Thursday, June 24, 2010

Short, Tense Deliberation, Then a General Is Gone

NYT.COM WASHINGTON — By the time he woke up Wednesday morning, President Obama had made up his mind. During the 36 frenetic hours since he had been handed an article from the coming issue of Rolling Stone ominously headlined “The Runaway General,” the president weighed the consequences of cashiering Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, whose contemptuous comments about senior officials had ignited a firestorm. Mr. Obama, aides say, consulted with advisers — some, like Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who warned of the dangers of replacing General McChrystal, others, like his political advisers, who thought he had to go. He reached out for advice to a soldier-statesman, Colin L. Powell. He identified a possible successor to lead the war in Afghanistan. And then, finally, the president ended General McChrystal’s command in a meeting that lasted only 20 minutes. According to one aide, the general apologized, offered his resignation and did not lobby for his job. After a seesaw debate among White House officials, “there was a basic meeting of the minds,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff and a major player in the deliberations. “This was not good for the mission, the military and morale,” Mr. Emanuel said. Mr. Obama has forced out officials before, including the director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair; the White House counsel, Gregory Craig; even General McChrystal’s predecessor, Gen. David D. McKiernan. But this is the highest profile sacking of his presidency. The time between Mr. Obama’s first reading of the Rolling Stone article and his decision to accept General McChrystal’s resignation offers an insight into the president’s decision-making process under intense stress: He appears deliberative and open to debate, but in the end, is coldly decisive. In a subsequent meeting with his Afghan war council, Mr. Obama delivered a tongue-lashing, instructing his advisers to stop bickering among themselves. “The president said he didn’t want to see pettiness; that this was not about personalities or reputations — it’s about our men and women in uniform,” said a senior administration official, who like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity in offering an account of the last two days. The drama began on Monday afternoon, when Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who was flying home from Illinois to Andrews Air Force Base, took an unsettling call from General McChrystal. The phone connection was scratchy, and the conversation lasted barely two minutes. General McChrystal told the vice president there was an article coming out that he would not like. Baffled, Mr. Biden asked his staff to investigate, and when he landed, aides handed him the article. After digesting it back at his residence in Washington, Mr. Biden put in a call to Mr. Obama at 7:30 that evening. Hours earlier, the White House had itself gotten wind of the article, and a young press aide named Tommy Vietor distributed copies to all the top officials in Mr. Obama’s national security circle. The press secretary, Robert Gibbs, walked a copy of it to the president in the private quarters. After scanning the first few paragraphs — a sarcastic, profanity-laced description of General McChrystal’s disgust at having to dine with a French minister to brief him about the war — Mr. Obama had read enough, a senior administration official said. He ordered his political and national security aides to convene immediately in the Oval Office. It was already clear then, this official said, that General McChrystal might not survive. Mr. Obama was leaning toward dismissing him, another administration official said, though he said the president was willing to wait until the general explained his actions, and those of his aides. At the Oval Office meeting on Monday, Mr. Obama asked that General McChrystal be summoned home from Kabul. Before leaving Afghanistan, the general held an already scheduled meeting with Susan E. Rice, the United Nations ambassador, who was visiting with other United Nations diplomats. In a one-on-one meeting on Tuesday, Mr. Gates, who had pushed to make General McChrystal the commander in Afghanistan, pleaded with Mr. Obama to hear him out, an official said. Mr. Gates warned that removing the commander would be hugely disruptive. He worried in particular about “continuity, momentum, and relations with allies,” said a senior official, who was involved in the meetings. Still, even as Mr. Gates advocated for General McChrystal, the Pentagon began drawing up a list of potential replacements. Mr. Obama, this official said, was immediately drawn to the idea of turning to Gen. David H. Petraeus — an architect of the counterinsurgency strategy, a politically skilled commander and a replacement who would address Mr. Gates’s concerns. As it happened, General Petraeus was close at hand. That day, he had traveled to a secret site in Northern Virginia to convene a meeting of the Counterterrorism Executive Council, a group of military and intelligence officials who gather regularly to discuss operations. General Petraeus was not offered the job until he walked into the White House on Wednesday, soon after the president’s meeting with General McChrystal, a senior aide said. On Tuesday, while General McChrystal was making the 14-hour flight to Washington, the White House was involved in a whirl of meetings about his fate. Along with Mr. Gates, aides say, four other senior officials were influential: Vice President Biden; the national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones; the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Adm. Mike Mullen; and Mr. Emanuel. Mr. Emanuel’s opinion and that of other advisers swung back and forth, a senior official said. Mr. Obama seemed inclined toward dismissing the general, but heard out the debate. By Tuesday night, officials said, they ended up hoping that the general would simply resign. Meanwhile, General McChrystal was busy placing calls to apologize to people who were belittled in the article. One of those he called was Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “He was very respectful and apologetic, and I think, obviously understood he’d made a mistake and he wasn’t making any excuses,” Mr. Kerry said in an interview, noting that General McChrystal made no case for keeping his job. “He was being pretty direct and upfront.” The general had some high-profile defenders, including President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. But in the end, Mr. Obama decided that he had to go. After meeting with General McChrystal, he held a 40-minute meeting with General Petraeus and a broader session with his war council and then stepped into the Rose Garden to explain his decision to the American public. “He likes Stan and thinks Stan is a good man, a good general and a good soldier,” Mr. Emanuel said. “But as he said in his statement, this is bigger than any one person.”

