In 2011, James Dobbins, Barack Obama's newly appointed special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, published a 100-page analysis on the importance of a negotiated peace deal for the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The document makes for an interesting read as Dobbins transitions from an uncensored private citizen to a lead diplomat confronting the rapid drawdown of America's military presence in the region.
In the report, titled "Afghan Peace Talks: A Primer," Dobbins expressed skepticism about Obama's ability to wind down the Afghan war, full stop, in 2014 in the absence of a peace deal.
"If negotiations fail, some level of American military engagement will probably be necessary well beyond the 2014 date by which President Obama has promised to remove all American combat forces," he wrote.
What we know now, that Dobbins (or anyone else) didn't know then, is that negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government are going nowhere. On Wednesday, the Taliban assassinated a member of the Afghan High Peace Council, the third Taliban assassination of a senior council member in the last year and a half. The attack also occurred one day after the Taliban killed three British soldiers in an IED attack in Helmand province. Meanwhile, planned negotiations in Qatar are stalling and Pakistani support for peace talks has been waning.
Now, it's no secret that residual U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014. The question is how many troops will there be, and what will they be doing?
On April 17, in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford became the first top military official to offer specifics on these questions. The estimates are for a NATO-led force of 8,000 to 12,000 troops in Afghanistan post-2014, which does not include troops needed for counterterrorism and guarding U.S. diplomats. But as Bloomberg's Gopal Ratnam notes, "Other U.S. officials have called for a larger U.S. military presence than the range that is under discussion."
Dobbins did not respond to a request for comment this afternoon about whether he still believes a rapid withdrawal is dependent on a peace deal. Regardless, for those who want to familiarize themselves with his views on winding down the war and preventing the country from becoming a haven for terrorists, this report is well worth the read.
On Friday, the Boston Police Department announced plans to beef up security during the city's Fourth of July festivities in the wake of new remarks from Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev that he and his brother originally scheduled a bombing attack for Independence Day. The reference has renewed interest in the symbolic scheduling of terrorist strikes against the West.
Unfortunately for counterterrorism officials, the history of attacks against Western targets is a scattered mix of dates ranging from obvious national holidays to obscure events with only the most tangential relationship to the United States. Let's review some of the known rationales for the scheduling of terror.
Some dates make sense. When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian with concealed plastic explosives in his underwear, attempted to blow up a passenger flight to Detroit on Christmas day, Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemen-based al Qaeda cleric accused of orchestrating the plot, issued a statement to the American people describing the rationale of the strike on "the holiest and most sacred days to you, Christmas Day." Given that between 73 and 76 percent of Americans identify as Christian, the date is logical (if there can be a logic to killing innocent civilians). But other dates have less of a tie-in to the United States.
Despite the widely circulated myth that al Qaeda selected the date 9/11 for its similarity to the emergency call number 9-1-1, the date was important to the terrorist network because of its relationship with Islam. As Lawrence Wright wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Looming Tower, on Sept. 11, 1683, the King of Poland launched the battle that turned back the advance of Muslim armies. "For the next three hundred years, Islam would be overshadowed by the growth of Western Christian societies," Wright explained. Osama bin Laden saw the attack on the World Trade Center as Islam's big comeback. The date has since been used by other terrorists, including the jihadists who struck the U.S. compound in Benghazi, killing U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans last year.
Other dates of terrorist attacks reveal how arbitrary the timing of these strikes can be. For instance, the first bombing of the World Trade Center occurred on Feb. 26, 1993, a date that had no significance to any of the parties involved. The attack was originally plotted for Feb. 23, the day the U.S. ground offensive began in Iraq in 1991. Another reason not to place too much importance on specific dates: Who's to say terrorists will be punctual?
Date doesn't ring a bell? It does to Spaniards, who suffered the 2004 Madrid train bombings attributed to an al Qaeda-inspired terrorist cell. Reports suggest the date was significat because it occurred exactly two and a half years after Sept. 11.
