Turning Soft Power into a Casus Belli

I noted the other day that NYT Executive Editor Jill Abramson, in patting herself and her paper on the back for coverage that was better than the NYT coverage that got us into Iraq, totally misunderstood the frame of the debate.

To strike or not to strike is not necessarily the correct pole here, even if issues like this were as simple as Abramson’s two-sided debate. Even before you get to that question, you need to unpack the “to undermine Iran’s bid for hegemony in the Middle East to reinforce the Sunni-Israeli hegemonic position” presumption. Or even the “in spite of all our problems with Pakistan, Iran is the biggest nuke threat” presumption.

Abramson doesn’t seem to be remotely aware that, even aside from her embrace of false balance over accuracy, she’s unquestioningly embraced the stance the Administration is, for the most part, aggressively pushing, that suggesting that Iran is the biggest problem we face in the Middle East and one that must be solved.

Case in point. The NYT’s latest fear-mongering to support the presumption of anti-Iran bias is a story suggesting that Iran was sowing unrest in response to the Quran burning in Afghanistan.

Just hours after it was revealed that American soldiers had burned Korans seized at an Afghan detention center in late February, Iran secretly ordered its agents operating inside Afghanistan to exploit the anticipated public outrage by trying to instigate violent protests in the capital, Kabul, and across the western part of the country, according to American officials.

For the most part, the efforts by Iranian agents and local surrogates failed to provoke widespread or lasting unrest, the officials said. Yet with NATO governments preparing for the possibility of retaliation by Iran in the event of an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities, the issue of Iran’s willingness and ability to foment violence in Afghanistan and elsewhere has taken on added urgency.

As Gareth Porter pointed out, there’s a problem with the entire premise. The protests we need to worry about took place not in the west, but in eastern and northern parts of Afghanistan stoked by the Haqqani network and Pakistani entities.

The protests are, rather, concentrated in the East and North, where U.S. forces are sparser, the Haqqani Network is most active, and where local factional politics have provoked violence and organized demonstrations for many years. The hand of the Haqqani Network is visible. Most demonstrations have focused on ISAF or Afghan government installations, but many protests in eastern Afghanistan specifically destroyed police checkpoints and government vehicles. Most such instances occurred in Khost province and the Chamkani and Zadran districts of Paktia province, where the Haqqani network operates and runs a madrassa system.


Likewise, the protests in the Northern Provinces, particularly Kunduz, Takhar, and Baghlan, are familiar expressions of insurgent activity, political competition among rival factions, and Pakistan-based groups. Local religious leaders and itinerant imams, most of who were trained in Pakistan, have been the energizing force behind ethnically-mixed violent demonstrations in northern provinces such as Takhar and Kunduz, where the Haqqani Network and its affiliate, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, are typically active.

You would think the lesson, then, is that Pakistani influences are more dangerous to our mission in Afghanistan. But instead, the NYT spends 1,000 words suggesting that Iran might be a threat.

And note the ineffective Quran response is not the bulk of what the NYT points to. It describes a series of other plots (including the Scary Iran Plot) which its sources admit were amateurish as proof of the need to be vigilant. It points to Iran supplying arms to “rebels and other political figures” in Yemen and to Bashar al-Assad–the former of which is a response to US and Saudi backing of the Yemeni government in its efforts to suppress rebels. And then there’s the schools and newspapers Iran has funded.

What Iran has pursued more relentlessly is an effort to pull the Afghan government away from the Americans, a strategy that has included payments to promote Iran’s interests with President Hamid Karzai.

One American intelligence analyst noted that Iran had long supported Afghan minorities, both Shiite and Sunni, and had built a network of support among Hazaras, Uzbeks and Tajiks. Iran has exercised other means of “soft power,” the analyst said, opening schools in western Afghanistan to extend its influence. The Iranians have also opened schools in Kabul and have largely financed a university attached to a large new Shiite mosque.

Iran is thought to back at least eight newspapers in Kabul and a number of television and radio stations, according to Afghan and Western officials. The Iranian-backed news organs kept fanning anti-American sentiment for days after the Koran burnings.

So we’ve got Pakistan and a range of insurgent groups fostering efforts that are getting our soldiers killed. And with the exception of one Quran-protest in Herat, we’ve got Iran funding schools and newspapers. Soft power, as the NYT admits.

And yet Iran is the country we’ve got all the sanctions against?

Is David Petraeus Leaking to Undercut the President? Or Is Someone Framing Him?

The WaPo has the latest in seemingly yearly series of leaks of Top Secret cables designed to undercut the President’s plan to withdraw from Afghanistan.

The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan sent a top-secret cable to Washington last month warning that the persistence of enemy havens in Pakistan was placing the success of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan in jeopardy, U.S. officials said.

The cable, written by Ryan C. Crocker, amounted to an admission that years of U.S. efforts to curtail insurgent activity in Pakistan by the lethal Haqqani network, a key Taliban ally, were failing.

The hints and feints the article offers about who leaked the memo provide ample entertainment for a Saturday afternoon.

Note the way the WaPo describes its sources inconsistently. It offers this quote from a senior defense official.

“The sanctuaries are a deal-killer for the [Afghan war] strategy,” said a senior defense official who is familiar with the ongoing debate and who, like several officials in this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations. [my emphasis]

But then the WaPo suggests military leaders have motive to leak the cable, distinguishing between “defense” and “military” officials.

The cable, which was described by several officials familiar with its contents, could be used as ammunition by senior military officials who favor more aggressive action by the United States against the Haqqani havens in Pakistan. It also could buttress calls from senior military officials for a more gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan as the 2014 deadline for ending combat operations approaches.

These military officials have maintained for months that the strategy of targeting raids against Taliban leadership and building local Afghan governance is showing impressive results. [my emphasis]

Mind you, none of these military officials seem to be directly quoted here–at least not defined as military officials. The comment might just reflect the knowledge of Greg Jaffe, WaPo’s military writer. Though it would be consistent if a General or two leaked such a cable–after all, Stanley McChrystal is assumed to have leaked a similar cable during Obama’s Afghanistan review in 2009, for similar reason.

Yet I’m most interested in this quote, of someone whose affiliation was rather pointedly (given the description of defense and military sources) not identified.

“There’s no debate about the importance of going after Haqqani . . . and Taliban militants who launch attacks into Afghanistan,” one U.S. official said. “Support for this is universal.” [my emphasis]

The article also defaults to “US officials” elsewhere, though that could be because the sources came from multiple agencies. Note, “US official” can be used to refer to members of Congress, as well as agency officials.

In any case should we assume these unmarked sources are intelligence ones–the beat of Greg Miller, the WaPo’s intelligence writer and the other byline on the story?

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