FPI Overnight Brief: March 12, 2010

Iraq

With more than 30 percent of the vote tallied in the southern provinces of Najaf and Babil, Maliki appeared to carve out a narrow victory over a rival coalition of Shiite parties. He was part of that coalition when he was elected to parliament in 2005, but he later built his own faction. In Babil, Maliki's State of Law slate won nearly 42 percent of the more than 160,000 votes tallied so far, officials said. In Najaf, the slate won 47 percent of more than 116,000 votes counted. In both provinces, the rival Iraqi National Alliance, a coalition of mostly Shiite parties, placed second, while [former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s party,] Iraqiya was running third. In Diyala province, north of Baghdad, Iraqiya was ahead with more than 42,000 votes of the 17 percent of ballots tallied. The coalition was also winning in Salahuddin province, with more than 34,000 votes of the 17 percent counted so far. In Irbil, a province in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, the area's two ruling parties got more than 96,000 votes. With nearly 28 percent of votes tallied, the breakaway Change party was a distant second, with just over 20,000 votes. – Washington Post

Ryan Crocker says:  The agreement I helped negotiate had an intermediate timeline to have forces out of cities and towns by mid-2009, which was accomplished, and full withdrawal by 2011. The August 2010 date was not part of that agreement. I would have preferred to see us keep maximum flexibility with the Iraqis between now and 2011. It makes me nervous. We're going to have a prolonged period of government formation. It could take two or three months, [and] it's likely to be a pretty turbulent process. I think [the government formation process], in and of itself, is not likely to be destabilizing, but it means that the major issues out there aren't going to be addressed. Things like disputed internal boundaries, Kirkuk, the relationship between federal, regional, and provincial governments -- all of that's going to be on hold until you have a new government.  That means that things aren't going to be much further along come August than they are right now. So I would be more comfortable, within the terms of the agreement we negotiated, with keeping a more robust force for a longer period of time. – Foreign Policy

FPI Executive Director Jamie Fly writes:  There has been a marked improvement in the security situation in Iraq, but Iraq’s future remains uncertain, especially if the U.S. moves out of Iraq too quickly.  It will be interesting to see whether the administration is willing to take such action if conditions on the ground deteriorate and if so, how it will reconcile this real world need with the desires of a Democratic base that was promised an end to the war in Iraq by a candidate who ran touting his opposition to the war. – The Weekly Standard Blog

The War

The abrupt transformation of Colleen R. LaRose from bored middle-aged matron to "JihadJane," her Internet alias, was unique in many ways, but a common thread ties the alleged Islamic militant to other recent cases of homegrown terrorism: the Internet.  From charismatic clerics who spout hate online, to thousands of extremist websites, chat rooms and social networking pages that raise money and spread radical propaganda, the Internet has become a crucial front in the ever-shifting war on terrorism. "LaRose showed that you can become a terrorist in the comfort of your own bedroom," said Bruce Hoffman, professor of security studies at Georgetown University. "You couldn't do that 10 years ago."  "The new militancy is driven by the Web," agreed Fawaz A. Gerges, a terrorism expert at the London School of Economics. "The terror training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan are being replaced by virtual camps on the Web." From their side, law enforcement and intelligence agencies are scrambling to monitor the Internet and penetrate radical websites to track suspects, set up sting operations or unravel plots before they are carried out. – Los Angeles Times

Suicide bombers targeting the Pakistani military killed at least 39 people and wounded nearly 100 in the city of Lahore on Friday, officials said, despite government assertions that crackdowns had weakened Taliban insurgents. "Two suicide bombers attacked within the span of 15 to 20 seconds and they were on foot," provincial police chief Tariq Saleem Dogar told reporters. The dead in the attack in a military neighborhood of the city, which is near the border with India, included five soldiers, military officials said. Militants have renewed pressure on unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari. There have been five blasts this week alone, including a car bomb suicide attack on a police intelligence building in Lahore on Monday that killed 13 people, and a shooting and bombing at a U.S.-based aid agency that killed 6 in the northwest. - Reuters

