The assassination of Logar Governor Arsala Jamal today is just the latest reminder that the Taliban remain a power to be reckoned with in Afghanistan after 12 years of war. Meanwhile, talks on extending the US presence in the country beyond next year are going nowhere fast, in part because of the Taliban's continuing ability to threaten the lives of senior leaders.
Mr. Jamal was murdered at a mosque, by a bomb hidden in the microphone he'd just started speaking through, at a service to commemorate Eid al-Adha, the Muslim day of sacrifice. There had been at least four previous attempts on his life.
Jamal was not just any governor. A confidante of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Jamal was Karzai's campaign manager in the fraud-plagued 2009 election that returned Karzai to power. With Afghanistan gearing up for new presidential elections next spring and with President Karzai term-limited from office, he was likely to play a key role in Karzai's efforts to maneuver a candidate of his preference into the top seat.
RECOMMENDED: Afghanistan today
His death, probably at the hands of the Afghan Taliban given the movement's strength in Logar, is just the latest in a long line of senior officials killed by the group.
The governor of a district in Kunduz province was killed by a suicide bomber at the end of August. Kunduz Governor Muhammad Omar was killed by a Taliban attack on a mosque in October 2010. Since 2006, when the first post-invasion governor was killed by the Taliban, at least 21 governors, members of parliament, senior police officials, and senior government administrators have been assassinated (my own informal count; the real number is probably higher).
The continued targeting of government officials by the Taliban does not indicate the movement is particularly interested at peace talks at the moment. In fact, the Taliban probably thinks it's holding a winning hand, with the prospect of a full NATO and US military withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 becoming more likely.
The US insists a deal will be struck to keep US troops in Afghanistan. But the winds have not been favorable lately.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said at a press conference with Karzai on Saturday that a so-called “Bilateral Security Agreement,” which would provide the legal authority for an extended US presence in the country, was close to being nailed down.
"We have resolved in these last 24 hours the major issues the president went through," Kerry told reporters, shortly after Karzai recited his now familiar list of criticisms of US military actions in Afghanistan.
Secretary Kerry's upbeat tone doesn't stand up to scrutiny, however. Part of what Kerry and Karzai agreed to was leaving the question of immunity for US troops from Afghan prosecution to the parliament and a planned loya jirga (a gathering of senior tribal figures) next month.
Immunity is the biggest of the major issues standing in the way of a security agreement. Karzai's constant bristling at what he describes as US military brutality is embedded in a deep political reality: Most Afghans don't like foreign troops in their homes and towns, and consider the elevation of foreigners above national laws a slap in the face.
To have US troops subject to Afghan law and prosecuted by the country's corrupt police and court system would be unthinkable for President Barack Obama (or any other US leader). Imagine a US soldier dragged before a politicized Afghan court for alleged crimes carried out during combat duties.
So the equation is simple: No immunity, no Bilateral Security Agreement. But since immunity is a hot-button issue for Afghan politicians and average citizens alike, it's hard to see both a loya jirga and the parliament signing off on the idea.
While the current arrangement has more than a year to run, planning for an extended mission in Afghanistan gets more difficult with each lost day. In July, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said for planning purposes, he wanted an agreement in place by this month.
Meanwhile, the Taliban reiterated its opposition to a continued foreign military presence in a press release reportedly written by Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar today, warning government officials not to approve an extended US presence beyond the end of 2014.
"Those who would sign could not be called a representative loya jirga of the country. Their decisions are not acceptable," the statement quoted Omar as saying. "The invaders should know that their limited bases will never be accepted. The current armed jihad will continue against them with more momentum."
Given its demonstrated ability to kill Afghan politicians, his words will be closely considered by both members of parliament and delegates to the loya jirga.
(This story was edited after first posting to correct how long the US has been at war in Afghanistan).
At about 8 this evening, CNN reporters started sharing a scoop on social media: The Obama administration had decided to suspend all aid to Egypt, citing the violent suppression of political dissent in the country since a July 3 military coup removed the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi from the presidency.
Here's what CNN's national security correspondent Jim Sciutto wrote on Twitter:
US to suspend aid to #Egypt - "decision has been made...will take effect in coming days" - US official— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) October 8, 2013
"US to suspend aid to Egypt" has a pretty clear meaning. Not some aid, or not for a few days or weeks or months but "suspended." Cut off, halted, all of it.
RECOMMENDED: How much do you know about Egypt? Take this quiz.
CNN's website soon followed with a news story that begins: "The United States will cut off military aid to Egypt in the wake of the July coup against President Mohamed Morsy and the turmoil that has followed, a U.S. official said Tuesday."
Ok, not all aid. Just the $1 billion plus in annual military aid to Egypt, most of which is spent on buying military hardware from US private defense contractors like General Dynamics, which has supplied Abrams tanks to Egypt for years. The news organization cited an unidentified "US official" for the claim.
The White House soon emailed a statement to reporters saying the story was not true. The Monitor's White House Correspondent Linda Feldmann shared the statement with me. The emailed statement says it can be attributed to National Security Council (NSC) spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden and reads in full: "The reports that we are halting all military assistance to Egypt are false. We will announce the future of our assistance relationship with Egypt in the coming days, but as the President made clear at UNGA (United Nations General Assembly), that assistance relationship will continue."
One can focus on language – the difference between "cut off" and "suspend" in CNN's telling versus the administration's statement that "reports that we are halting all military assistance to Egypt are false." Perhaps this means that some small amount of funding for Egyptian officers to come and train with the US military here will be maintained, but big-ticket transfers will be cut off.
Or perhaps CNN just got a story badly wrong. We don't know yet, and the problem with this kind of anonymously sourced story to one lone "official" is that follow-up is difficult.
Repression by Egypt's military-led government since it seized power in July has only grown worse, and the use of heavy-handed tactics against dissenters like the Muslim Brotherhood has been on the rise. On Sunday, over 50 Egyptians – many protesting against the ouster of Morsi – were killed in clashes, and Egyptians are worried that protests called for Friday against the military takeover will lead to more bloodshed.
