Thursday, February 23

Koran burning at Bagram: Um, is some government trying to sabotage Obama's plans for US combat operations in Afghanistan beyond 2014?

See my February 26 post, Not Since Mazar-i-Sharif, or why the story of the Koran burning incident at Bagram Airfield is improbable

I might regret publishing my thoughts on this matter but my intuition seems to have been running my show for more than 24 hours. I just hope it doesn't leave me with egg on my face because I'm not a fan of conspiracy theories; over the years on this blog I've done my share to quash false news stories and rumor-mongering.

Besides, I've already taken one flyer this month by guessing that someone in the German Nato command had leaked a secret Nato report (The State of the Taliban) to the press. Then I learned that the only two press outlets that had seen the report were British. That doesn't rule out Germany and it doesn't necessarily mean someone in the British command leaked the report; he could have showed it to MI6 and said, 'Don't breathe a word of this to anyone.' (As to whether anyone in the Afghan government had seen the Nato report, dunno.)

But if I'm going to choose this month to make a fool of myself I might as well go the whole hog. To pick up from where I left off yesterday morning. You may recall I as much accused my brain of laziness because it balked at finishing an essay, which was written to answer the rest of B. Doran's questions and comments about the Afghan War. Doran's main point was that the United States should bail on the war, simply walk away -- a sentiment shared I think by many Americans. Even the editorial staff at Bloomberg asked on February 21 whether the USA should consider leaving Afghanistan much earlier than President Obama has mapped out.

My view is that the United States should stay in Afghanistan as long as possible but with a different policy toward Pakistan. But just before I could present my view, my brain suddenly wanted a blanket and a drink of water. Then after my business meeting it wanted to go outside and play. So it was too tired to finish the essay but not too tired to cavort in 62 degree weather. (It was a beautiful day yesterday in Washington.)

At 7:19 in the evening I finally walk into the house. I turn on the TV looking for news and there's Shepard Smith intoning, "The U.S. embassy in Kabul is on lockdown."

This is Fox News Cable we're talking about so I immediately seek verification from the wire services; I can't find it although McClatchy and Bloomberg had just broken reports that the embassy was taking precautions and had recalled staff. But even without a technical lockdown the news reports were grim. All hell had broken loose in Afghanistan earlier in the day, Afghan time.

What had started on Tuesday as protests outside Bagram air base about some copies of the Koran that had been found burned or charred at Bagram air base had by Wednesday exploded into galloping riots across Afghanistan. NATO and the U.S. government had been kept busy on Wednesday giving apologies to any Afghan official who would listen and promising a full investigation of the burning incident.

Of course the Afghan Taliban were having a field day with the story and doing whatever they could to help stoke outrage against the U.S. for what U.S. and NATO plaintively insisted was a mistake.

My first reaction was that the crisis couldn't have come at a worse time for the Obama administration. Obama and Hamid Karzai are just about to finalize a security partnership agreement. The sticking points are Nato night raids and whether the U.S. should transfer prisons it runs in Afghanistan to the Afghan government. And dang! that's where the burned copies of the Koran supposedly came from -- a U.S.-run prison at Bagram.

How did the Korans get in the position to be burned? The question is still under investigation but from Bloomberg's report (filed 7:39 PM ET February 22):
The Korans were damaged after soldiers culled them, with other books, from a library at a prison for alleged Taliban and allied Islamic militant fighters, ISAF said in a statement. The volumes were thrown into a pile of debris for burning and pulled out by Afghan employees at the base.
My second reaction was to cook shrimp and rice and watch Survivor. (I try to stay with fish and rice on Survivor nights; I always feel guilty eating steak while I watch half-starved contestants stagger through the challenges the show's sadistic game coordinators think up.) I'd had my fill of Afghan War news for the day.

But before turning in I checked on the internet for news from Pakistan, and saw the following report; it's undated but it must have been published within the past 24-48 hours; before then I think I would have seen it. The report is unconfirmed but if it's true it takes the prize as the strangest news of the month:
US presses Pakistan to allow bases near Iran: Report
Online News (Pakistan)

New Delhi: The United States is reportedly putting pressure on Pakistan to allow Washington to establish intelligence bases in the country’s Balochistan province to gather intelligence on Iran, Indian media reported on Wednesday.