President Obama's plan to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July 2011 has emboldened terrorists and increased distrust of U.S. intentions in the region, Pakistani Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi said Thursday. "The administration's withdrawal date was music to the ears of the militants and terrorists," Qureshi said in an exclusive interview with The Washington Examiner. "This sends the wrong signal, and you will have chaos and confusion in Afghanistan if this comes to fruition."Meeting with a reporter in his Islamabad office, Qureshi said, "If we walk away sort of leaving things half-baked, that could be the worst thing you could have done to regional stability." – Washington Examiner

U.S. and Afghan officials are beginning a major overhaul of the Afghan police with the goal of cleaning up a force whose recent history of corruption has undermined confidence in the Kabul government and fueled the insurgency. The program, which will probably include sending thousands of officers abroad for training, is designed to rebuild a force of more than 90,000 Afghans who were dispatched to police stations with virtually no training and little supervision. After nearly nine years of war, senior U.S. and Afghan officials said they are essentially starting from scratch. "We weren't doing it right," said Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, who oversees the NATO training effort in Afghanistan. "The most important thing is to recruit and then train police," he said, emphasizing the steps necessary before any deployment. "It is still beyond my comprehension that we weren't doing that."…"If we don't get the police fixed, we'll never change the dynamics in the country," Caldwell said. "No matter how well we do clearing and holding, we will never build on that progress and sustain it without a police force. We have to get this right." He called the training effort "the greatest challenge" facing U.S. forces in Afghanistan. – Washington Post

A spokesman for a group of nuclear power plants in New Jersey says a U.S. man charged in Yemen with being a member of al-Qaida had previously worked at the plants. PSEG Nuclear spokesman Joe Delmar says Sharif Mobley worked as a laborer for several contractors at its three plants on Artificial Island in Lower Alloways Creek from 2002 to 2008 carrying supplies and doing maintenance work. Delmar says he satisfied federal background checks as recently as 2008. He says that the 26-year-old Mobley also worked at other plants in the region. Delmar says the plant is cooperating with authorities. Nuclear reactors remain a tempting target for terrorists, requiring ever vigilant security measures. Yemeni officials confirmed on Thursday that Mobley is in custody. – Associated Press

A growing number of Taliban militants in the Pakistani border region are refusing to collaborate with Al Qaeda fighters, declining to provide shelter or assist in attacks in Afghanistan even in return for payment, according to U.S. military and counter-terrorism officials. The officials, citing evidence from interrogation of detainees, communications intercepts and public statements on extremist websites, say that threats to the militants' long-term survival from Pakistani, Afghan and foreign military action are driving some Afghan Taliban away from Al Qaeda.As a result, Al Qaeda fighters are in some cases being excluded from villages and other areas near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border where they once received sanctuary…Al Qaeda is believed to have fewer than 100 operatives still in Afghanistan. Though mounting attacks there is not the network's main focus, it remains interested in striking U.S. and other targets. – Los Angeles Times

South Asia

Pakistan's navy successfully test-fired a series of missiles and torpedoes Friday in what it called a message to "nefarious" forces - an apparent reference to longtime rival India. While the two nuclear-armed neighbors have taken slow steps toward restarting peace talks, they also have a history of using weapons tests as a form of diplomatic saber-rattling. The tests occurred in the Arabian Sea and employed various aircraft, submarines and ships. It was not immediately clear if the missiles were capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Both countries regularly test their missile systems, and usually notify each other ahead of such launches in keeping with a diplomatic agreement. But Friday's launches were followed by a navy statement saying: "These successful tests are a clear message to forces having nefarious designs." – Associated Press