Aid has flowed continuously to Egypt from the US since the Camp David accords were signed between Egypt and Israel in 1978 – over $60 billion and counting. While Egypt's current military rulers have cultivated new sources of foreign aid, particularly from Saudi Arabia, the US is still deeply entangled with regional security arrangements, particularly when they come to Egypt and Israel. An aid cut-off now, especially since the Obama administration didn't act beyond a symbolic delay of some military hardware after the July coup, would be surprising.
But while it's probable that CNN got much wrong in its early reporting of a US aid suspension to Egypt, it's improbable that some kind of restriction isn't coming down the pike. That was signaled in the NSC spokeswoman's statement where it was written: "We will announce the future of our assistance relationship with Egypt in the coming days."
This is a developing story and all caveats apply. I thought this comment from Steven Cook, a keen observer of the US-Egyptian relationship at the Council on Foreign Relations, shortly after CNN's first reports of the story came out, was astute:
Change is indeed coming. Where exactly it leads, of course, is another matter.
RECOMMENDED: How much do you know about Egypt? Take this quiz.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai marked the 12th anniversary of the US-led NATO invasion of Afghanistan that dislodged the Taliban from power and ended up installing him as leader by saying that Afghan women have nothing to fear from a return of Taliban influence and that nothing has been really gained thanks to the foreign military effort in the country.
Karzai's remarks come as the clock is ticking on a so-called Bilateral Security Agreement to be inked between NATO and Afghanistan. If an agreement isn't reached, including guarantees that US forces won't be subject to Afghan law, all US troops will depart from the country at the end of next year. While there's still time for a deal to be reached, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said in July that an agreement any later than October would make planning for an ongoing mission beyond the end of 2014 much more difficult.
But Karzai's comments today to the BBC's Newsnight weren't exactly outreaching, and makes one wonder if he's not interested in retaining the services of foreign soldiers. He's tried to use the drawn out negotiation over the BSA to wring more aid and weaponry out of the US, as well as far-reaching security guarantees. But with a war-weary American public and fights over the US budget deficit at home for Obama, walking away from Afghanistan becomes more likely with each passing day and insult tossed at the US and its partners.
Today Karzai complained that the US administration's descriptions of his government as an "ineffective partner" is because the US "want us to keep silent when civilians are killed. We will not, we can not."
He said that relations with the US soured because the US under President George W. Bush decided not to broaden the war to Pakistan in 2005. Instead of fighting "in the sanctuaries and training grounds beyond Afghanistan," Karzai said, "the US and NATO forces were conducting operations in Afghan villages, causing harm to Afghan people."
The Afghan President, asked if Afghan women should have any fear about a possible entry of the Taliban into government, answered: "None. None at all."
Karzai also said most of the "big" corruption in Afghanistan was the work of foreigners, not Afghans, and that much of the money spent was used to "buy submissiveness of Afghan government officials to policies and designs that the Afghans would not have agreed to."
He also said the massive 12 year war effort has largely been a waste: "On security front, entire NATO exercise was one that caused Afghanistan a lot of suffering and a lot of loss of life and no gains because the country is not secure. I am not happy to say there is partial security because that is not what we’re seeking. What we wanted was absolute security and a clear cut war against terrorism."
Below is a transcript of the BBC interview I took down while listening (which can be watched here.) The interviewer's questions are approximations; Karzai's answers are his precise words.
Karzai interview transcript
Q: The country has come a long way in the last 12 years. Why do the Americans call “you an unreliable ineffective partner?”
A: Because where they want us to go along, we won’t go along. They want us to keep silent when civilians are killed. We will not, we can not.
Q: Did you get on with Bush better than Obama?
A: I had a very good relationship with President Bush in those beginning years there was not much of a difference of opinion between us. The worsening of relations began actually in 2005 where we saw the first incidents of civilian casualties where we saw that the war on terror was not conducted where it should have been, which was in the sanctuaries and the training grounds beyond Afghanistan, rather than that the US and NATO forces were conducting operations in Afghan villages, causing harm to Afghan people.
Q: Are you talking to the Taliban, personally?
A: Yes we are. Yes, we are. We have our whole system engaged in several directions to bring stability and peace to Afghanistan
Q: Is the goal to bring them into a power-sharing deal in government?
A: Absolutely. They’re Afghans, where the afghan president, where the afghan government can appoint the Taliban to a government job, they’re welcome we will do that. But where it’s the afghan people appointing people through elections to state organs then the Taliban should come and participate in elections. So to clarify this, yes as Afghans they are welcome to the Afghan government, like all other Afghans. Yes, as Afghans they are welcome to participate in elections as all other afghans.
Q: US/UK audiences might ask what was all this for then? 12 years fighting, lives lost, and the Taliban can just walk back in and be part of government.
A: Well the Americans have told us themselves in Washington in my last visit that the Taliban are not their enemies. That they will not fight the Taliban anymore.
Q: What are you talking about with the Taliban?
A: If the Taliban have reasons for which they can not come they must spell this out. If it is the Afghan constitution, they must come out and talk to us and allow the Afghan people and through the mechanisms that we have to amend the constitution.
Q: Gains for women are tenuous. By bringing the Taliban back aren’t you compromising those gains?
A: The return of the Taliban will not undermine the progress. This country needs to have peace.
Q: But you know where they stand with women’s rights. Are you willing to sacrifice women’s rights?
A: I’m willing to stand for anything that will bring peace to Afghanistan and through that to promote the cause of the Afghan woman better… there is no doubt about that. Even if the Taliban come that will not end, that will not slow down.
Q: So women in Afghanistan should not fear the return of the Taliban?
A: None at all. None.
Q: The bilateral security agreement. Let’s talk about that. That defines the US and Afghan relationship beyond withdrawal and if you push too hard they may not stay. Does that worry you?
A: Well if the agreement doesn’t suit us then of course they can leave. The agreement has to suit Afghanistan’s interests and purposes. If it doesn’t suit us and if it doesn’t suit them then naturally we’ll go separate ways… if this agreement does not provide Afghanistan peace and security the Afghans will not want it. That’s very clear.