New Year's Eve has repeatedly been an aspirational date for terrorist attacks, according to U.S. officials. In 2000, for example, U.S. authorities apprehended Ahmed Ressam at a border crossing in Washington state for carrying bomb-making equipment and plotting to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve.
As for the Boston bombing, it's worth noting that while signs indicate Tamerlan Tsarnaev was influenced by radical Islam, a clear explanation for the motive behind the marathon bombings has not been revealed.
On Thursday, North Korea sentenced U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae to 15 years of hard labor for committing "hostile acts" against the government. The severe punishment raises a pertinent question: What's it like to do "hard labor" in one of the world's most repressive countries?
The answer, based on testimonies of former captives, ranges from slight discomfort to nightmarish torture, so it's unclear what may become of the North's latest detainee. Bae, who ran a China-based tourism business, was apprehended in northeastern North Korea after taking a group of businessmen to the region from China in November. When considering how he may be treated, let's start with the best-case scenario.
About four years ago, two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, found themselves in a similar predicament. They had slipped across the North Korean border from China and were sentenced to 12 years hard labor for committing "hostile acts."
Despite the punishment, they never spent a second in a labor camp for the five months of their captivity and were treated fairly gently despite a violent confrontation that occurred when they were first apprehended. "I was never sent to one of the notorious labor camps," Current TV reporter Laura Ling told CBS News. "I was in a room that had a bed and a bathroom and an adjoining room that had two female guards."
Fortunately for Ling, her sister Lisa Ling was a quasi-famous U.S. journalist, and her employer, Current TV, was partially owned by former Vice President Al Gore, who was able to get his old boss Bill Clinton to fly to the country and free them.
Others have been less fortunate. According to a Newsweek story by New York Times reporter Ravi Somaiya, an American named Aijalon Mahli Gomes was imprisoned in a "brutal labor camp" in 2010 and "tried to commit suicide" due to the poor conditions. "Swedish diplomats, acting on behalf of the U.S.-which has no diplomatic relations with North Korea-are aware of his condition," reported Somaiya. Aijalon's release was eventually secured by former President Jimmy Carter. Another American, Robert Park of Los Angeles, saw the inside of a labor camp that same year after he crossed the Chinese-North Korean border via the frozen Tumen River. He was only held for six weeks, but when he returned to the United States he was institutionalized "resulting from severe sexual abuse he was subjected to in jail," according to Somaiya.
We know more about the treatment of Korean political prisoners. A 2009 Korean Bar Association report based on testimony from survivors and former guards detailed the daily misery of the 200,000-some political prisoners estimated to be inside the country's labor camps.
"Eating a diet of mostly corn and salt, they lose their teeth, their gums turn black, their bones weaken and, as they age, they hunch over at the waist," read the report, according to the Washington Post. "Most work 12- to 15-hour days until they die of malnutrition-related illnesses, usually around the age of 50. Allowed just one set of clothes, they live and die in rags, without soap, socks, underclothes or sanitary napkins."
In its 2012 annual report, Amnesty International gives a similarly horrific depiction. "The combination of hazardous forced labor, inadequate food, beatings, totally inadequate medical care and unhygienic living conditions, resulted in prisoners falling ill, and a large number died in custody or soon after release," said the group. "We received 120 grams of rotten corn for daily food," said one former prisoner. "So many people with the same year and a half sentence as me didn't survive their term and died of hunger."
Needless to say, let's hope Bae's treatment is similar to Ling's, not your everyday North Korean political prisoner's.
The documentary promising to set the record straight on the mission to kill Osama bin Laden finally aired on Wednesday night, but the identity of the fabled female CIA officer at the center of the manhunt remains elusive.
The documentary Manhunt, which debuted on HBO, makes the oft-cited argument that the "Maya" character, played by Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, is merely an amalgamation of multiple real-life CIA officers. While most insiders agree that Maya is a composite character, they also contend that one woman in particular most embodies Maya's identity as depicted in the movie.
To refute this position is to ignore the preponderance of first-person accounts and deeply reported articles on the subject since the May 2011 raid. For example, the Navy SEALs who've spoken out about their experience during the raid all describe a singular headstrong female CIA agent. In Matt Bissonette's No Easy Day, the CIA analyst depicted fits the exact mold of Maya, who loudly proclaimed in Zero Dark Thirty that she was "100 percent" certain of bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad and worked intimately with SEAL Team 6.
