The Georgian Times is running a piece today on the history of the Roki Tunnel, which runs beneath the Caucasus mountains connecting South Ossetia and Russia. As one of the only routes connecting North and South Ossetia, the tunnel was critical in Russia's ability to launch its counterattack into Georgia on Aug. 8.
Georgians long resisted the construction of the tunnel during the Soviet period, fearful of an influx of North Ossetians into Georgia, but the project was finally greenlit in the early 1990s by Georgia's first communist party secretary and later president Eduard Shevardnadze. The Georgian Times notes:
Shevardnadze perhaps did not imagine, when signing off the Roki project, what a fatal role this tunnel would play in the history of Georgia."
It's still unclear to me why the Georgian military was unable to block the tunnel during their initial incursion into South Ossetia. President Saakashvili claims that this was part of the plan and troops simply did not reach the tunnel in time. But the Georgian air force has fighter jets and helicopters and it seems possible that they could have attacked the tunnel from the air at the same time, or even before the ground assault on Tskhinvali, perhaps delaying the Russian counterattack long enough to better establish their position. Georgia tried (unsuccessfully) to blow up the tunnel during the civil war in 1991 so it's not like this is a new idea.
Any readers with a military background care to weigh in?
Responding to unsolicited French advice about his treatment of Catholics, Josef Stalin once infamously remarked, "The Pope? How many divisions has he got?"
The same question could be asked of Condoleezza Rice, who today demanded "the immediate and orderly withdrawal of Russian armed forces and the return of those forces to Russia." Appearing with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi, the U.S. Secretary of State said firmly: "This must take place and take place now."
We'll see how Russia responds, since frankly the United States has no ability to force the issue. Nor does Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin want to be seen as taking orders from America. The punishments being muttered about in Washington right now -- kicking Russia out of the G-8, deep-sixing its WTO bid, boycotting or trying to kill the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, canceling bilateral meetings -- are pretty underwhelming, I'd imagine, from Russia's point of view.
Still, the Russians ought to be very careful here. If the overarching goal is to intimidate former Soviet satellites from seeking closer ties with the West, they risk doing the opposite: sending such states running pell-mell into America's arms (see: Poland). By overplaying his hand, Putin could turn a victory in Georgia into a major strategic defeat. He ought to find a face-saving way to take Rice's advice.
President Bush Wednesday promised that U.S. naval forces would deliver humanitarian aid to war-torn Georgia before his administration had received approval from Turkey, which controls naval access to the Black Sea, or the Pentagon had planned a seaborne operation, U.S. officials said Thursday.
"The president was writing checks to the Georgians without knowing what he had in the bank," a senior administration official told McClatchy's Jonathan Landay. That would seem to be the larger theme here.
Negotiators have finally hammered out a deal to base U.S. interceptor missiles in Poland. After a deal was reached to base a radar system in the Czech Republic in July, the Poles were the final holdout for America's controversial missile shield, but the agreement was delayed by the Polish demands for Patriot missiles. According to Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, that demand has been met.
This has been in the works for nearly 18 months and was sure to be resolved eventually, but the timing of this announcement makes it hard not to wonder if events in the Caucasus didn't help to move things along. Poland, having seen what can happen to other wayward countries on Russia's periphery, is sure to welcome an American troop presence while the United States, which hasn't done much to help its ally Georgia, gets to demonstrate that it still has friends in the former Eastern bloc.
Russia would appear to have few options for punishing Poland, a member of both the EU and NATO with a far larger military and economy than Georgia, but after last week it would be foolish to underestimate what Vladimir Putin can accomplish with limited military and political resources.
UPDATE: Killer quote from Tusk:
Poland and the Poles do not want to be in alliances in which assistance comes at some point later - it is no good when assistance comes to dead people. Poland wants to be in alliances where assistance comes in the very first hours of - knock on wood - any possible conflict."
President George W. Bush has announced that the U.S. military will be delivering humanitarian aid to Georgia, a move that his Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili has described as a "turning point."