Q: Britain has made a massive contribution already. Can you tell the British public what all these sacrifices were for because they don’t understand why they’re still here.
A: All the prime ministers that came were in office in the past 12 years have clearly stated that they’re here in Afghanistan to provide security to the West in order to prevent terrorism from reaching the west in order to fight extremism here. How much of that has been achieved is a question that the British government can answer alone.
Q: Can you assess for me the criticism and failings that were experienced in Helmand (a major combat focus for British troops in past years).
A: It’s not only Britain. On security front, entire NATO exercise was one that caused Afghanistan a lot of suffering and a lot of loss of life and no gains because the country is not secure. I am not happy to say there is partial security because that is not what we’re seeking. What we wanted was absolute security and a clear cut war against terrorism.
Q: Some would say your legacy has been tainted by Afghan corruption, it’s the third most corrupt country in the world. Is that the legacy you wanted?
A: No of course not. Our government is weak and ineffective in comparison to other governments we’ve just begun. But the big corruption the hundreds of millions of dollars of corruption was not Afghan, now everybody knows that. It was foreign, the contracts, the subcontracts, the blind contracts given to people. Money thrown around to buy loyalties, money thrown around to buy submissiveness of Afghan government officials to policies and designs that the Afghans would not have agreed to. That was the major (part?) of corruption.
Q: Finally, there isn’t a single living afghan leader. They’ve all been killed. Are you concerned about your safety when you leave office?
A: Not at all, I’ll be safe.
Ovadia Yosef, an ultra-orthodox Sephardic Israeli rabbi whose popularity among religious Israelis, particularly those whose families came to Israel from the Arab world, led to the creation of the Shas movement and a hard lurch right in Israeli politics, is being praised throughout Israel after his passing today.
Hundreds of thousands of his supporters took the streets of Jerusalem to mourn. Former Israeli President Shimon Peres visited with Mr. Yosef at his hospital bedside just hours before he passed, tenderly kissing his hand and forehead, according to The Jerusalem Post. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a statement issued by his office, spoke of his "profound grief" and said that "the Jewish People have lost one of the wisest men of his generation."
There is no doubt that Yosef is a major figure in Israeli political and social history – he arrived in Israel at the age of four, in the mid-1920s, and the power of the political movement he built is responsible for the public praise he's garnering today. But Yosef's undisguised bigotry and religious political extremism could also prove awkward for politicians like Mr. Netanyahu, who just last week complained that Iranians aren't allowed to wear jeans or listen to Western music by the country's own religious extremists (never mind that neither of his assertions were true).
RECOMMENDED: How much do you know about Israel? Take the quiz
Netanyahu has been campaigning of late against any rapprochement between the US and Iran, warning that seeming Iranian willingness to negotiate over its nuclear program is a trap and that the Islamic Republic's leaders are fundamentally unstable and untrustworthy.
"They’re governed by Ayatollah Khamenei. He heads a cult. That cult is wild in its ambitions and its aggression,” Netanyahu told NBC last week. In his speech at the UN last month, he complained of the "fanaticism" of Iran's religiously based state.
Yet he and many Israeli leaders embrace and praise Yosef, the Baghdad-born cleric who served as Israel's chief Sephardi rabbi for a decade before focusing on direct political power. His religiously inspired views have given more political power to clerics in Israel, and his ultimate agenda frightened non-Jews.
For instance, in 2010 he said in a weekly Saturday night sermon that the sole purpose God put non-Jews on earth was to be servants to Jews.
"Goyim (gentiles, non-Jews) were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world – only to serve the People of Israel," he said, according to the Jerusalem Post. "Why are gentiles needed? They will work, they will plow, they will reap. We will sit like an effendi and eat. That is why gentiles were created." An "effendi" is a lord, or a master, in Arabic.
Yosef also favored the large number of ultra-Orthodox men who eschew modern education, focus only on Torah study, and are exempted from military service in Israel while largely subsisting on government handouts.
It was his comments about non-Jews that were the ugliest. In 2010 he said of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the people he leads that "all these evil people should perish from this world. God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians."
On Arabs in general, he said in 2001, "It is forbidden to be merciful to them. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable." In 2009 he said of Muslims "their religion is as ugly as they are."
That sort of rhetoric, when heard from Arab or Iranian clerics directed towards Israelis or Jews in general is usually (and rightly) harshly condemned by Israeli leaders like Netanyahu as beyond the pale.
Yosef also had regressive views on the role of women and gays in society. In 2007, angry that many Ashkenazi rabbis supported allowing women to say a blessing over Shabbat candles after they'd been lit, he said: "Women should make (stew) and not deal with matters of the Torah." He said that any disagreement with him was the fault of "a few stupid women. A woman's knowledge is only in sewing."
As for gays and lesbians, he said they were "completely evil."
To be sure, it's not just in Israel where Yosef was popular. Bill de Blasio, the democrat who's the current front-runner to be mayor of New York, had this to say about the departed rabbi today:
Millions of people around the world lost a leader today in Rabbi Chacham Ovadia Yosef. His wisdom, charity and sensitivity were legendary.— Bill de Blasio (@BilldeBlasio) October 7, 2013
In 2010, Ross Ulbricht, a ferociously bright young man working at the edge of material science at Penn State, walked away from his budding research career for what he felt was a nobler application of his energies: a quest for utopia.
On his LinkedIn page, he explained that in the five or so years since he'd earned a bachelors degree in physics from the University of Texas at Dallas "my goal during this period... was simply to expand the frontier of human knowledge." He now had grander plans:
Now, my goals have shifted. I want to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and agression (sic) amongst mankind. Just as slavery has been abolished most everywhere, I believe violence, coercion and all forms of force by one person over another can come to an end. The most widespread and systemic use of force is amongst institutions and governments, so this is my current point of effort. The best way to change a government is to change the minds of the governed, however. To that end, I am creating an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force.