"The CIA analyst who was the main force behind tracking the target to Abbottabad said she was one hundred percent certain he was there," wrote Bissonnette. "She had been our go-to analyst on all intelligence questions regarding the target."
Bissonnette's fellow SEAL Team 6 member, the so-called "Shooter," also corroborated Zero Dark Thirty's account of Maya in his 2013 interview with Esquire. While quibbling about a number of innaccuracies in the movie, he praised the depiction of Maya.
The portrayal of the chief CIA human bloodhound, "Maya," based on a real woman whose iron-willed assurance about the compound and its residents moved a government to action, was "awesome" says the Shooter. "They made her a tough woman, which she is."
And then there's the Washington Post's Greg Miller, one of the best-sourced CIA reporters in Washington, who didn't hedge at all regarding the singularity of the Maya character, reporting in December that Maya is a 30-something CIA agent with a distinctive dose of moxie:
The female officer, who is in her 30s, is the model for the main character in "Zero Dark Thirty,"a film that chronicles the decade-long hunt for the al-Qaeda chief....
Colleagues said the on-screen depiction captures the woman's dedication and combative temperament.
"She's not Miss Congeniality, but that's not going to find Osama bin Laden," said a former CIA associate, who added that the attention from filmmakers sent waves of envy through the agency's ranks.
Miller's reporting even delved into the CIA officer's post-bin Laden work life:
She has sparred with CIA colleagues over credit for the bin Laden mission. After being given a prestigious award for her work, she sent an e-mail to dozens of other recipients saying they didn't deserve to share her accolades, current and former officials said.
The woman has also come under scrutiny for her contacts with filmmakers and others about the bin Laden mission, part of a broader internal inquiry into the agency's cooperation on the new movie and other projects, former officials said.
The CIA agent's continued anonymity is not for lack of trying on the part of the media. Just this week, reporter Marc Ambinder speculated that Maya is a cross between former CIA analyst Nada Bakos (right) and a "second-generation American" who was assigned to the manhunt after 2004. "Bakos looks strikingly like Jessica Chastain's ‘Maya,'" wrote Ambinder. "And Bakos was responsible ... for ferreting out several promising leads."
But when contacted by Foreign Policy, Bakos rejected Ambinder's speculation. "I have never met Bigelow or Boal," she said, referencing reports that Maya met with Zero Dark Thirty director Mark Boal. "I also left the Agency before the Abbottabad raid."
In all likelihood, the composite of Maya is probably split up into two phases. The first phase involved multiple female officers who pursued bin Laden in the aftermath of 9/11. Cindy Storer, a CIA officer, suggested this to the Daily Beast in January. "The fact of the matter is that one person is not around that long, doing that much," she noted. The second phase may have involved just one CIA officer during a much more recent stretch of time prior to the 2011 raid. That would do much to explain why the SEAL Team 6 members and Greg Miller all have one particular female agent in mind. Of course, we'll never know for sure -- until "Maya" tells her story once and for all.
Did they act alone? How did they become radicalized? Those are the lingering questions surrounding Boston bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and investigators are zeroing in on their friends and associates for answers.
The role of these contacts is being constantly revised in the media, but here's what we know about them so far:
Dias Kadyrbayev, Azamat Tazhayakov, and Robel Phillipos
These three students were taken into custody today on separate charges involving their relationship with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov, both Kazakh nationals, are being charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly helping destroy evidence linking Dzhokhar to the Boston bombing. Officials tell CNN's Jake Tapper they do not know if the three were involved in the attack, but say the two Kazakhs disposed of Dzhokhar's fireworks, laptop computer, and backpack. Phillipos, a 19-year-old U.S. citizen, is being charged with making false statements to law enforcement officials during a terrorism investigation.
