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August 31, 2010

Afghan ambassador to US leaving post following embarassing photo release

Said T. Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, announced today that he will be leaving his post on Sept. 22 after seven years.

"With deep appreciation for your friendship and support, I would like to inform you that my tenure . . . is ending," Jawad wrote in a "Dear Friend" letter issued by the Afghan embassy.

Jawad gave no reason for his departure, although reports from Kabul said he was fired. He indicated that he would be leaving public service, saying that he was committed "to continuing to contribute to Afghanistan's future in my private capacity as well as through the newly formed Foundation for Afghanistan." Jawad announced the creation of the aid organization in a speech at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in March.

Abduljalil Ghafoory, a spokesman for the Afghan embassy, told Nukes and Spooks that there was nothing unusual about Jawad's departure, saying that "an ambassador has a fixed period of time to serve." And he insisted that there was "no connection" with the publication several weeks ago in Afghan newspapers and on several websites of pictures purportedly taken at an Afghan embassy party that appeared to be part of an elaborate smear campaign against Jawad that succeeded in igniting a political firestorm back in poor, war-torn and highly conservative Muslim country.

The pictures showed men and women clad in Western dresses with bare arms and legs sitting together on a carpet at the embassy. They were listening to a noted Afghan singer, Mozdah Jamalzadah, who was wearing a tight-fitting dress, the hem of which ended above her knees. Other photos showed Jawad's son dancing with a young woman, as other women danced around them, as well as Jawad, his wife and son posed in front of a booze-filled bar.

Such conduct would be regarded as culturally and religiously offensive in overwhelmingly Muslim Afghanistan, where dancing between the sexes is rarely, if ever, permitted, alcohol consumption is banned and women traditionally wear clothes that at the very least cover their legs, arms and necks - most also drape scarves over their hair - and many wear full-length body-embracing burkas.

As if that wasn't enough, the picture captions claimed that the event was held on Aug. 12 to break the daily fast on the second night of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The resulting outrage in Afghanistan provoked by the photos included a call from a senior lawmaker for Jawad's resignation.

But Jawad was quoted in an Aug. 20 story in Newsweek as saying no such party took place and that he was on an official trip to South America on the night that it supposedly took place. He contended that the photos were either old or faked. The story also quoted a spokesperson for the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, who is posed in one picture with Jawad and his wife, as saying that Holbrooke had not been to a party at the Afghan embassy in more than a year.

Newsweek also noted that the clothes worn by Jawad, his wife and son in the photo taken in front of the bar were different that those they were wearing in other photos.

So the release of the photos appeared deliberately aimed at dealing a serious political blow to Jawad. Still, there is little doubt that they were real and depicted him and his family in highly un-Islamic situations that would have been highly embarrassing to his boss, embattled President Hamid Karzai.

August 30, 2010

Obama imposes new NK sanctions

From today's guest contributor, McClatchy economics correspondent Kevin G. Hall:

            The Obama administration targeted five North Korean entities on Monday in an attempt to further isolate Pyongyang internationally.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order Monday, allowing the Treasury and State Departments to sanction North Korean individuals and entities for a range of illicit activities.


Among those directly targeted in the order were the Reconnaissance General Bureau and Lt. Gen. Kim Yong Chol, North Korea’s top intelligence arm; Green Pine Associated Corp., described as a North Korean conventional arms dealer; and Office 39 of the Korean Worker’s Party, said to be the slush-fund manager for the North Korean leadership.


Monday’s sanctions also target Korea Taesong Trading Co. and Korea Heungjin Trading Co., trading firms alleged to be fronts for procuring missile technology. The Munitions Industry Department and Second Academy of Natural Sciences were targeted for their role in ballistic missile production. Three individuals tied to the prohibited nuclear program_ Ri Je-son and Ri Hong-sop and Yun Ho-lin_ were also cited by the U.S. agencies.


The list of wrongs alleged to have been committed by Yun Ho-lin include procuring items for uranium enrichment and for involvement in purchase of “sensitive material linked to the construction of a nuclear reactor in Syria.”


Israel bombed a suspected nuclear reactor site on Sept. 6, 2007, and North Korean personnel were allegedly at the scene. Syria offered a surprisingly muted response at the time, adding to the mystery surrounding the Israeli raid.


Obama’s order Monday allows the U.S. government to seize any assets in the United States tied to the three entities and significantly, allows the seizure of assets in the United States of any entity anywhere that does business with them. This could put more pressure on Chinese and other Asian banks and financial intermediaries with U.S. operations.


In a briefing for reporters, State and Treasury officials declined to say much about Office 39, but in a fact sheet they said Office 39 had previously used Macau-based Banco Delta Asia to launder illicit proceeds for the regime. Earlier reporting by McClatchy questioned the veracity of claims that Banco Delta laundered fake US $100 bills.


