The Zeitgeist Politics

Global Politics with a focus on The Middle East

Posts Tagged ‘Osama Bin Laden

Wikileaks: Friend or Foe in Afghanistan?

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The most famous guy from Townsville since Keith Urban.

This piece was originally published on Foreign Policy’s Afpak Channel, titled “Getting A Grip on WikiLeaks

By now, most readers are aware of what The Guardian calls “a huge cache of secret U.S. military files” that was leaked online by WikiLeaks on Sunday. There are more than 90,000 records and it will take journalists, pundits, and researchers a very long time to pore over all of them, but The GuardianThe New York Times and Der Spiegel, which received the leaked records several weeks ahead of time, carried out the initial analysis.

You can find the dedicated pages set up by the newspapers by clicking the links above, or if you have a lot of free time on your hands, browse the entire set so far released on the WikiLeaks website. For those with less time, Gregg Carlstrom has a solid selection of the key points to have been reported thus far up at Al Jazeera English.

Many of the responses from commentators, particularly from experts on the conflict, have been unimpressed. CNAS fellow Andrew Exum called the records “merely additional examples of what we already knew” in the New York Times, and was even more dismissive in his initial responseon his blog. Afghanistan analyst Joshua Foust called the bulk of the newspaper reports from the three above “low-hanging fruit” and wrote at length about the possible danger this leak has created for sources that were carelessly not redacted by WikiLeaks. Steve Schippert of Threats Watch finds this “latest episode amusing at best and reckless at minimum.” And so on.

Much of the discourse in the wake of this leak has also been about Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. Some have asserted that Assange is “a master of making it about himself,” that he has “a flair for public relations” and that he’s more of an “activist” than a journalist. These assertions are another failure of perspective. The media landscape is full of journalists with opinions and entire publications that blur the line between activism and journalism. This is not new. It also is not at all uncommon for journalists to use stories to bolster their careers and publications routinely build readership by getting “scoops” published. Journalism is a competitive industry and being good at public relations shouldn’t be viewed as something insidious.

Firstly, I agree that the failure by WikiLeaks to make more effort at redactions to protect individuals from reprisals is contemptible. I also agree that those that have been watching Afghanistan closely, even over just the past few years, may not find it at all surprising that Pakisan’s ISI is heavily involved in the insurgency in Afghanistan, or that there are many instances of seemingly recklessfriendly fire incidents and IEDs causing civilian casualties. Many may not even by surprised by reported Iranian involvement in maintaining the Afghan insurgency or rumors of Osama bin Laden’s death. These things have been talked about for a while now and, some (like the ISI business) more credible than others (like OBL’s death), but WikiLeaks has not, thus far, been able to present hard evidence of any of them, leaving many of us exactly where we started off before the leak.

What I disagree with is the lack of perspective shown by so many writers and analysts in their failure to see the forest for the trees. Assange may be sketchy and WikiLeaks may be anti-war but the narrative constructed from this raw data is being funnelled through three respectable publications that have long reported on the war. The reason why the “War Logs,” as they are called by the Guardian, are important is not that they provide groundbreaking new information or even explosive evidence to back up old information. They are important because of the sheer scale of documentation and because of the overall picture they paint of the war, considering that this is a war that is steadily approaching the nine year mark and has cost taxpayers in the U.S. alone almost $200b. And the public, particularly in coalition countries and the many countries in the region that this war has a direct impact on, still needs to think about this war.

Of the government statements in response to this leak, my favorite so far has been Senator John Kerry’s initial take:

However illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America’s policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan. Those policies are at a critical stage and these documents may very well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed to get the policy right more urgent.

So yes, there is little that’s new (so far) in these “War Logs” and, yes, we know little about Julian Assange and his motivations and, sure, if you don’t trust the man and are an expert on the conflict, then feel free to disregard this story completely. Whether you believe that this war should end or not, it’s safe to say that it isn’t going very well and, at the very least, we should welcome an opportunity for the public to reassess and rethink whether, to them, this is a war that is still worth it. For that purpose, then, the “War Logs” can’t do any harm.