That passage would be familiar to anyone who's ever participated in the online forums where the Internet's seemingly endless supply of techno-libertarians roam free. A young, technically-competent young man with a hard science or engineering background, issuing his digital Randian yawp: "I'm going Galt, and I'm going to reshape the world!"
The vast majority of the time, the vow is just bluster. But if the FBI is to be believed, Mr. Ulbricht not only followed through, but did so by burrowing deep into the dark underbelly of digital commerce, earning vast fees for himself and learning a fair bit about violence and coercion into the bargain. Going by the Internet handle "Dread Pirate Roberts" (the name of the semi-mythical scourge of the high seas from 1987's The Princess Bride), he founded the lawless and secretive online marketplace Silk Road, which relied on the virtual Bitcoin currency and the world's legions of drug dealers, credit-card thieves, and money launderers for traffic.
Before he was exposed as Ulbricht, "DPR" dressed up his activities in the same high-minded rhetoric found on his LinkedIn page. For instance, in August of this year, he gave an online interview to Forbes.
In addition to apparently falsely claiming that he was not Silk Road's founder (a nod to The Princess Bride; while the fearsome Dread Pirates Robert was thought to be one man, he was actually a succession of men who made their fortunes and then retired, passing the mantle on to a successor) he laid out his philosophy of the state as ogre.
"At it’s core, Silk Road is a way to get around regulation from the state," he told Forbes. "If they say we can’t buy and sell certain things, we’ll do it anyway and suffer no abuse from them. But the state tries to control nearly every aspect of our lives, not just drug use.. If it wasn’t clear before that the state is your enemy, it should be now that the biggest covert intelligence agency in the biggest government on the planet has been stealing nearly everyone’s private communications. We have the technology right now to make this impossible for them."
Ulbricht took in roughly $80 million in fees while processing over $1 billion worth of transactions until his site was shut down this week, after months of US government infiltration of the site and its practices. FBI agents tailed him to a library in San Francisco, waited until he'd logged into his computer and entered his passwords and then pounced - making their arrest and getting access to all of the transactions and logs he'd boasted in online forums as "DPR" they'd never be able to get their hands on.
It turns out US law enforcement has been investigating the site, including undercover purchases of heroin, cocaine and other drugs from vendors, since Nov. 2011. In July of this year, US border agents intercepted a package destined for an address in San Francisco that contained 9 counterfeit identity documents. The picture in each document was of Ulbricht, the indictment says, and the address led them to his place of residence.
Ulbricht has been charged with soliciting murder-for-hire, drug trafficking, money laundering, and computer hacking.
According to the indictment, he tried to have an anonymous user of the site going by the name "FriendlyChemist" killed after the user tried to extort $500,000 from him in exchange for not releasing a list of the site's customers identities. The "Chemist" entity said it owed money to a drug supplier, and Ulbricht as "DPR" (Dread Pirate Robert) asked to talk to the supplier.
A Silk Road customer named "redandwhite" contacted Ulbricht, and identified as the supplier. "FriendlyChemist aside, we should talk about how we can do business. Obviously you have access to illicit substances in quantity and are having issues with bad distributors. If you don't already sell here on Silk Road, I'd like you to consider becoming a vendor," DPR wrote on March 25.
On March 26, DPR contacted redandwhite again. "In my eyes, FriendlyChemist is a liability and I wouldn't mind if he was executed." DPR, according to the indictment, then provided the real name and town of residence of FriendlyChemist. A few days later, FriendlyChemist turned up the heat on DPR again, threatening to release the names of 2 dozen Silk Road vendors and about 5,000 account holders if he didn't receive $500,000 fast. A few hours later DPR again contacted "redandwhite," asking how much it would cost to "put a bounty" on FriendlyChemist's head. On March 30, redandwhite responded $150,000 to 300,000 depending on whether the murder was "clean" or "non-clean."
To this DPR complained, writing (according to the FBI) that "the price seems high. Not long ago, I had a clean job done for $80k."
Is DPR Ulbricht? The FBI insists it was his account. And in the process of Ulbricht soliciting the murder of "FriendlyChemist" (who could well have been an FBI plant, as could have "redandwhite"), this line attributed to Ulbricht stands out. This "kind of behavior is unforgivable to me," DPR wrote on March 30. "Especially here on Silk Road, anonymity is sacrosanct."
Yes. Instead of the libertarian paradise that Ulbricht said he was seeking to build, one free of the "violence and coercion" of government, Ulbricht appears to have set himself up as judge and executioner of a man for violating his criminal operation's law that "anonymity is sacrosanct." This extreme pose, if not the extreme step, is fairly common in internet circles. Government coercion is "bad" - but freedom to do whatever the heck one wants, even if that tramples on the freedoms of others, is good. And anonymizing networks like Tor (which was required to access the Silk Road website) will keep you free, no matter what.
That fantasy came crashing down for Ulbricht because while Tor might hide your internet protocol address and location, it can't do much to prevent good old fashioned investigative tools - or the fact that we all live in the real world, not the virtual one. A second indictment of Ulbricht for soliciting murder and torture lays out how compromised he's been, and for how long. It turns out the "clean hit" he thought he'd paid $80,000 for was arranged via the FBI.
In December of last year an undercover FBI agent posing as a cocaine dealer developed a relationship with Ulbricht, who eventually arranged a drug purchase through the agent. After the drugs were delivered to an employee of Ulbricht's, the feds arrested the employee.
An angry and concerned Ulbricht then contacted the FBI undercover in January of this year, and asked if he could arrange to have the arrested employee tortured as a way to force him to return bitcoin that Ulbricht alleged the employee had stolen from Silk Road customers. After thinking on it a day, he contacted the undercover again: "Can you change the order to execute rather than torture," Ulbricht asked, according to the indictment.
The agent agreed, and after receiving a $40,000 down payment on an $80,000 murder contract (Ulbricht wired the money to an FBI controlled Capital One bank account in Washington DC), provided Ulbricht with a series of faked torture pictures, and ultimately a faked picture of the employee he said proved he was dead, as evidence he'd held up his end of the bargain. Upon being told his employee was dead, Ulbricht wrote: "I'm pissed I had to kill him... I just wish more people had some integrity."