Karzai launches sales pitch for Afghan minerals

Afghan President Hamid Karzai launched a sales pitch on Friday for his war-torn country's rich mineral resources, calling for major aid donor Japan to invest in mines. Karzai also said he was planning to meet with representatives of Japan's major trading house Mitsubishi Corp. later in the day to discuss possible future exploitation of the deposits. Afghanistan's mining minister said Thursday that mineral deposits in his country could be worth up to three trillion dollars, tripling a US estimate which emerged earlier this week. The results of the US geological survey said Afghanistan had huge reserves of lithium, iron, copper, gold, mercury, cobalt and other minerals potentially worth nearly one trillion dollars. "So the prospects of Afghanistan is massively great and good," Karzai said. "Whereas Saudi Arabia is the oil capital of the world, Afghanistan will be the lithium capital of the world. "And Japan is welcome to participate in the lithium exploration in Afghanistan," he said of the material used in batteries for a range of electronic devices. "Morally, Afghanistan should give access as a priority to those countries that have helped Afghanistan massively in the past few years," he said on the latest day of a visit to Afghanistan's biggest donor after the United States. Japan last year pledged up to five billion dollars in aid by 2013 to rebuild the impoverished country, where US-led and then multinational forces have been battling Taliban insurgents since late 2001. Karzai -- on his first visit to Tokyo since he started his second term in November after an election widely criticised for vote-rigging -- thanked new Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Thursday for Japan's support. Kan however reminded Karzai of the need for better governance in his corruption-riddled nation, saying the aid must "be used to the benefit of the Afghan people and to achieve global peace." Asked how to rebuild security in Afghanistan, Karzai said he is working to build up "Afghan forces, Afghan police and continue to fight extremism." He also said another approach was engaging "grassroots Taliban" fighters who are not hardcore members of extremist groups, to encourage them to lay down their arms and return to civil society.

Afghan Development Fights Drugs

Security and good governance makes all the difference in reducing Afghanistan’s illegal drug trade, said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher. “In many of the areas in the north and the east of the country, with the assistance of dynamic governors, we’ve been able to increase the number of poppy-free provinces dramatically,” said Assistant Secretary Boucher. “More and more, the drug trafficking is down in the south, where it’s associated with the insurgency and they feed off each other,” he said. The impact of drug trafficking in Afghanistan was a major focus of the recent international donors’ conference in Paris, France. “Those who are engaged in the narcotics industry are opposed to any gain in the government’s legitimacy or stability for the country. They provide funding for terrorist activities and fuel corruption,” said the government of Afghanistan in its Afghanistan National Development Strategy report, the centerpiece of the donors’ conference. Five southern Afghan provinces account for seventy percent of the country’s opium poppy cultivation, which in turn accounts for much of the heroin and related illegal narcotics flooding into Europe, the Middle East and Asia, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The southern opium trade is increasingly controlled by drug kingpins and wealthy landowners who have partnered with the Taliban to take advantage of continued insecurity. They earned an estimated two-billion-eight-hundred-million dollars in 2007, while the average wage for an opium farmer in Afghanistan is three-hundred-three dollars a years, according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime 2007 Opium Survey. The new Afghan development plan builds on the country’s 2006 counter-narcotics strategy and transfers more responsibility to provincial governors. The plan also strikes at drug trafficking through efforts to improve security, strengthen Afghanistan justice system, and promote new economic opportunities through education, small business loans and reconstruction projects. The U.S. Agency for International Development continues encourage to the return of legal commercial farming with training, seeds and fertilizer, repaired roads and irrigation systems. The U.S. is helping Afghan farmers develop new food-processing plants and markets for legal fruit, vegetable and orchard crops. Ending Afghanistan’s drug trade will be a long and difficult process, and will require a sustained commitment by Afghan authorities and the Afghan people. For its part, the U.S. will be there to help.