The announcement, along with the withdrawal plan that Dmitry Medvedev signed on to this morning, seems like a sign that the war is winding down into the clean-up and recovery phase. Russia's foreign ministry is not thrilled about U.S military involvement but says they're open to "consultations" about how best to deliver aid. (Corrected. See comments.)
The only problem is, Russian troops don't seem in any hurry to leave Georgia. Russian tanks, along with "irregular" volunteers from the North Caucasus, contine to occupy the city of Gori. According to the Russians' laughable explanation, they're sticking around to protect the local population from irregulars, who are stealing cars. This menacing quote from a Russian tank commander doesn't make it sound like he's getting ready to pack up:
It all depends on what Saakashvili is going to say. If he doesn't understand the situation, we'll have to go further. It's only 60 kilometers to Tbilisi."
It's still early to speculate, but it's possible that Russia, in fact, has no intention of leaving Georgia. The longer Ossetian and Abkhazian forces stay within the country proper, the more likely it is that Georgia will be provoked into firing back, giving the Russians a pretext for further military action. So, despite this morning's hopeful signs, Georgia is far from out of the woods yet.
One final observation: If the worst-case scenario does come true, serious questions will be raised over whether any statement by Dmitry Medvedev has any basis in the reality of Russian policy.
Writing in the feverish runup to the Iraq war, the National Review's Jonah Goldberg endorsed the following foreign-policy doctrine, which he attributed to his colleague Michael Ledeen:
Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business."
This was never a wise prescription for U.S. policy, but it is a remarkably apt description of what Russia just did to Georgia.
Could Russia have responded to Georgia's assault on South Ossetia in a more measured way? Sure. But from Vladimir Putin's perspective, this was a great opportunity to teach Georgia a lesson and encourager les autres along its periphery. And by shutting the operation day just a few days in, Russia has probably avoided a coherent, punitive Western response.
Over the long term, certainly, Europe and the United States will eye Russia with much greater suspicion. And this war is certainly going to strengthen the Russia hawks, who see their views vindicated.
Inside Russia, it is a victory for the cold warriors and a huge embarrassment for Dmitry Medvedev, who was finally exposed this weekend as a Potemkin president when Putin visibly took charge of the situation. That could doom Medvedev's efforts to crack down on corruption and promote the rule of law -- vital reforms that would ultimately do more good for Russia than any amount of mucking around in the former Soviet Union.
The question now is: Will Russia overreach? Fresh off their blitzkrieg victory in Georgia, will Putin & co. try to stir up fresh troubles in the Crimea? What kind of punishment will they try and mete out to Poland and the Baltic states for supporting Georgia? To the Czech Republic? We can only wait and see.
Here's the latest on this fast-moving conflict:
UPDATE: The New York Times reports that the situation is "nearing all-out war," with Russia landing troops on Georgia's Black Sea coast.
... John McCreary comments: "Saakashvili gambled and lost. After Russia finishes crippling Georgian military capabilities, negotiations should begin."
The situation in Georgia is evolving rapidly. Here are some of the latest developments:
Watch this space for more.
Defying warnings from Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, around 1,000 volunteers from Abkhazia, Georgia's other breakaway province are headed to South Ossetia to aid seperatists there against the Georgian military. Abkhazia's foreign minister told Der Spiegel:
We understand very well that we Abkhazians are next in line after South Ossetia. If the situation doesn't stabilize again, then we will have to open a second front.
Abkhazia's tensions with Tblisi have been getting far more media attention than South Ossetia's over the past few months. The status of both territories have been a matter of dispute since the end of bloody civil wars in the early 1990s and both are backed by Russia in their bids for independence.
Officers in Mauritania's military have overthrown the government of President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi and established a ruling military junta led by the former chief guard to the president. Abdallahi had been the first democratically elected leader in 20 years, but has come under fire recently for catering to hard-line Islamists. The coup comes after two weeks of political turmoil, which included a vote of no-confidence in the cabinet, a walk-out by 48 members of parliament and the dismissal of several top military officials. The president's daughter called it "a textbook coup d'etat."