India signaled on Friday it was open to a new round of talks with Pakistan, raising fresh hopes of a thaw in relations after last month's official dialogue between the nuclear-armed rivals produced no breakthrough. The two nations' top diplomats -- their foreign secretaries -- met in New Delhi for their first official talks since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, but just agreed to "keep in touch" without mentioning if there would be another round of talks. What followed the meeting was a bout of acrimonious exchanges between the two sides over what the focus of the dialogue was -- India on terrorism, Pakistan on the disputed region of Kashmir -- worsening the atmosphere for any future talks. "We tried to make a beginning with the foreign secretary talks, but nothing came out of it am afraid," India's Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram told a conference in New Delhi. "But I am told we are still open to another round of talks between the foreign secretaries." - Reuters

Ashley Tellis writes: So long as the Pakistani Army and the security establishment more generally conclude that their private interests (and their conception of the national interest) are undermined by a permanent reconciliation between India and Pakistan, they will not rid themselves of the terrorist groups they have begotten and which serve their purposes—irrespective of what New Delhi or Kabul or Washington may desire. This fact ought to be understood clearly by the Obama administration. Once it is, it may push the United States to either compel Pakistan to initiate action against LeT or hold Pakistan responsible for the actions of its proxies. If these efforts do not bear fruit, the United States will have to contemplate unilateral actions (or cooperative actions with other allies) to neutralize the most dangerous of the terrorist groups now resident in Pakistan. Doing so may be increasingly necessary not simply to prevent a future Indo-Pakistani crisis, but more importantly to protect the United States, its citizens, its interests, and its allies. – Testimony before House Foreign Affairs Committee

Democracy and Human Rights

At a time of heavy international pressure on Iran, the State Department said on Thursday that the human rights situation there had “degenerated” since the disputed presidential election last year. In a toughly worded analysis, the department cited killings of election protesters and acts of politically motivated torture, beatings and rape. “An already poor human rights situation rapidly deteriorated after the June elections,” said Michael Posner, assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and labor, as the department released its overview of human rights around the world in 2009. “At least 45 people were killed in clashes,” he said. The voluminous report, an annual assessment called for by law, also broadly criticized practices in China. Mr. Posner called them “poor and worsening.” The report cites increased repression of ethnic and religious minorities, increased detention and harassment of activists and public-interest lawyers, and continuing repression in Tibet. It also criticizes the Chinese government’s control of the Internet in that country, though the report did not include the complaints early this year by Google executives about a series of major cyberattacks originating in China. Beijing has vigorously denied having any role in those attacks. Mr. Posner said that in places like China and Iran, “connective technologies” had proved to be double-edged. While they allow a ferment of sometimes spontaneous organizational activities by dissidents and government critics, they also give governments “greater energy in curtailing freedom of expression.” – New York Times

In the last three months, as Western officials reached out to Syria, its security services have detained numerous human rights activists, journalists, and students who tried to exercise their rights to free expression and assembly. In February alone, Prime Minister Francois Fillon of France and US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns have visited Damascus. “As the last few months have demonstrated, talking to Syria without putting its rights record on the table emboldens the government to believe that it can do whatever it wants to its people, without consequence,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “A message to Syria that says ‘We only care about your external affairs’ is a green light for repression.” – Human Rights Watch

China accused the United States of destabilizing the world economy and meddling on Friday - its standard response to Washington's annual review of Beijing's human rights record…The Chinese response touched on America's gun crime and prison population and offered sweeping statements that often mirrored charges in the U.S. report.  "In the United States, civil and political rights of citizens are severely restricted and violated by the government," read one statement in a report. "Workers' rights were seriously violated," said another.  The Chinese report alleged rising American problems with crime, poverty, homelessness and "chronic" racial discrimination, called U.S. college campuses unsafe and said spying on U.S. citizens by their government had reached unprecedented levels. The U.S. report is drawn largely from the work of rights groups and American diplomats, while the Chinese report mainly cited U.S. media reports as evidence of its claims. – Associated Press

