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May 27, 2009
Religious beliefs guided both Bush and Blair on Iraq war

Tony Blair in 2008.

It’s two years since Tony Blair left 10 Downing Street for good, but he hasn’t been able to win the praise and credit he yearns for after a decade of accomplishments as the Labor Party’s longest-serving prime minister, from British economic growth to peace in Northern Ireland. 

Blair and his friends have been arguing that the former prime minister should be better treated. One thing gets in the way: His friendship with George W. Bush and his decision to join the United States in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The latest: The London Telegraph reports that Blair’s decision-making in office — including the decision to invade Iraq — was based on his religious beliefs. It’s reminiscent of Bush’s description of the war on terrorism as a “crusade.”

The Telegraph quotes a book, “We Don’t Do God,” by John Burton, Blair’s political associate and sometimes mentor. The book says Blair played down his religious fervor while in office, but it was always at the forefront:

Tony’s Christian faith is part of him, down to his cotton socks. He believed strongly at the time, that intervention in Kosovo, Sierra Leone — Iraq too — was all part of the Christian battle; good should triumph over evil, making lives better.

He applied that same principle in everything he did — from establishing the Social Exclusion Unit to ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, and ridding Iraq of the evils of Saddam Hussein’s rule.

Bush’s religion-dominated worldview has also been in the news recently. GQ reported this month that former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld mixed memos to Bush on Iraq with quotations from the Scriptures.

This week, Clive Hamilton, a visiting professor at Yale University, reports on a new book about former French President Jacques Chirac, written by journalist Jean Claude Maurice. The book says Bush spoke of Satan and the need to cleanse the world to prepare for Armageddon.

Chirac is said to have been stupefied and disturbed by Bush’s invocation of Biblical prophesy to justify the war in Iraq and “wondered how someone could be so superficial and fanatical in their beliefs.”

Prediction, not prophesy — Blair and Bush will long be the focus of armchair psychoanalysis: Bush for why he did what he did, Blair for why he didn’t know better.

– Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user World Economic Forum under a Creative Commons license.

May 26, 2009
Baby steps as U.S. invites Cuba to resume talks

A vendor in Cuba.

About a year before the Iraq War began, I had a chat with a U.S. Coast Guard officer who had been assigned to work with his Cuban counterparts in Havana on drug interdiction, piracy and other maritime issues. Those interchanges were more than useful, the officer said, and such cooperation made a real difference in U.S. security efforts.

The problem was that he had to work quietly and unnoticed. He heard criticism and reprimands from back home any time the Bush administration got a whiff of “too much” cooperation. Eventually, he got shut down, along with most other contacts between the United States and Cuba.

Last week, the State Department told the Cuban government it wants to resume twice-yearly talks with Cuba about migration issues, which were suspended by George W. Bush in 2004. Presumably, the Coast Guard would have a role there once again, and that is helpful in monitoring safety — potentially even terrorism — on the high seas.

Cuban officials quoted by the Miami Herald were enthusiastic:

A spokesman at the interests section [Cuba’s diplomatic representation in Washington], Alberto González, said Cuba ‘is always in the best position to sit at the table and talk about any kind of topic with the U.S., including immigration…It’s important for us, it’s important for the United States.

Timing is everything. President Obama announced a series of concessions earlier this year, just before attending the Summit of the Americas meeting in Trinidad. In that case, he rolled back Bush administration restrictions on travel and money transfers by Cuban exiles in the United States to the island. He also authorized new communications licensing measures with Cuba.

This time, the decision on migration precedes a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the 39th General Assembly of the Organization of American States in Honduras on June 2 and 3. In both cases, the changes look like they were aimed at defusing criticism of U.S. policy on Cuba. Many world leaders — almost all in this hemisphere — are urging Obama to drop the half-century old Cuban trade embargo.

