FPI Overnight Brief: February 19, 2010

Iran

The United Nations’ nuclear inspectors declared for the first time on Thursday that they had extensive evidence of “past or current undisclosed activities” by Iran’s military to develop a nuclear warhead, an unusually strongly worded conclusion that seems certain to accelerate Iran’s confrontation with the United States and other Western countries.  The report, the first under the new director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, also concluded that Iran’s weapons-related activity apparently continued “beyond 2004, “ contradicting an American intelligence assessment published a little over two years ago that concluded that work on a bomb was suspended at the end of 2003.  The report confirms that Iran has enriched small quantities of uranium to 20 percent, but makes no assessment of how close it might be to producing a nuclear weapon, which Tehran denies it is seeking to do…Still, the report cited new evidence, much of it collected in recent weeks, that appeared to paint a picture of a concerted drive in Iran toward a weapons capability. – New York Times

The commentary panel of Fox News Channel’s Special Report w/Bret Baier discussed these developments last night.

Iran leads the list of countries that have failed to crack down on money laundering and terrorist financing, the Financial Action Task Force, a global standard-setting body, said Thursday.  The task force, based at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, reiterated a recommendation from last year that its members apply “effective countermeasures to protect their financial sectors from money laundering and financing of terrorism risks emanating from Iran.”  “The F.A.T.F. remains particularly concerned about Iran’s failure to address the risk of terrorist financing and the serious threat this poses to the integrity of the international financial system,” said the statement, published at the group’s plenary meeting in Abu Dhabi. – New York Times

Iranian state television said the first Iranian-built destroyer was launched today in a ceremony attended by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "The first domestically made destroyer Jamaran was launched this morning and joined Iran's naval forces in the southern waters of the Persian Gulf," state television IRIB reported. It did not give the location of the launch. The report showed footage of the warship and said it was equipped with torpedoes and electronic radar. The ship is 94 meters long and more than 1,500 tons, it said. Much of Iran's naval equipment dates from before the 1979 Islamic revolution and is U.S.-made. - Reuters

The War

U.S.-led forces control the main roads and markets in the besieged Taliban stronghold of Marjah, a Marine general said Thursday, even as fighting raged elsewhere in the southern farming town.  Marines and Afghan soldiers encountered better-fortified Taliban positions and more-skilled marksmen on the sixth day of the assault, indicating Taliban resistance in their logistics and opium-smuggling center was far from crushed. A British general said he expected it would take another month to secure the town. NATO said four service members died Thursday, bringing the number of allied troops killed in the offensive to nine NATO troops and one Afghan soldier. The international coalition did not disclose their nationalities, but Britain's Defense Ministry said two British soldiers were among the dead. No precise figures on Taliban deaths have been released, but senior Marine officers said intelligence reports suggest more than 120 have died. The officers spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information. Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of U.S. Marines in Marjah, said allied forces have taken control of the main roads, bridges and government centers in Marjah, a town of about 80,000 people located 360 miles southwest of Kabul. – Associated Press

When Pakistani security officers raided a house outside Karachi in late January, they had no idea that they had just made their most important capture in years.  American intelligence agencies had intercepted communications saying militants with a possible link to the Afghan Taliban’s top military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, were meeting. Tipped off by the Americans, Pakistani counterterrorist officers took several men into custody, meeting no resistance. Only after a careful process of identification did Pakistani and American officials realize they had captured Mullah Baradar himself, the man who had long overseen the Taliban insurgency against American, NATO and Afghan troops in Afghanistan. New details of the raid indicate that the arrest of the No. 2 Taliban leader was not necessarily the result of a new determination by Pakistan to go after the Taliban, or a bid to improve its strategic position in the region. Rather, it may be something more prosaic: “a lucky accident,” as one American official called it. “No one knew what they were getting,” he said. – New York Times

Whenever Afghanistan's Taliban turn up the heat in the battle with U.S. Marines, the troops have to think twice before retaliating or calling in air strikes in order to avoid civilian casualties. That caution is guiding a NATO and Afghan military offensive designed to break the Taliban's grip on their last big stronghold, in Helmand province, without alienating the local population. But while the strategy may raise chances of local government officials winning the trust of Afghans as they try to stamp their authority, it may also delay the end of the assault in Marjah district and put NATO forces in danger. – Reuters

