Dignity, but not in a good cause

I concede to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on all issues related to the procedures regarding American service people killed in action and how to handle condolence calls, presidential or other. If he thinks it is appropriate to mention that a dead soldier knew what he was getting into, so be it. He definitely knows better than I do.

But at about 7 minutes 20 seconds of this video, the dignified Kelly leaves his own area of expertise and goes political, criticizing a member of Congress and giving us a strong whiff of his own radical and reactionary views on American politics. I see no need to concede anything to him on that.

Kelly’s first excursion from things he knows about was a broadside against Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (D-Florida) for listening in on the phone call. He simply ignored the factual circumstances: she happened to be in the family’s car when President Trump’s call was received. She was also a mentor to La David Johnson, the soldier killed, since his childhood. These were well-known facts when Kelly made his statement, so he chose to ignore them.

Then he waxes nostalgic: he bemoans the fact that women, the dignity of life, religion, and Gold Star families are no longer sacred. Women have appropriately asked when was that? When we weren’t allowed to become lawyers and doctors? When we were expected, no matter what our individual talents, to marry and stay home with children? The “dignity of life” is code for Kelly’s anti-abortion views, to which he is entitled. But they are distinctly political views that have nothing to do with the case at hand.

Kelly’s concern that “religion” is no longer sacred I find hard to fathom. Americans are a good deal more religious than their counterparts in other countries. It is true that anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim rhetoric and crime has increased, but somehow I don’t think that was what Kelly meant. He presumably was referring to the acceptance of things like same-sex marriage. As for Gold Star families, Kelly was clearly referring to Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention last year. That was for me a highlight: yes political, but appropriately so, in an appropriate circumstance. Mr. Khan is entitled to speak out for a candidate he favors and against one he opposes.

After this excursion into things once “sacred,” Kelly goes full-bore against Congresswoman Wilson, though he never names her. He calls her an “empty barrel” for allegedly bragging at the dedication of an FBI building to agents killed in service that she had been responsible for the necessary funding. This ad hominem attack is entirely inappropriate. As the Congresswoman is black, “empty barrel” will be heard by many as a gratuitous racial slur.

In the Q and A with the press, Kelly says he will take questions only from people who know a Gold Star family. That I interpret as code for wanting questions only from friendly forces, but of course there are lots of more liberal journalists who know Gold Star families as well. He then avoids answering the question why the troops killed in Niger were there. Instead he refers to an investigation into the precise circumstances of their deaths. That is not what the correspondent asked. Inability of a top administration official to explain why the troops were in Niger and what they were doing is appalling.

Kelly serves a president who avoided military service, by his own admission assaulted women, switched from pro-choice not long ago, shows not a trace of interest in religious devotion, gleefully accepts the support and counsel of white supremacists (aka racists), and has lied about what he said on the phone call in question. How does Kelly get up in the morning and put on all that dignity to serve such an unworthy master?

Both Pakistan and the US have options

In August, US President Trump announced a new plan concerning Afghanistan that included a harsh stance on Pakistan, accusing the country of protecting terrorists and threatening to limit financial support. On October 11, the Middle East Institute hosted a panel titled “Where Are U.S.-Pakistan Relations Headed?” to explore Pakistan’s reaction to the plan, the interests of the US and Pakistan in Afghanistan, US policy options, and predictions for the future of US-Pakistan relations. The event featured Daniel Markey and Joshua White of Johns Hopkins University, Shuja Nawaz of the Atlantic Council, and Moeed Yusuf of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute moderated.

Pakistan has reacted mainly by working to create ties with other states in case its relations with the US worsen, while also making efforts to maintain its relations with the US. Nawaz pointed to recent visits of members of the Pakistani government to Washington as maintenance efforts. Efforts to diversify include Pakistan’s strengthening of relations with Russia and Saudi Arabia, and finding alternatives to the benefits it currently receives from the US, such as military support, by looking to countries such as China and Russia to provide equipment.

Yusuf categorized general Pakistani reactions and viewpoints into three camps: one perspective questions the utility of engaging with the US, since the US seems to be intentionally siding with India to “undercut” Pakistan. Another advocates for engagement with the US because of the extent to which Pakistan is dependent on it. A third camp views the US as completely in control of relations between the two countries, suggesting that there are limited options available to Pakistan.

