. Unfortunately, some people questioned the power of the Islamic state following the elections. They were disappointed of course, but the harm they caused is still considerable. The blow they dealt to the authority of the state was worse than anything else. And some of them do not let go. Apparently, some people intend to keep the quarrels going for the next four years. They want to play a different tune every day. One day they demand the annulment of elections. When they were disappointed they proposed a referendum to decide the legitimacy of the government. Wake up! The referendum was held, 40 million people came to the scene and elected a president with 24.5 million votes of support. Pay attention! Do not pretend that you are sleeping. The referendum was held. The people's decision is clear, there is no room for discussion. They want to repeat that this government is illegitimate for the next four years. No, this government is an elected government and, with the grace of God and the endorsement of the leader, will be legitimate and our nation will support this government.

The final point I'll deal with in Jannati's sermon is his demand that Ahmadinejad dismiss Rahim-Masha'i. Jannati said that in light of the letter that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's wrote to Ahmadinejad insisting on Rahim-Masha'i's dismissal, Ahmadinejad had an obligation to obey:
'However, the meaning of legitimacy, or support for an individual, does not mean that the individual is flawless. We have never said that the most qualified candidate (Ahmadinezhad) was flawless. We believe that criticism is a God-given gift. My best brother is the one who presents to me my shortcomings

We still say that with the grace of God and after endorsement by the supreme leader, we regard the government legitimate. We even support the government. But out of love for the president, we asked him to revise his decision on appointing his first vice-president. (People chanting: "God is great, Khamene'i is the leader")

I wish the president had accepted the friendly criticism by his friends. There is no discussion of getting any concessions or shares (in the government). We want what is good for you (the president). We want you to remain powerful and popular. I wish the honourable president had accepted the friendly criticisms, so that the leader would not have been obliged to make comments in this respect.

Now that the supreme leader has expressed his viewpoint, there is no reason to make any delays. The president should observe the viewpoint of the supreme leader. The legitimacy of everyone in an Islamic society depends on the viewpoint of the vali-e faqih (supreme leader). In view of his good will, I hope that the president would enforce the view of the supreme leader at the earliest.

I think Jannati is hinting around that Ahmadinejad, by defying Khamenei's order, was himself undermining the clerical ruler, the vali-i faqih or Guardian Jurisprudent. Given the structure of Jannati's sermon, which began by reaffirming the centrality to the regime of the principle of the supremacy of the clerical ruler. It is that principle that underpinned everything else-- the isolation from the West and Iran's fierce independence, and the affirmation of the legitimacy of the June 12 presidential elections (if the Supreme Leader says the outcome was legitimate, it was legitimate). Since Ahmadinejad owes his legitimacy to the affirmation of the Supreme Leader, it was unwise of him, Jannati implies, to undermine the latter's authority.

On Friday, Khamenei's letter was read out on official media, which put Ahmadinejad in much more of a bind than when it was a private affair between the Leader and himself. This is the USG Open Source Center translation from Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran radio.
'In the name of God,
Dear Dr Ahmadine[j]ad,
The honorable president of the Islamic Republic of Iran,


The appointment of Mr. Esfandiar Rahim-Masha'i as the vice president is to your disadvantage and the government, and it will cause discord and frustration among your supporters. It is necessary to annul the appointment and to announce it as null and void.

(Signed) Seyyed Ali Khamene'i
27/4/88 (as heard, 18 July 2009)'

There were then street demonstrations by hard line supporters of Khamenei denouncing Ahmadinejad.

Then late on Friday, Rahim-Masha'i resigned, a sign that Ahmadinejad had ceased running interference for him.

When this controversy broke, I pointed out that Khamenei has the authority to dismiss Ahmadinejad himself, and to overrule him on virtually any issue, so if he really wanted Rahim-Masha'i gone, he would be gone.

The ever perceptive Kevin Drum at Mother Jones pointed out in response that the situation in Iran is new and unsettled:
' Perhaps. But this has gone so far beyond merely a conflict between Khamenei and Mir Hossein Mousavi that it's hard to say what's really happening behind the scenes. Khamenei is obviously not the unquestioned authority he was before all this started, and the fact that he's now being challenged by Ahmadinejad, the very guy he attached his fortunes to in the first place, says something about his position. Or about Ahmadinejad. Or about something else none of us can even guess at. Stay tuned.'