Mauritania is an oil-rich country, one that scientists in 2006 predicted could churn out 300,000 barrels of oil a day. While this is just a drop in the barrel relative to the global oil market (Saudi Arabia alone provides over 10 million barrels a day), the volatile mixture of oil and political instability is never good for a country or for a region, as the Nigerian example clearly shows. It is also noteworthy that Mauritania is an Islamic republic that recognizes Israel, and that it has its own terrorism problem, with four French tourists murdered last December by al Qaeda affiliates.
Although these factors might make you think that Mauritania is a nation of strategic interest for the U.S., it shouldn't exactly shock you that this isn't making headline news in American newspapers. You almost need a shovel to find it on the websites of The New York Times or The Washington Post. A state department spokesman condemned the illegal seizure of power, but that's likely to be the extent of it.
With Darfur still the atrocity du jour, it may be hard for many Westerners to pay attention to more than one crisis in Africa.
Some straight talk from Moammar el-Qaddafi:
What Iran is doing stems simply from arrogance," Gaddafi said during a visit to Tunisia after Tehran ignored another western deadline to accept an incentives package in exchange for full transparency on its nuclear drive. [...]
"In the event of a decision against Iran, this country will suffer the same outcome as Iraq... Iran is not any stronger than Iraq and won't have the means to resist (a military attack) on its own... The challenges are greater and exceed Iran's ability to reply."
During the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many social scientists have decried the U.S. Defense Department's lack of cultural sensitivity. Now, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a former president of Texas A&M University, is doing something about it. He has announced Project Minerva, which will fund research by social scientists on topics such as the influence of religion and economics on terrorism.
Rather than welcoming Project Minerva, however, many academics, particularly anthropologists, oppose it. In the recent FP Web exclusive "When Professors Go to War," anthropologist Hugh Gusterson wrote that many anthropologists -- who are in a largely left-leaning discipline -- simply won't stomach being funded by the Pentagon. Thus, those social scientists who do apply for funding will be a thin slice who have no qualms about accepting the Defense Department's money. This will lead to "selection bias," in which only a narrow range of perspectives end up being funded.
In response, Duke University professor Peter Feaver argues this week in "Pentagon Funding? Bring It On." that the challenge of selection bias can be overcome and that Gates is committed to openness and academic freedom. Proposals will be selected on the importance of the topic being investigated and the quality of the methodology -- and not on whether the results will end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy for the military.
What do you all think? Should social scientists be funded by the Defense Department in an effort to bring more cultural sensitivity to the military's methods? Who's right? Gusterson or Feaver?
With all the recent talk of withdrawal and the surge, it's easy to forget that the U.S. military remains stretched dangerously thin. The latest evidence? Unqualified soldiers are being promoted to sergeant, Salon reports. Given that noncommissioned officers are at the core of combat ops and training, this could be a big problem.
Called "paper boarding," the expedited promotions process can have some pretty nasty results. Officers lacking proper training and experience are often ill-equipped to deal with the realities of battle leadership. One of Salon's military sources recounted some paper-boarded officers who "freaked out" in battle, resulting in an incident that left their platoons badly shaken. Plus, guys who get an unfair job boost aren't likely to make friends with the older recruits who had to earn their stripes. If there is anything crucial in combat, it's keeping up morale -- and looking out for the guy next to you.
Along with paper-boarding, the military has used some other questionable tactics in the past few years to deal with its retainment and recruitment woes. In 2005, stop-loss policies (compulsory retirement postponments), along with lower standards for criminal background checks and officer competency, became common practice. Some longtime sergeants have noted serious declines in standards as a result, like the promotion of soldiers considered "trainable" rather than ready to lead. The huge reduction in the number of occupational specialty shortages (such as for artillery expertise) also draws attention to the military's hiring and promotion frenzy. Since 2005, 74 percent of those vacancies have been filled. This might be good in theory, but it calls vetting practices into serious question.
With plans to add 65,000 soldiers to its ranks by 2010, the Army is going to be on the lookout for more sergeants and junior officers (particularly if Afghanistan gets more U.S. troops). Lets hope the promotion process gets a bit more stringent in the meantime.