China's top Internet regulator insisted Friday that Google must obey its laws or "pay the consequences," giving no sign of a possible compromise in their dispute over censorship and hacking. "If you want to do something that disobeys Chinese law and regulations, you are unfriendly, you are irresponsible and you will have to pay the consequences," Li Yizhong, the minister of Industry and Information Technology, said on the sidelines of China's annual legislature. Li gave no details of Beijing's talks with Google Inc. over the search engine's January announcement that it planned to stop complying with Chinese Internet censorship rules and might close its China-based site."Whether they leave or not is up to them," Li said. "But if they leave, China's Internet market is still going to develop." China has the world's most populous Internet market, with 384 million people online. Google has about 35 percent of the Chinese search market, compared with about 60 percent for local rival Baidu Inc. Chinese users of Google and even some of China's state-controlled media have warned the loss of a major competitor could slow the industry's development. – Associated Press

Middle East

Defense secretary Robert M. Gates met on Thursday with the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates as part of an intensifying American effort to build up defenses with Arab allies and contain Iran’s military might in the Persian Gulf. Mr. Gates, who is a vital player in the Obama administration’s campaign to put more pressure on Iran, focused in his talks with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayyed al Nuhayyan on the American effort to seek tougher sanctions against Iran. Mr. Gates told reporters afterward that there was broad support in the Gulf for new sanctions, even though he made no predictions that they would work. The administration only recently abandoned an attempt to engage Iran diplomatically to persuade it to give up its nuclear program, which Iran insists is for peaceful purposes and Western nations believe is part of a covert nuclear arms program. “I think there is an understanding that we have to try this, this is the next step,” Mr. Gates said at the Emirates Palace hotel, speaking of the sanctions. Although engaging Iran had produced no results, he said, “the engagement policy served to expose the Iranian government to the rest of the world, in terms of its policies, for what it is.” – New York Times

Laura Rozen cites Israeli journalist Shimon Shiffer:  While standing in front of the cameras, the U.S. vice president made an effort to smile at Binyamin Netanyahu even after having learned on Tuesday that the Interior Ministry had approved plans to build 1,600 housing units in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo. But in closed conversations, Joe Biden took an entirely different tone. ...People who heard what Biden said were stunned. “This is starting to get dangerous for us,” Biden castigated his interlocutors. “What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace.” The vice president told his Israeli hosts that since many people in the Muslim world perceived a connection between Israel’s actions and US policy, any decision about construction that undermines Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem could have an impact on the personal safety of American troops fighting against Islamic terrorism. - Politico

Europe/Russia

Gary Schmitt writes:  Last week, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev visited Paris to wrap up the sale of the French warship, the Mistral, to Russia. In turn, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was able to announce that France would get a stake in the Russian-sponsored Nord Stream natural gas pipeline and an increase in supplies of gas from Russia starting in 2015.  All this wheeling and dealing is hardly the epitome of great statesmanship. Nevertheless, it has become expected as European governments seek to close the gap between their own shrinking energy resources with those provided by Russian mega-supplier, Gazprom. – Wall Street Journal (Subscription Required)

Defense

The F-35 Lightning II strike fighter program will breach the Nunn-McCurdy limits with a cost growth of more than 50 percent from the original 2001 program baseline, said a top Pentagon program evaluator.  Christine Fox, director of DoD's Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, told lawmakers March 11 that the formal declaration of the breach will occur on April 1. She said the Pentagon has known of this since October. That's one month earlier than had previously been reported. DoD's latest estimates predict that each of the jets slated to be purchased will carry a price tag of between $80 mil and $95 mil in 2002 dollars. That's $95 mil and $113 mil in 2009 dollars, respectively. In 2001, the DoD pegged the cost per Joint Strike Fighter at $50.2 mil apiece for 2,852 jets. The Pentagon updated that estimate to $69.2 mil in 2007 for a planned order of 2,443 jets. – Defense News

