The bottom line is clear: Our vital interests in Afghanistan are limited and military victory is not the key to achieving them. On the contrary, waging a lengthy counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan may well do more to aid Taliban recruiting than to dismantle the group, help spread conflict further into Pakistan, unify radical groups that might otherwise be quarreling amongst themselves, threaten the long-term health of the U.S. economy, and prevent the U.S. government from turning its full attention to other pressing problems. -- Afghanistan Study Group

Sunday, November 30, 2008

News of the Day for Sunday, November 30, 2008

Iranian soldiers carry coffins with the remains of Iranian soldiers killed during an eight-year war between Iran and Iraq at the border crossing of Al-Shalamjah, Iran, Sunday, Nov. 30, 2008. The remains of 200 Iraqis and 41 Iranians were returned to their native countries Sunday during a ceremony at a border checkpoint near the southern Iraqi city of Basra. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jourani)

Reported Security Incidents

Albu-Toma, Diyala Province

Police find a mass grave containing at least 30 bodies. These appear to date from the days of rule by Sunni extremists in 2006-7, according to Reuters, and to be victims of sectarian violence. However, AFP gives the total number of bodies found as 33, and reports that residents say the violence began in early 2008, and continued for several months. The killings are not attributed to sectarian conflict per se, but to a "radical interpretation of Islamic law" by al Qaeda. Note: Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is not to be confused with the organization led by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zwahiri.


Death toll in bombing of Sadrist mosque on Friday rises to 12, with 18 injured. Note: For some reason, perhaps the location which is a bit out of the way, this incident was not widely reported immediately. Musayyib is in Babil Province. U.S. had originally reported the death toll as 5.

Other News of the Day

After first appearing supportive, or at least accepting, of the Status of Forces Agreement, Ayatollah Ali Sistani is now conveying reservations. The timing of this statement seems a bit odd, coming after the pact has been approved by Parliament. - C Excerpt:

Iraq's top Shiite cleric has expressed concern about the country's security pact with the United States, fearing it gives too much power to the Americans and does not protect Iraqi sovereignty, an official at his office said yesterday. . . .

The official at Ayatollah Sistani's office said the Iranian-born cleric did not believe there was a national consensus in favor of the pact and that this "may lead to instability in the country."

And Sistani isn't the only one. According to McClatchy's Adam Ashton, other clerics criticizing the SOFA include not only Sadrists, and others associated with parties that opposed it all along, but also Ayatollah Muhammad al-Yacoubi of the Fadilah movement, which abstained.

Iraq and Iran begin exchanging the remains of soldiers killed in the 1980-88 war between the two countries. The remains of 200 Iraqis and 41 Iranians were exchanged in a ceremony in Basra today; most of them are unidentified.

In-Depth Reporting, Commentary and Analysis

Steven Lee Myers reviews some western reactions to the SOFA for the IHT. He finds that the lack of precision on key points, and the fractious political context, makes the future of the pact, and the terms and pace of U.S. withdrawal, highly uncertain.

Chicago Tribune's Liz Sly reports on the near-annihilation of Iraq's ancient Mandaean sect. Excerpt:

On the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, about 30,000 Mandaeans lived in Iraq. In the face of the persecution and threats that followed, that number has dwindled to between 3,500 and 5,000, according to the U.S. State Department's 2008 report on religious freedoms.

Hundreds have been kidnapped and killed. Most of the rest have fled for their lives, to Syria and Jordan, where they have applied for asylum in far-flung countries such as Sweden, Australia and most recently -- since the U.S. opened its doors to Iraqi refugees -- America.

Scattered around the world in tiny communities, the chances that the religion will survive more than a few generations are slim, experts say. Mandaeism does not accept converts, and the children of Mandaeans who marry non-Mandaeans do not belong to the sect.

Former Air Force counterintelligence officer, who conducted interrogations in Iraq, condemns use of torture and coercive interrogation by the United States. In the process, he overturns some of the conventional narrative of the war. Excerpt:

I don't have to belabor the point; dozens of newspaper articles and books have been written about the misconduct that resulted. These interrogations were based on fear and control; they often resulted in torture and abuse.

I refused to participate in such practices, and a month later, I extended that prohibition to the team of interrogators I was assigned to lead. I taught the members of my unit a new methodology -- one based on building rapport with suspects, showing cultural understanding and using good old-fashioned brainpower to tease out information. I personally conducted more than 300 interrogations, and I supervised more than 1,000. The methods my team used are not classified (they're listed in the unclassified Field Manual), but the way we used them was, I like to think, unique. We got to know our enemies, we learned to negotiate with them, and we adapted criminal investigative techniques to our work (something that the Field Manual permits, under the concept of "ruses and trickery"). It worked. Our efforts started a chain of successes that ultimately led to Zarqawi.

