Wednesday, August 24, 2016

When 'No Comment' Generates Comment

U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland wouldn't be budged.

Members of the State Department press corps didn't get what they wanted from spokeswoman Victoria Nuland at the September 13 daily briefing, but it wasn't for lack of trying.

Several reporters were chasing U.S. confirmation of a report that the government of Qatar has granted the Taliban permission to open what amounts to a political office there, with Washington's blessing.

The "Times" of London says it talked to a "Western diplomat" who told the newspaper that the office won't be an embassy, but a “residence where they can be treated like a political party." The newspaper says the move is aimed at enabling the West "to begin formal peace talks with the Taliban."

The article says that "the diplomat stressed that the Taliban would not be permitted use the office for fundraising or in support of their armed struggle in Afghanistan."

If true, the report would signal a major development in U.S. policy, so it's not surprising that State Department reporters didn’t want to take 'no' for an answer when they questioned the unflappable Nuland about it.

Here's what happened when it came up:

First Reporter: "On Qatar: The government there says they've allowed the Taliban to open up a liaison office as a matter of goodwill, and they say they've spoken with the United States government about it and received the U.S.'s blessing. Do you have any comment on that? Is that true? And what does this say about the future of possible reconciliation talks?"

Nuland: "We have nothing for you on that, [reporter's name], nothing further."

Second Reporter: Why not?

First Reporter: "Why not? Is that an accurate report, when they say that the U.S. has given its blessing?"

Nuland: "I'm not prepared to comment one way or the other on that one. I apologize."

Second Reporter: "Do you recognize the Taliban?"

First Reporter: "Do you have any comment– is it true that they have opened this office, can you confirm that much?"

Nuland: "I can't, one way or the other."

First Reporter: "Well, presumably I could probably walk up to it if I went to Doha, but, so, you can't confirm that from the podium?"

Nuland: "I don't have anything for you on that subject at all."

After a third reporter tried her luck and got more variations on "no comment," a fourth reporter spoke up. Was Nuland not saying anything, he asked, "because members of this group just attacked [the] U.S. Embassy this morning in Kabul?" The reference was to the series of coordinated attacks on the U.S. Embassy and NATO compound earlier that day.

"I have nothing further to say on this subject," Nuland responded.

Unconfirmed though it may be, the report of a possible Taliban office in Qatar has followed a potentially related development. Two weeks ago, the insurgent group's leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, released a statement suggesting that he was open to negotiations with the United States to end the war.

That's something the White House has pushed for. In an interview with the BBC this spring, President Obama said: "There needs to be a political settlement. Ultimately, it means talking to the Taliban." 

Maybe he's about to do exactly that?

-- Heather Maher

First U.S. Ambassador To Moldova Reflects On Pace Of Change

Mary Pendleton was Washington's ambassador in Chisinau from 1992 to 1995.

On August 31, RFE/RL spoke to Mary Pendleton, Washington’s first ambassador in Chisinau (1992-1995), on the sidelines of an event at the National Endowment for Democracy called "Moldova’s Transition: 20 Years of Challenges and Successes."

She told RFE/RL that the pace of democratic reform in the tiny country has fallen short of initial expectations, at least partially due to early Western hope for post-Soviet countries that outstripped reality.

"[Moldova] fell short of everybody's expectations because everybody's expectations were unreasonable -- unrealistic," she said.

"We all expected it to move along a lot faster than it did, for everything to be resolved quickly, and we never expected in 1992 that the Transnistria problem would still be there.

"We never expected that with all the work they did to get their legal system into place that there would be such serious problems with corruption and trafficking of people. The laws are there -- it’s just a matter of enforcing them and strengthening the system."

On August 31, 1989, Moldova’s Supreme Soviet passed a law allowing for the use of Latin script for the Romanian language -- a linguistic precursor of more profound changes to come.

But even this change, Pendleton recalls, came more slowly than she had expected.

As late as 1992, she says, the National Opera’s program used Cyrillic script.

“Even until 1993, I would get menus in Cyrillic -- but that was because many didn’t yet have typewriters with Latin letters,” says the ambassador.

One of Pendleton’s favorite anecdotes from independent Moldova’s nascent years involves the U.S. government’s efforts to buy its embassy property -- no easy task in the early days of privatization:

"[Moldovan President Mircea Snegur] called me up one day and said, 'OK madam ambassador, you can go and buy your property.' So I called the mayor [of Chisinau] and talked to him about it and he said, 'Oh no, you can't do this. You're not a physical person.' I didn't know what that meant -- I thought I was pretty human, you know!