According to the Christian Science Monitor's Fred Weir, Dmitry Medvedev has a plan to avert a new cold war. Last month in Berlin, Medvedev proposed the formation of a new European defense pact which would include not only Europe but the countries of the former Soviet Union as well. Dubbed, the "European Atlantic Treaty Organization" or "EATO" by analysts, the organization would take the place of the dreaded NATO which has been creeping its way ever closer to Russia's borders in the last two decades and represent "big Europe without dividing lines."
The alternative, as Moscow has hinted over the last few weeks, is increasingly militarized tension over the issues of NATO expansion and missile defense. The most extreme hint was the dubious but seemingly intentional leak of a proposal to base Russian bombers in Cuba.
Weir believes that the proposal will be a central theme of Medvedev's foreign policy. Unfortunately, the idea has same problem that afflicts Russia's diplomatic efforts more generally: Medvedev hasn't made it clear why this would be a good idea for anyone except Russia and hasn't offered any inducements to get on board besides vague threats.
Until the members of NATO and the countries desperately trying to join it get an explanation why they would be better off in an organization with Russia as a founding member, ideas like EATO are only going to deepen the fault lines.
Pakistan and India traded shots across the so-called Line of Control in Kashmir for at least 12 hours last night. "This is the biggest violation of the cease-fire in the last five years," an Indian army spokesman said. Via e-mail, retired Pentagon analyst John McCreary hints that some elements of the Pakistani security apparatus are up to no good:
Seven incidents in less than two weeks is the highest total for any comparable period in the last five years since the ceasefire began. They indicate a pattern of provocation to increase tension with
Indiaand evidently to embarrass 's parliamentary government, which must contend with violence on both borders. Mortar fire, machinegun bursts and artillery exchanges are the next escalation steps. If those occur, Pakistan 's patience will be exhausted quickly, unless honest brokers intervene to keep the peace. India
U.S. Army soldiers carry shotguns as they walk along a corridor separating what they deem to be the most extreme and dangerous detainees held inside the Camp Bucca detention center located near the Kuwait-Iraq border on May 19, 2008.
I thought yesterday's big bombshell from an anonymous Russian defense source about plans to base Russian bombers in Cuba was totally absurd. I still don't believe this is much more than one overzealous bureaucrat mouthing off to a reporter. But some people are clearly taking the prospect of 1962 redux a bit more seriously.
General Norton Schwartz, the current nominee for Air Force Chief of Staff, was asked how he would respond to such a scenario at his Senate confirmation hearing yesterday. He didn't seem to laugh it off:
I certainly would offer best military advice that we should engage the Russians not to pursue that approach. [...] And if they did, I think we should stand strong and indicate that that is something that crosses a threshold, crosses a red line for the United States of America."
Meanwhile in Moscow, the story has ignited something of a media scandal. The Defense Ministry has denied the plans and accused Izvestia, the newspaper that originally reported the story, of fabricating the crucial quote and running the story under a false byline. Izvestia's editor is standing behind the piece, saying that the reporter's byline was changed because of the sensitive nature of the scoop. Considering Russia's media climate, that is somewhat plausible.
But what do the Cubans think about all this? The Miami Herald's Cuban Colada blog links to this article (Word document) by University of Miami Cuba expert Jaime Suchlicki, who says that while it's unlikely Raul Castro would ever go for such a risky scheme given the instability of his own regime, Russia's new best friend Hugo Chávez might be up for it.
We'll be keeping an eye out for more reactions.
Nazi Germany's bombing raids on London and other English cities in late 1940 and early 1941 destroyed millions of homes and left thousands of civilians dead. However, an estimated 1 in 10 bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz failed to detonate, and have remained hidden in gardens, fields and building sites.
Using Royal Air Force photographs from the time of the Blitz, as well as maps produced by insurance companies after the war, the Landmark Information Group has developed charts that label the most likely places where unexploded bombs may still be located.