Two senior Taliban leaders have been arrested in recent days inside Pakistan, officials said Thursday, as American and Pakistani intelligence agents continued to press their offensive against the group’s leadership after the capture of the insurgency’s military commander last month. Afghan officials said the Taliban “shadow governors” for two provinces in northern Afghanistan had been detained in Pakistan. Mullah Abdul Salam, the Taliban’s leader in Kunduz, and Mullah Mir Mohammed of Baghlan were captured about two weeks ago in a raid on a house in Akora Khattack, according to a leader at the Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqaniya madrasa there…Together, the arrests represent a significant blow to the Taliban’s leadership in the American-backed war that began in 2001. They also demonstrate the extent to which the Taliban’s senior leaders have been able to use Pakistan as a sanctuary to plan and mount attacks in Afghanistan. A senior United States official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the arrest of the shadow governors was unrelated to Mullah Baradar’s capture.  Even so, Muhammad Omar, the governor of Kunduz Province, said in an interview that the two Taliban shadow governors maintained a close working relationship with Mullah Baradar.  – New York Times

Pakistan will not turn over the Afghan Taliban's No. 2 leader and two other high-value militants captured this month to the United States, but may deport them to Afghanistan, a senior minister said Friday.  Interior Minister Rahman Malik said Pakistani authorities were still questioning Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the most senior Taliban figure arrested since the start of the Afghan war in 2001, and two other senior militants arrested with U.S. assistance in separate operations this month. If it is determined that the militants have not committed any crimes in Pakistan, they will not remain in the country, he said. – Associated Press

By giving Mr. Karzai responsibility over key elements of the campaign, Western officials are hoping he will seize the battlefield advantage given to him by the arrival of thousands of fresh American troops and turn it into a chance to re-establish his government's—and his own—credibility. Besides being given the last word on the Marjah offensive, Mr. Karzai has been briefed repeatedly on the battle plans, meeting frequently with Gen. McChrystal and speaking often with senior officials from Washington, including National Security Adviser James Jones, according to Afghan and U.S. officials. "We want to make him own this. What we need is to make him into a Winston Churchill who can rally his people," said one person involved in the effort. – Wall Street Journal

An election promise to pull Dutch troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2010 threatens to topple the Netherlands' coalition government and undermine the U.S. mission as the Pentagon steps up operations against the Taliban. Deputy Prime Minister Wouter Bos, leader of the left-leaning Labor Party, campaigned in 2007 on a pledge to bring home Dutch forces and on Thursday he reaffirmed that promise, putting him at odds with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and with the prime and foreign ministers of his own three-party ruling coalition. A Dutch withdrawal would be a blow to the Obama administration which has worked hard to persuade European nations to maintain—and ideally expand—their troop commitments to Afghanistan. – Wall Street Journal

Zalmay Khalilzad writes:  History indicates that successful reconciliation is possible when the government and its outside supporters are doing well militarily against insurgents and providing security and improved living conditions for the population in areas cleared of insurgents. The insurgents have to conclude that time is not on their side, and that their best interests are served by striking a deal while they still have some bargaining chips in hand. Unfortunately, this is not the situation in Afghanistan right now. Militarily, the insurgency has grown stronger in recent years while popular support for the government and the coalition has declined in areas where the insurgents are strong. The Taliban also enjoy external support and sanctuaries. Not surprisingly, its leadership has so far rejected reconciliation. To expect the Taliban to reconcile on our terms in these circumstances is wishful thinking. First, conditions on the ground need to be changed. – International Herald Tribune

Pakistan's decision to go after the Afghan Taliban leadership reflects a quiet shift underway since last fall, said officials from both countries, who cited a November letter from President Obama to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari as a turning point. The letter, which was hand-delivered by U.S. national security adviser James L. Jones, offered additional military and economic assistance and help easing tensions with India, a bitter enemy of Pakistan…The letter also included an unusually blunt warning that Pakistan's use of insurgent groups to pursue its policy goals would no longer be tolerated. The letter's delivery followed the completion of a White House strategy review in which the administration concluded that stepped-up efforts in Afghanistan would not succeed without improved cooperation from Pakistan. In explaining Pakistan's shift, sources also cited regular visits to Pakistan by U.S. officials, a boost in intelligence-sharing and assurances by Washington that a military push in southern Afghanistan would not spill into Pakistan. The United States also promised Pakistani officials that it has no intention of abandoning the region once that offensive ends. – Washington Post

Pakistan

A bomb blast at a mosque in the Khyber tribal area killed at least 30 people and wounded more than 70 others on Thursday, residents and security officials in the region said. The blast struck a meeting of militants in the Aka Khel area of the Khyber tribal region, near the Afghan border. Local residents and security officials said a local militant commander, Azam Khan, was killed in the explosion. Mr. Khan, who ran the local FM radio station, was delivering a sermon on the radio when the blast occurred. There were no claims of responsibility, and the blast appeared to be either an accident or a result of fighting among militants. Mr. Khan was affiliated with Lashkar-e-Islam, a militant group commanded by Mangal Bagh. The Khyber district borders the Orakzai tribal region, and an intelligence official said some of the dead were affiliated with Maulvi Noor Jamal, a Pakistani Taliban commander in the tribal areas of Orakzai and Kurram. – New York Times