The Runaway General | Rolling Stone Politics

The Runaway General | Rolling Stone Politics This article appears in RS 1108/1109 from July 8-22, 2010, on newsstands Friday, June 25.

Afghans do not expect change from U.S. shake-up

Afghanistan expressed regret on Thursday at the removal of the U.S. commander credited with reducing civilian casualties in the war against the Taliban but said it did not expect the shake-up to bring strategic changes. President Barack Obama recalled General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and replaced him on Wednesday with McChrystal's boss, General David Petraeus, architect of the Iraq war turnaround. McChrystal resigned after comments, mostly attributed to aides, appeared in a magazine profile that criticized some of Obama's closest advisers. The profile portrayed him as a derring-do soldier sometimes exasperated by politicians. "We wish he hadn't gone, but this is America's internal issue," said General Zaher Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan defense ministry. "We expect him to follow McChrystal's assessment, which has reduced civilian casualties, brought down arrests and house searches and involved coordination on operations," he said. DEADLY MONTH The war has reached a critical stage in Afghanistan, despite the presence of around 150,000 foreign troops, with the Taliban at their strongest since being overthrown in 2001. June has already been the costliest month in casualties for foreign forces, with the deaths of four service members in a vehicle accident late on Wednesday bringing the toll to 79. More than 300 foreign troops have died in Afghanistan this year, compared with 521 for all of last year, according to Scores more insurgents have died, but hundreds of civilians have also been killed -- most in Taliban bombings, but many too in crossfire or misdirected air strikes. With the Taliban virtually bringing tens of thousands of foreign troops to a bloody stalemate, Afghanistan has been seeking ways to bring an end to nearly nine years of fighting. Earlier this month, some 1,600 elders and religious leaders met in Kabul for a peace "jirga," or conference, where participants agreed the only way to end bloodshed was to reach out to the insurgents. Apart from agreeing to start negotiations with the militants, the jirga also recommended a review of the cases of all prisoners in Afghanistan, including suspected insurgents, and a removal of Taliban figures from a U.N. sanctions list. Completing a four-day visit to the country, ambassadors from the 15-nation U.N. Security Council said they were reviewing the 137-name U.N. blacklist case by case. At least five of those named are former Taliban officials who serve in parliament or privately mediate between the government and insurgents battling NATO-led forces and their Afghan partners. "TRICKY" The Taliban said Obama had sacked McChrystal in order to shift blame for policy failures. "Obama's strategy is a failure but he is tricky by washing his hands on McChrystal in order to maintain his own image and that of his party in America and the world," a spokesman said in a statement. Afghanistan's conflict cannot be resolved by a shake-up of generals, the statement said, adding Petraeus was not as smart as McChrystal and even questioning his physical strength, noting his collapse during a congressional hearing last week. McChrystal's counter-insurgency strategy aims to take on the Taliban where they are strongest, in their Kandahar spiritual homeland in the south, and boost security simultaneously with a push for improved civilian governance and development. Petraeus, as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, was widely credited with turning the tide there with a similar strategy when sectarian violence verged on civil war. While he has a strong following on Capitol Hill and swift Senate confirmation is expected, a key first task will be forging a good relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Since McChrystal took over as commander in June last year, he has formed a strong relationship with the Afghan president, accompanying him on several tours of the country in a bid to show support for the government. The Afghan president expressed regret at McChrystal's departure, a spokesman said. "We had hoped this would not have happened, but the decision has been made and we respect it," said spokesman Waheed Omer. "He looks forward to working with his replacement." Obama said McChrystal's dismissal was needed to safeguard the unity of the war effort but insisted the switch in generals was a "change in personnel but it is not a change in policy." In the field, some U.S. troops said they expected business as usual. "General Petraeus is of the mind if something is not broken don't fix it," said First Sergeant Todd Sullivan in a mess hall at a camp in Gurgan, Kandahar.