According to the affidavit supporting the criminal complaint, the three men all began attending the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth at the same time in 2011 (Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov entered the United States overstayed their student visas but still managed to fly under the radar of Customs and Homeland Security officials). The complaint alleges that Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov saw TV reports identifying the Tsarnaev brothers as suspects in the bombing before they discarded the backpack and laptop. None of the men entered a plea at their initial court appearances, but a lawyer for Kadyrbayev denied the chages. "Dias Kadyrbayev absolutely denies the charges," attorney Robert Stahl said. "He did not know that this individuala was involved in the bombing. His first inkling came much later."
The source of Tamerlan Tsarnaev's radicalization has shifted significantly in recent days, with the latest suspect being a Canadian jihadist killed by Russian police last year after joining the Islamic insurgency in Dagestan. The scoop came from the respected Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and was fleshed out by the Associated Press yesterday.
Security officials suspected ties between Tsarnaev and the Canadian - an ethnic Russian named William Plotnikov....
The newspaper said the men had social networking ties that brought Tsarnaev to the attention of Russian security services for the first time in late 2010.
It certainly wouldn't be surprising if the men had met. Both were amateur boxers of roughly the same age whose families had moved from Russia to North America when they were teenagers. In recent years, both had turned to Islam and expressed radical beliefs. And both had traveled to Dagestan, a republic of some 3 million people.
In August, Plotnikov's father told the Canadian newspaper National Post that while his son converted to Islam in 2009, he only learned of his son's radicalization after receiving videos and photographs following his death. The footage shows William vowing to kill in the name of Allah and posing with an automatic rifle over his shoulder.
"Plotnikov had been detained in Dagestan in December 2010 on suspicion of having ties to the militants and during his interrogation was forced to hand over a list of social networking friends from the United States and Canada who like him had once lived in Russia," notes the AP. "Tsarnaev's name was on that list, bringing him for the first time to the attention of Russia's secret services."
After Plotnikov's death, Russian officials searched for Tsarnaev but lost track of him before he jumped on a plane to the United States.
Mahmoud Mansour Nidal
In today's Washington Post, U.S. officials tell the newspaper the FBI is investigating Mahmoud Mansour Nidal, a Palestinian and Kumyk man suspected of recruiting Islamic insurgents in Dagestan. Like Plotnikov, Nidal was also killed by Russian authorities last year. The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that Tsarnaev was spotted with Nidal, "who was believed to have ties to Islamic militants in the southern Russian region." In May 2012, authorities killed Nidal after he refused to surrender to officials who had surrounded his house in Makhachkala.
Mikhail "Misha" Allakhverdov
Christian Caryl poured cold water on speculation that a mysterious Muslim convert named "Misha" had radicalized Tamerlan after interviewing Allakhverdov at his home in Rhode Island. Allakhverdov said he knew Tamerlan in Boston but had lost contact with him after moving away from the city three years ago. While he declined to describe the nature of his relationship with Tamerlan, he said he never met the extended Tsarnaev family, including Uncle Ruslan, who accused Allakhverdov of brainwashing Tamerlan. "I wasn't his teacher. If I had been his teacher, I would have made sure he never did anything like this," Allakhverdov said. Caryl's report seemed to confirm reports that the FBI has found no connection between Allakhverdov and the bomb plot.
When we read that J. Everett Dutschke, the martial arts instructor and former political candidate accused of mailing a ricin-laced letter to Barack Obama, was the "leader of a local rock band called Dusty and the RoboDrum," we had to hear his work.
Fortunately, the Mississippi native's entire 2009 album, For Your Leather, is available for free on Spotify and for $14.15 on Amazon. Although the style of his music has been billed as "Live-Loop Oriented Rock with tons of lasers," we found it to be a twangy form of blues rock with the occasional heavy distortion guitar-solo interspersed. For your listening pleasure, we've provided a short clip of his track "Mount Up," a rollicking homage to a female love interest.
I don't mind her pony tail, I don't mind her boots.
I like the way she holds my pistol when she wants to shoot.