Middle East

Uranium particles found at a Syrian desert complex bombed to ruin by Israel in 2007 point to possible covert nuclear activity at the site, the U.N. atomic watchdog said Thursday.  It was the first time the International Atomic Energy Agency lent public support to Western suspicions that Israel's target was a nascent nuclear reactor that Washington said was North Korean in design and geared to making weapons-grade plutonium. Previous IAEA reports on its two-year investigation into the affair, impeded by a lack of Syrian cooperation, said only that the uranium particles raised concern because they did not come from Syria's declared inventory. "The presence of such particles points to the possibility of nuclear-related activities at the site and adds to questions concerning the nature of the destroyed building," said the confidential report by new IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano, obtained by Reuters. – Reuters

Tom Gross writes:  There seems a very real possibility that Israel is being set up. Airlines keep detailed passenger records these days and anyone could have got the flight manifestos of British and other passport holders who have flown to Israel in the past and then used these names in a deliberate attempt to point the finger of blame at Israel. The Dubai authorities have provided no forensic evidence that points to Israel, only a series of photos and videos of random hotel guests who may or may not all know each other. In any event, the persons shown in these photos and videos are not shown committing any crime. It would be very easy to frame Israel, using the identities of six randomly-chosen Israelis based on flight manifestos. This could have been done by anyone – and especially by persons who wanted to avoid being suspected of this action by blaming the Israelis and diverting attention from the real perpetrators. – National Post

To its planners, the assassination of senior Hamas figure Mahmoud Mabhouh must have first seemed like the perfect spy operation. They slipped into Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, on fraudulent travel papers. They quietly killed the militant leader long wanted by Israel, reportedly smothering him with a pillow, and discreetly left the country. But now the entire episode appears to have gone terribly out of control, more Coen brothers than John le Carre, with police releasing images of the alleged operatives in shorts and baseball caps traipsing around the corridors of the hotel where Mabhouh stayed, fumbling with their bags and looking straight at surveillance cameras. Interpol issued arrest warrants Thursday for 11 suspects in the attack, and Dubai's chief of police bluntly accused Israel's Mossad spy agency of being behind the assassination. – Los Angeles Times

Sara Lynch writes:  Crushed, red rose petals speckled the pavement in downtown Beirut this Feb. 14 as thousands of people gathered in Martyrs' Square to commemorate the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, whose violent death in 2005 sparked a revolution among grieving, yet hopeful, Lebanese. But it wasn't just rose petals that looked broken Sunday afternoon. Sure, people cheered and waved flags. Yet many of them looked disenchanted, sullen. In Lebanon's web of changing and complicated politics, their leaders have let them down. - Forbes

Defense

The Obama administration said Thursday that it would ask the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, more than a decade after President Bill Clinton failed to convince the treaty’s opponents that the American arsenal could deter adversaries without ever setting off nuclear explosions…Over the next two weeks, President Obama is expected to make several critical decisions about nuclear policy, so Mr. Biden’s speech avoided some of the most contentious issues, including whether the United States would make a vow of “no first use” of a nuclear weapon. Mr. Obama’s decisions will complete what is known as the Nuclear Posture Review, conducted by each new administration. Officials say that for the first time the review will include American policy for dealing with nuclear threats from terrorists and other nonstate actors. Mr. Biden, who spent years as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will be a crucial player in the effort to win passage of the treaty…To overcome objections to signing the treaty, the administration has pledged to greatly increase the budget of the nation’s three weapons laboratories. – New York Times

Michael Anton writes:  The rhetorical posture (so to speak) of the speech was to portray the administration as the sensible center between peaceniks who seek heedless disarmament and paranoid hawks who see dangers lurking around every corner.  The peaceniks, Biden argued, are right about the endgame but wrong about the near-term means for getting there.  The hawks are wrong to think that nukes must be with us forever but right that so long as they are we must have good ones. Sounds reasonable, no?  Except it’s not quite that simple.  The real bone of contention between the administration and its rightward critics is what, exactly, constitutes a credible and reliable nuclear arsenal.  The administration believes, and the vice president today reiterated, that America can maintain the credibility and (if necessary) the functionality of our nuclear stockpile without testing and without any substantial technological upgrades, rebuilding, or new warhead designs.  Critics—led by Senators Jon Kyl and Joe Lieberman, and joined by many defense intellectuals, former military men, nuclear scientists and (before he changed his mind) Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—argue that this so-called “Life Extension” approach may not be good enough. - Weekly Standard Blog

The Vice-President’s remarks can be seen and read here.

