Mosaic Blog

Connecting the Dots in the Middle East

2009 started out with a bang. Unfortunately, the bang was the sound of explosions in Gaza as the Israeli air force and artillery relentlessly bombarded several sites in the Gaza strip in order to stop the launching of Hamas Qassam rockets. On January 3rd, Israel launched a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip catapulting the Gaza War into its second week.

On the other side of the globe, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th and first African American President of the United States. His inauguration speech was viewed by billions across the globe; including those who live in the Arab & Muslim worlds. In an effort to reach out to those in the region, the newly elected president opted to grant his first official interview to an Arab television network: Al Arabiya TV. He also addressed 1.5 billion Muslims from the podium of Cairo University.

Meanwhile,  another election brought turmoil to the Middle East.

On June 12, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected as the president of Iran. During the following weeks, supporters of defeated candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi protested the results. The resultant violence is said to be the worst seen in Iran since the Iranian revolution of 1979. The death of Neda Agha-Soltan, an Iranian student shot during a protest, was captured on what quickly became a viral video, turning Neda into an international symbol of the civil unrest following the presidential election.

The year 2009… From the war in Gaza to the election in Iran, how did Arab, Israeli and Iranian media cover the news?

Join me in this Mosaic 2009 Special: Connecting the Dots in the Middle East.



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Obama's Surge: The Real Reason

Every year on the anniversary of September 11, the same question pops up: where is Osama bin Laden? And for eight years various pundits, who hardly speak a word of Pashto, Dari, Urdu or any other language spoken in the region, play the guessing game, placing him somewhere along the Pakistani-Afghan border.

This week, President Obama took Gen. Stanley McChrystal's advice and ordered a surge in the war in Afghanistan by sending 30,000 more American troops there to help battle the Taliban insurgency. In a speech at the US Military Academy at West Point on Tuesday, the President set out what he said was a new strategy to bring the war to a "successful conclusion" and reverse the momentum of Taliban gains.

The President did not mention Osama bin Laden, a frequent target of his criticism during the campaign when he criticized President Bush.

"We will kill bin Laden, we will crush al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority," then candidate Barack Obama said during an October 2008 debate.

If the US goal remains to "crush" al Qaeda, then perhaps many Americans would not be as upset with Obama's Afghan surge; however, this is not the case.

As it stands, there will be nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, along with about 47,000 from allies. This is not to mention contractors, who already outnumber U.S. forces in the war-ravaged country. According to credible intelligence estimates, 100 al Qaeda operatives are in Afghanistan, and 300 more have fled to Pakistan. As for the Taliban, conflicting estimates put their numbers anywhere between 7,000 to 25,000. Therefore, this build up does not make sense, and the numbers do not add up.

Also, why do the United States and its allies need close to 150,000 troops if they can negotiate with the Taliban? Mr. Karzai does!

"We must talk to the Taliban as an Afghan necessity. The fight against terrorism and extremism cannot be won by fighting alone," Karzai said. "Personally, I would definitely talk to Mullah Omar. Whatever it takes to bring peace to Afghanistan, I, as the Afghan president, will do it."

Meanwhile, President Obama has increased US pressure on Pakistan to fight the Taliban in its territories. As an inducement, and a measure of heightened American concern for Pakistan, he has also helped bring a big increase in aid to the country, including $7.5 billion of non-military aid over five years, approved recently by Congress. The problem is that there is no certainty or confidence that the current Pakistani regime is going to last; Pakistan's president Asif Ali Zardari is one of the country's most discredited politicians and linked to corruption. There is a major question mark on who will be replacing him or what sort of a government Pakistan will have after his imminent fall.

President Obama has not been forthcoming with the American people. He should come clean and explain the real reason behind the surge. It's not because of bin Laden, al-Qaeda, or the Taliban. The real reason is Pakistan, a failed state with nuclear warheads!


Original article published on the Huffington Post.