Ideas

Ann Marlowe writes:  In our Afghan counterinsurgency, some of our best weapons are exactly those traits of our society that are least comprehensible by the insurgents—and most alien to their culture. The popular image of the Americans’ big bombs and drones fighting IED-planting guys in flip-flops and pajamas who live in mud-brick houses isn’t false. But it’s perhaps the least interesting part of the picture. A combination of social and mathematical analysis is likely to be a better weapon in the long run. And these abilities simply don’t develop in closed societies where critical thinking is not valued—like the jihadi circles of the Middle East and Afghanistan. – World Affairs Journal

John Noonan writes:  Today FDR's vision of the world's democracies armed with American muscle lives on. Blackhawk helicopters were instrumental in helping the Colombian government knock back vicious FARC rebels. Democratic Israel's existence rests on her superiorly trained defense forces -- and advanced U.S. manufactured warplanes. American built howitizers and tanks provide the South Korean Army with the means to deter an aggressive totalitarian neighbor, while American Patriot missile batteries give communist China's ambitions for Taiwan pause. That's why it's in our interest to sell the F-22 to Japan, Australia, and Israel -- and precisely why we should be upgrading Taiwan's Block A/B F-16s to better match China's Su-30 interceptors. Wherever there's a free nation threatened, American weapons are there to keep the wolves at bay. – The Weekly Standard Blog

Victor Davis Hanson writes:  Almost every element of Barack Obama’s once-heralded new “reset” foreign policy of a year ago either has been reset or likely soon will be…By voluntarily backtracking — or being rebuffed — on almost all his initiatives, an idealistic Obama is reminding the world that anti-Americanism abroad is not caused so much by what the United States does, but largely by preconceived hostility to the values of liberty, free markets, and individual rights that the United States represents. – National Review Online

Walter Laqueur writes:  It is important to stop the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programmes but it is also clear that Washington will not get much help from its allies or the UN. A "comprehensive policy towards Pakistan" would be exceedingly useful but no one has found a way to achieve this. In brief, it is far easier to recognise the dangers than to point to ways and means of averting them. Meanwhile, as the most recent progress report says, the clock is ticking. Even the most radical sceptics do not claim that a terrorist attack with nuclear weapons is impossible and that it will never happen. Nor do those who think that such an attack is more likely than not maintain that the worst-case scenario is inevitable.  There is no certainty that it can be prevented. But it is certain that such an attempt could be made more difficult. The best way to this end is to make it as clear as possible what the reaction to such an attack would be. - Standpoint

Americas

Homicides in Venezuela have quadrupled during President Hugo Chavez's 11 years in power, with two people murdered every hour, according to new figures from a non-governmental organization. The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence (OVV), whose data is widely followed in the absence of official statistics, said the South American nation has one of the highest crime rates on the continent, with 54 homicides per 100,000 citizens in 2009.  That rate is only surpassed in Latin America by El Salvador where 70 in every 100,000 citizens were murdered last year, the OVV said, citing official statistics from that country.  Crime repeatedly comes first on Venezuelans' list of worries. It has also begun to drag on Chavez's traditionally high approval ratings as well as scare tourists who come to Venezuela.  "The problem is not so much the criminals, but rather the government's inaction and lack of policies," OVV director Roberto Briceno Leon told Reuters. - Reuters

A powerful drug cartel is buying off journalists in northern Mexico to work as spies and smother coverage of a spike in killings on the U.S. border in the latest attack on the media in Mexico.  Hitmen from the Gulf cartel based over the border from Texas are paying reporters around $500 a month and showering them with liquor and prostitutes to intimidate and silence colleagues at radio stations and newspapers in towns near the Laredo-Brownsville area, journalists and editors say. A turf war that has erupted over the past three weeks around the manufacturing city of Reynosa has gone almost completely unreported despite more than 100 deaths, in a news blackout made more notable by the intense media coverage of other drug war flashpoints around the country. Across Mexico, nearly 19,000 people have been killed in drug violence since President Felipe Calderon came to power in late 2006 and launched a military-backed campaign against drug cartels…For years, ill-paid Mexican reporters have occasionally been forced by cartel gunmen to take money to report favorably on traffickers or hush up killings, but the Gulf cartel now appears able to impose an almost total muzzle on reporting violence from Nuevo Laredo to Matamoros. - Reuters