U.S. military official warns of Afghan challenges

The U.S. military's top officer on Thursday said he fully supported the decision to replace the disgraced commander in Afghanistan and cautioned that the months ahead would be very challenging. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Afghan war strategy would remain unchanged with Central Command chief David Petraeus replacing General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan. "I'm very supportive of the president's decision," Mullen said one day after President Barack Obama's changed the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Mullen said he expected a tough time ahead but believed Obama's war strategy was on track. "The strategy hasn't changed and the policy hasn't changed and we are very focused on the time between now and July 2011," Mullen said of the timeline set by Obama to begin a gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces, conditions permitting. Mullen said Petraeus was fully supportive of Obama's policies, including the planned draw down. "We don't know the pace and we don't know the place," Mullen, appearing at an event sponsored by The Hill newspaper, said, adding that a lot can change between now and July 2011. Mullen said he expected to see "indicators of how this strategy is working" by year-end, when the White House plans to review its strategy. He said securing the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, the linchpin of Obama's war effort, would be "an extraordinarily complex challenge." He was confident that drawn-out efforts to secure the town of Marjah, in neighboring Helmand province, would work but would take time. "The indicators are moving in the right direction," Mullen said of Marjah. "It gets darkest right before the dawn in these kinds of operations. "That violence will eventually be tamped down." Mullen said he was hopeful a replacement for Petraeus as the head of Central Command would be found "as quickly as possibly," and expressed confidence in Petraeus's deputy at the command to lead during the transition period.

Heroin trade a backdrop to Kyrgyz violence

This Central Asian nation where ethnic violence exploded in the south this month sits on a heroin road that snakes from Afghanistan to Western Europe. It creates a nexus of power and profit that some say may have contributed to the conditions leading to the rioting that may have left thousands dead and a million in need of humanitarian aid. Few suggest that drug money lay at the root of the unrest. But it is widely seen as a source of violent struggles between powerful rival groups in Kyrgyzstan — with recently deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and his family some of the biggest players. Bakiyev's supporters have been accused by the interim government of sparking the unrest in the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad in an effort to destabilize the nation. Officials and analysts say their role in the drug trade also means they stand to benefit from creating chaos in the south. "The battle for power is also a battle for drug money," Kyrgyz deputy security service chief Khubat Baibulov told The Associated Press. "The violence of this battle increases when you are talking about big money." U.N. officials say the violence that broke out two weeks ago was intentionally provoked and risked shattering the fragile interim government. The narcotics trade is only one strand in a complex set of factors behind Kyrgyzstan's turmoil, but with big money at stake it is likely to frustrate any hopes of restoring stability to the impoverished, strategically located nation. The unrest began in the wake of a popular revolt in April that led to the overthrow of Bakiyev and sent members of his family scrambling for refuge from Kyrgyz prosecutors. Authorities and analysts have little doubt that Bakiyev and his relatives are at the heart of the drug trade. "The whole Bakiyev family is involved in drug trafficking," said Alexander Knyazev, a respected independent political analyst in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. "After Kurmanbek Bakiyev came to power, all drug lords were killed, and (his elder brother) Zhanybek Bakiyev consolidated most of the drug trafficking in his hands." Acting deputy prime minister and general prosecutor Azimbek Beknazarov also endorses the view that Bakiyev and his family have interests in the drug trade, although no specific criminal probes have yet been initiated into those allegations. Heroin is transported to the south of Kyrgyzstan by a series of remote mountain routes. One road leads from a Tajik town on the Afghan border, Khorog, over the vast and rough terrain of the Pamir Mountains, across the border and then down to Osh. Another route goes from northern Tajikistan across the frontier into the Kyrgyz section of the Ferghana Valley, where Osh lies. Those roads are daily traversed by trucks carrying fruit and vegetables, which are frequently used to disguise large amounts of drugs. Rampant corruption also ensures that much of the contraband is not intercepted, meaning that seizures account for only a tiny fraction of the total amount trafficked. An estimated 20 metric tons of Afghan drugs transit through Kyrgyzstan every year, most destined for Russia, Western Europe and the United States, according to a U.S. State Department report released in March. More than a quarter of Kyrgyzstan's population lives under the poverty line and average monthly salaries are estimated by officials to hover around the $140 mark. Low incomes and poor labor prospects have made the drug trade an appealing option for Kyrgyz people living in rural areas ever since the collapse of Soviet Union robbed the country of direct financial support from Moscow. And with Afghan poppy production ever on the increase, much of the increased narcotics flow has been made up of heroin. Drug trafficking was a problem before Bakiyev came to power five years ago. But far from seeking to counter this rise in the illegal traffic, Bakiyev seemed only to have weakened the campaign by the disbanding of the relatively successful Drug Control Agency in October. The move to place policing drugs under the tutelage of the Interior Ministry was described by the U.S. State Department as a "significant blow to regional counternarcotics efforts," and provoked suspicions about the Bakiyev government's role in the drug trade. Former President Askar Akayev, who was himself toppled in the Tulip Revolution in 2005, maintains that Bakiyev gave drug lords in the country significant leeway in exchange for their support in bringing him to power. "The criminals stayed on to serve the Bakiyevs, to hunt down unwanted politicians and journalists," Akayev told The Associated Press in Moscow, referring to a string of contract-style killings of opposition leaders and independent reporters. Bakiyev's brothers Zhanybek and Akhmat "directly controlled the drug trade and all the top criminals," Akayev said. Although criticized for his corrupt rule, Akayev is recognized to have made some attempts at minimizing the influence of the drug trade on his country's economy. Hoping to reverse the damage done by abolishing the Drug Control Agency, set up under Akayev in 2003 and part funded by the United Nation and the United States, interim President Roza Otunbayeva last week announced the body would be reconstituted. "The drug route passes along the Great Silk Road, but unfortunately today we all are busy with issues of regulation, humanitarian assistance, attempts to provide shelter for all, and so on, but drug barons are working at full capacity," Otunbayeva said. "That is why we are going to restore the national anti-narcotics agency, which Bakiyev recently disbanded." Restoring drug combat operations may help to partially stem the tidal wave of drugs washing through the country, but persistent political instability and violence will prove fatal to the success of those efforts. Quelling public unrest in Kyrgyzstan has often meant having to making compromises with local powerbrokers, who in turn frequently have interests allied to criminal groups. That proposition seems to be at the heart of government claims that Bakiyev and his associates may have played a role in instigating ethnic riots, by hiring attackers to shoot at both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, who have a history of ethnic tensions. Bakiyev, who is living in exile in Belarus, denies all involvement in the events. The United Nations bolstered the claims by declaring that the fighting was "targeted and well-planned," and appeared to have begun with five simultaneous attacks in Osh by men wearing ski masks. The United States is urging an impartial international investigation into how the clashes were provoked. Kyrgyzstan's security agency claimed Thursday that Bakiyev's relatives hired Islamic militants to provoke the ethnic violence following a meeting in Afghanistan last month with representatives of the Taliban, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other groups. The agency provided no evidence. Kyrgyzstan hosts the U.S. Manas air base, a key support center for the fight against the Taliban that is used by most troops entering or leaving Afghanistan. The United States has been stung by the accusation that its military campaign in Afghanistan has inadvertently boosted the fortunes of heroin poppy cultivation there. The suggestion that it may have benefited strategically from cooperation with a Kyrgyz government involved in the drug trade is likely to come as a further embarrassment. Two State Department officials with knowledge of the region, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they are aware of the allegations against the Bakiyevs, but had no independent corroboration. The Drug Enforcement Agency refused to comment.