The tempo is fast, but perhaps not as fast as the federal case mounting against him (you see what we did there?). The FBI affidavit claims that authorities found ricin on a dust mask discarded by Dutschke, traces of ricin at his martial arts studio, and a downloaded book called Standard Operating Procedure for Ricin. Dutschke, who seems scripted straight out of a Coen brothers flim, insists he's innocent, appearing in a YouTube video last week saying he doesn't "have anything at all to do with" the ricin packages mailed to Obama and Sen. Roger Wicker. Guess it's time for Dutschke to mount, er, lawyer up.
With the Foal Eagle joint military exercise between the United States and South Korea drawing to a close, North Korea took a moment to reflect on the last two months -- a period in which it declared a "state of war," voided its existing non-aggression pacts, and threatened a nuclear strike on the U.S. mainland. "All facts go to prove that the U.S. is the provocateur," the Tuesday edition of the North's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper concluded.
The paper's defiant editorial reviewed a period following North Korea's third nuclear test in which international sanctions gave way to a series of belligerent threats by Pyongyang that worried allies China and Cuba and sparked a U.S. escalation of the annual Foal Eagle exercises. The DPRK's official outlets offered a unified history lesson.
"The U.S. persistent military provocations would result in escalating the political and military tough measures of the DPRK to cope with them," Rodong Sinmun explained.
Another editorial, featured in a Korean Central News Agency report, offered a similar reflection. "Foal Eagle was of very dangerous nature as it was staged against the backdrop of extreme anti-DPRK provocation campaign of the U.S. and the south Korean puppet forces," read the editorial. "Foal Eagle staged against the backdrop of the dangerous military moves which can be seen only on the eve of a war clearly suggested its alarming danger.'"
It continued. "At the prodding of the U.S. these forces recklessly cried out for meting out 'punishment' and 'making strikes at bases of provocation and commanding force.'"
To be sure, the United States didn't exactly turn the other cheek as Pyongyang's threats piled up. The two-month-long drill involved a dazzling array of U.S. military hardware including a nuclear submarine, B-2 stealth bombers, F-22 fighter jets, and B-52 bombers -- and about 10,000 U.S. troops and up to 200,000 South Korean soldiers.
But rather than add to the tough talk, U.S. Forces Korea marked the end of the exercises Tuesday with an innocuous statement on its Facebook page saying the exercise provided "valuable military training based on realistic requirements and missions, and [is] designed to improve the alliance's readiness to defend the Republic of Korea."
Well, until next time!
Clarifying his administration's "red line" policy, Barack Obama told reporters Tuesday that if Syria used chemical weapons against its citizens, it would represent a "game-changer not simply for the United States, but for the international community."
The tweaked wording is potentially important because it switches the emphasis from a red line that triggers U.S. action to a red line that triggers international action -- something a U.S. president is less capable of implementing unilaterally.
The point was punctuated twice during the White House press conference. Here's Obama (our emphasis added):
When I said the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer, that wasn't a position unique to the United States, and it shouldn't have been a surprise.... The use of chemical weapons would be a game changer. Not simply for the United States, but for the international community. And the reason for that is we have established international law and international norms that say when you use these kinds of weapons you have the potential of killing massive numbers of people in the most inhumane way possible and the proliferation risks are so significant that we don't want the genie out of the bottle.
To some observers, these comments suggested that a U.S. response was dependent on a willingness of the international community to respond. Per Roll Call Senior Editor David Drucker:
So, apparently .@barackobama's red line on Syria chem weaps was: If we know Assad used them & our partners joined us in response.— David M. Drucker (@DavidMDrucker) April 30, 2013
The president is of course correct that other countries have drawn red lines when it comes to Syria's use of chemical weapons. But that doesn't guarantee a unified response. For instance: Just this morning Iran said it views the use of chemical weapons as a "red line." Russia too has directly warned Syria not to use chemical weapons. But given the two countries' support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (monetarily and militarily) it's almost inconceivable to imagine the three countries working together even with the presentation of clear proof that Assad used chemical weapons.
So what does the president even mean by "game-changer"?
"By game-changer I mean that we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us," he said on Tuesday. "Obviously there are options to me that are on the shelf right now that we have not deployed." Take of that what you will.
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