The new sanctions Monday included more cautious language about North Korea’s alleged manufacture of fake $100 bills, so perfect they’ve been dubbed “supernotes.” President George W. Bush publicly accused North Korea of making the bills, but Monday’s language referred in more-guarded language to “definitive connections between the supernote and the government of North Korea.”


During the briefing, Robert Einhorn, the State Department’s special advisor on nuclear non-proliferation efforts, described as coincidence the timing of the new sanctions. They followed by days former President Jimmy Carter’s trip to Pyonyang to win the humanitarian release from prison of an American citizen who had crossed illegally into North Korea.




August 26, 2010

"Non-combat" Iraq troops still get combat pay

Since the 4/2 Stryker brigade left Iraq earlier this month, there has been quite a debate about whether combat missions are officially over in Iraq. The U.S. military says that there are now only training brigades left, outfitted with things like more engineers to train their Iraqi counterparts. And on Tuesday, President Obama is scheduled to give an Oval Office speech declaring the end of the combat phase of the war. So does that mean combat is over?


According to the military’s payroll records at least, it’s not. According to this report, soldiers will still get combat pay in Iraq even after Sept. 1, when combat operations officially end and the mission becomes a training one.  That soldiers still get combat pay suggests that the declared end of combat is more a symbolic gesture rather than a substantive one. After all, there are still roughly 50,000 soldiers still in Iraq. And even if they are not tasked with a combat role, the minute they are under attack and have to fire a weapon, they became a combat soldier again. There is no such thing as a non-combat soldier in a war zone, and their continued combat pay reflects that.  

August 24, 2010

Mideast peace talks scuttlebutt

    The kids are headed back to school, the days are steadily growing shorter, and Labor Day is almost upon us. That can only mean one thing:  the 2010-2011 diplomatic season is about to begin! Those summer vacations will soon be a distant memory.

    First up, even before Labor Day hits, are the Middle East peace talks. Dignitaries and their delegations will descend on DC for meetings and dinner at the White House on September 1, followed by the formal launch of Israeli-Palestinian direct talks at the State Department on September 2.

   At the White House, all eyes will be on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, making his first visit to Washington in some time. Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt since 1981, is now 82 and guessing about the state of his health has become an increasingly anxious parlor game for U.S. officials. While his regime's human rights record is much criticized, Mubarak has been a constant in the Middle East for three decades, generally supporting U.S. goals and standing by the "cold peace" with Israel made by his predecessor, Anwar Sadat.

  One Middle Eastern diplomat whose leaders recently held talks with Mubarak reported that he is alert and engaged, which is at odds with media reports that he is virtually on his deathbed.

  The Obama-ites have not said much about what is supposed to happen after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meet at the State Department, to kick off the peace negotiations that it took President Barack Obama 19 months to arrange. The agenda, structure -- and the very future -- of the talks is vague.

  We hear a second round of talks is supposed to take place in mid-September and, if they haven't broken down by then, a third round somewhere in the Middle East in October.


August 17, 2010

New poll shows Afghan war opposition at highest-ever level

A new poll shows opposition to the war in Afghanistan reaching an all-time high.

The CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey published today put opposition to the nearly nine-year-old conflict at 62 percent.

Moreover, only three out of 10 Americans are confident that the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai can handle the crisis, according to the poll.

The poll was published two days after the new U.S. commander of NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, Army Gen. David Petraeus, said in television and newspaper interviews that time will be needed for the Obama administration's counter-insurgency strategy to work.

In other finding, the survey of 1,009 Americans showed that an all-time high of 69 percent oppose the war in Iraq. At the same time, 65 percent support President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of this month, leaving 50,000 there for training Iraqi security forces and other non-combat duties.

August 16, 2010

Gates says he is eyeing 2011 retirement

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the only holdover from the Bush administration, told Foreign Policy magazine in an interview posted Monday that he hopes to retire by the end of 2011.  In an interview with Fred Kaplan, Gates said:

“The point of all of that is I think that by next year I'll be in a position where, you know, we're going to know whether the strategy is working in Afghanistan. We'll have completed the surge. We'll have done the assessment in December. And it seems like somewhere there in 2011 is a logical opportunity to hand off.

I think that it would be a mistake to wait until January 2012. First of all, I think we might have trouble getting the kind of person they want if there's a possibility that they might only be in the job for a year. You know, who knows what the election situation will look like. But also I just think this is not the kind of job you want to fill in the spring of a presidential election. So I think sometime in 2011 sounds pretty good.”

Now, this is not causing the stir at the Pentagon the way you might think it would, namely because everyone here has heard this from Gates before. After all, this was the same secretary who proudly boasted about carrying a clock that counted down to the end of the Bush administration – and by extension his tenure as Secretary of Defense. Then he stayed on.