Many people are obsessed with anonymity and privacy online, and many for good reasons. Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker who appears to have strong libertarian leanings of his own, says his concern about government prying into private citizens' lives is what drove him to betray the US government's secrets. Ulbricht's comments to Forbes indicate he sees himself as similarly motivated.
But in the end, utopian dreamers of the day often find themselves presiding over fresh horrors. Ulbricht, as Dread Pirate Roberts, told Forbes: "Sector by sector the state is being cut out of the equation and power is being returned to the individual. I don’t think anyone can comprehend the magnitude of the revolution we are in. I think it will be looked back on as an epoch in the evolution of mankind."
If the FBI's case against Ulbricht stands up, we've had a glimpse of where his revolution was heading and we're probably lucky that his "Silk Road movement" (as he described it to Forbes) has foundered.
The trip was to begin with a visit to Indonesia for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, then a jaunt to Brunei for two major regional summits. Planned bilateral visits to Malaysia and the Philippines at the back end of the trip had already been cancelled.
To be sure, President Obama had a full agenda: vital issues touching on regional maritime security, border disputes in the South China Sea, and one of the largest free trade areas in history. Long-term US economic and security interests are at the heart of all of it. Over $5 trillion in global trade passes through the South China Sea each year, making it perhaps the greatest hotspot of global commerce.
RECOMMENDED: Are you a savvy global traveler? Take the quiz
The rise of China as the region's dominant economic power and arguably its future military one has created both threats and opportunities for the US and its regional partners. In the past few years Obama has made senior US government representation at regional summits a priority, as a way of sending a message that the US is not going to turn its back on a region that is responsible for so much of America's prosperity.
So it’s understandable that Obama's cancelled trip is seen as something of a diplomatic catastrophe. To a certain extent that's right, though it perhaps gets cause and effect back to front. While America's global diplomatic standing would undoubtedly be better off without the budget fight in Congress, the dysfunction and distrust within America's domestic institutions rightly make thoughts of trips abroad at the moment ridiculous.
Nothing positive enough to outweigh the potential catastrophe of a US default, which would have ripple effects throughout the global economy, could come from this trip. The political impasse at home makes it almost impossible to think that any great breakthroughs would be possible.
Consider the APEC Summit that Obama is skipping. Leaders from almost every Pacific rim nation will be in attendance, and while many APEC summits have been dreary snoozefests in its 24-year history (usually enlivened by world leaders posing for group pictures in variations of national dress) this one promised to be different.
On the table for serious discussions at APEC is the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. The US has been shopping this free trade zone since 2009 and Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam are interested. The US government has called the partnership "the cornerstone of the Obama administration's economic policy in the Asia Pacific" and the stakes are high: A free trade agreement across all those markets would be the largest in US history, and one of the largest in human history.
Asia has been the bright spot in global growth in recent years, led by China (which is conspicuously absent from the partnership talks) but with the whole region fairly booming while growth has lagged in the US, and stalled across much of Europe. With World Trade Organization talks also stalled, the US is seeking to lock in access elsewhere. The presence of Obama at talks on the agreement, rather than Secretary of State John Kerry, who's going in his stead, sends a message of US commitment.
China has been suspicious of the partnership agreement, viewing it as having the potential to represent a trade bloc opposed to its own interests. Obama won't be at APEC, particularly missing the all-important side-bar meetings with other foreign leaders, but the Chinese delegation led by President Xi Jinping will be there bending the ears of all and sundry about his country's increasingly powerful role.
So Obama's absence is bad, right? Well, not exactly.
The same political divide at home that led Obama to cancel this trip is probably going to stand in the way of the US ratifying a new, sprawling free trade area, which would almost certainly involve painful concessions on the US side (you have to grant market access to get market access). While the Republican party has been the traditional party of big business and free trade, it's hard to imagine the current Republican-controlled House signing off on an Obama-brokered deal to remove tariffs and other trade barriers for a host of countries.
In September, Obama said he wanted Congress to grant him the power to submit a completed partnership agreement to Congress for an up or down vote, without legislators having the power to insert amendments. Obama wants that power - called Trade Promotion Authority - so that he can make deals with foreign governments and deliver on them, but Congress is leery of giving him that power. It's not just some Republicans: many Democrats are wary of the TPP, which they say could lead to severe disadvantages for US workers.
As things stand now, granting Obama Trade Promotion Authority, in a crowded legislative calendar with far more pressing issues, isn’t likely any time soon.
So Obama isn't going to Asia. That's not great for his agenda, and perhaps not great for long-term US interests. But until the current mess in Washington is sorted out, there's no much that he can promise to other nations.
Sometimes even the leader of the world's sole remaining superpower has to get his own house in order before he can take his agenda to the world.
There has been much discussion of whether the murders and siege at Westgate, one of the poshest malls in East Africa, indicate a resurgence for the Somali group or the desperate act of a desperate terrorist movement. This is in some ways the wrong question.
A group of committed men with rifles will almost always have the capacity to take over a shopping mall, or a hotel, or even a school and wreak havoc, particularly in parts of the world like Kenya, which has a highly unstable and lawless neighbor in Somalia on its northeastern flank and imperfect security services. While in this case the attackers say they were motivated by Kenya's involvement in the military effort to dislodge Al Shabab from Somalia, the lasting impression for most observers will be the savagery of killing men, women and children enjoying a weekend day out.
To be sure, some will disagree. Fox News ran a story yesterday citing "experts" as determining the rampage would lead to a surge in recruitment for Al Qaeda and aligned movements in the US, since it demonstrates a continued potency for terrorist tactics.
Those experts, I think, are going to be proven fortunately mistaken.
The nihilistic violence that Al Qaeda and aligned groups engage in has long been a major hindrance to recruitment for Al Qaeda. During the height of the war in Iraq, the penchant of Al Qaeda's local affiliate for murdering civilians at prayer, on the way to work, or out shopping for dinner, played a crucial role in stiffening the Iraqi public's resolve against the movement.