Some 21,000 sites have been labeled as likely to contain unexploded bombs. The makers of this map hope to help builders, contractors and private citizens become more aware of their surroundings. Discoveries of these bombs are fairly common. Just last month, construction on an Olympic site outside of London had to be halted after a 2000-pound bomb was unearthed.
It was a little strange when Russia's foreign ministry vaguely threatened the Czech Republic with military action last week. But now there's even better evidence that Russia's defense establishment is hopelessly stuck in the '60s. An unnamed defense ministry spokesman told the Russian newspaper Izvestia that Russia may be planning a re-enactment of the Cuban missile crisis in retaliation for the U.S.'s planned missile defense shield. Here's the Washington Post's translation:
"While they are deploying the missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, our strategic bombers will already be landing in Cuba."
Last year, a lot of folks noticed when Col. H.R. McMaster, the by-all-accounts brilliant commander who led counterinsurgency efforts in Tal Afar, got passed over for promotion to one-star general. Commenting on the move, Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly wrote, "it certainly doesn't inspire confidence that the military has any intention of supporting serious institutional change in response to 9/11." Desert storm veteran James Joyner called McMaster "just the type of scholar-warrior that the military needs in its flag ranks right now." The counterinsurgency gurus at the Small Wars Journal saw it as "a type of reverse Peter Principle" at work.
These commentators will be pleased to note that McMaster was not doomed to be a lowly colonel forever. After failing to make the Pentagon's annual promotion list twice, he's just been given his first star:
[President Bush nominates] Army Col. Herbert R. McMaster Jr. for promotion to the grade of brigadier general. He is currently enroute to serve as director, concepts development and experimentation, Army Capabilities Integration Center [ARCIC], U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, Fort Monroe, Va.
The ARCIC is a relatively new center that has the potential to be very influential in setting Army doctrine. As the Washington Post's Ann Scott Tyson suggests, the promotion indicates that the counterinsurgency types in the Petraeus mold are gaining the upper hand against the big war crowd.
UPDATE: Via e-mail, retired Lt. Col. John Nagl (now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security) comments:
The selection of my friend and mentor H.R. McMaster for promotion to Brigadier General is another indication that the Army is learning and adapting to the wars of this century--and putting the right people in the right places to drive change. H.R. has had strategic influence on the Army since he was a Major, and he'll be able to do even more with the power of a star behind him. Although I don't know many of the other officers selected for promotion to Brigadier, and many great officers didn't make this list, from all accounts these officers who were picked have the experience, vision, and drive to continue to improve one of America's best learning organizations."
I see that both Barack Obama and John McCain are now calling for more trigger-pullers in Afghanistan, where the situation is deteriorating fast. Obama wants to send about 7,000 additional troops, while McCain is calling for a "surge" modeled on last year's influx of U.S. combat brigades in Iraq. The main difference between the two men appears to be that Obama wants to redeploy troops from Iraq, whereas McCain would withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq at a much slower rate, if at all. [UPDATE: More on McCain's strategy here.]
As the New York Sun's Eli Lake notes, McCain has been coy about exactly what he would do in Afghanistan, as well as what his policy might be toward its problematic southern neighbor, Pakistan.
So, is "more troops" the answer? Not necessarily. "Sending more forces, by itself, is not enough to prevail," the Arizona senator acknowledged today.
What, then? It's hard to say until we see McCain's plan, but a plausible strategy for victory might look like something like this. Seth G. Jones, a sharp analyst at Rand who has recently returned from the region, argues in a new Web exclusive for FP that saving Afghanistan and its president, Hamid Karzai, requires a much broader political and military counterinsurgency approach than exists today. In a nutshell, improving the police, tackling corruption, and stabilizing Pakistan are the keys to success.
Crew of US Navy destroyer Mcfaul 'extinguishes a fire' on the board during of USA-Ukrainian Navy exercises 'Sea Breeze-2008' in Odessa on July 15, 2008. Some seventeen countries joined to take a part in the peacemaking exercises on the Black Sea coast of Ukraine.