Markey viewed Pakistan’s approach as a sort of negotiation, in which Pakistan is actively pursuing further details on the plan and its possible impacts, and exploring ways in which it can meet US demands in a way that would allow Pakistan to continue pursuing its own agenda.

The clear tension and divisions between the US and Pakistan prompted Weinbaum to ask the panelists whether the two countries have similar interests in Afghanistan and what their respective desired outcomes are. While it may appear that the US and Pakistan have converging interests, such as restoration of stability, the panelists agreed that such a convergence is superficial or limited at best.

White explained that Pakistan’s goals in Afghanistan, and particularly in terms of positive outcomes, are unclear, a point that Pakistan’s lack of strong players in Afghanistan supports. Yusuf mentioned two points of divergence: Pakistan and the US define stability in Afghanistan differently, with Pakistan insisting that India’s absence would be necessary, and the US advocating for an Indian role. The second point of divergence is Pakistan’s view that Afghanistan is becoming the site of a cold war dynamic with Pakistan and China on one side, and the US and India on another, leading to the assumption that the US is using this dynamic “to undermine Chinese influence.”

Most significantly, Markey pointed to a divergence in how the two countries see Pakistan’s overall role in the US Afghanistan strategy. Pakistan has wanted the US to eventually “outsource” its Afghanistan strategy to Islamabad, while US intentions have been quite the opposite: containing Pakistan’s power and limiting its control, ultimately facilitating the achievement of US goals.  

The panelists turned to assessing current US policies and future options with regards to Pakistan. One of the administration’s current tactics is to make clear to Pakistan that it would be more beneficial to the US to cease the relationship than to maintain it, according to White. The US is also working to include other parties, such as its NATO allies, in its Afghanistan strategy. A limitation on US actions is its inability to compel Pakistan militarily, as its current policies prevent it from targeting Taliban militants. Markey noted that the US seems “predisposed” to pursuing compulsion as a strategy and that it has been doing that through actions such as threatening to revoke Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally.

Markey made three main policy recommendations: that the US clarify its goals, that it anticipate Pakistani reactions and plan accordingly, and that it include other countries in the region when studying how policies will affect Afghanistan, suggesting that actions that the US takes in Afghanistan necessarily affect Pakistan and its other neighbors.

Adding a Pakistani perspective, Nawaz stated that Pakistan does not have the same power as the US, particularly in terms of its troops, but it does have its own options should the US exert pressure. One such option is Pakistan’s ability to close its airspace, which is strategic to the US and would force it to resort to other, less convenient routes. Taking this into account, Nawaz reiterated that the US should also be considering other regional actors in its Afghanistan policies, should be aware that Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan each have elections upcoming, and that it should broaden its options, suggesting that it should consider Iran’s role in stabilizing Afghanistan.

Yusuf criticized the US approach to Pakistan as a whole. Compulsion, threats, and other such tactics have all been unsuccessfully employed in the past. There is no reason, therefore, to believe that conditions have changed enough to make this approach successful today. Yusuf reemphasized the importance of having clear messages, plans, and strategies and urged the US to ensure that its demands of Pakistan are realistic and doable in order to engage Pakistan in the restabilization of Afghanistan.

Hypotheticals emerged multiple times throughout the event, with panelists’ analyses dependent on whether or not certain conditions prove to be true in the coming months and years. Thus, the difficulty of predicting the future of US-Pakistan relations and how this relationship will affect Afghanistan was clear. Both countries need to prepare for a variety of scenarios that include other allies and partnerships. Any outcome will have a profound effect not only on Pakistan and the US role in Afghanistan but on many other countries in the region and beyond.

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Time to cut deals

I talked yesterday with some young, DC-based Kurds after yesterday’s Middle East Institute conference on Iraq here at SAIS. They are fried. The retaking of Kirkuk and other “disputed territories” by Baghdad has made them feel humiliated and furious. The split between President Barzani’s PDK and the PUK, whose peshmerga did not resist the Iraqi security forces, surprised and horrified them. The battle for Kirkuk may be lost, but they are expecting the war to continue.