In 2005 Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri entreated the then leader of the movement in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to leave off the wanton killing of civilians, saying it was undermining Al Qaeda's long term goals. He was ignored, and by 2007 Sunni Arab tribes that had been passively supportive of Al Qaeda fighters had turned on the movement.
The Westgate attack is precisely the sort of killing that Zawahiri, if his statements are anything to go by, understands hurts the movement. The death of one of the victims helps explain why.
Elif Yafuz, a Dutch woman who was 8 months pregnant, was gunned down when the attack began, along with her Australian partner Ross Langdon. I learned a little bit about them from friends on Facebook, who knew the couple from their time in Jakarta. Ms. Yafuz had devoted her adult life working on malaria and HIV eradication in Asia and Africa.
She received her Ph.D. from the Harvard School of Public Health earlier this year, with a dissertation that focused on malaria in eastern Africa, building off of fieldwork in Uganda. She and Mr. Langdon had recently returned to Africa, and she had started a job with the Clinton Foundation, focusing on malaria vaccine programs in Tanzania.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the mosquito-borne disease is one of the great killers of children. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that malaria claimed 655,000 lives in 2010, 91 percent of those in sub-saharan Africa. Of those who died from the disease that year, an estimated 86 percent of the victims were children. As bad as that picture is, it's a big improvement from the middle of the last decade, with deaths down about 30 percent since then.
One of the reasons for that is the work of people like Yafuz. Former President Bill Clinton said in a statement on her death: "Elif devoted her life to helping others, particularly people in developing countries suffering from malaria and HIV/AIDS. She had originally worked with our Health Access Initiative during her doctoral studies, and we were so pleased that she had recently rejoined us as a senior vaccines researcher based in Tanzania. Elif was brilliant, dedicated, and deeply admired by her colleagues, who will miss her terribly."
Nairobi has become a regional hub for both aid workers and businessmen in eastern Africa, and if Al Shabab gets its way, the ability of those people to work and contribute to improving standards of living will grow harder and more dangerous. Less work would be done, and more children would die, if the Shabab gets its way. And that's the message sent by the attack.
While some people may find that a compelling message, they are thankfully few and far between. Will more attacks like the ongoing one in Nairobi follow? Certainly possible. But these are the acts of people striking, directly and indirectly, at the innocent and the weak. Such attacks do resonate - but they generate revulsion and horror.
Holocaust denial, suggestions that Israel needs to "vanish from the page of time," vows that no one could stop the Islamic Republic if it wanted a nuclear weapon, and claims that a nefarious cabal inside the US government was behind the 9-11 attacks on New York and Washington – he seemed to relish inflammatory rhetoric whenever he had the world's attention.
One of Mr. Ahmadinejad's favorite venues for such comments was the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York, and from 2005 until last year, he rarely missed a chance to stir the pot.
To be fair, President George W. Bush's infamous "axis of evil" speech (that named Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea) was only three years earlier – not exactly the sort of thing to reduce international tension itself. Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad's choice of words throughout his time as president not only kept tension simmering, but was also cited as evidence that Iran couldn't be negotiated with over its nuclear program or anything else. The only thing that would deter the country from its chemical weapons program (that Iran insists does not exist) was force, the argument went. "Just listen to that guy!" was the refrain. "He's crazy and dangerous."
So the replacement of Ahmadinejad with Hassan Rouhani, a political rival who favors deescalation with the US and more diplomatic rhetoric, would be good news, right?
Not for everyone, apparently. The Obama administration may be considering positive gestures of their own towards the new Iranian president (a White House spokesman today said that a meeting between Obama and Rouhani, the first between a US and Iranian president in 33 years, hadn't been ruled out), but Israel and many friends of Israel are deeply alarmed at the prospect.
As Mark Landler wrote in The New York Times yesterday ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech tomorrow at the UN: "The Israeli government, clearly rattled by the sudden talk of a diplomatic opening, offered a preview Sunday of Mr. Netanyahu’s hard-edged message, in which he will set the terms for what would be acceptable to Israel in any agreement concerning Iran’s nuclear ambitions. 'A bad agreement is worse than no agreement at all,' the Israeli official said, reading a statement from the prime minister’s office that he said reflected Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks."
In a statement last week, Mr. Netanyahu said: "The Iranians are continuing to deceive so that the centrifuges continue spinning. The real test lies in the Iranian regime’s actions, not words... while Rouhani sits down for interviews, he also continues to move ahead with the nuclear program. The Iranian regime’s goal is to reach a deal that would require it to give up an insignificant part of its nuclear program, while allowing it to … charge forward quickly toward (acquiring) a nuclear weapon whenever it chooses.”
Pro-Israel hawks in Congress see it similarly. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, (R) of Florida, said it would be a mistake for President Barack Obama to sit down with Rouhani when he's in the US this week. Supporters of dialogue think the new Iranian president offers an opportunity for constructive engagement absent for years, but she says that Rouhani's friendly words mask sinister intentions.
"Rouhani is a master of deceit who has been putting on an all-out charm offensive since he took office, replacing Ahmadinejad. In many ways Rouhani is much more dangerous than Ahmadinejad," she said in a statement. "At least with Ahmadinejad you get what you see – his hatred for Israel and the United States is not disguised with rhetoric or spurious gestures of goodwill... The Administration must not fall for this charm offensive, and must increase the pressure on the regime with more sanctions until Iran completely abandons its nuclear pursuit and dismantles its program."
So in her view, Rouhani's comments are all about concealment and deception, evidence that he is untrustworthy and the only way to deal with Iran is to demand its total capitulation – even before Iran's leader can get a face to face with the US president.
Is that likely to be forthcoming? It hasn't happened for decades yet.
On Aug. 21, a chemical weapons attack hit the largely Sunni suburbs of eastern and western Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus, leaving more than 1,000 people dead and the US on the brink of going to war with the Syrian government.