He said, 'You're not buying it for yourself, you're buying it on behalf of your government, so you're a non-physical person. So you have to go back to the parliament and tell them to do an amendment [to the new property ownership laws] to include non-physical persons’ -- which we did, and ultimately they did. In August 1995, two weeks before I left Moldova, we were able to complete the purchase. It was important not only for us but also for the Moldovans, because it gave them the money to buy their own embassy property in the United States."

Pendleton says she’s optimistic that further democratic reform is coming to Moldova, but adds that even 20 years after independence, the pace of that change still leaves some Western observers impatient.

-- Richard Solash

Washington's Linkage Of Iran And Al-Qaeda Could Have Consequences For Nuclear Talks

Ayman al-Zawahri is the new leader of Al-Qaeda, which the U.S. government says Tehran is helping.

The U.S. government has accused Iran of permitting Al-Qaeda operatives to funnel a substantial amount of money through its territory to their leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

On July 28, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, also known as Yasin al-Suri, who it calls a prominent Iran-based facilitator, and five other members of his network.

According to U.S. officials, Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil has been operating in Iran under an agreement between Al-Qaeda and the Tehran government.

In its statement, the Treasury Department said, "The network serves as the core pipeline through which Al-Qaeda moves money, facilitators, and operatives from across the Middle East to South Asia."

This isn't the first time Washington has drawn a link between Iran and the terrorist group. The 9/11 Commission also reported finding evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of Al-Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

Indeed, there have been persistent reports about ties between Iran and Al-Qaeda for years, which is not surprising, given that many hard-line Sunni militants who back Al-Qaeda see the Shi'ite Islam dominant in Iran as heretical.

In 2003, "The Washington Post" reported on the relationship between Ahmad Vahidi, currently Iran's defense minister, and Ayman al-Zawahri, the then-No. 2 in Al-Qaeda who took over leadership of the group following Osama bin Ladin's May 2 death at the hands of U.S. forces.

In the wake of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, several senior Al-Qaeda operatives who fled Afghanistan surfaced in Iran, where the clerical regime kept some of them under house arrest.

Osama bin Laden's son, Saad, also lived in Iran until he was released by Iranian security forces in 2009. And Western intelligence officials say Al-Qaeda's top military strategist, Saif al-Adel, is currently living there.

So suggestions of links between Iran and Al-Qaeda are not news. What makes the Treasury Department's statement different from previous U.S. reports is its certainty of a strong and explicit link between Tehran and the terrorist network.

"The Treasury Department is effectively accusing Iran of being an important link in Al-Qaeda’s financing and recruitment. The designation states that this relationship dates back six years, to 2005. Both of those are new developments," says Patrick Clawson, a scholar and Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Houshang Hassan-Yari, of the Royal Military College of Canada, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that not only has an explicit link now been established between Iran and Al-Qaeda, but the key players in that link have also been identified. "During the Bush Administration [the link] was based on guesswork, but now it seems that the Americans have reached a definitive conclusion," he said.

Iran's assistance to Al-Qaeda may be aimed at driving U.S. forces out of the Middle East, but some experts believe that it could be Iran's way of pushing back on Washington in response to U.S. leadership on tough international sanctions.

Clawson says that strategy may actually harden the international community's resolve to punish Iran for its lack of transparency in its nuclear program. 

He says it could further complicate Tehran's negotiations with the P5+1 countries and lead to a "broader and deeper international consensus that the source of the nuclear impasse lies in Iran and not the United States and Europe."

On the other hand, Washington's action just might lead to a reduction in the activity of Al-Qaeda's Iran-based operatives, says Houshang Hassan-Yari.

Because they've now been identified by name, he says, they "might be cautious and limit their activities."

And not just them, but anyone in a position to know about their activities. "Those in Iran who are in touch with these men or control them would be cautious, too. By announcing their names, America [may] benefit."

-- Hossein Aryan

Tags:Iranian nuclear program, Al-Qaeda

That Mysterious Terrorism List

This jihadi's Russian, so he doesn't count

A few weeks ago the EurasiaNet website came up with an odd little story from the depths of the U.S. bureaucracy. (Hat tip to Joshua Kucera at the Bug Pit.) It turns out that the U.S. immigration service has a list of “Specially Designated Countries” that are considered to have links with terrorism.
Here’s how it works: If you’re a foreign national and you’re detained on immigration charges by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), there are two things that might happen to you. First they’ll check your name against a general terrorism watch list. But if you happen to be the citizen of one of those Specially Designated Countries, they’ll also run you through an additional screening to see whether there are any other government agencies that have been investigating you as a possible terrorist.
You can see the list of those countries here (see Appendix D, p. 18). The list is part of a report published in May by the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which took a look at whether ICE was performing all the checks it was supposed to be. As the EurasiaNet story pointed out, the list includes the Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. The former is a tightly run dictatorship that has never experienced a confirmed terrorist attack in its modern history. The second is a somewhat softer dictatorship that has no significant track record of terrorism at all (though that could be changing as we write). The Kazakhs have reacted to their inclusion on the list with considerable irritation.