According to a report published by The Times of India, the US Congress has been discussing a resolution to recognize the right of Baloch people to self-determination as a means of putting pressure on Islamabad to give in to the US demands.

The move elicited angry reactions from Pakistan’s top leaders including Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani who described it as an attack on the country’s sovereignty. Pakistan’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, also said though the resolution was an isolated move by a few individuals, it “is contrary to the principles of the UN Charter and international law.”

The report said that three officials, two from the security agencies and one from diplomatic circles, confirmed that American diplomats and military leaders have been requesting for permission to allow their agents to operate near the Iranian border in Balochistan.
Now the Obama administration would hotly deny that it's playing the Balochistan independence card to pressure Islamabad about anything; in fact, Obama has distanced himself from the resolution, as has almost everyone in official Washington. Although I think in light of news from Reuters that his administration protested a little too much when it officially announced, in response to the Balochistan resolution flap, that the US respected Pakistan’s sovereignty. As to how much the US respects it, Reuters India reported this morning:
US pushed ahead with drone strikes despite Pakistani resistance
by Missy Ryan and Mark Hosenball
February 23, 2012 5:04am IST

Washington (Reuters): Shortly before the United States ended a two-month pause in missile strikes on militants in Pakistan last month, senior US officials telephoned their Pakistani counterparts and told them Washington would be resuming its covert drone program despite mounting objections in Islamabad.

Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were among those who spoke with Pakistani officials shortly before the eight-week pause in the drone program ended, sources familiar with the issue said.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to his Pakistani counterpart General Ashfaq Kayani around the same time, the sources said, but a US defense official said the two men did not discuss drone strikes.

The strike that followed on 10 January, when US aircraft fired missiles at a home in the North Waziristan tribal area, was the first such attack since US aircraft, in a mishap that plunged bilateral ties into a tailspin, killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along remote border with Afghanistan.

The 26 November border incident infuriated a vulnerable government in Islamabad and prompted Pakistani officials to signal that they would no longer accept US drone strikes.
So if you've been wondering how it was that the drone strikes resumed even though Islamabad was still blocking NATO supply shipments to Afghanistan, now you know.

But there you have it; a strange claim hanging out there, like a hanging chad, that the U.S. wants to set up an Iran monitoring base in Balochistan.

So my last thought before I fell asleep was, 'What a strange month this has been.'

I awakened this morning with the same thought. I guess my intuition noticed that coincidences have been piling up since February 1, when it just so happened that the secret Nato report was leaked on the eve of an important meeting in Brussels about the Afghan War.

By the way have you ever read any of the statements that the British press pulled from that report? They're dynamite -- although after the leak the U.S., Nato and Pakistan tried to downplay the statements as merely anecdotal. Yes they are anecdotal but together the thousands of statements are the first exhaustively detailed compilation of claims that Pakistan's military/ISI controls the Taliban -- the same Taliban who've been killing Nato troops. And when that small mountain of claims is taken with all the evidence and intell that's surfaced since 2006 about the Pakistani military's ongoing involvement with the Taliban and al Qaeda, the implications are damning -- damning of Nato.

When was the Nato report made available to Nato commanders? January of this year, from a news report; it didn't give the day so I don't know whether that was before or after the assassination of four French troops on January 20 (or reported on that date), which provoked Nicolas Sarkozy to threaten to pull all French troops out of Afghanistan.

Allegedly the Afghan soldier who opened fire on the troops wasn't a Taliban operative; the claim was that he was a nutter who was simply angry about a video of U.S. soldiers urinating on corpses of alleged Taliban.

Whatever the truth of the matter on the heels of the fallout came the leaked Nato report, on the morning (U.K. time) of February 1.

By the afternoon of the same day, SecDef Leon Panetta had announced to reporters on a plane flight to the Brussels meeting that the U.S. was moving up by a year its plan to draw down U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan. The surprise announcement and the uproar that followed it took the media's mind off the leaked Nato report.

On February 3 a British military journal attempted to tamp down news reports that the British Nato command was now following the new U.S. plan. I don't have the link at my fingertips but paraphrasing the spokesperson said that the 'new' plan was actually one that the British command had intended to follow all along. Not true, commented a British newspaper (Daily Mail or Telegraph); it dug up a quote from an earlier date showing that the command had agreed at the time to stay with the 2014 drawdown timeframe.