A majority of Americans — even a majority of Cuban Americans polled in Miami — support an end to the embargo. A small group of politicians in the United States loudly protest any changes in U.S.-Cuba policy, demanding democratic reforms in Cuba that are unlikely to come any time soon.

The latest changes take U.S.-Cuban relations basically back to where they were when the Bush administration took office. But there’s no sign that Obama will drop the trade embargo altogether any time soon.

– Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Paul Keller under a Creative Commons license.

May 25, 2009
Obama’s policy toward Iran may be more of the same

President Barack Obama meets with his senior advisors in the Oval Office. Photo: Pete Souza/White House

About two weeks before President Obama took office, I received a call from a friend of mine who said in an ominous tone, “Well, 17 days to do what we have to do.”

“What would that be?” I asked.

“Bombing Iran, while we still can,” replied my friend, a pilot recently retired from government service. He assumed that an Obama administration would never do so.

“Regime change” in Iran has been a fixation in some quarters for years, notably among neo-conservatives who saw “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq as a stepping stone toward toppling the Iranian government and being greeted as liberators.

Their ranks include former Defense Department officials, such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perl and many others who filtered into top civilian jobs at the Pentagon during the tenure of former Defense Secretary Donald P. Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld, in turn, is the mentor of former Vice President Richard B. Cheney, who is of a like mind, and boisterous these days on criticizing Obama.

While still vice president, Cheney said:

The Iranian regime needs to know that if it stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose serious consequences…We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.

The New York Times reported Cheney’s remarks on Oct. 21, 2007 at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank that is home for a number of neo-conservatives. The story included a comment by Dennis Ross, a scholar at the Institute, a former aide to Wolfowitz, and now President Obama’s envoy to Iran and its environs:

Cheney’s “language on Iran is quite significant,” Ross said. It “does have implications.”

Two years later, how different is Bush-Cheney policy from that of President Obama? We don’t know yet, but there are hints.

Two prominent Middle East analysts, Flint Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, former staffers at the National Security Council, question Ross’ role in the Obama administration. In a New York Times opinion piece on May 24, 2009, they warn that President Obama may be going down the wrong road; public declarations to the contrary, they say Obama is neglecting important diplomatic opportunities to engage with Iran and truly work on better relations, including negotiations about nuclear issues.

The Leveretts criticize Obama’s choice of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, and the designation of Ross to such a key role. They note that Clinton once said she would “‘totally obliterate’ Iran if it attacked Israel.” They describe a conversation they had with Ross, in which he, like Clinton, said he doubted talks with Iran would be fruitful.

…he told us, if Iran continued to expand its nuclear fuel program, at some point in the next couple of years President Bush’s successor would need to order military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets. Citing past ‘diplomacy’ would be necessary for that president to claim any military action was legitimate.

If we take this point of view at face value, my friend who had been worried about NOT bombing Iran may be feeling appeased.

– Peter Eisner

May 22, 2009
Cheney’s national security speech: Can we handle the truth?

Former Vice President Dick Cheney speaks at the American Enterprise Institute about national security on Thursday.

Some notes, one day after speeches by President Barack Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney discussing the use of torture and the detention of terrorists at Guantanamo:

My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.

President Gerald R. Ford, Aug. 9, 1975

Ford made that statement as he took office, after Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency in the wake of the Watergate Scandal.

Ford’s speech to the nation and his swift decision to issue an amnesty for Nixon came to mind yesterday, during the back-to-back speeches by President Barack Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney.

In 1975, Cheney was Ford’s assistant — eventually, Ford’s Chief of Staff. He presumably heard Ford say:

“Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule. But there is a higher Power, by whatever name we honor Him, who ordains not only righteousness but love, not only justice but mercy.”

Cheney has been with us for more than three decades, and out of office, he apparently intends to give us lessons on truth, justice and the Constitution. He said in his speech in Washington yesterday at the American Enterprise Institute that the country has been in danger ever since Sept. 11, 2001, because of terrorists who hate America.