I hope not. President Barzani miscalculated in holding the referendum. He thought it would consolidate his political hold on Kurdistan and lead to a negotiation with Baghdad, not a military push. He also miscalculated the international reaction, which has been almost universally negative. Only Israel has supported the referendum and an independent Kurdistan, which condemns the effort in most Middle Eastern eyes. Tehran and Ankara have vigorously opposed the referendum. Washington and Moscow have done likewise.

Going to war with Baghdad would be another colossal miscalculation on Barzani’s part. He wisely is indicating that he won’t do that. The reconstituted Iraqi security forces appear more than adequate to overpower the peshmerga, at least until they retreat into the mountains. But it would also be unwise for Baghdad to push its forces past the constitutional borders of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which is foolishly what former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is urging. That would trigger an insurgency, throwing Iraq into even more chaos than it is suffering already in the aftermath of the successful campaign against ISIS. Iraq needs reconstruction and reconciliation, not a new rebellion.

Kurds are not going to give up the autonomy they won in Iraq’s 2005 constitution. Even in the disputed territories retaken by the Iraqi security forces governance may be extraordinarily difficult unless the KRG’s civilian authorities are allowed to return. Wisdom now lies with calming the situation, maintaining law and order as best can be done with local forces, and enabling both Baghdad and Erbil to go back to the negotiating table without losing face. Humiliation, especially on the basis of identity, is a powerful motive for violence and irredentism. A Kurdish rebellion in Iraq would be supported by Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran. That’s the last thing Iraq needs now.

At yesterday’s conference, both Iraqi Ambassador Yasseen and Iranian Princeton professor Mousavian supported resolution of the disputed territories based on the Iraqi constitution. That is obviously easier said than done, since it has not in fact gotten done in 12 years. But it is still the best solution on offer: local referenda allowing the populations in different communities to decide whether they want to join the KRG or not. What has made that difficult is deciding who should be able to vote, because Arabization during the Saddam Hussein dictatorship and population movements since the American invasion could determine the outcome.

That is a soluble problem. Elections in territories that have been demographically engineered have become common in recent decades in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Some combination of voter registration (outside the US usually done via the census) and absentee voting can be worked out. The main thing is to negotiate a compromise and proceed with it. That is true as well for other issues dividing Erbil and Baghdad, especially oil revenues and who can export oil with or without someone else’s permission. These are soluble problems that should no longer be allowed to fester. And Haider al Abadi is the most sympathetic prime minister the Kurds can hope to deal with in Baghdad. Making some deals with him before next year’s elections would be smart politics.

Iraq needs to settle its internal issues so that it can begin to play its proper role in helping the region to overcome more than a decade of war. American diplomacy should stand ready to help. It is time to cut deals.


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Kirkuk makes a big difference

Think of Kirkuk as the keystone that holds Iraq together. When the Kurds had it, they could claim possession of the oil resources as well as their cultural capital. Independence was a credible goal. Without it, independence is a pipe dream and maybe even a nightmare.

What caused the loss of Kirkuk, and now other disputed territories? There has so far been relatively little fighting. The peshmerga associated with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), who held Kirkuk, apparently surrendered most of their positions. The PUK is aligned in part with Iran, which commanded at least some of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that led the re-occupation of Kirkuk.

Iran is in fact a big winner from this latest military development, since it opposes Kurdistan independence vehemently. But so too do Turkey and the US. Sovereign states are loathe to see other sovereign states partitioned, not least because of fears for their own territorial integrity (Turkey and Iran) as well as their relations with the country in question (the US, Russia and others). Preserving the state structure in the Middle East is in fact one of the few things on which all the states there, and their foreign allies, agree.

The Kurdish independence referendum last month was a colossal miscalculation. KRG President Barzani tried to take advantage of his own momentary dominance in Kurdistan’s politics as well as the victory over ISIS to take what he saw as a giant step towards a goal he knows all Kurds share. But the PUK, Gorran and other political forces in Kurdistan were not happy to see Barzani get the credit and dissented from the process for preparing the referendum, which was shambolic to say the least. The foreign powers that count also objected. In this contest between national aspirations and geopolitics, the latter has won this round.