China Breaks Up Xinjiang Terror Group

The Chinese government says it has broken up a major terrorist organization that plotted attacks in the far northwestern region, Xinjiang. Thursday's announcement comes nearly a year after the region was hit by deadly ethnic violence that left nearly 200 people dead. Chinese Public Security Ministry spokesman Wu Heping said Chinese public security authorities have arrested more than 10 terrorists, including the alleged ringleader of the group. Two Xinjiang incidents specifically mentioned by the spokesman both occurred around the 2008 Beijing Olympics - deadly attacks on police stations in Kashgar and Kuqa. At a meeting with reporters in Beijing, Thursday, Wu read out a brief statement, but did not take questions. A document handed out at the media briefing included photos of two places where the terrorists had allegedly made and tested explosives, along with other weapons. China said the alleged terrorists belong to the East Turkestan Independence Movement. Both the United States and the United Nations have officially listed ETIM a terrorist organization. China recently announced it is setting up a special economic development zone in Kashgar to transform the western border city into a trading hub with the country's Central Asian neighbors. Officials say preferential taxation and investment policies will be finalized as early as the end of this year. Ilham Tohti, a Uighur who teaches at Beijing's Nationalities University, suggests there is a political dimension to the Chinese government's investments in Xinjiang. Beijing has spent a great deal of money in Xinjiang in an effort to control the Uighur minority, Tohti said. Uighurs are not benefiting because they are not being hired for any of the new jobs. Instead, said Tohti, the economic frenzy has driven up prices in cities in Xinjiang, so that the Uighurs can no longer afford to buy a house or even to buy meat to eat. The Uighur instructor does not advocate splitting Xinjiang from China, but believes Uighurs and Hans need to learn more about each other so they can get along better. His personal efforts have so far hit a roadblock. Chinese authorities have blocked access to Tohti's Chinese-language website focused on Xinjiang, uighurbiz-dot-net. Xinjiang is a vast, resource-rich region that borders Central Asia. The rioting last July between the region's eight million Muslim Uighurs and members of China's ethnic Han majority was the worst communal violence to hit Xinjiang in years. Beijing accuses Uighur activists of trying to split Xinjiang off from China. Uighurs, in turn, charge the government with discrimination and decades of repressive rule.