Then there was word that he would stay for just a year into the Obama administration. That year came and went, and he stayed on.  And even in this interview, he leaves some room open to extend his tenure.

Gates, who will be 67 in September, became secretary of defense in December 2006, after the ousting of Donald Rumsfeld amid dismal mid term election results.

What I found most interesting is that his reasons for staying are not his push to reform the budget, which we had assumed drove him to extend his term, but the war in Afghanistan. We had thought that he stayed to fundamentally shape the budget, which takes several budget cycles to even begin to reshape. But it seems his decision to stay is driven by the deadlines of the war, when the Obama administration signaled it may consider a change of course.

His announcement comes as he just proposed a second round of cuts to the Defense Department budget, including the elimination of Joint Forces Command. He faces a lot of opposition in Congress, particularly in from memberswhose districts face job cuts in an already frail economic climate. If Gates is seen as a lame duck, will opponents to his proposals simply wait him out? Or will they fear that he will keep extending his term until he sees the changes through? When it comes to Gates and his tenure as the Secretary of Defense, anything is possible.

August 11, 2010

Iran: The Way We Were

As the stand-off over Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program hovers this summer somewhere between sanctions, diplomacy and the threat of military force, here's a timely reminder that today's adversaries can be yesterday's friends and vice versa.

These old pics, from the '60s and '70s are making their way around the 'Net. ... Recent European Union sanctions on Iran bar Iranian cargo flights from EU airports...



August 05, 2010

Terrorism in 2009

The State Department put out its annual Country Reports on Terrorism today, (three months late, we might add).

Here are a few of the highlights, some of them a bit surprising:

* While Osama bin Laden's core al Qaida organization remains the most potent threat to U.S. interests at home and abroad, it wasn't even in the Top Three terrorist groups when it comes to deadly attacks in 2009. Those slots were occupied by the Taliban; the Somalia-based al Shabaab group; and the al Qaida in Iraq "franchise."

* There were just 25 U.S. noncombatant fatalities from terrorism worldwide. (The US government definition of terrorism excludes attacks on U.S. military personnel). While we don't have the figures at hand, undoubtedly more American citizens died overseas from traffic accidents or intestinal illnesses than from terrorism.

* For the first time in the last five years, the number of terrorist incidents in South Asia (including Afghanistan and Pakistan), exceeded the number in the Near East (which includes Iraq).

* Russ Travers, a top official of the National Counterterrorism Center, told a State Department briefing that media reports suggesting an increase in terrorist attacks in Iraq this year are not borne out by data for the first quarter of 2010.

* The number of attacks in Iraq decreased to 2,458 in 2009 from 3,256 in 2008. In terms of fatalities, the numbers were 3,654 in 2009 and 5,013 the year before.

* The number of attacks in Afghanistan nearly doubled, from 1,222 in 2008 to 2,126 in 2009. There was a smaller increase, of 30 percent, in neighboring Pakistan.

* The number of suicide bombings against noncombatants actually declined, by 25 percent, to 299. There were, however, more armed attacks in the style of the 2008 Mumbai, India attacks.

* Well over half of the world's terrorist victims in 2009 were Muslim.

* The idea that the United States was somehow immune from the radicalization that has taken hold in parts of some immigrant communities in Europe has proven over-optimistic. 

The report says: "Not only have there been more cases of Americans becoming operatives for foreign terrorist organizations, we have also seen U.S. citizens rise in prominence as proponents of violent extremism. The most notable is al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s Anwar al-Aulaqi, who has become an influential voice of Islamist radicalism among English-speaking extremists."

* Finally, as it is every year, Iran was designated the "most active" state sponsor of terrorism. Which is why the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.

August 04, 2010

38 years later, a wrong righted

Lavelle  It was the scandal du jour. The year was 1972, the Vietnam War was still raging, nearing its bitter finale, and the Congress and press were in full-throated pursuit of a supposedly "rogue" general who had exceeded his authority and waged his own air war  over North Vietnam. There were false intelligence reports from the battlefield, to boot.

  Gen. John D. Lavelle (pictured left) would be recalled from Saigon, busted down two grades in rank, to Major General, and forced to retire. Special inquiries by the House and Senate would follow.

   But in the White House, where President Richard Nixon was gearing up for reelection, a different story was known--and discussed behind closed doors by the president and top aides Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig.

  Nixon had, in fact, authorized Lavelle, the commander of the Seventh Air Force, to conduct what were known as "protective reaction strikes"--airstrikes on surface-to-air missile positions and other North Vietnamese emplacements threatening U.S. reconnaissance aircraft. (At the time, the United States had halted the bombing of North Vietnam to encourage peace talks).