“Nine-eleven made necessary a shift of policy, aimed at a clear strategic threat — what the Congress called ‘an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.’ From that moment forward, instead of merely preparing to round up the suspects and count up the victims after the next attack, we were determined to prevent attacks in the first place.”

Cheney also reminded us of his years of service in successive governments; perhaps that’s why the Ford administration came to mind. He and his mentor, Donald Rumsfleld (in the Ford administration as secretary of defense and again under George W. Bush) have been said to advocate almost unlimited powers of the presidency.

Ford issued a controversial pardon for Nixon exactly one month after he took office, saying “ugly passions would again be aroused, our people would again be polarized in their opinions, and the credibility of our free institutions of government would again be challenged at home and abroad.”

Thirty-four years later, Cheney was living through days of “ugly passions” again. He has been warning Americans that they are not as safe as they were during the Bush administration. He used the words “true” or “truthful” eight times in his speech, and one time referred to (even warned against) a truth commission on actions carried out during the Bush administration.

One is reminded of a famous movie line — “Truth, you can’t handle the truth” — delivered by Jack Nicholson in the 1989 film, “A Few Good Men.” Interestingly, the setting for the trial in that movie was the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

The point of all this is to say perhaps Cheney does a service by raising the issue: are there truths that Americans need to consider? Can we handle the truth, or even discern it?

– Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user talkradionews under a Creative Commons license.

May 19, 2009
Obama holds the cards in talks with Israel’s Netanyahu

President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday. Photo: White House

Popular democracy and a will for peace weigh heavily in the relations between the leaders of Israel and the United States. As it happens, Barack Obama, the new U.S. president, is a very popular leader whose appeal extends beyond U.S. borders — even to Israel. And the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, is the head of a fragile coalition where he must pay lip service to the cause of promoting a secure and just peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Netanyahu has opposed a two-state solution in the Middle East and when he took office this spring said a Palestinian solution was secondary to his focus on Iran. “The biggest danger to humanity, and to our state Israel, stems from the possibility that a radical regime will get nuclear weapons, or a nuclear weapon will be armed by a radical regime.” 

Yesterday, President Obama set the order of business squarely with a resumption of Palestinian talks. The goal, Obama said, is a separate Palestinian state.

Netanyahu may not like it, but he may not have a choice. Obama has chosen the path of diplomacy, reaching out to Iran, and waiting for the result of elections in that country next month before taking his additional steps toward dialogue.

Since Netanyahu took power in March, speculation has centered on whether and when he might set a deadline and use Israeli air strikes in an attempt to cripple Iran’s nuclear capacity. There are precedents — Israel bombed Syrian nuclear facilities in 2007 and Iraq’s Osiris nuclear facility in 1981.

Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that top U.S. officials warned Netanyahu before his visit to Washington “that Israel not surprise the U.S. with an Israeli military operation against Iran.”

It’s not difficult to imagine what would be happening now if a Republican president were in the White House and if Netanyahu had a stronger hold on Israel’s Knesset. The policy is clearly spelled out in a guest opinion column in the Washington Post.

John P. Hannah, who was former Vice President Dick Cheney’s national security adviser, clearly sides with Netanyahu. “Successful denuclearization of hostile states is most likely to occur as a result of regime change, coercive diplomacy or military action, not U.S. pledges of mutual respect.”

Regime change was the order of the day for Hannah in the run up to the Iraq War. He and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby were key in gathering the thin and fake information on Iraq’s non-existent nuclear program prior to the war.

Cheney and Hannah argue that the United States and the world were safer under the neoconservative policy that held sway during the Bush administration — strongly aligned with Netanyahu and his allies in Israel. At the same time, he implies that U.S. policy in the Middle East under Bush was successful.

He writes: “…given the history of tyrannical Middle Eastern regimes seeking nuclear arms, we must also acknowledge that the Obama strategy reflects the triumph of hope over experience.”