Over the course of this renaissance in interrogation tactics, our attitudes changed. We no longer saw our prisoners as the stereotypical al-Qaeda evildoers we had been repeatedly briefed to expect; we saw them as Sunni Iraqis, often family men protecting themselves from Shiite militias and trying to ensure that their fellow Sunnis would still have some access to wealth and power in the new Iraq. Most surprisingly, they turned out to despise al-Qaeda in Iraq as much as they despised us, but Zarqawi and his thugs were willing to provide them with arms and money. I pointed this out to Gen. George Casey, the former top U.S. commander in Iraq, when he visited my prison in the summer of 2006. He did not respond.

Hamza Hendawi questions whether Maliki's apparently triumphal position following parliamentary approval of the SOFA can last, or whether he may be on the path to consolidating power as an authoritarian ruler. Excerpt:

The Sunnis had long been alone in publicly accusing Al Maliki of monopolising power. Recently, however, some Kurds have started to repeat the allegation. The Kurds complained that the prime minister was violating the constitution by creating tribal “support councils” across Iraq ostensibly as a backup for security forces.

Critics see the councils as a move to undercut rival political parties and gain patronage in the Shia south of the country. The quarrel came to a head last week, when the country’s three-member Presidential Council publicly berated Al Maliki and ordered him to disband the councils or find legal coverage for them. . . .

Al Maliki is already showing some of the trappings associated with authoritarian Arab rulers, something certain to be used against him in the run-up to the 2009 elections. He has exploited the dramatic drop of violence as a tribute to his leadership and coverage of his activities, even the most mundane, dominates the state media’s news.

The Arab News editorializes on the SOFA. Their distaste for the occupation and distrust of U.S. motives notwithstanding, the hope the deal will ultimately get the U.S. out. They aren't throwing a party yet, however. Excerpt:

It is not simply Shiite groups such as the Sadrists who are opposed to the security deal with the US, as approved last week by the Iraqi Parliament. An overwhelming majority of the Iraqis want the US troops to leave their country as early as possible. To them the security pact is occupation by other means. They blame the US for the chaos and violence that has torn their country apart over the last five years.

There will be those who argue cogently that the Al-Maliki government is a US puppet and that the Parliament’s rubber-stamping of the deal that will see the Americans finally quit in 2011, has been done at the behest of Washington and not the Iraqi people. After all it was American prompting that caused Al-Maliki in 2007 to push for the UN mandate for the continued presence of Anglo-American troops. The mandate, to end this year, is to be replaced by a bilateral deal between Baghdad and Washington. And the Iraqi government knows that signing the deal with all its unfavorable terms is the only way to get the Americans out. . . .

The second big test will be the referendum scheduled to seek the approval of ordinary Iraqis for the 2011 pullout timetable. If the Al-Maliki government doesn’t receive the approval it seeks, then it will have to reopen negotiations. Should this prove necessary, it will be a real test of just how independent the Baghdad government is. It would be encouraging to believe that given Barack Obama’s assurances that he favors an early US pullout, Al-Maliki would find himself pushing against an open door. Therefore the best hope for those who want the occupation over sooner rather than later will be a “No” vote in the summer.

Afghanistan Update

Suicide bomber on a bicycle attacks a vehicle of the German embassy in Kabul, killing two civilian bystanders, or 3, according to AFP. Possibly the discrepancy results from whether the attacker is included. -- C AFP also says the attacker was on foot, and places the attack near the Parliament building, so it is not entirely clear that the German vehicle was the target.

AFP also reports:

  1. Remotely detonated bomb kills and Afghan employee of a U.S. security contractor in Kandahar

  2. U.S. claims to have killed 16 fighters of former PM Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e-Islami movement in Sarobi, east of Kabul. (Note that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are not the only targets of U.S. forces.

  3. U.S. claims to have killed a member of the Haqqani movement in Paktia province, which it says has been helping move members of the Islamic Jihadist Union, based in Uzbekistan, into the country. Byzantine, no?

DPA reports that NATO forces killed an Afghan policeman in Helmand Province, in an apparent case of mistaken identity at a checkpoint. A passenger in the vehicle also died of his injuries.

List of the Day

Instead of a Quote of the Day, I am linking to this list of Iraqi academics assassinated during the U.S. occupation, compiled by Pakistan Daily. I did not try to count them.