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January 27, 2011

Mrs Obama to appear on Oprah to talk about military families

Michelle Obama will be on today’s Oprah Winfrey Show to talk about military families and the stress they live under as the nation fights two wars. She will be joined by journalists Tom Brokaw and Bob Woodward to introduce some courageous military families. They are calling for those who do not have someone in service to support those who do. Mrs. Obama has said military families are one her priorities as the First Lady.

She said she was inspired as she met families during the presidential campaign and vowed to do more for them if her husband became Commander-in-Chief. 

Talking about military wives, she said: “A lot of these women can use a girl’s night out, a manicure, a pedicure, a break. ...There are things we can do as a nation big and small.”

You can read more about her appearance here.

January 25, 2011

Petraeus issues state of the Afghan war assessment

Only hours before his commander chief, President Barack Obama, was to deliver his State of the Union address, Army Gen. David Petraeus delivered a state of the war assessment for Afghanistan.

In a letter to the 100,000 U.S. forces, Petreaus said that over the last year, the U.S.-led counter-insurgency campaign had succeeded in halting "a downward security spiral in much of" Afghanistan and even reversed "it in some areas of great importance."

As evidence, Petraeus said that despite occassional attacks in Kabul, the Afghan capital and surrounding region "enjoyed impressive security throughout the latter half of 2010." He called the reduction in insurgent strikes there "particularly noteworthy given that nearly one-fifth of the Afghan population lives in the greater Kabul area and Afghan forces lead in all but one of the (Kabul) province's districts."

Petraeus said "hard-won progress" also was made in the southern Taliban strongholds of Helmand and Kandahar provinces, the focus of last year's surge of an additional 30,000 U.S. forces, and there were  "advances" in areas of the east, west and north.

"While there clearly is a need for additional work in numerous areas, it is equally clear that ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) and Afghan forces inflicted enormous losses on mid-level Taliban and Haqqani Network leaders throughout the country and took away from of their most important safe havens," Petraeus wrote. "Now, in fact, the insurgents increasingly are responding to our operations rather than vice-versa, and there numerous reports of unprecedented discord among the members of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban senior leadership body."

Of course, it was Petraeus who reported in September that senior Taliban leaders had reached out to President Hamid Karzai's government to discuss holding negotiations on a much-longed for political settlement of the war. The intelocutor, however, turned out to be an impostor and no apparent progress was made on starting negotiations. That wasn't mentioned in the general's letter.

Nor did it say that 2010 saw a massive increase in violence and the highest U.S. casualties - at least 499 dead and more than 5,100 wounded - since the 2001 U.S. invasion, nor that many experts believe that the U.S.-led offensives in the south prompted insurgents to move to previously unaffected areas of the country.

Civilian casualties also hit an all-time high in 2010, with more than three-quarters blamed on the Taliban and other insurgent groups. The United Nations charted a 20 percent increase - to at least 6,215 - in civilian casualties for the first 10 months of 2010 compared to the same period a year earlier. And adjacent areas of Pakistan, where U.S. drone attacks rose by more than 160 percent last year, remained sanctuaries for the Taliban and allied groups.

None of that was in Petraeus' assessment either.

Petreaus said that to capitalize on the progress he outlined, U.S.-led forces will have to expand the "Kabul security bubble," solidify and extend the "gains in the south and southwest," connect and expand "areas of improved security in the east and west," and halt and reverse the insurgency's "recent advances" in the north and northeast.

He also acknowledged the need for progress on what many experts and U.S. officials and other experts regard as the Achille's Heels of the counter-insurgency campaign that Petraeus is leading: endemic corruption in Karzai's government and the lack of Afghan officials capable of providing good governance and services to people in areas regained from the insurgents.

"To capitalize on the security gains we achieved in 2010, we will also have to maintain our support for Afghan-led efforts to establish governance that can earn the support of the people," Petraeus wrote. "Additionally, we will have to expand our efforts to help Afghan officials implement President Karzai's direction to combat corruption and criminal patronage networks."

Left unsaid by Petraeus, however, was that Karzai's refusal to allow prosecutions of family, friends and allies is seen by many U.S. officials and others as a major impediment to the U.S.-backed anti-corruption efforts.

Petraeus warned that this year will see more intense fighting, a prediction that few will dispute.

"In sum, 2010 was a year of significant, hard-fought accomplishments," he wrote. "The year ahead is likely to be a tough one, too."



January 20, 2011

How much did it cost to enforce DADT? On average, $52,800 per service member

Today’s blog is courtesy of my fellow N&Ser, Jonathan Landay, who kindly pointed me toward an interesting report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office about the costs of implementing don’t ask don’t tell. The report studied separations between fiscal year 2004 and 2009 and found that on average it cost the military $52,800 (in 2009 dollars) for each service member forced to leave under DADT.