– Peter Eisner

May 15, 2009
Rights group accuses U.S. of failing Afghan civilians

A U.S. marine and an Afghan police officer provide security in Delaram, Farah, Afghanistan.

On Friday, Human Rights Watch accused the U.S. military of “inadequate” measures to protect civilians in Afghanistan. It called for “fundamental changes” to prevent civilian deaths, like those that resulted from U.S. air strikes during a battle with the Taliban early last week.

Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner looks at how the Obama administration has tried to revamp the war strategy in Afghanistan and the battle for hearts and minds. 

“I am in blood

Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more

Returning were as tedious as going o’er.” [Macbeth Act 3, Scene Iv. Lines 137-139]

There is much to be discovered and known about President Obama’s pursuit of the war in Afghanistan, but there are some constants, summed up in that line from Macbeth — paraphrased, “either way, people will die.”

An errant bomb attack by U.S. military forces in the Afghan village of Ganj Abad in Farah Province last week killed dozens of civilians, the exact toll uncertain. The United States has expressed regret and the military has said the number of deaths may have been exaggerated.

Nevertheless, such a deadly attack has blowback — it loses hearts and minds. While failure in Afghanistan may be the inheritance of Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld, this is a milepost on Barack Obama’s watch. The New York Times put it this way: “It is bombings like this one that have turned many Afghans against the American-backed government and the foreign military presence.”

Human Rights Watch, the New York-based independent human rights monitor, reported that the May 3 attack certainly took place during clashes in a zone largely under Taliban control. But the organization, investigating the details said, “a small number of bombs are reported to have been dropped by U.S. forces, after which the fighting ended.”

“It was like Judgment Day,” Habibullah, a health worker who witnessed the attacks, told Human Rights Watch. “Words cannot describe how terrible it was. Who can bear to see so many killed, from a two-day-old baby to a 70-year-old woman?”

Also this week came word that the United States is sending a new commander to Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who has been in charge of special operations in Iraq for five years. Some, notably Bob Woodward, say McChrystal’s role in Iraq changed the tide of violence in Iraq — for a while — more than did the Bush administration’s much-touted surge of U.S. forces there. But six years after the fact, there is no “mission accomplished.”

It is widely believed that special operations in Iraq secretly identified and targeted key players in the Iraqi insurgency, and brought down the level of public violence in Baghdad, at least for a while. Gen. McChrystal is certain to have the confidence of Gen. David Petraeus, Obama’s choice to revamp the war strategy in Afghanistan. Are we to expect a surge of a different kind with new ferocity — a clandestine war to go after the chiefs of the Taliban insurgency? And will that work?

It could be that President Obama has concluded that any strategic decision in pursuing the war in Afghanistan will lead to prolonged bloodletting. In any case — whether an overt war versus a secret campaign by Army Special Forces — civilians are certain to be caught in the middle. And eventually, Barack Obama’s reputation made ride with the outcome.

– Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user larryzou@ under a Creative Commons license.

May 12, 2009
Israel parses pope’s words at Holocaust memorial

Pope Benedict XVI visited the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem.

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Israel on Monday on a highly politicized visit, and quickly repeated his support for a Palestinian state, saying that he hoped a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would result in “a homeland of their own” for both sides. 

Later, the pope paid tribute to victims of the Holocaust. At Yad Vashem, the national Holcoaust memorial, the German-born pope spoke of the millions of Jews killed by the Nazis, saying the cries of the victims continue to reverberate more than six decades after World War II.

Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner measures the pope’s words. 

“Del dicho al hecho, un gran trecho.”

Pope Benedict’s current trip to Israel brings to mind that old Spanish refrain, “There’s a big difference between what people say and what they do” — more simply translated, “Words are cheap.”

No question, you could apply the saying to many topics in the news: “We don’t torture;” “Iran possesses nuclear fuel cycle technology, a capability which it is using exclusively for peaceful purposes;” and “I never took steroids or human growth hormone.”