Written by alexlobov

July 29, 2010 at 4:07 pm

Obama ‘humiliates’ Bibi over settlement impasse

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Not a happy camper. Image credit: REUTERS

Not a happy camper. Image credit: REUTERS

It’s been a hefty week of diplomatic news for Israel. Apart from the news of the expulsion of a UK diplomat and the possibility of Australia following suit, there has also been settlement news, Obama love-hate news, potential intifada news and even Osama comes back from the dead to weigh in with his two cents, what fun.

On the settlement/Obama front there’s been so much random news that I don’t even know where exactly to start digging in all this muck. Let’s start with the fact that Israel announced another 20 settlement units in East Jerusalem, once again impeccably timed with Netanyahu’s visit to the US. Paltry, you might say, nothing compared to announcing 1,600 to welcome Joe Biden with, but still, fairly similar. Sure 1,600 is a bigger number than 20 and Netanyahu is visiting the US not welcoming Biden, but in principle, it’s essentially the same damn thing. Mondoweiss rightfully asks the question, why isn’t Obama outraged?

Moreover, constructing the new 20 units is going to involve demolishing a historic building, the Shepherd Hotel in Sheikh Jarrah:

The Shepherd Hotel, close to the British consulate, was once a headquarters for Haj Amin al-Husseini, the former Palestinian grand mufti of Jerusalem. After 1967, Israel deemed it absentee property. It was then bought, reportedly for $1m, in 1985 by Irving Moskowitz, a Jewish American millionaire who funds settlements.

Elisha Peleg, a Jerusalem city councillor, said the Shepherd Hotel building permit was a “technical step” and that more construction would follow there and in other Palestinian areas of the city. “We will continue to build all over Jerusalem, in Sheikh Jarrah and Ras al-Amud as well,” he said. [Guardian]

So what of the talks between Bibi and Obama? Reportedly, Bibi got freaked by the supposed crisis happening in US-Israeli relations, cancelled a bunch of appointments and flew to Washington quick-smart. A media blackout was imposed during the meeting, an unusual step and a possible indicator of the frosty atmosphere. This was no ‘beer summit’.

The White House spokesman suggested that talks were “honest and straight forward” and early reports from Israel suggested that Netanyahu was claiming ‘progress’ made during the meeting but a recent report from the Sydney Morning Herald suggests otherwise. Apparently, according to leaked documents, Bibi was ‘humiliated’.

According to leaked accounts reported in the Israeli media, Mr Obama humiliated Mr Netanyahu by leaving the meeting early.

”I’m going to the residential wing to have dinner with Michelle and the girls,” Mr Obama reportedly said, adding that Mr Netanyahu should consult his aides about goodwill gestures Israel was prepared to make towards the Palestinians before renewed peace talks. ”’I’m still around,” he said. ”Let me know if there is anything new.”

When the President returned, Mr Netanyahu is said to have made a counter-offer which Mr Obama did not accept. [SMH]

I’d snub Bibi for dinner with Michelle and the girls too. After all, they are considerably more attractive than that stern-faced gargoyle pictured above.

For an alternative and very well-reasoned take on how the talks should have gone, Avi Issacharoff for Ha’aretz:

How could Netanyahu have safeguarded the construction in East Jerusalem? By offering something in return. Past Israeli governments have indicated their intent to build in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line, but they simultaneously gave the U.S. a political strategy to present to the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s government is backtracking on all fronts and offering nothing to the Americans or the Palestinians.

More on the Shepherd Hotel demolition, also from the Guardian, an important thing to consider:

“What it means politically is that it is one very important project that can torpedo the peace talks,” said Hagit Ofran, a settlement expert at the Israeli group Peace Now. “It is in the hands of the settlers to decide when to bring the bulldozers … It is a very dangerous step.”

This is a salient point. If the settlers control the bulldozers then the settlers have a very provocative tool at their disposal, it’s like allowing a bunch of potentially crazy wingnuts to have control over the red button that starts a war. How’s that Palestinian powder keg coming along?