In the days that followed, the media reported that the Obama administration was engaged in 'frantic' behind-the-scenes efforts to mend fences with Pakistan's government/military. I wonder how frantic the efforts were, if Obama restarted the drone strikes by informing the Pakistanis to suck it up if they had objections -- and, if that strange report is true, by telling Islamabad that he wanted to set up an Iran monitoring post in Balochistan, of all places. The report is strange because the province is engaged in a veritable insurgency against Islamabad, which is trying like heck to stay on the good side of Tehran.

Then, when Karzai balked over two points in the strategic partnership agreement (Nato night raids and Afghan control of U.S.-run prisons) a delegation from the U.S. Congress, led by Senator John McCain went to Afghanistan to talk turkey with him. That was on Sunday, February 19.

Let me see; what happened next? Oh yes -- on Tuesday, February 21, burned Korans were found at Bagram air base. Which placed the strategic pact in jeopardy, which brings us to today:
Taliban urge Afghans to kill "invaders" amid new Koran burning protests

By Mirwais Harooni
February 23, 2012 12:58pm IST

KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban urged Afghans on Thursday to target foreign military bases and kill Westerners in retaliation for burnings of copies of the Koran at NATO's main base in the country as a third day of violent protests began.

Thousands of demonstrators rallied across the country, some chanting "Death to America!", Reuters witnesses and officials said. In eastern Kabul, hundreds of youths threw rocks at police, who fired shots into the air to try disperse the crowds.

"Our brave people must target the military bases of invader forces, their military convoys and their invader bases," read an e-mailed Taliban statement released by spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.

"They have to kill them (Westerners), beat them and capture them to give them a lesson to never dare desecrate the holy Koran again."

The Koran burnings could make it even more difficult for U.S.-led NATO forces to win the hearts and minds of Afghans and bring the Taliban to the negotiating table ahead of the withdrawal of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.

Muslims consider the Koran the literal word of God and treat each book with deep reverence. Desecration is considered one of the worst forms of blasphemy.

Large protests erupted in eastern Laghman province and the eastern city of Jalalabad, despite an appeal by President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday for calm after officials said six people were shot dead and dozens wounded in demonstrations.

Protests also kicked off in the relatively stable northern provinces of Badakhshan and Takhar on the border with Tajikistan, as well as nearby Baghlan province.

The fury could complicate efforts by U.S. and NATO forces to reach agreement on a strategic pact currently under consideration with the Afghan government that would allow a sharply reduced number of western troops in the country well beyond their combat exit deadline of end-2014.

Underscoring these concerns, hundreds of students in Jalalabad rejected any strategic pact with the United States, saying they would "take up jihad" if one were sealed.

The U.S. government and the American commander of NATO-led forces in Afghanistan apologised for "unintentional" burnings after Afghan labourers found charred copies of the Koran while collecting rubbish at the huge Bagram Airbase, about an hour's drive north of Kabul.
There were quite a number of other events in February relating to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nato that I haven't listed, such as the uproar that was set off when an Afghan ministry (I forget which one) plopped out with a plan to remove from the Afghan military any soldiers with family in Pakistan. This, in an effort to flummox soldiers who were working under orders from 'Taliban' (read, 'ISI'). This move is long overdue, if the army is to cut down on infiltrators.

As to what the NDS -- Afghanistan's version of MI5 -- is going to do to eject infiltrators, gee maybe rehire Amrullah Saleh and the team that walked out of NDS with him when he resigned? According to one analyst, the NDS is now rife with ISI spies and spies from other governments. I will find the link to the report but right now I'm beginning to worry that if I don't get this post out the door fast, my brain is going to start asking for a blankey and glass of water. I'm already hearing,'The radio is saying it's gonna be 70 degrees today.'

Okay; so what's on the burner today, besides a lot of hopping mad Afghans, and an expected announcement from Nato about the results of their investigation into the burned Korans? From the Express Tribune (Pakistan)
US State Department spokesperson Mark Toner confirmed that the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar on Thursday on the sidelines of the 2012 London Somalia Conference.

Speaking to reporters at the daily press briefing, Toner said that both leaders had many things to discuss. “Our goal remains to put this relationship back on track, you know, to try to put some of the problems that we have had in the relationship, some of the challenges behind us and move productively forward.”