Sometimes, parsing words too carefully doesn’t lead very far, as in the efforts of analyzing how much and how little the pope said in Israel yesterday.

How carefully should we be analyzing the adverbs and adjectives used by the pontiff when he visited Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Nazi extermination of six million Jews during World War II? Some in Israel are all about scanning every dactyl and iamb.

Pope Benedict condemned the Holocaust in a speech at the memorial yesterday, saying:

“I have come to stand in silence before this monument, erected to honor the memory of the millions of Jews killed in the horrific tragedy of the Shoah. They lost their lives, but they will never lose their names: these are indelibly etched in the hearts of their loved ones, their surviving fellow prisoners, and all those determined never to allow such an atrocity to disgrace mankind again.”

The Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Yisrael Meir Lau — a Holocaust survivor — praised the speech for being “beautiful and well-scripted and very Biblical.” But he added that the pope could have cited the more precise number of those killed, instead of saying “millions.” Also, he noted the pope used the word “killed” instead of choosing to say “murdered.”

“There’s a dramatic difference between killed and murdered, especially when a speech has gone through so many hands,” Lau said. 

Such analysis might be more forgiving were it not for questions about the pope’s previous pronouncements and actions. 

There was the case of Richard Williamson, a Roman Catholic Bishop, who once said: “I believe that the historical evidence is strongly against, is hugely against six million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler.”

Benedict brought Williamson back into the fold, 20 years after he was excommunicated during the reign of Pope John Paul II.

And there was a lecture Pope Benedict delivered in 2006, in which he quoted a 700-year-old papal text: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman…”

He was roundly criticized for that, although the Vatican said he was quoting, rather than citing his own view.

There is evidence that the pope knows the weight and value of words. In 1985, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he silenced the prominent Brazilian priest Leonardo Boff, who had questioned the authority of the Church hierarchy. Boff was an early advocate of Liberation Theology, whose adherents were criticized for promoting social movements in impoverished parts of the Third World.

Regardless the intent of and reaction to the pope’s statements, his other declared message in the Middle East was to urge an end to violence among Jews and Muslims. It’s not certain how much weight his words or actions will have in that larger context.

– Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user catholicrlf under a Creative Commons license.

May 7, 2009
Obama must break with past in Afghanistan, Pakistan

President Barack Obama with Afghan President Karzai and Pakistani President Zardari during a trilateral meeting at the White House.

U.S. President Barack Obama met with leaders from Afghanistan and Pakistan on Wednesday to discuss the growing threat of the Taliban.

Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner considers the signficance of the three-way meeting and the challenges facing President Obama going forward. 

The Obama administration held a mini-summit yesterday with the civilian leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. An Associated Press report quoted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said it was a “breakthrough meeting,” telling reporters the sessions covered trade, water sharing, military training and anti-corruption drives, among other issues.

It is unlikely that this was a breakthrough meeting.

The visits by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari had only limited significance, and anything those two leaders could say would have little impact on the larger problems at hand.

Certainly, there would be no reason to speak negatively or disparagingly of either leader — that would do no more good than to assume that the meetings with President Obama and administration officials accomplished much. But a breakthrough would mean that all three had figured out how to solve their problems.

Zardari is an elected civilian president, the first civilian since the military under Parvez Musharraf ceded power under mighty criticism. Zardari is in the presidential chair as a result of the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, who was killed on Dec. 27, 2007 after being encouraged to return to Pakistan from exile. Neither the United States nor the Pakistani military or police were able to cushion her from the bomb attack.

Zardari is said to have little, if any, sway with the Pakistani military, which for the time has responded to U.S. pressure and is fighting Taliban militants. There are predictions that perhaps half a million refugees will flee the areas of those battles. And there are well-placed military analysts in the United States and elsewhere who think that even if the Pakistani military has the stomach to fight and keep fighting extremists, the resulting battles would harden support for the Taliban in the poorest parts of the country.