Yet the list doesn’t include Russia or China, two countries that are currently battling Islamist groups within their own borders.
We were curious about this, so after a lot of telephoning around we finally managed to get ICE spokesperson Ross Feinstein to comment. In his emailed statement, he says that the screening procedure based on Specially Designated Countries “does not create or infer [sic] any terrorism designations on countries.” He also points out that the list has been in existence since 2005, and notes that “countries may have been included on the list because of the backgrounds of arrestees, not because of the country’s government itself.” In other words, individual conduct by one of its citizens is enough to get a country on the list.
Okay, fine. Yet this contradicts the text of the OIG report, which specifically says that the countries that make it onto the list “have shown a tendency to promote, produce, or protect terrorist organizations or their members.” Ah ha, so then it is about the countries themselves!
Or not. Take your pick.
Perhaps this is reading too much into it, but the whole story would seem to suggest a bit of conceptual confusion at the heart of America’s bureaucratic response to terrorism. How do we define terrorism? Does a terrorist only really count as one if he or she comes from a majority Muslim country? Will Norway now join the list of Specially Designated Countries?
Perhaps someone can figure this out for us.

- Christian Caryl

The Problem With Closure: Thoughts From Washington

Vukovar in 1991

It's tempting to say that the arrest of Goran Hadzic draws a line under the 1991-99 Balkan wars. There were 161 people on the list of war criminals sought by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Hadzic was the 161st .

The 53-year-old Hadzic has been on the run for more than a decade since he was indicted in 2004 on 14 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. His most flagrant offense was committed in the eastern Croatian city of Vukovar, which fell to Serbian forces in the autumn of 1991 following a three-month siege. Forces loyal to the Serbian breakaway government in the region, headed by Hadzic, took more than 260 people from the town's hospital and killed them.

Hadzic was apprehended less than two months after the arrest former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic. The international community had long pressured Serbia to arrest the two war crimes suspects. Many observers seem to think that, with Hadzic finally in the dock, the way is now paved for Serbia's integration into European structures and the wider international community.

So are the Balkan wars now truly over?

The arrest and eventual trial of Hadzic will end a very important chapter in international law. Once Hadzic's trial is over the ICTY will have completed its mission. This would not be possible as long as even one fugitive remained at large, says Serbian journalist Dejan Anastasijevic. "This arrest allows the ICTY in The Hague to say that after the last trial is over we have fulfilled our task," he says. "Now they can honorably dismantle."

Hadzic's arrest confirms that Serbian President Boris Tadic is committed to doing whatever must be done to get Serbia past the war. By pushing forward with the arrest of wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in 2008, Mladic earlier in May of this year, and now Hadzic, Tadic has removed the last obstacle on the path toward Serbia's integration into Europe. EU foreign-policy supremo Catherine Ashton said as much today, when she praised Serbia's move.

Yes, the war in the Balkans is over. The warring sides are being rehabilitated, integrated, cajoled, supported, and gently nudged into the European Union. Croatia is poised to accept full EU membership in 2013. Bosnia-Herzegovina has been recognized as a "potential candidate country." And now Serbia's last external obstacle to membership is gone.

All grounds for satisfaction. Yet at the same time, let's not forget one thing. For thousands of people who lost family members in the Balkan wars, the war will never really be over. For all those who have not been able to bury a body, or to mourn at a grave, the war is an open wound that can never be entirely healed.

This latest arrest, along with the trial to come, will provide some justice -- at least some. There will be no eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. Today's Europe no longer puts people to death for their crimes. And while The Hague tribunal has held the guilty accountable and punished them for their offenses against humanity, the bloody Balkan wars will still haunt us for decades to come. Wars do not end when the fighting stops, or the guilty get their due.

The former Vukovar hospital, where those 260 patients were killed two decades ago, is now a center of remembrance to the victims. Preparations are under way for the 20th anniversary of the siege, which lasted from August to November 1991.