Well not great, Israel is still planning to enlarge the Jewish prayer plaza at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. I’ll let Electronic Intifada explain this one:

The site eyed by Israeli officials is located at the Mughrabi Gate, an entrance to the mosque compound known as the Haram al-Sharif, the most sensitive site in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Inside are al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden-topped Dome of the Rock.

Earlier encroachments by Israel on Islamic authority at the site have triggered clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians. A heavily armed visit to the compound by Ariel Sharon in 2000, shortly before he became prime minister, to declare Israeli rights there sparked the second intifada.

There’s also the contentious killing of four Palestinian teenagers at the hands of the IDF that has sparked protests in the Occupied Territories and, supposedly, an Israeli investigation into the matter. All of this sounds very very intifada-like.

Also, Ban Ki Moon is going to ask the Arabs to go back to peace talks, yeah… that’ll work. Sometimes the man’s, or rather the position’s, impotence astounds me.  Jordan’s King Abdullah thinks Israel is playing with fire. Bashar al Assad has no faith in Israel. Oh and there’s also that other guy, he’s not happy either. And if anyone is still wondering why people are angry about Gaza, here’s yet another story. Two soldiers are being tried in an Israeli military tribunal (any guesses as to how it will turn out) for using a 9 year old boy as a minesweeper… classy.

The OBL watch

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A man holds a box of Pakistan-made "Super Osama Bin Laden, Kulfa Balls" milk and coconut flavour hard candies bought at a bazaar in Kandahar city (REUTERS/Jorge Silva)

In the days following 9/11, there was barely a minute where one didn’t hear the name Osama Bin Laden uttered. Fast forward eight years, and one barely heard of him, unless it was a brief mention in a journal piece. There was a brief flurry of excitement in September when a new recording surfaced but that was it.

Until a few weeks ago, when a plethora of statements about OBL emerged. Where is he? Where was he? Is he dead? Is he alive? Pakistan really should have captured him by now, don’t you think?

I spent a few months reading several books about Pakistan and the war on terror, the narratives were so similar that at some point I felt I could rattle off OBL’s entire history. But there were still nuggets of information that have popped up this year:

From Vanity Fair, an excerpt of son Omar bin Laden’s book (Angry Arab on the book here):

Many people found my father to be a genius, particularly when it came to mathematical skills. It was said that his own father was a numerical genius who could add up large columns of numbers in his head.

My father was so well known for the skill that there were times that men would come to our home and ask him to match his wits against a calculator. Sometimes he would agree, and other times not. When he would good-naturedly accept the challenge, I would grow so nervous that I would forget to breathe.

And then there’s the report that has been doing the rounds this month of OBL’s escape from Tora Bora:

Most of the Tora Bora complex was abandoned and many of the caves and tunnels were buried in debris. Only about 20 stragglers were taken prisoner. The consensus was that al Qaeda fighters who had survived the fierce bombing had escaped into Pakistan or melted into the local population. Bin Laden was nowhere to be found. Two days later, Fury and his Delta Force colleagues left Tora Bora, hoping that someone would eventually find bin Laden buried in one of the caves.

There was no body because bin Laden did not die at Tora Bora. Later U.S. intelligence reports and accounts by journalists and others said that he and a contingent of bodyguards departed Tora Bora on Dec. 16. With help from Afghans and Pakistanis who had been paid in advance, the group made its way on foot and horseback across the mountain passes and into Pakistan without encountering any resistance.

I actually didn’t find anything shocking about it altogether – the ‘missed chances’ described in books on Al Qaeda and OBL are numerous – and telling of how the world’s most wanted man has become a sidebar of sorts in this epic AfPak saga.  There seems to be – at least on the record – no credible intelligence of where OBL has been recently, though this report of OBL having been in Afghanistan this year was interesting.

That said..

Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan blogged about why finding OBL is key:

If Osama is captured or killed, the Taliban will still be a force to be reckoned with. Neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan will become secure. But if you are the US government right now and you need something to that suggests your new AfPak strategy is working, then Bin Laden’s head on a platter is looking like a good idea right about now.

Sadly, say many in Pakistan, Bin Laden’s head will not make a difference for long term peace in the region.

And on another tangent: Iran seems to be holding OBL’s relatives in custody.

Everyone wants a piece of OBL in this part of the world!

On a side note: For anyone interested in Jordanian politics, this post up at The Black Iris – and the comments – should be your read of the week.

Written by Saba Imtiaz

December 22, 2009 at 3:53 am

Where’s OBL? More thoughts on the recording.

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For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to finish reading Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, so the OBL speech is interesting in that context. Having recently read Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilization, I feel like I could recite the evolution of Osama Bin Laden at length.

Alex has done a roundup of the major points from the recording – the shift to being issue-centered as opposed to being ideology-centered – is notable. I’ve re-read the transcript several times and what continues to surprise me is how up-to-date OBL seems to be. Given that he is rumoured to be dead, barely alive, alive and well, hiding out somewhere in Waziristan, isn’t it somewhat surprising that he seems to have access to recent publications, was able to hear/see US President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, knows about opinion polls and new developments in the US…I know the quest to find OBL isn’t as fervent as it once was, but clearly, there’s a big intelligence failure happening somewhere.

And no, just because I’m Pakistani doesn’t mean I know where OBL is. A Syrian cab driver once asked me that and had quite the laugh imitating the Jordanian Mukhabarat calling me to get an update on his whereabouts.

Secondly, is OBL pandering to an American audience by trying to be sympathetic to them? From the translated text:

“This is has all been prescribed for you by the doctors Cheney and Bush as medicine for the events of September 11, yet, the bitterness and loss this has caused is worse than that of the events themselves.”

“Put the issue of your alliance with the Israelis up for debate and ask yourselves what your stance is: is your own security, blood, children, money, jobs, homes, economy, and reputation more important to you, or do you prefer the safety of the Israelis, their children, and economy?”

Thirdly, his primary concern is still the Afghanistan war, not Iraq, and unlike Zawahiri, he makes no mention of Pakistan at all. Doesn’t seem like he’s heard of the AfPak acronym yet.

Fourth, I really hope OBL doesn’t try and get in touch with Alex about the ‘nice eyes’  remark.

This is has all been prescribed for you by the doctors Cheney and Bush as medicine for the events of September 11, yet, the bitterness and loss this has caused is worse than that of the events themselves.

Written by Saba Imtiaz

September 16, 2009 at 1:11 am

Bin Laden’s Back with his new Book Club to rival Oprah’s

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Most of the MEast related news today was fairly consumed with the new recording from (supposedly) Bin Laden. OK disclaimer, I cannot be bothered prefacing each and every reference to Bin Laden with (supposedly). Yes, he may well be dead. Yes, there has been evidence to suggest that his latest videos were by some impostor. Yes, he’s just an Arab looking man with a big beard and lovely eyes, but that’s not the point. From here on in, I am going to operate under the assumption that this is his latest recording and will do so in all future references and posts about the man. I just can’t be bothered with conspiracy theories, imaging pre-facing every mention to 9/11 with (the potential inside job).

Anyway so Bin Laden’s latest recording has been all over the internets and news media with interesting bits & pieces of analysis to be found in lots of corners. First of all, peep the full recording here at The Majlis of the original (Arabic obviously) and the NEFA Foundation has an English translated transcript here.