Karzai faces his own problems. Warlords govern large fiefdoms in his country, and his power is limited, at best, to Kabul, the Afghan capital. The Taliban, chased from power in 2003, are extending their reach throughout the country; Karzai faces challenges in upcoming elections and he has clearly heard President Obama question his ability to fight corruption, or even leave the grounds of the presidential palace to govern his country. No assurance he might give Obama, and no pledge of U.S. military aid —  which will arrive with or without Karzai — is particularly germane to the larger issues of stability in that part of the world.

President Obama needs to do something convincing and new in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is the commander-in-chief, and when the U.S. military accidentally kills Afghan civilians as it did this week, he will have trouble in protecting his reputation as the anti-Bush in international relations. His secretary of state, besides saying the meetings with the Karzai and Zardari were “breakthrough,” made references to civil action measures — a hint of the military doctrine of winning over “hearts and minds” in the midst of low intensity warfare. That theory is coherent, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to gains and breakthroughs that can be measured in weeks and months.

There comes a point after you’ve bought a new spread with broke-down fences, after you’ve repaired the place and patched the holes, you’ll call it your own. The Obama administration hasn’t gotten there yet, but let’s describe the damage for what it is.

– Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user The Official White House Photostream under a Creative Commons license.

May 6, 2009
For Afghanistan’s Karzai, era of U.S. hand-holding is over

Afghan President Hamid Karzai was meeting Wednesday with President Obama.

The leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan were set for a three-way meeting with President Obama on Wednesday, to discuss how to combat the growing threat of the Taliban. 

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is also dealing with the repercussions of an errant U.S. bombing attack that killed dozens of civilians in Afghanistan.

Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner writes about Karzai’s changing relationship with the U.S. under the Obama administration. 

For an informative, disturbing look at the problems of American diplomacy in Afghanistan, a Washington Post profile of Afghan President Hamid Karzai written by Rajiv Chandrasekaran is required reading.

Rajiv, a colleague at the Post when he was Baghdad bureau chief and I was on the foreign desk, wrote the best-selling book, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone.” He breaks down the dysfunctional elements of American operations in Afghanistan the same way he did in Iraq.

Not surprisingly, we see Karzai, who was meeting Wednesday with President Obama, as an indecisive man with little franchise, often under the thumb of the Bush administration. President Bush dealt with Afghanistan by starting a war in Iraq instead. He dealt with Karzai, in part, by sending Zalmay Mamozy Khalilzad, an Afghan-born diplomat, as the U.S. ambassador after having been ambassador to Iraq.

Khalilzad and top American officials used strong-arm tactics, often falling short in controlling the axes of meaningful change.

Rajiv writes:

“Khalilzad was far more than an ambassador. U.S. diplomats described his role as the country’s chief executive — with Karzai as the figurehead chairman — for the 19 months of his ambassadorship.”

“By his own account, Khalilzad ate dinner six nights a week at the presidential palace, where he met with Karzai and his advisers into the evening. No significant decision was made by Karzai in that time without Khalilzad’s involvement, and sometimes his cajoling and prodding, the diplomats said.”

We also learn that Karzai and Bush had biweekly video chats, with Bush apparently thinking the personal touch would help deal with the militias and drug lords rampaging outside Karzai’s palace gates.

None of the hobnobbing brought success in stabilizing Afghanistan or catching Osama bin Laden, or stopping the corrupt system that allows Afghanistan to corner the market on the opium poppy industry. 

Just after President Obama came to office, Vice President Joseph Biden informed Karzai in person that the era of presidential hand-holding is over.

Rajiv reports that President Obama has little patience for Karzai. Obama, we are told, thinks Karzai “has been inside the bunker” too long.

“Obama advisers believe the relationship that Bush developed with Karzai masked the Afghan leader’s flaws and made it difficult to demand accountability.”