What now? Baghdad’s forces are apparently trying to restore their control to the situation in 2003, which means taking back most if not all of the so-called “disputed territories.” That might be a bridge too far, but in any event the main thing is to avoid bloodletting as much as possible, since that is what would make a bad situation more intractable. Baghdad already has in Kirkuk what it needs to block independence. What is needed now is to calm the situation and get Baghdad and Erbil back to the negotiating table, where they can discuss Kurdistan’s relationship with the rest of Iraq.

The retaking of Kirkuk and other disputed territories will strengthen Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi and weaken KRG President Barzani, though the latter may gain inside Iraqi Kurdistan if the PUK is blamed for the military debacle. Abadi has suffered from his predecessor Nour al Maliki’s political maneuvers and was thought to be at risk in elections that are supposed to be held next year. He will now be able to face down criticism from those who thought he was soft on the Kurds.

The KRG is appealing to the Americans to engage. Washington had apparently tried hard to prevent the referendum by doing so. The Kurds made a big mistake in not making sure that effort succeeded. The US may now engage, but with entirely different facts on the ground. While sympathetic to the Kurds and anxious to keep them fighting against the remnants of ISIS, no one in Washington can force Abadi to give up Kirkuk. To the contrary: the Americans will want to maintain as strong a relationship with Abadi as possible, to counter Iranian expanded influence in Baghdad.

Kirkuk makes a big difference.

PS: Lukman Faily, former Iraqi Ambassador in the US, seems to me to do a good job in this interview with Wolf Blitzer:

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More sovereignty, not less

An interview I did for Arlinda Kqiku of the Pristina paper Zeri was published today: 

  1. Months ago central institutions were formed. What is your impression about the work of Government and Assembly of Kosovo, for this period of about two months, and what would you consider as priorities of the new established institutions?

A: The new government and assembly have barely begun their work. I would hope the priority would be completing the sovereignty of Kosovo in a way that benefits all its citizens. That means improving its economy, strengthening the rule of law, expanding opportunities and political participation.

  1. Prime Minister Haradinaj during election period promised that after 100 days of ruling of the new government under his leadership, Kosovo would have visa liberalization agreement with European Union, but it looks like the situation is rather more complicated. Kosovo’s government has established a new commission for border demarcation, while Montenegro insists of being a closed matter. What would you consider as a solution that would please both parts?

A: I doubt there is one that will please both parties, but I also don’t think anyone will remember this dispute a year after it is resolved. For me, the important thing is visa liberalization, not the territorial question.

  1. Demarcation hardly will pass in Assembly and that is because coalition government can not make 2/3 of votes needed. Are the citizens of Kosovo being isolated as a result of irresponsible political class?

A: You are in a better position to make that judgment than I am.

  1. Days ago, President Thaci announced publicly disappointment that he has with European Union and required to President of Albania Ilir Meta the massive equipment of all citizens of Kosovo with Albanian passports. In addition Thaci announced that the European Union criterion is unfair. What is your opinion of such a requirement from President Thaci?

A: I don’t like it. Such a move would reduce Kosovo’s sovereignty, not enhance it.

  1. Is it possible for Kosovo citizens to get the freedom of movement toward European Union, through another country, or do you consider that the requirement was more as a threat of the first of the state for the EU.

A: I take it as a threat, not a serious proposal. Albania won’t do it, for fear of setting back its own EU prospects.

  1. In addition, President Thaci, weeks ago, declared that Special Court can’t provide justice, because, according to him Special Court will consider only the crime of UÇK [Kosovo Liberation Army], while it was him that years ago asked the deputies to vote pro this court. Why this change of course in relation to this international justice institution? Is it the reason that the Special Court can file an indictment to the senior state officials?

A: You’ll have to ask the President, but I think he has made himself clear: he expected much better treatment from the international community for Kosovo and has not gotten it. I am sympathetic with him on that score, though I don’t think it is a good reason to oppose the Special Court.

  1. When do you think that Special Court will approximately file first indictments and what is your opinion toward the movement against the Special Court that most of political parties of Kosovo, including here also the opposition are having?

A: I have no idea when they will file their first indictments.

Politicians do what they need to do to get elected, but I would hope some would speak up in favor of clarifying through the court’s proceedings at least some of the post-war violence in Kosovo, which was committed against Serbs, Albanians, and others. If the KLA wants to be remembered well, its supporters will not defend human rights abuses committed by its members.