"Wars are not books and not even chapters in books. You cannot just close them, sit down and put them on a shelf somewhere," says Anastasijevic. Closure, that quintessentially American concept, is a modest, two-syllable word. Yet coping with the past is a process that never really ends. You don't achieve it by getting the last bad guy on the list.

-- Irena Chalupa

Haggling Over Iranian Nukes

Ahmadinejad shows off a centrifuge to mark the National Nuclear Day day in Tehran on April 9, 2010.

People in Washington have all sorts of theories about the Iranian nuclear program. But it's rare to hear someone offer a take that actually takes the psychology of Iranian negotiators into account.
On July 13, the day that Russia laid out a "step-by-step" approach to resolve Iran's nuclear imbroglio, your Outpost correspondent attended a panel on Iranian nuclear strategy at the Hudson Institute, one of Washington's conservative think tanks. One of the people on the panel was Peter Jones, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and an expert on nonproliferation and security in the Middle East. His analysis of the complicated Iranian nuclear issue was a breath of fresh air in an environment where so many experts in Europe, the United States, and Israel are either looking for a speedy resolution to the issue or advocating decisive action against Iran, including a strike against its nuclear sites.
Jones made the case that the military option wouldn't really solve the problem in the long term. First, it would strengthen the stance of the hard-liners and instantly rally the population around a regime that right now is deeply unpopular and struggling to boost its legitimacy. Second, Iran would end its cooperation with the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), drive the program even further underground, and make the regime that much more determined to pursue its nuclear program. "Large-scale military action [against Iran] over a long period of time is politically unsustainable," Jones said.
As far as sanctions are concerned, he acknowledged that they do have an effect. One problem is that Iranian nuclear scientists tend to be faster at achieving results than sanctions are. Another is the high price of oil, which tends to dilute the impact of sanctions. Nevertheless, he saw the refusal of the international community to buy Iranian oil as a possible game-changer.
For Jones, diplomacy -- especially in combination with what he called "indirect action" (meaning, presumably, sabotage) -- is an option that may either bear fruit or at least raise the cost to Iran of pursuing its program. Diplomacy may be "frustrating" or even "maddening," he noted, but often negotiations seem to be the only way forward.
And it was here that Jones touched on the psychological aspect of negotiations with Iranian officials. "Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of buying a carpet in Tehran will know that negotiations are very difficult," he said. "It is a long process. You drink lots of tea and you have lots of inconclusive discussions, and [Iranians] are very good at having a bottom line but not letting you know what it is and making you search for it. It is a very difficult process."
Here he alluded to John Limbert's excellent book "Negotiating with Iran." Limbert is a veteran U.S. diplomat, a fluent Persian speaker who was held captive during the Iran hostage crisis. He is, in short, someone who can't be accused of excessive sympathy for the mullahs. Building on Limbert's observations, Jones suggested that negotiators keep a few basic principles in mind. First, "the past matters to [Iranians]" -- meaning, basically, keep in mind the potent combination of Iran's historical greatness, its recent weakness, and the sense of grievance that sometimes results. Second, the Islamic republic's priority is survival. Third, "it is up to [the Iranians] define their interests." We may not think that Iranians need civilian nuclear power -- but for us to begin the process of negotiations by telling them that they have no need for a nuclear program is a good way to undermine the whole exercise.

For those in the West who argue that Iranians are "crazy," and that all they understand is force and threats, Jones had this to say: "I don't know if you've ever had the pleasure of dealing with truly crazy people, but slapping them around rarely makes them more sensible. It just tends to confirm the paranoias that made them crazy in the first place."

Jones alluded to another of Limbert's rules by noting that Iranians tend to respect power and despise weakness. "Appearing weak in the face of outside pressure is fatal in the brutal world of Iranian politics. You will not last a second under those circumstances. I have seen many circumstances [in which] a very good deal, a very good deal from the Iranian point of view, would be walked away from, if it makes the Iranians look weak."

And what about regime change? Jones noted that the Islamic republic has already survived a brutal revolution and survived a vicious war with Iraq that took hundreds of thousands of lives. It is a complex and multiheaded regime and perhaps nothing but a "massive internal uprising" can bring it down.

"If the present regime does fall, there is no guarantee that what would eventually replace it would be any better for us," Jones said. "It almost certainly would be no less interested in acquiring a nuclear option because in many ways the nuclear option is not seen as Islamic.... It is seen as a hard rational choice made by them based on their history and their geostrategic situation."