Niger

Soldiers who seized power of the uranium-rich West African nation of Niger in a coup Thursday named a squadron chief as their leader, hours after announcing they had suspended the constitution after seizing President Mamadou Tandja amid a barrage of gunfire. In a statement Friday, the junta named itself the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy and said it was being led by Salou Djibo. Hours earlier, a spokesman for a group, dressed in military uniform, appeared on Niger's Tele Sahel sometime after 10 p.m. local time, surrounded by fellow members of the armed forces. Without mentioning Mr. Tandja, the spokesman, Col. Abdul Karim Goukoye Karimou, read from a statement saying the constitution and all institutions were suspended in the group's move to take responsibility and ease political tension in the country. We want Niger "to be an example of democracy and good governance," the colonel said, calling for an end to "lies" and "corruption." The coup leaders said they had ordered the country's borders closed and had imposed a curfew.  Adrienne Diop, spokeswoman for the Economic Community of West African States, said that insurgents were holding the president with other ministers and people close to him, and that Mr. Tandja is apparently uninjured. His whereabouts remained unknown Friday. – Wall Street Journal

Tibet

President Barack Obama met with the Dalai Lama of Tibet Thursday to discuss human rights and religious freedom for the people of Tibet, shrugging off the official protests of China. The carefully choreographed meeting lasted 70 minutes in the Map Room of the White House's main residence. Mr. Obama didn't see the spiritual leader of Tibet in the Oval Office, a move designed to signal that the U.S. doesn't view him as a political leader of Tibet, which Washington officially views as Chinese territory. The Dalai Lama, speaking to reporters after the meeting, took advantage of a moment before the cameras on the White House grounds to thank the U.S. president for the meeting and declare himself "very happy." "Since my childhood, I always admired America not as a military power, but mainly as a champion of democracy, freedom, human value, human creativity," the Dalai Lama said, wearing the robes of a Tibetan monk and flip-flops in snowy, cold Washington. Mr. Obama expressed what White House press secretary Robert Gibbs termed "his strong support for the preservation of Tibet's unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People's Republic of China."  The intentionally low-key meeting included Obama confidante and White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and the National Security Council's China specialists, Jeffrey Bader and Evan Medeiros.- Wall Street Journal

China

A series of online attacks on Google and dozens of other American corporations have been traced to computers at two educational institutions in China, including one with close ties to the Chinese military, say people involved in the investigation. They also said the attacks, aimed at stealing trade secrets and computer codes and capturing e-mail of Chinese human rights activists, may have begun as early as April, months earlier than previously believed. Google announced on Jan. 12 that it and other companies had been subjected to sophisticated attacks that probably came from China.  Computer security experts, including investigators from the National Security Agency, have been working since then to pinpoint the source of the attacks. Until recently, the trail had led only to servers in Taiwan. If supported by further investigation, the findings raise as many questions as they answer, including the possibility that some of the attacks came from China but not necessarily from the Chinese government, or even from Chinese sources. – New York Times

Perry Link writes:  On February 12, Chinese human rights campaigner Feng Zhenghu was allowed to return to Shanghai after a 92-day stay in diplomatic limbo at the Tokyo Narita airport. Having left China last April to visit family in Japan, Feng, who is a Chinese citizen, was repeatedly denied reentry by Chinese immigration officials; when he was sent back to Tokyo last November, he remained in the Tokyo airport in protest, waiting for the Chinese government to change its mind. The international press has portrayed Feng as a solitary figure, pursuing an admirable if somewhat flamboyant quest for his personal rights. But the point of Feng’s protest goes much, much deeper than the fate of one man, and Feng hopes that the world will understand why... [T]he Chinese government’s consistent message over many years [is] that simply speaking out about basic rights can lead to denial of a passport or forced exile. This consequence has come to be assumed by many Chinese people, as if it were simply part of the natural order of things. By challenging such an understanding, Feng Zhenghu’s assertion that a citizen has a “right” to cross a border has profound implications. Here is one example where a single person may truly have done a great deal of good.  – New York Review of Books