  1. The Dialog between Kosovo and Serbia will be led by President Thaci and Vucic. How can this dialog continue when the President of Kosovo critizes the EU for injustice, while EU will be mediator of the dialog?

A: I don’t think criticism of the EU is any reason for the EU not to act as a mediator. We are all subject to criticism for what we do and don’t do.

  1. Do you believe that Kosovo and Serbia are able to come to a consensus through this dialog, a consensus that may be referred as consensus of the century, and as a result of it, Serbia would recognize Kosovo as a country, right before being an EU member?

A: No. I don’t think recognition should wait until just before becoming an EU member. I think it should happen sooner. It need not be bilateral recognition but could instead come in the form of UN membership and exchange of ambassadorial level diplomatic representatives.

  1. What is your thought of Kosovo’s perspective in EU?

A: My thought is that it depends on the willingness of Kosovo’s authorities to undertake the political, economic, and justice reforms required. More action, less complaining, would be my preference.

  1. This year, in Kosovo, some cases of attacks against journalist occurred. What would be the necessary reaction of responsible institutions to guarantee media freedom in Kosovo.

A: In addition to condemning these attacks, arrest and conviction of the perpetrators is what should be expected.

  1. On this Sunday, in Kosovo, local elections will be held. Which candidate for mayor you consider to be favored in this election?

A: I only discuss the outcome of elections after the fact. That way I don’t have to change my mind so often. May the best candidate win!

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National aspirations v geopolitical reality

Some of us have worried about the Kirkuk “powder keg” for a long time. The fuse has now been lit. Preventing the larger explosion should now be top priority.

Kirkuk is a complicated place. Both Arabs and Kurds claim the city, not to mention the Turkomen and the much smaller number of Syriac Christians. It has rich, long-producing oil wells mainly north of the city. The Kurds took advantage of the Iraqi army’s collapse in 2014 to take the town, which had previously been more or less under Baghdad’s control. It’s governor since 2011 has been a PUK (i.e. Talabani-family aligned) Kurdish American, Najmaldin Karim. The Kurdish peshmerga have kept the Islamic State out under difficult circumstances.

Now Iraqi Security Forces and Baghdad-controlled Popular Mobilization Forces (or PMF, which are mainly Shia Arab) are trying to re-occupy key parts of Kirkuk: the airport, an army base, and oil infrastructure. Baghdad’s view is that there is no reason to doubt its legal authority to do so, as it has not accepted Kirkuk as a part of the Kurdistan Region. That region’s government (the KRG) sees things differently, as it claims Baghdad has refused to fulfill the constitutional requirement of a referendum in Kirkuk to determine whether it wants to join the autonomous region. Baghdad has in principle the stronger fighting forces, partly well-equipped by the Americans. But the peshmerga are experienced and capable, also having benefited from American support.

Baghdad is under enormous pressure to reassert its authority in Kirkuk because of last month’s KRG independence referendum, which passed overwhelmingly with many non-Kurds in the KRG not voting. Prime Minister al-Abadi, who in principle is more sympathetic with Kurdish aspirations than most Arabs, needs to prove that he is prepared to stand up for their interests. The PMF, which are at least partly controlled by his rival and predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, are spoiling for a fight with the peshmerga. The Iranians, who vehemently oppose independence for Iraqi Kurdistan, are no doubt backing an aggressive stance, though they have been visibly trying to mediate between Baghdad and Erbil.

KRG President Barzani insisted on the referendum, despite vigorous US, Iranian, and Turkish opposition. He claimed it was merely advisory and intended as an overture to two years of negotiations on the KRG’s borders and status with Baghdad. While he has talked of “confederation” with Arab Iraq, Kurds, especially the younger ones, expect better than that, despite the opposition of all their neighbors. Barzani comes from a family committed for generations to an independent Kurdistan.

The contest is between national aspirations and geopolitical reality. It will now be decided in part by force of arms. But violence begets other realities that neither the Erbil nor Baghdad can afford to risk. The time to stop the clashes between the Iraqi security forces and the peshmerga is now. Let’s hope the Americans can spare enough time from their own internecine squabbles over whether to allow football players to kneel during the national anthem to get two important allies to stop fighting.

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