In response to a story by Reuters on Afghan officials meeting with members of the Taliban in Quetta, Toner said that he did not have any information about these meetings.

When asked if President Karzai was taking an active role in response to being reportedly bypassed on earlier reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the US, Toner denied it and said that the meetings between US Special Representative for Af-Pak Marc Grossman and Afghan President Hamid Karzai were an indication that the US was consulting with him.

He added that President Karzai was supportive of the process, and said that at some point the US would like to step away and “have it be an Afghan-to-Afghan reconciliation process.”

The State Department spokesperson was also asked about Secretary Clinton’s earlier statements about Pakistan taking action against certain groups present in Pakistan, to which he said, “We’ve been very clear about our red lines and, indeed, the Afghan government’s red lines for those Taliban who would participate in any reconciliation process.
Nice to know a little clarity is emerging, isn't it? This way we don't have to read 'deny deny deny' all the time. Maybe Khar will give Clinton a head's up on how the Pakistani Parliament is getting along with its review of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. The results of the review were expected last week. (See update below for summary of the Clinton-Khar meeting.)

As to whether I really think my intuition has seized on anything -- if it has then I might owe my brain an apology if it wasn't being lazy yesterday, only trying to delay my publishing an opinion before I'd mulled over more facts.

Probably there is no conspiracy; probably it's a bunch of officials and brass going off in 20 different directions as they scramble to get out of the Afghan War yesterday. Just so long as they aren't scrambling to get the U.S. military out of Afghanistan before it's ready to go.

Associated Press via WSJ has a short report on the Clinton-Khar meeting in London:
LONDON—U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Thursday for the resumption of a full range of formal contacts with Pakistan after its parliament completes a review of strained ties between the two countries.

At a meeting on the sidelines of an international conference on Somalia in London, Mrs. Clinton outlined to Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar a series of steps the U.S. would like to see once the review has been completed.

A senior U.S. official said those steps include visits by top American diplomats, including the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides and the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Rajiv Shah, along with a return to three-way talks between the U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Pakistan declined a visit by Mr. Grossman earlier this year.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private meeting, said the U.S. would respect the parliamentary review but wanted to prepare for a return to "structured conversations" once the review is complete. Mrs. Clinton, the official said, wanted "to get ready to get back into business with Pakistan." A vote on the review is expected in mid-March.

U.S.-Pakistan ties have been troubled for some time, mainly over alleged Pakistani support for Islamist extremists, but deteriorated badly in November when U.S. airstrikes accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at two Afghan border posts, fueling an already pervasive anti-American sentiment throughout the country.

That incident sparked the parliamentary review, which is aimed at producing a new set of guidelines for the bilateral relationship that could pave the way for repairing relations.


bdoran said...

Probably your last paragraph is correct. If it's a conspiracy it's one of fools. Such things happen.

Remind you to tell you a story about Chandrika, pirate queen of Sri Lanka sometime. She's the "Sarah Palin" of Sri Lankan politics. Remember this is Sri Lanka.

I'd need your email. Let me put it this way, one of our Terps had worked in Saddam's MOD. He was Uday's "special" Bullet maker. Ahem. Even he laughed.

Pundita said...

B - something is hinky but I can't figure out what. Pundita email is at top right of my blog page. just click on link

Madhu said...

Oh, I wondered if parts of this were a stage show meant to make a point during negotiations. Which I don't think will work. Details matter. I remain wary about recommendations to stay, at least, the devil is in the details. How many troops, what is their mission, how to prevent their murder from infiltrators, what should their role be....

We aren't going to change policy wrt to Pakistan. In that case, I wonder how this is all supposed to work? Focus on Kabul and the border and forget the rest? But military writers I trust say that logistically, you can't keep these people safe and it won't work without other major adjustments which we are not going to make.

Why is doing more of the same going to work after ten years?

Madhu said...

On suspicions, I am even more suspcious minded:

"A former Taliban defense minister who was close to both Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden has died in Pakistani custody, according to a statement released today by the Taliban."

Read more:

Oh, I'm not being literal. But border incidents, closing of NATO routes, riots in Afghanistan, and difa e pakistan council.

Curious, no?

Pundita said...

Madhus - Yes, curious. Curiouser and curioser. Also, thanks for the LWJ post. I'd missed that one in the tumult.