   Secret White House tape recordings, reported by Air Force Magazine in February 2007, show that Nixon knew Lavelle was getting a raw deal, but for political reasons, the president shied away from intervening.

   "Frankly, Henry, I don't feel right about our pushing him into this thing and than, and then giving him a bad rap," Nixon told Kissinger on June 26, 1972, as the Senate was preparing hearings on the issue. Nixon concluded: "I want to keep it away if I can ... but I don't want to hurt an innocent man."

    Today, more than 38 years after Lavelle was forced into retirement at a lower rank, President Barack Obama nominated the general posthumously (he died in 1979) for advancement to the grade of four-star general. The nomination must still be approved by the same Senate which in 1972 refused his request to be retired as a Lieutentant General rather than Major General.

   A Defense Department press release cited the 2007 release of Nixon-era documents that showed "Lavelle was authorized by President Richard Nixon to conduct the bombing missions."

   "Records found no evidence Lavelle caused, either indirectly or indirectly, the falsification of records, or that he was even aware of their existence," the statement continued.

  Another facet of the case against Lavelle were four false intelligence reports filed by a Thailand-based air wing under his command reporting hostile enemy action in response to the raids. But those false reports were based on a misunderstanding of Lavelle's orders and once he learned of them, "Lavelle took action to ensure the practice was discontinued," the statement said.

  Beth Gosselin, an Air Force spokeswoman, said Gen. Lavelle's family petitioned the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records in September 2008 for restoration of his rank. That panel found in October 2009 that his retirement rank was the result of "a material error," and passed its recommendation to the Secretary of the Air Force. It then went to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and ultimately, Obama.

   Lavelle's family could not be immediately reached for comment.

  The debate over the rules of engagement for U.S. military aircraft over North Vietnam has a faint echo in today's controversy over U.S. forces' rules of engagement for using hostile force in Afghanistan.

   From the available historical record, it seems clear that Lavelle pushed for maximum flexibility to conduct pre-emptive strikes against North Vietnamese targets threatening U.S. aircraft, as the North Vietnamese gathered forces for the 1972 "Easter invasion" of South Vietnam.

  But Lavelle told Congress that in late 1971, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird had instructed him to "make a liberal interpretation of the rules of engagement." In a May 2007 letter to Air Force magazine, Laird essentially confirmed Lavelle's version of events. "The new orders permitted hitting anti-aircraft installations and other dangerous targets if spotted on their missions, whether they were activated or not," Laird wrote. In other words, U.S. military aircraft did not have to be fired upon first before action could be taken.

  Lavelle is buried in Arlington Cemetery.

August 03, 2010

Kerry postpones vote on new nuclear arms reduction pact with Russia

Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had been planning on holding a vote on the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia before the Senate's recess begins on Aug. 9.

Kerry, however, announced today that he had agreed to postpone the vote to give Republican members more time to review materials associated with the treaty, including yet-to-be-delivered reports from the Senate armed services and intelligence committees.

President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medevdev signed the accord in April. It would set new limits of 1,550 warheads and 800 delivery vehicles - land- and sea-based missiles and heavy bombers - and activate a revised monitoring and verification system. The old system expired with the expiration in December 2009 of the 1991 START treaty between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

Some Republicans have expressed opposition to the New START treaty, concerned that it could impose limits on U.S. missile defenses, a fear that numerous current and former top U.S. diplomats, military officers and non-proliferation experts have repeatedly dismissed.

Hard-line GOP nuclear weapons policy guru Senator John Kyl of Arizona has also indicated that he and other conservative Republicans may withhold their votes if House Democrats refused to restore a cut they have made in Obama's proposed hefty increase in modernization funding for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

Kerry, who has held one dozen open and classified hearings on the new treaty, said he has enough votes to send the accord to the full Senate, where it requires the support of 67 members.

"However, in consultation with Senator (Richard) Lugar (of Indiana), I chose to reschedule the vote to be responsive to the concerns of our members so that we can build a bipartisan consensus around a treaty that our military leaders all agree with make America safe," Kerry said in a statement.

Kerry did not give a firm date for a vote, saying that he would hold one "soon after we return from recess" on Sept. 12.

One question, however, is whether the full Senate will hold a vote before it takes off in mid-September again so members up for re-election in November can campaign. And then the question will be whether the Republicans win enough new seats to deny Obama approval of a treaty widely seen as his most successful foreign policy achievement to date.


"Nukes & Spooks" is written by McClatchy correspondents Jonathan S. Landay (national security and intelligence), Warren P. Strobel (foreign affairs and the State Department), and Nancy Youssef (Pentagon).

jon, nancy & warren

Landay, Youssef and Strobel.

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