The nonpartisan Center for U.S. Global Engagement released a new poll this morning, examining the attitudes of active and recently retired military officers toward non-military tools such as diplomacy and development. The survey found that a "significant majority of officers surveyed embrace a new paradigm in which strengthened diplomacy and development assistance are important companions to traditional military tools for achieving America's national security goals."
Intrigued, I dug up FP's U.S. Military index from the March/April edition, which surveyed active and retired officers on the current state of the U.S. military. While the polls were designed with different aims in mind, I found an interesting discrepancy between two smiliar sections.
From the Center for U.S. Global Engagement:
In evaluating steps the United States could take to achieve our strategic goals and improve national security, officers in our survey rank “strengthening our diplomatic efforts and cooperation with other countries” (83% very/fairly high priority) on par with “increasing counter-insurgency training for our troops” (87%) and “improving our military’s rapid response capabilities” (81%).
Below is a list of things that could potentially assist the U.S. military in winning the Global War on Terror. Please choose the TWO most important things you believe the United States government must do to win the war on terror.
31% More robust diplomatic tools
73% Improve intelligence
21% Increase the size of U.S. ground forces
19% Increase the number of troops with foreign language skills
38% Further increase the size of Special Operations Forces
13% Develop a cadre of operational, deployable civilian experts
14% Increase spending on economic development assistance programs
While the officers polled in the Center for U.S. Global Engagement survey seemed to place diplomacy on the same tier as the use of force, the FP index ranks diplomacy as a distant third. What explains the disparity? Several factors could be at work.
First, the two polls have different demographics. The Center for U.S. Global Engagement surveyed 606 commissioned officers, including 499 active duty offices and 107 who retired since Sept. 11, 2001. FP, on the other hand, polled more than 3,400 officers, 71 percent of whom had retired more than 10 years ago. It's likely the older officers may support more traditional military methods.
More significantly, the Center for U.S. Global Engagement survey allowed officers to rate each strategy in terms of priority, but FP forced respondents to choose the two most important. My guess is that limiting the options forced officers to make a deliberate decision, and when faced with a hard choice the officers chose traditional methods and force over the non-military tools that the Center for U.S. Global Engagement poll highlights.
I'd be curious to see how the results of the Center for U.S. Global Engagement poll would have looked if respondents were faced with the same constraints as the FP index. I'm also curious if this "hard choices" theory explains how budgetary decisions (funding force over diplomacy) are made.
U.S. officials aren't impressed with the Iraqi government's recent noises about setting a hard date or a timeline for the withdrawal of American forces. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday that a drawdown "depends on the situation on the ground," and State Gonzalo Gallegos stressed that any decision to withdraw would be "conditions-based."
The Bush administration seems pretty confident it can convince the Iraqis to back down. After all, the position is logical: Why withdraw if Iraqi security forces aren't ready to assume control? Alternatively, U.S. officials may be privately telling the Iraqis that the requisite conditions will be met soon or by a certain date, so there's no need to set a public timetable.
The trouble with such a strategy would be that it doesn't help Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki very much in fending off the political threat from the radical Moqtada al-Sadr ahead of this fall's provincial elections. As Matt Yglesias explains, one way to work around the contested legal status of U.S. troops in the country, a major stumbling block in the current negotiations, is to tell Iraqis that the troops won't be there much longer anyway. "That should buy the United States an added degree of public support within which to conduct some additional operations and leave the best possible situation behind," he writes.
I doubt it will be so easy to avoid the thorny legal status issue, though, because there are still going to be tens of thousands of troops and contractors in the country for years to come. Even Barack Obama wants to leave some kind of residual force behind. Under what and whose rules will it operate?
As expected, Moscow is apoplectic about the missile defense agreement signed by the Czech Republic and U.S. today in Prague. The Russian foreign ministry issued this ominous-sounding statement in response:
"We will be forced to react not with diplomatic, but with military-technical methods."