During that time, the military spent $193 million, including $185.6 million to recruit and train replacements, to remove 3,664 service members. That is, on average it cost $52,800 per separation. The Navy spent the most, on average $103,000 per removed service member.

As the report explains, “our calculations for the services’ replacement costs amount to about $19.4 million for the Air Force, $39.4 million for the Army, $22.0 million for the Marine Corps, and $104.9 million for the Navy. The Navy recruiting and training cost calculation is larger than the other services’ calculations because according to Navy officials, the Navy recruiting and training cost data contain both fixed and variable costs.”

The report captures other costs of implementing DADT. For example, 34 percent of those forced out under DADT were women even though women make up only 14 percent of the force. In addition, 79 percent of soldiers removed from the Army held critical jobs in the military. And the Navy removed 57 seamen and women who had critical language skills.

It’s the first report I know of that put an economic cost of implementing the law. You can read it here.

30 years later, Iran hostages try to bridge gap between Tehran, Washington

  Iran hostages

It was 30 years ago today that American hostages who'd been held in captivity in Iran for 444 days, were released back to the United States and freedom.

To mark the anniversary, some of the former hostages have established a foundation, the Iran Study Group (Facebook page here) to try to bridge the gap between the United States and Iran. The group said in a statement that it was established "to support diplomacy efforts between the U.S. and Iran through education, public affairs, and policy support," and "adds a third option to the current official US Government policy of sanctions or military strikes."

The United States (along with leading European nations and others) remains deeply at odds with Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program. Talks tomorrow and Saturday in Istanbul, Turkey are unlikely to lead to any breakthroughs.

January 19, 2011

Lunch at the State Department

Well, it's not the State Dinner (that comes later this evening), but there was plenty of star power and fine dining at a lunch at Foggy Bottom for visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao.

The lunch got going quite late - after 2pm - thanks perhaps to that pesky problem with simultaneous translation that turned President Obama's press conference with Hu into a 1 hour, 8 minute affair.

A tasty lunch, nonetheless. The menu, according to the State Department (no, we weren't invited): 

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup, Timbale of Pear and Sunchoke, Sage Toasts, followed by ...  Fillet of Alaskan Cod, Horseradish Dijon Crème Fraiche, Lemon-Scented Rice and Winter Vegetable Medley, finished off with ... Gilded Chocolate and Plum Delight, Balsamic Ice Cream.

Among the invitees were figure skater Michelle Kwan, author Amy Tan, designer Vera Wang, first CHinese-American NFL player Ed Wang, along with Barbara Streisand and former secretaries of state Colin Powell, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright. After dessert was served, cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed.

January 18, 2011

Eisenhower's military industrial complex warning, 50 years later

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of Eisenhower’s infamous speech on the dangers of a military industrial complex. The outgoing president gave the speech just three days before President Kennedy’s inaugural and warned of the dangers of a growing military, even as he had presided one the fastest expansions of  nuclear arsenal in U.S. history. And yet in his speech, he seemed conflicted about what he had done and its impact on the future. That expansion was a product of the Cold War, and he asked the public to consider the costs. In his speech, he said:

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States cooperations -- corporations.

Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet, we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society.


Perhaps the most notable we say we see this growing complex today is in the use of contractors in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At one point during the Iraq war, contractors outnumbered soldiers. In Afghanistan, the ratio is currently 1:1. And yet contractors make far more and are not bound by the same rules of warfare as soldiers. In fact, some would argue they are free to behave as they like.

We see the military industrial complex in the defense budget as well, which has steadily risen in the last 14 years and is slated to go up again, albeit at a smaller rate. Given the nation’s current economic state and the fact that the DoD is expected to unveil its full budget in just a few weeks, on this anniversary it seemed appropriate to draw your attention to the speech, which still sparks debate. You can read the full speech here. And you can listen to an enlightening debate about the topic from On Point with Tom Asbrook here.

January 17, 2011

Palestinian flag to be raised in DC


We received an invitation over the weekend for a very interesting event on Tuesday. For the first time, the Palestinian flag will be officially raised in the United States. The event will take place at the Palestinian delegation to the United States in Washington, DC. 

The delegation--a sort of proto-embassy--dates to 1994, and came into being after the 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians. Prior to that, there had been a "Palestine Information Office."

According to Israel's Haaretz newspaper last year, the move stems from the Obama administration's decision to officially upgrade the status of the Palestinian mission.