Since then, the US has pulled back from its threats of imminent attack in response to a promise from President Bashar al-Assad, brokered by Russia, that he will fully disclose his chemical weapons stockpile and cooperate with its full decommissioning.
Although the evidence of responsibility was scant in the early days after the attack, the Syrian government's possession of chemical weapons was a fact, and the chances that Syria's rebels had obtained a nerve agent like sarin (the substance that the US, France, and now the United Nations all say hit Ghouta on Aug. 21) was highly unlikely.
Last week, UN inspectors said the use of sarin at Ghouta was indisputable, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the attack "the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988." The UN inspectors were careful not to say who they thought was responsible for the attack – determining responsibility was excluded from their mandate – but other generally credible groups say they're convinced that the attack came from the Syrian military.
Human Rights Watch writes in a 22-page report that it is convinced that government forces carried out the attack, arguing that eyewitness testimony, an examination of the rockets used to deliver the sarin, and doctors testimony all point in that direction.
"The evidence concerning the type of rockets and launchers used in these attacks strongly suggests that these are weapon systems known and documented to be only in the possession of, and used by, Syrian government armed forces. Human Rights Watch and arms experts monitoring the use of weaponry in Syria have not documented Syrian opposition forces to be in the possession of the 140mm and 330mm rockets used in the attack, or their associated launchers," the group wrote.
But there have been many who insist that the attack was a sort of false flag operation carried out by rebels, designed to make Assad look responsible and draw US to war. Exhibit A for those making this argument was an Aug. 29 article that appeared on the website of startup Mint Press, under the bylines of Yahya Ababneh and Dale Gavlak. Ms. Gavlak is a longtime stringer for the Associated Press, based in Jordan, and her association with the piece led to claims that an "AP reporter" had "confirmed" the attack was carried out by the rebels.
The article in its first iteration didn't pass the smell test. It claimed that Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the country's intelligence chief, had supplied chemical weapons to untrained rebels and that an accidental release in tunnels where the weapons were being stored led to the deaths. "They didn't tell us what these weapons were or how to use them," the article quotes a female fighter known only as "K" as saying. "We didn't know they were chemical weapons."
This claim is mindboggling: A senior Saudi official simply handing out chemical weapons – and concealing their nature from the recipients? This claim could illustrate "not credible" in the dictionary. Nevertheless, the story was tailor made to be believed by the "anti-imperial" left – with a Saudi intelligence agent known for his close ties to the US placed at the center of it.
People who closely track the Syrian civil war, led by Eliot Higgins' of the Brown Moses blog, began digging into this strange story. The wheels of the story began to come off last week, and the tale has only gotten stranger.
First, Ms. Gavlak contacted Mr. Higgins last Friday, and said her byline was "incorrectly used" by Mint Press. She wrote that "Yahya Ababneh is the sole reporter and author of the Mint Press News piece" and that Mint Press had refused to remove her byline from the article. Why she waited for three weeks is unclear – if my byline was inappropriately used on any article, let alone one with such explosive claims, I (and I think most) reporters would be screaming that fact from the rooftops the moment it happened.
In a follow-up email, with a statement from her lawyers, Gavlak indicated she'd brokered the story to Mint Press on Mr. Ababneh's behalf, that she'd edited the story, that she provided biographical information on Ababneh to Mint Press, and that she told Mint Press in an email "I helped him (Ababneh) write up his story but he should get all the credit for this."
Who is Ababneh? So far it's unclear. He's been identified as a Jordanian reporter by Gavlak, but the truth is certainly not yet determined. Brian Whitaker, a Guardian reporter focused on the Middle East who also maintains a blog, writes that he looked at a LinkedIn profile of Ababneh's that asserted he had worked for Al Jazeera and al-Quds al-Arabi (a major pan-Arab newspaper) but Whitaker could not find his byline in the archives of either website or anywhere else. The LinkedIn profile was deleted on Saturday.
Whitaker also found a reader comment made on an Aug. 26 article about Syria, three days before the Mint Press story, in the UK's Mail on Sunday by a "Yan Barakat" who told a very similar story about Prince Bandar and chemical weapons to the one that would appear three days later. "Barakat" wrote that he came by the story from "some old men" who'd "arrived in Damascus" from Russia. One of the men from Russia "told me they have evidence that they have evidence that it was the rebels who used the weapons."
A little more internet sleuthing from Whitaker found a Facebook page for Yan Barakat and photos of the man, who described himself as a Jordanian journalist. The pictures appear to be of the same man pictured in the deleted Linkedin profile for Ababneh. There is also a profile page on the Russian social media site VK (much like Facebook) under the name "Yahya Barakat" that contains pictures of a man that looks both like the Yan Barakat and Yayheh Ababneh pictures. The profile says the man's hometown is St. Petersburg, Russia (this story was edited after first posting; the original version incorrectly said the VK page stated he was "born" in St. Petersburg).
The Russian government has repeatedly insisted that the chemical weapons used in Syria were carried out by rebels. At the end of last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the attack was a false flag operation. "We have every reason to believe that it was a provocation, a sly and ingenious one," he said.
What happened here? It's all pretty much conjecture at this point, but clearly someone "got played." Whether Ababneh was one of the victims or one of the players is hard to say.
Human Rights Watch did take up the claim in its report on chemical weapons use at Goutah, and wrote that it found no reason to give it any credibility.
"Human Rights Watch has investigated alternative claims that opposition forces themselves were responsible for the August 21 attacks, and has found such claims lacking in credibility and inconsistent with the evidence found at the scene," the group wrote. "Claims that the August 21 deaths were caused by an accidental explosion by opposition forces mishandling chemical weapons in their possession are inconsistent with large numbers of deaths at two locations 16 kilometers apart, and documentation of rocket attacks on the sites that morning, as evidenced by witness accounts, the damage visible on the rockets themselves, and their impact craters."
The information war, like the real war in Syria, is likely to carry on for some time. Caveat lector – Let the reader beware.
On Wednesday, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an evolution of Al Qaeda in Iraq, seized control of the Syrian town of Azaz from the Free Syrian Army, a rebel umbrella group favored by the United States.