“The classified version of the recent White House review of Afghanistan strategy, according to two officials who have read it, criticizes Karzai. “It takes him to task for not meeting even the most basic Afghan expectations,” one of the officials said. “The implication is clear: Karzai is not our man in this upcoming election.”

Rather than one-on-one video conferences, Karzai gets a 20-minute meeting and a three-way meeting with President Obama and the president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari.

Beyond the body language, Karzai will supposedly have at least a minute to mention U.S. air strikes on Tuesday in which more than 100 people died. The International Red Cross reported that women and children were among the dead.

A cold dose of reality reminds us that war and peace go beyond personalities. We haven’t seen yet how the United States will come up with a viable plan to make things better.

– Peter Eisner

May 5, 2009
Who’s got the power in Pakistan?

U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Wednesday. Source: UN Photo

In Pakistan, a peace deal between the government and the Taliban is on the verge of collapse. As the conflict escalates, Taliban forces are tightening their hold on the Swat region and civilians are fleeing

U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari, on Wednesday. The Obama administration has criticized Pakistan’s efforts to fight the Taliban as insufficient. Obama is expected to continue to press Zardari to crack down on both the Taliban and al-Qaeda, as well as ensure bettesecurity for Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner discusses what the U.S. and Zardari can hope to accomplish, though the Pakistani military is calling the shots. 

Who’s got the power?

That’s a good question with — unfortunately –- an easy answer, as President Obama meets in Washington with Pakistan’s civilian, democratically-elected president, Asif Ali Zardari. Zardari was elected about six months ago, and his lot has never been more tenuous.

Zardari’s goal from the visit to Washington this week is probably foremost to promote his own viability as the leader of a country of 176 million people. That’s enough of a problem. He can’t seem too friendly to the United States — Pakistanis are concerned about meddling by U.S. armed forces in the fight against the Taliban. He can’t seem to be taciturn, but at the same time, he needs the Obama administration’s support.

All the while, the gorilla in the room won’t be in the room: Who controls Pakistan? Who controls Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal? Who’s got the power? The short answer is: Zardari doesn’t; the military does. Zardari has a weak relationship, if any, with the Pakistani military, which calls the shots on dealing with the driving Taliban insurgency that threatens the country.

Zardari hasn’t much to do with fighting the Taliban. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid warned last month about “the galloping Talibanization” of the country, in which more than 10 percent of the territory is controlled by insurgents. If Zardari were involved, he probably wouldn’t want to stray too far from Islamabad.

Here are points from the important Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, on Tuesday. It sounds like a war — and that’s what it is.

“Residents told DawnNews that Taliban militants had consolidated their positions in Mingora city from where they were targeting security forces.”

“Heavy shelling was witnessed in Swat’s Qambar area as militants engaged the security forces.”

“A statement from the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said on Tuesday that militants in Swat had blown up a police station and fired at check posts of security forces at Shangla Top, Shamzoi bridge, Bariam bridge and grid station Mingora.”

“Militants also looted a store of the World Food Programme in Swat and took away 217 bags of wheat and 400 cans of edible oil, the statement said.”

“Frightened residents fled suburban areas in Mingora on Tuesday, where the Taliban concentrated a two-year insurgency, after the army issued an evacuation order that ignited fears of an imminent new offensive, witnesses said.”

Instead of fighting the war, Zardari is meeting with U.S. officials who are not counting on Zardari to do very much. U.S. military officials are maintaining contact with Pakistan’s military leaders, and with Zardari’s civilian rivals. That’s the best they can do right now in a dismal scenario with no immediate answers or hopes for success.

– Peter Eisner

Peter Eisner is an editorial consultant with Worldfocus and a 30-year veteran of international news. He has been an editor and foreign correspondent at The Washington Post, Newsday and The Associated Press. He co-authored “The Italian Letter,” which details fraudulent intelligence leading up to the Iraq War. He was founder and president of Newscom, an international online news service, and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.

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