Kevin was correctly pointing out that my statement assumed that Khamenei's authority remains intact. While that authority has obviously been widely and deeply questioned in the reform camp, as Jannati admitted, in the aftermath of the presidential elections, it clearly remains enough intact with the hard liners that Ahmadinejad had to bow before it.

The up side for Khamenei is that even in his weakened state he won on this point. The down side is that some the people have been chanting 'down with the dictator,' and Khamenei has played into their hands by demonstrating himself to be high-handed and to be to the right of Ahmadinejad. The regime's kabuki-like attention to stylistic details and hierarchies may in the end be making it too brittle to hope to survive in the medium to long term.

End/ (Not Continued)
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Friday, July 24, 2009

Baghdad Furious over Secret US contact with Guerrillas;
Iraq may Retain US Trainers beyond 2011

I have been saying for some time that the US military presence in Iraq is highly unlikely to completely end at the close of 2011. I think the important thing is that the combat troops will be out and that the tiny number who remain will mainly be trainers of Iraqi troops; there will likely continue to be some Air Force personnel, since the US will be Iraq's Air Force until about 2018 at least.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said as much in Washington on Thursday. Aljazeera English has video:

The headlines this admission generated in US news sources about 'US troops may stay' are a little puzzling to me, and seem actually sensational. What al-Maliki explicitly said was that Iraq may ask for a handful of trainers to stay. He is not saying that the US military will be rolling tanks in Iraqi cities in 2012.

Of course, it is possible that the Sadrists and the Sunni Arabs will ally to force all US troops out on the short timetable. Both could strengthen their positions in parliament in the January 2010 elections, and they may be able to appeal to Iraqi nationalism to get a resolution through forbidding the sort of thing of which al-Maliki spoke.

It is also possible that the Obama administration just won't be interested in a further US military presence in Iraq, what with having Afghanistan on its plate, which is quite enough.

In case the nationalist Iraqi forces did forestall al-Maliki or his successor from such a step, the training would just shift offshore, maybe to Jordan (where a lot of Iraqi officers and police have been trained anyway in recent years). And the US Air Force support for Iraqi troops who get into trouble with local militias can be provided from air bases outside Iraq.

Either way, what al-Maliki said is not a story.

What is a story is the revelation that US officials met in Turkey this spring twice with representatives of an umbrella group of Sunni Arab guerrillas from Iraq. The guerrillas were disappointed that a third meeting was not held and so leaked the news of the first two. They appear to think that Iran ordered al-Maliki to order the US to stay away from them.

Al-Maliki would not have needed any orders from Tehran. He has steadfastly resisted American requests that he reach out to the Sunni Arab guerrillas himself. He dismisses them as Baathists and murderers. The Iraqi government is asking the US sharp questions about why they were having these meetings without informing Baghdad!

This sort of thing is the reason I suspect that al-Maliki won't actually be likely to ask, or be in a domestic position to ask, for US troops to remain in any numbers. In fact, he surely was sorry he was so accommodating to Washington during the visit, despite his desperate desire for US corporate investment in Iraq.

The USG Open Source Center translated a discussion of al-Maliki's visit on al-Alam TV (an Iranian channel broadcasting in Arabic) among a pro-Maliki Iraqi analyst, an anti-Maliki observer, and US Rep. Dennis Kucinich, which gives a sense of how furious Baghdad really is over the secret US talks with the guerrillas:

FYI -- Iranian Al-Alam TV Program Discusses Iraq, US Relations, Pacts
Al-Alam Television
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Document Type: OSC Summary . . .

Tehran Al-Alam TV in Arabic, in its "With the Event" program at 1735 GMT on 23 July . . . interviewed in the studio Jawad Talib, a political analyst; Hazim al-Shammari, an Iraqi academic, live from Baghdad; US Senator Dennis Kucinich, a congressman, live from Washington and Munir al-Ma'wi, a political analyst, live from Washington. . .