He concluded his comments by saying that there is no real answer to Iran's nuclear program but a combination of diplomacy, sanctions and indirect action. Stopping the program in its track or rolling it back is not possible. Western countries should find an Iranian nuclear program that they can live with and find ways to contain it. Deterrence has worked in the past, he said. There's no reason why it can't work again.

-- Hossein Aryan

Tags:Iranian nuclear program

So What Do Pakistan's Reporters Think?

Shahzad's burial in Karachi, June 1

2010 was not a good year for journalists in Pakistan. It was rated the deadliest country in the world for journalists by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Eight journalists and one media worker were killed.
2011 is shaping up to be just as bad. Two more journalists have been killed in the six weeks since the murder of Saleem Shahzad, whose body was found on May 30.
Shahzad’s killing has sent a wave of anxiety through the civilian population and the journalist community. On July 4 The New York Times published an article alleging the involvement of Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), in the murder. The article cites Obama administration officials who claim to have classified intelligence information proving that the ISI was involved in Shahzad’s murder. More recently, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asserted that the Pakistani government "sanctioned” the killing of Shahzad. He is the first top U.S. leader to publicly allege a link between the killing of Shahzad and the Pakistani government. “It’s a way to continue to, quite frankly, spiral in the wrong direction,” Mullen said.
The American accusations touched off a heated response from Islamabad. The Pakistani army responded to theTimes article through its chief spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, who said, “This is a direct attack on our security organization and intelligence agencies.” The Pakistani Information Minister, Firdous Ashiq Awan, took issue with Mullen’s remarks: “The statement by Mike Mullen about Pakistan is extremely irresponsible and unfortunate. This statement will create problems and difficulties for the bilateral relations between Pakistan and America.”

You can be sure that these mutual recriminations came up during ISI chief Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha's visit to Washington this week.
But what do Pakistan’s journalists think?
Time magazine linked the ISI to Shahzad’s disappearance shortly after he went missing – but the case remains a mystery. Mehmal Sarfraz, an editor at Daily Times, said in an email, “Many are asking the US government to make these intelligence reports public so that the evidence can be presented in a court law against the ISI.”
Journalists in Pakistan are skeptical about the evidence and wonder whether this case, like so many others before it, will simply fade away. “We will never know who killed Saleem Shahzad and exactly why they did so,” says reporter Asad Hashim, “and the government doesn’t help its case by engaging in what appears to be only a cursory investigation. There’s a reason Pakistan is ranked 10 on CPJ’s impunity index.”
Some journalists hope this will be a moment of change in the right direction. “The one positive outcome of Saleem Shahzad’s murder is that Pakistani’s are waking up to the ISI’s barbarism. There has been an unprecedented onslaught of criticism by civil society, media, and government officials following the murder and this is the first step to reeling them in and reducing their power,” said Shehrbano Taseer, a journalist for Newsweek Pakistan. It was her father, Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, who was assassinated by his extremist bodyguard earlier this year.
Journalists in Pakistan are increasingly worried not only for themselves but for their families and livelihood as well. “Local journalists are under severe pressures, pressures [involving] their life security and some pressures of losing jobs,” says Azaz Syed of Dawn News. The fear may even be greater for women. Shumaila Jaffery, a senior correspondent for Dunya TV, says, “Being a female journalist I am even more vulnerable. I don’t want to get threatened by any agency or militant group or anybody. We are scared not only to work on big stories but even to comment on them.”
Pakistan’s media have grown drastically over the past few years but media freedom is limited. Henna Saeed of Dawn News writes in an email, “For me uncovering the hidden truth is my foremost duty. It’s a passion that every journalist should have but in this situation few will dare to uncover the truth that involves the ISI.”
“Freedom in a box, of course, is no freedom at all,” says Hashim.
The killing of Shahzad, and the directness of the Americans’ accusations, have given new force to the fears that have plagued Pakistani journalists for years. “For a long time I have felt and often I have been told that ISI keeps an eye on all journalists,” says Saeed. “Yet this story has really shocked me and made me realize to what extent ISI can go ahead to keep journalists silent.” As for relations between the United States and Pakistan, the U.S. announced an $800 million cut in military aid to Pakistan a few days after the remarks by Admiral Mike Mullen on the death of Saleem Shahzad.

- Aisha Chowdhry

About This Blog

"Outpost Washington" looks at what's happening in the U.S. capital through the eyes of Washington-based RFE/RL journalists. Tired of hearing Washingtonians tell you about the rest of the world? It's our job to turn the telescope around and scrutinize events in Washington from a uniquely global perspective. 

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