The first thing I noticed upon reading it is how much more reasonable and to-the-point it is than many of the other al-Qaeda communications from al-Zawahiri and his ilk were. OBL pretty much sticks to the point here, hammering home the main gripes – namely Palestine and Afghanistan, not in the least bit surprising. I found it interesting that OBL spends a long time discussing US politics, the realities of it and how little has changed with Obama. He does not deliver any personal attacks on Obama himself though, which I found interesting once again, probably so as not to alienate any of the possible Americans that have gotten their hands on the recording (very unlikely considering most distribution channels online have been shut down, no US media will touch it and it didnt include English subtitles for the first time). Over at Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch attributes this very plain and reasonable sounding OBL to the following:

The speech itself represents a vintage bin Laden appeal to the mainstream Muslim world, with a heavy focus on Israel and the suffering of the Palestinians and very little reference to salafi-jihadist ideology.  This is important, because one of the reasons for al-Qaeda’s recent decline has been its general exposure — or branding, if you prefer — as an extreme salafi-jihadist movement rather than as an avatar of Muslim resistance. [FP/Abu Aardvark]

With some more wisdom from Marc Lynch, we can see that the focus on Palestine is nothing new, even if it has been re-branded and reworded somewhat and with a more plain/reasonable sounding tone. Precisely why anyone who knows tuppence about the region and its people knows that the “They Hate our Freedom! They Hate our Way of Life!” clarion call was discredit long ago. They hate us because they hate our interventionist and intrusive policies.

Bin Laden’s heavy focus on Israel is not new, despite the frequent attempts to argue the opposite. He has frequently referred to Israel and the Palestinians since the mid-1990s. Whether he “really” cares about it is besides the point — he understands, and has always understood, that it is the most potent unifying symbol and rallying point for mainsteam Arab and Muslim audiences.  Al-Qaeda and the salafi-jihadists in general hurt themselves quite badly over the last few years with rhetorical attacks on Hamas and with the emergence of the Jund Ansar Allah group in Gaza.  Tellingly, bin Laden says nothing of either of these and sticks to generalities about Palestinian suffering and Israeli perfidy. [FP/Abu Aardvark]

There is some debate around the traps about what, precisely, this means for al-Qaeda over all. Specifically, are we at the end of the road for al Qaeda yet? We’ve heard lots about this end of the road… you know… Bin Laden is dead, al Qaeda cant recruit members, there’s no love for them in the Muslim world, they’re nowhere to be found, etc. Yet, say what you say about whether this is the Real OBL, there’s a new tape and we’re still talking about it. A lot. However,

Overall, this tape struck me as something significant.  Al-Qaeda has been on the retreat for some time.  Its response thus far to the Obama administration has been confused and distorted.  Ayman al-Zawahiri has floundered with several clumsy efforts to challenge Obama’s credibility or to mock his outreach.  But bin Laden’s intervention here seems far more skillful and likely to resonate with mainstream Arab publics.   It suggests that he at least has learned from the organization’s recent struggles and is getting back to the basics in AQ Central’s “mainstream Muslim” strategy of highlighting political grievances rather than ideological purity and putting the spotlight back on unpopular American policies. [FP/Abu Aardvark]

I agree with Mr. Aardvark’s general sentiments. Al Qaeda is far from dead (whether or not OBL is), and this could be a real change in ideological tact. I disagree, however, that this will lead to any resurgence of popularity for AQ in the Muslim world. Firstly, their name is far too tainted already and secondly, their distribution channels are shot to pieces and, given the previous stream of nonsense from various other AQ people, their barely organised or unified around a common strategy of engagement with Muslims. They have shifted to a far more decentralised system of cells in various countries, so whether OBL, or anyone else, can unite them and then reinvigorate AQ’s standing within the ummah is very questionable indeed.

For further excellent reporting on the current state of al Qaeda, peep this gem (translation at The Boursa Exchange) from Abdel Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of London-based al-Quds al-Arabi, who, as described by The Boursa Exchange, has probably interviewed Osama bin Laden more times than any other journalist, and is considered an expert on al-Qaeda.

For those interested, check out more details on the three books that OBL recommended for the US public as part of his new Book Club strategy. Interesting choices! His newest message could also possibly start a rap beef with Jay-Z over this… (hat-tip @tomgara)because the Death of Autotone has been pronounced and OBL, that smarting upstart bastard that he is, refuses to acknowledge its demise!

Written by alexlobov

September 15, 2009 at 11:13 pm

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