Central to the discussion was what was referred to in the program as a "bombshell" caused by news of a pact allegedly signed between the CIA and armed groups in Iraq. The program debated the significance of the such news and the implications on Iraqi-US relations, particularly the impact this has on the security pact between the two countries.

Talib defended Al-Maliki's government and said the CIA wanted to put pressure on Al-Maliki whilst on a visit to Washington. "They are twisting Maliki's arm," he said. It was completely inappropriate the way the news was made public, especially given Maliki's presence in Washington.

Al-Shammari agreed and said the alleged deal between the CIA and the armed groups was outside the security pact between the US and Iraq and that this was a "blow" to the new ties between the two countries. He said contacts between the armed groups and the US were known for a long time, but this was a new development. Shammari anticipated huge confusion to ensue as a result. Shammari also spoke of various "wings" within the US Administration, each pushing towards certain goals and each working in "secrecy". Concluding, he said this US Administration was not so different from the previous one.

Senator Kucinich said he was unaware of the alleged deal between the CIA and the armed groups. He said the US was sincere in its plans to pull out of Iraq.

Al-Ma'wi urged everyone to focus on the success of Maliki's visit, insisting that the news of the alleged deal was a side issue. He said he was confident that the US sought stability in Iraq and that whatever happens would fall within this context.

About removing Iraq from under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, Kucinich said the US was trying to talk with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to resolve this matter. He said Iran too wanted reparations from Iraq. The programme moderator, in response to this last comment, said Iran was not against taking Iraq out of Chapter VII.

Talib said such news would surely undermine Maliki's visit. "If I were him (Maliki) I would have cut the visit short," said Talib. There is a security pact signed with a superpower, the ink of which is not yet dry, only for the CIA to come and make another pact with the armed groups. Talib asked: How is this possible?

Munir again said this was a side issue and the focus must be on the achievements of the visit. He disagreed with Talib about cutting the visit short and thought the suggestion to be irrational.

Al-Shammari said Maliki went to Washington to seek strength, but he would now return weakened. This would be a "triumph" for some Kurdish leaderships in Kurdistan. The US can actually order the removal of Chapter VII. They are not honest about this issue, Shammari said.

Talib disagreed and said Maliki did not go to Washington to seek strength. On the contrary, he said. Maliki gave the US clear signs that Iraq was becoming stronger and was capable of running its affairs. As for Chapter VII, the US wants to twist Maliki's arm. They want to tell Maliki that he has to achieve reconciliation in Iraq, including the Ba'thists. There are other regional powers who are seeking the return of the Ba'thists, said Talib. The other issue is the issue of Kirkuk. The US is playing a game, Talib said.

Munir said the US was seeking national reconciliation in Iraq. But that would entail the participation of the Ba'thists, said Munir. I agree, regional powers want the Ba'thists to return.

The "US Administration is not an angel. It is the biggest Satan," said Shammari, who anticipated an Iraqi-US conflict in the time to come.

The security pact between the US and Iraq was a cover-up for more serious issues, said Talib. Chapter VII is used as a card against Al-Maliki's government, he said. The US wants to keep the situation tense. They want to weaken Al-Maliki and they want to "abort" the next elections, said Talib.

(Description of Source: Tehran Al-Alam Television in Arabic -- IRIB's 24-hour Arabic news channel, targetting a pan-Arab audience)'

Al-Maliki also admitted that the Arab-Kurdish conflict over the future of Kirkuk province poses a particular danger to Iraq and needs to be resolved.

Al-Sharq al-Awsat reports in Arabic that al-Maliki said that he would resume negotiations with the Kurdish leadership after this weekend's elections in the Kurdistan Regional Government.

It is likely that incumbent Massoud Barzani will be returned as president, and he says he is not interested in negotations. He insists that there will be no compromise, and demands that the referendum in Kirkuk agreed-to in the Iraqi constitution be held. The United Nations has warned against holding the referendum on the grounds that it likely would kick off a civil war among Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen over Kirkuk.

End/ (Not Continued)
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