Horn of Africa

The United Nations World Food Program announced Thursday that it would not give any new contracts to three Somali businessmen who have been accused of diverting food aid to Islamist militants and that the agency would welcome an independent investigation into its Somalia operations.  For months, World Food Program officials had denied mounting allegations that the contractors that they use to haul hundreds of millions of dollars of food into Somalia were stealing some of the food and funneling it to Islamist militants trying to topple Somalia’s weak transitional government. The decision follows a harsh new United Nations report, whose pointed findings were first disclosed in The New York Times this week, that said that up to half the food aid to Somalia may be getting diverted. The report also accused Somali officials of selling visas for diplomatic trips to pirates and militants. The World Food Program is the single largest aid agency in Somalia and a lifeline to more than two million Somalis. On Thursday, the program’s executive director, Josette Sheeran, said, “The integrity of our organization is paramount, and we will be reviewing and investigating each and every issue raised by this report.” The program also said that some of the accusations in the new report “conflicted with operational facts and information.” – New York Times

The death toll from two days of fighting in Somalia's capital between government forces and al Shabaab rebels has risen to 54, ambulance services said on Thursday as clashes subsided with both sides claiming successes. The government urged residents to vacate the areas where fighting had taken place as it planned to take on the rebels again, but said it had not yet started a long-awaited offensive to dislodge the insurgents from Mogadishu once and for all. "The government was just counter-attacking the rebels. We are going to fight the rebels as planned, let civilians around those areas vacate," Abdirisaq Mohamed Nur, Mogadishu's mayor, told reporters. Insurgents have fought the government since the start of 2007 and the Western-backed administration has been hemmed into a few blocks of the capital since a rebel offensive last May. - Reuters

Southeast Asia

Washington's new policy of engagement with Myanmar's military government appears to be failing, a senior U.S. official indicated Friday, noting the junta's decision to bar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from upcoming elections.  This week the government unveiled election laws that prevent the detained Nobel Peace Prize laureate from running for office or even voting in the polls and greatly weaken her National League for Democracy. The date of the elections has not been announced.  The United States recently modified its strict policy of isolating the junta in the hope that increased engagement would encourage change. However, the Obama administration has said it will not lift sanctions on Myanmar unless its sees concrete progress toward democratic reform - notably freeing Suu Kyi and letting her party participate in elections.  "The U.S. approach was to try to encourage domestic dialogue between the key stakeholders, and the recent promulgation of the election criteria doesn't leave much room for such a dialogue," said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell.  Campbell, speaking to reporters in Bangkok, said the U.S. would continue to talk with all parties inside Myanmar, including the government. But he added: "We're very disappointed, and we are concerned. It's very regrettable. This is not what we had hoped for, and it is a setback." Campbell is on a 10-country Asian trip.  – Associated Press

Anti-government protesters began gathering in Bangkok on Friday for what they promise will be a "million-man march" in coming days to paralyze Thailand's capital and force the government to call elections. About 40,000 soldiers and police fanned out across the city as several thousand red-shirted supporters of deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra began gathering in one of the biggest challenges yet to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva…In five major areas of Bangkok, protesters gathered under searing afternoon sun to listen to speeches by leaders of their movement, the United Front For Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), standing on trucks-turned-makeshift stages. "We are calling for the return of power to the people. Let them decide the fate of this country," one "red shirt" leader, Veera Muksikapong, told cheering supporters. - Reuters

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