Democracy and Human Rights

Laura Rozen reports:  Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama today was not his only gesture of commitment to promote human rights abroad in the face of sometimes competing international interests. Obama also met at the White House today with 22 human rights activists from around the world, including from Egypt, Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran, Nigeria, Belarus and Russia. The human rights activists, in Washington for a human rights summit co-organized by Human Rights First and Freedom House, met with National Security Advisor Jim Jones for an hour, before a half hour meeting with Obama in the West Wing, along with other NSC staff.  There were two broad messages that the rights advocates delivered "quite forcefully to the president,” Human Rights First’s Elisa Massimino told POLITICO. “One is that, so far, the engagement strategy has not produced concrete improvements on the ground,” Massimino relayed, citing Egypt in particular as “one place pointedly brought up where the president had raised a lot of hopes in his Cairo speech.” The activists "are fighting the fight every day on the ground, and they are reporting back that in some respects, the engagement track has emboldened some governments to really further crack down and exclude human rights and civil society activists from dialogue.” - Politico

Horn of Africa

Unprecedented military cooperation among NATO forces, Russia, China and other countries in the Gulf of Aden has helped decrease the number of pirate attacks on ships off the coast of Somalia in the past year, the State Department said Thursday. More than 20 countries are now taking part in an international naval force, and the membership of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, formed at the height of successful vessel hijackings last year, has grown from 24 to 47, said Tom Countryman, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs.  "What is perhaps more impressive is that the melding of United States, European Union, NATO forces, together with individual contributions by a number of other countries, including Russia and China, has been accomplished with a shared mechanism for coordination and de-confliction, and without the need for there to be a supreme commander in charge of the effort," Mr. Countryman said.  "We think it's a good model not only for the Gulf of Aden and the Somali basin, but also for future such endeavors," he told reporters. – Washington Times

Iraq

The Obama administration has decided to give the war in Iraq a new name -- "Operation New Dawn" -- to reflect the reduced role U.S. troops will play in securing the country this year as troop levels fall, according to a memo from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.  Since U.S. forces charged across the Kuwaiti border toward Baghdad in 2003, the war has been known as Operation Iraqi Freedom. The new name is scheduled to take effect in September, when U.S. troop levels are supposed to drop to about 50,000.  The change is intended to send a message that the U.S. military's combat role in Iraq is rapidly drawing to a close. In the Feb. 17 memo, Gates wrote to Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander for the region, that the name change seeks to "recognize our evolving relationship with the Government of Iraq." – Washington Post

Japan

As an impasse over a controversial military base in Okinawa strains bilateral relations, a senior U.S. military official said Friday the Marine Corps is stepping up efforts to convince the Japanese public of the importance of its presence on the southern Japanese island.  Lt. Gen. Keith J. Stalder, Commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific, said in an interview that while the Japanese are well aware of the direct military threat of North Korea missiles, they may not fully share the U.S. view of the broader "regional threat" that could undermine their nation's trade and economic activities. To reach out more directly to the Japanese public, he said, the Marine Corps will roll out Japanese-language sites for the Web and cellphones—the preferred mode of information gathering for many Japanese. "I think one of the things missing in the appreciation of regional security in the Pacific is an understanding how connected all these countries are, economically, financially and in other ways," Lt. Gen. Stalder said during his visit to Tokyo. "There is nothing that happens in the region that will not affect Japan in a very negative way if it's not contained quickly or prevented." – Wall Street Journal

Southeast Asia

A flurry of privatizations of key state enterprises in Myanmar is raising speculation about whether the country's military regime is planning more market reform or simply trying to cash out before an election expected later this year. The Myanmar government plans to sell a number of major assets, including a network of 250 state-owned gas stations, and ports handling a large percentage of the country's trade, according to local industry officials and Reuters news agency. It also is planning to sell factories, cinemas and warehouses, and may be contemplating a sale of the country's international airline, among other assets…[C]ore elements of the push, including the sale of ports and gas stations, were confirmed by the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, which represents Myanmar's business sector, and by economists and dissidents familiar with the government's plans. "We expect more" privatizations to come, said Maung Maung Lay, secretary-general of the federation, in a telephone interview. "The government wants to go according to international norms" and expand the role of the private sector, he said. – Wall Street Journal

South Asia

Sri Lanka's opposition coalition said Friday it has split after its defeated presidential candidate was detained on allegations of sedition, further strengthening President Mahinda Rajapaksa ahead of April 8 parliamentary polls. Opposition official Vijitha Herath said the coalition of four main parties and several smaller groups broke up after its biggest partner, the United National Party, decided to go it alone in the upcoming elections. The split will weaken opposition prospects of checking Rajapaksa's power by taking control of Parliament after his re-election as president last month. Rajapaksa's ruling coalition controlled 128 seats in the 225-member legislature before it was dissolved earlier this month for the elections. Herath said other opposition parties are now planning to form a new front with defeated presidential candidate Gen. Sarath Fonseka – Associated Press

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