The statement did not specify what those methods might be. As I said yesterday, while Vladimir Putin's government isn't known to make idle threats, it isn't really clear what options Russia has for punishing the impudent Czechs. The AP story brings up a statement Putin made back in February suggesting that Russian missiles could be placed in the Baltic Sea region of Kaliningrad to threaten Eastern European states, but that just seems likely to push the Czech government toward more cooperation with the U.S. military.
Guess what guys, it's not 1968 anymore.
Pakistan's rather hapless new government has taken a lot of heat recently for its attempts to negotiate with tribal militants. Critics say the bad guys aren't keeping up their end of the bargain, and attacks in Afghanistan only escalates when the militants don't have to fight on two fronts. Regional expert Daniel Markey explained why some deal-making isn't such a bad thing in a recent piece for ForeignPolicy.com, even if it inevitably fails.
But a recent development suggests that there's ample room for the government to, if not quell the fighting, then at least turn key tribes against one another through savvy talks. Taliban commanders from two tribes in northern Waziristan have just announced a "bloc" against Baitullah Mehsud, who hails from southern Waziristan and claims to lead the Pakistani Taliban movement. Mehsud stands accused of orchestrating the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
According to an analyst quoted by Pakistan's Daily Times, the two tribes "disagree with Baitullah's methods of conducting jihad inside Pakistan" and dislike him personally. Pakistan's new ambassador to Washington, Hussein Haqqani, has vowed that the government is going to take forceful action in the coming days to address a growing militant threat in the tribal regions. But don't be surprised if it engages in a little Machivellian deal-making, too.
Late last week and into the weekend, it seemed as if Taliban militants and other extremist groups had infiltrated the Pakistani city of Peshawar -- a city of three million located at the mouth of the Khyber pass, a critical entry point into Afghanistan. Truckloads of bearded men with guns had been roaming the streets of Peshawar, kidnapping residents, ordering barbers not to shave men's beards, and threatening music and DVD shop owners.
But a strong offensive by the Pakistani security forces over the weekend seems to have cleared out the extremists -- for now. According to Pakistan's Daily Times, no government casualties were reported. Militants (not affiliated with the Taliban) were ordered to refrain from fighting the government. Nevertheless, Washington must be happy with Pakistan's aggresiveness in the tribal areas, as this is the first time that the new coalition government has opted for the military approach.
In the grand scheme of things, this "battle" may mean little save its symbolic importance for both sides. The Pakistani government seems to be indicating it will take a more hard-line stance towards the Taliban and other groups, but militants continue to infiltrate key regional towns and cities at will -- seen recently across the border in Kandahar -- and al Qaeda is feeling quite at home in the tribal areas. Watch this space for updates.
On Friday and on into the weekend, I was amazed by just how little television coverage there was of the Taliban's audicious raid on a Kandahar prison. I've got nothing against Tim Russert, but it's a big story that the Taliban can operate so brazenly. And it gets worse:
Hundreds of Taliban fighters have swarmed into a strategically important district just outside Kandahar.... Arghandab is a rich, heavily populated river valley of orchards and vineyards running northwest from Kandahar into a range of barren mountains that have been a refuge for mujahedeen fighters and Taliban insurgents. Control of Arghandab is considered critical to control of the city of Kandahar and has been the source of forces that have seized the city in the past.
I doubt that a couple hundred Taliban could long resist a concerted counterattack from combined NATO and Afghan forces, which are flying in reinforcements from Kabul. But the Taliban's commanders sure seem to be advertising their operations in the press. As one told the AP, "We've occupied most of the area and it's a good place for fighting. Now we are waiting for the NATO and Afghan forces." What kind of operational security is that?
My guess is that the intent here is not to win on the battlefield, but rather to score a propaganda victory and undermine support for the government of President Hamid Karzai. If Afghans start to believe that Karzai can't even control Kandahar, his supposed stronghold, they might start shading their loyalties in the Taliban's direction. That could have enormous benefits for the bad guys across the country, making it all the more urgent that the good guys win a decisive victory as quickly as possible.
Passport, FP’s flagship blog, brings you news and hidden angles on the biggest stories of the day, as well as insights and under-the-radar gems from around the world.