January 13, 2011

U.S. diplomat warned of potential trouble in Tunisia nearly two years ago

If the Obama administration didn't see the anti-government riots now convulsing Tunisia coming, it should have.

That's because the former U.S. ambassador to Tunis, Robert F. Godec, warned his superiors nearly two years ago of rough times ahead for the country's authoritarian ruler, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

"President Ben Ali is aging, his regime is sclerotic and there is no clear successor. Many Tunisians are frustrated by the lack of political freedom and angered by First Family corruption, high unemployment and regional inequities," Goden wrote in a classified July 17, 2009, cable leaked last month by WikiLeaks. "Extremism poses a continuing threat. Compounding the problems, the GOP (government of Tunisia) brooks no advice or criticism, domestic or international. Instead, it seeks to impose ever greater control, often using the police. The result: Tunisia is troubled and our relations are too."

Godec went on to describe the country as "a police state, with little freedom of expression or association and serious human rights problems."

Godec, who became the State Department's deupty coordinator for counter-terrorism after leaving Tunis in 2009, reviewed some of the Tunisian government's more progressive policies, pointing to efforts to increase jobs, advance women's rights and a "long history of religious tolerance," including the protection of the Jewish community.

He lamented that U.S. relations with Tunisia were not better, but largely blamed the regime, which he said had resisted better ties and strictly limited contact by U.S. diplomats with Tunisian officials, opposition members and civil society activists.

"Too often, the GOT prefers the illusion of engagement to the hard work of real cooperation," he wrote.

Godec reported that Ben Ali and his regime were increasingly focused on "preserving power. And corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians dislike, even hate, First Lady Trabelsi and her family. In private, regime opponents mock her."

In his most prescient observation, Godec warned that "anger is growing at Tunisia's high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime's long-term stability are increasing."

Nearly two years later, the high jobless rate, soaring food prices and anger at government repression and corruption are being blamed for the worst anti-government unrest that Ben Ali has faced in almost 24 years in power. Whether he and his embattled regime will succeed in crushing the riots, in which more than 20 people had been killed as of this writing, remained to be seen.

One thing, however, seemed all but certain. As Godec wrote, "In the end, serious change here will have to await Ben Ali's departure."







January 12, 2011

Hillary: Tucson shootings "a form of extremism"

SecState Hillary Clinton, who has been traveling in the Middle East this week, has reiterated her comments that the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the deaths of six others were carried out by an "extremist."

In an interview with CNN while in Oman (full transcript available here), Clinton said that "when you cross the line from expressing opinions that are of conflicting differences in our political environment into taking action that’s violent action, that’s a hallmark of extremism, whether it comes from the right, the left, from al-Qaida, from anarchists, whoever it is. That is a form of extremism."

Clintion was referring to the alleged shooter, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner.



January 11, 2011

The last SecState visit to Yemen

As most of our readers surely know by now, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a surprise stop today in Yemen, a country of growing counter-terrorism concern to the United States. According to the State Department Historian's website, it was just the third visit to Yemen by a U.S. Secretary of State.

The last was by Secretary of State James A. Baker III on November 22, 1990. It's worth recalling.

I travelled extensively with Baker during that period, especially following Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, although I wasn't on this particular trip. (My Reuters colleague at the time, Alan Elsner, was on the flight and recounted it last year for Huffington Post).

Baker was trying to get the maximum possible support for a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and he visited virtually every member at the time of the Security Council, including Yemen. As Elsner recounts, Baker warned Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh (yes, he's still president now) that he risked $70 million in annual U.S. aid if he voted against the resolution.

When UN Security Council resolution 678 came up for a vote a week after the Baker visit, it got 12 votes. But Cuba and Yemen voted against, and China, which holds a veto as a permanent council member, abstained. Baker was reported to have told a Yemeni diplomat afterward, "That's the most expensive vote you ever cast."

Elsner, in his Huffington Post piece, quoted from Baker's memoir, The Politics of Diplomacy, about the SecState's reaction to the Yemeni UN ambassador's speech attacking the resolution and U.S. policy toward Iraq:

Baker wrote:  "I scribbled a quick note to Bob Kimmitt (a senior aide). 'Yemen's permanent rep. just enjoyed about $200 to $250 million worth of applause for that speech'." In a footnote, Baker explained that while Washington's aid amounted to around $70 million, other coalition partners and allies also had assistance programs which would now be affected.)

Of course, nations, as Lord Palmerston said, have no permanent friends or allies (the same could be said for enemies), just permanent interests. U.S. aid to Yemen increased significantly in fiscal year 2010 to about $67 million, and is due to increase in the current fiscal year to $106 million.


"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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