Azaz is north of the battle-scarred city of Aleppo, and along one of the key resupply routes that rebels have relied on, given its proximity to the Turkish border.
The intra-rebel fighting - with jihadis on one side, so-called "moderates" on the other - illustrated that from a US perspective, the civil war in Syria is about far more than "good guy" rebels against "bad guy" regime supporters. The BBC reports today that the warring rebel factions have agreed to set aside their differences, at least for now.
"The BBC's Paul Wood, on the Syrian border with Turkey, says that under the ceasefire deal in Azaz the two rebel sides have agreed to exchange prisoners and hand back property," the BBC reports today. "It is unclear whether the ceasefire will have an impact on clashes between the groups elsewhere in the country, (Wood) says."
The overt signs of disunity among Syria's rebels comes a day before Syria's government is expected to detail the extent of its chemical weapons arsenal and the locations where the weapons are held, a reminder that questions of what foreign countries should do about Syria's war, and the risks that could take form if and when the current order is defeated, shouldn't be far from any government's mind.
Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Janes Terrorism and Insurgency Center, has been tracking the war in Syria almost since its beginning. I touched on some of his work in this post a few days ago and he was kind enough to email some more details on his estimates about the nature and number of "operationally active" rebel fighters. He emphasizes that they're estimates and that this is not an exact science.
Jihadists – 10-12,000
Hardline Islamists – 30,000
Ikhwani Islamists – 30-40,000
Genuine moderates – 20-25,000
Kurds – 10,000
The definitions: A "Jihadist" would be someone with a similar world-view, tactics and objectives as those of Al Qaeda. These people are interested in opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a mere stepping stone to the creation of a caliphate, governed by the Islamic law they believe prevailed at the end of the prophet Mohammed's life. They're willing to achieve this end through force, and see the United States as the most powerful enemy standing in the way of their ultimate ends.
A "hardline Islamist," to Lister, is someone who shares the jihadi worldview and cooperates with them in Syria, but are committed to fighting for the cause only within Syria. The "Ikhwani" are "brothers," as in the Muslim Brotherhood; they would like to bring Islamic law to Syria, but have a generally more tolerant interpretation of what that means and are willing to pursue their ultimate goal more slowly and with less imposition of their beliefs by force.
The "moderates" are those who aren't interested in imposing their personal religious beliefs on others, and the Kurds are the ethnic-Kurds, who are often most interested in the interests and occasional nationalist aspirations of their own ethnic group.
Lister says it's hard to put Syrian insurgents in one box or another and keep them there. Rhetoric and statements of intent vary over time, stated goals do as well, and the military side of the Syrian rebellion is a shimmering landscape of alliances of convenience, falling out, and moments of reconciliation, as the fighting in recent days in the countryside north of Aleppo attests to.
"The principal conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that the real majority of the Syrian opposition is of an Islamist character of some kind. However, the line between the hardline Islamists and Ikhwani Islamists can be extremely blurry and often varies over time," he writs. "Also, many of the larger groups vary in their politico-religious nature according to where in the country they’re operating. Crucially, insurgent dynamics in Syria are constantly shifting."
One thing he firmly believes is that statements that so-called "moderates" dominate the fight against Mr. Assad, as both US Secretary of State John Kerry and influential politicians like Senator John McCain have asserted, are not accurate.
"The key point of these calculations is really just to underline that the image of the Syrian opposition being dominated by nationalist and sometimes secular groups is simply not borne out. That being said, jihadists are most certainly not a majority force either and Ikhwani Islamists do not and should not necessarily be perceived negatively at all."
His second sentence there is worth examining. That fighters support the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood does not, ipso facto, mean that they're a threat to US or other Western interests. The movement, in its various incarnations across the Arab world down the decades, has largely confined itself to local politics and power. During the brief period when Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood - the movement's flagship - was in power in Egypt until a military-backed coup against them last July, the Egyptian brothers were happy to cooperate with US security interests in the region.
While the average American might not want to live under a Muslim Brotherhood government, that is a far different thing from the movement being a security threat to the US.
Another point of Lister's that I agree with is that the sheer numbers of fighters backing a particular cause don't determine outcomes. Zeal, weaponry, and strategic intelligence are probably more important in determining outcomes. Lister writes:
"It also worth noting however that numbers are not always representative of strategic potential and on the ground impact. Despite composing the smallest component of the anti-government insurgency, jihadists have proven remarkably adept at spreading their military resources across large swathes of territory, joining battles at the pivotal moment, and exploiting their superior organizational structures to establish political control and influence over territory."
The history of the world has often been written by small, capable and deeply committed groups. Were most Russians Bolsheviks in 1916?
Lister further suggests that the US-Russia agreement on decommissioning the Syrian government's chemical weapons stockpile, a key to which was the Obama administration's promise to hold off on threatened strikes against Assad, may feed into the narrative of those rebels who support Al Qaeda.
"While the US-Russia deal is being presented by some as a key to solving the Syrian conflict, it does in fact serve to further bolster the line presented by jihadists: that the genuine moderates and their supporters in the West do not present a strong enough force to ‘win’ the conflict," he wrote to me (a few days ago, before the reported ceasefire in Azad). "Clashes in several northern and eastern provinces between jihadists and moderates in recent days suggests these tensions are coming out into the open."
The good news, if you don't share the jihadi worldview, is the movement's almost preternatural ability to alienate the civilian populations they swim among. In Iraq during the height of the insurgency there, particularly with its attacks on US forces in predominantly Sunni Arab provinces like Anbar, Al Qaeda in Iraq managed to alienate Sunni Arab populations who hated the US presence in the country, and the government they were installing. How? They started bullying local people, often killing them, for daring to disagree with their vision of he future.
Al Qaeda in Iraq managed to turn the very people they relied on for support against them, and were dramatically weakened in Iraq as a result.
Jihadis are strong in Syria now. Anyone who says otherwise is ignoring a long string of reporting from inside the conflict. But guaranteeing any future on the basis of that fact is unwise.