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Palestine 1001 Nights

"Hamas is negotiating with Israel": this is what Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas confidently said to a BBC-Arabic reporter in an exclusive interview. How does he know? Abbas asserted that there are "no secrets in Israel."

If things could only be this simple in the Middle East, Mr. Abbas would have known from the get-go that the Oslo Accords were a disaster for the Palestinians, Bush's Road Map for Peace was just another road to nowhere, the Annapolis Peace Conference was dead on arrival, and Obama's promises for "change" do not mean squat when it comes to Israel.

The president of the Palestinian Authority added that the presidential and legislative elections scheduled for January will be postponed and that he would not seek a second term as president. Abbas looked frustrated...he looked like a beaten man.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government in recent days has been scrambling for yet another distraction to offer the beleaguered Palestinian Authority president: an interim accord that would include a Palestinian state with provisional borders. This way he'll have a quasi-state with temporary borders to show for all the endless negotiations. What a brilliant idea!

The reasoning behind this brilliant idea is that it would remove contentious issues that have prevented an agreement in the past, such as the Palestinian refugee issue and Jerusalem, from the negotiating table. No big deal, really!

This is starting to sound like another chapter from One Thousand and One Nights.

In another development, the Israeli government has recently approved the construction of 900 new housing units in Gilo, a Jewish neighborhood built on lands captured by Israel in 1967. The announcement has caused an uproar in the international community and has drawn sharp criticism and "dismay" from the White House.

And yet another brilliant idea: according to the Jerusalem Post, in an attempt to lure the PA back to the negotiating table, in private discussions, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made clear he was prepared for a moratorium on new settlement construction, as long as it did not include Jerusalem and did not preclude construction of public buildings needed for normal life in the settlements.

Translated, this means construction will continue as usual in E. Jerusalem along with expanding current Israeli settlements.

Meanwhile, with all this happening, media reports have been surfacing that a final deal has been reached for the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Some Arab media outlets have been reporting that Shalit might be released as early as the Muslim Eid holiday in exchange for 1000 Palestinian prisoners. Should this happen, it will be a major victory for Hamas and another blow to Abbas.

Last month Hamas handed Israel a video of Shalit in exchange for 20 female Palestinian prisoners, something that was widely seen as a major victory for the organization by many Palestinians.

According to a poll published in Haaretz, 57 percent of Israelis support the idea of talking with Hamas. The poll was taken in the wake of a statement by former defense minister Shaul Mofaz, who last week unveiled a plan that includes negotiations with Hamas and an interim Palestinian state on 60 percent of the West Bank in a year.

"If Hamas would be elected and would want to negotiate and accept the Quartet's conditions, from that moment, it is no longer Hamas," said Mr. Mofaz. He also added: "Responsible leadership in Israel would sit with those who changed their agenda."

So if Hamas is no longer Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority is no longer an authority, what options do the Palestinians have?

To be continued on another night...


**This article was published on the Huffington Post

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Taliban: If You Can't Beat Them, Buy Them!

The story the New York Times published this week on Hamid Karzai's drug-dealing brother Ahmed Wali and his ties to the CIA is very revealing, considering it comes just few days before Afghanistan's run-off election; however, it is not the real news. It has been rumored for years that Wali has been involved in opium trafficking and has been receiving payments from the CIA. The big story is the United States' government plan to buy out the Taliban -- officially, so to speak.


Taliban On Wednesday, President Obama signed a $680 billion defense appropriations bill, which is supposed to cover military operations in the 2010 fiscal year. The bill includes a Taliban reintegration provision under the Commander's Emergency Response Program. Don't you love the terminologies used by government bureaucrats? Call it buyout, bribes, protection money, but please don't call it integration.

The idea, according to Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is to separate local Taliban from their leaders, replicating a program    used to neutralize the insurgency against Americans in Iraq. If you can't beat them, buy them!

Afghanistan though, is not Iraq. Unlike al-Sahwa in Iraq (the Sunni Awakening), when Iraqi tribe members took up arms against al-Qaeda and foreign insurgents, the Taliban are an integral part of Afghanistan, and they are not foreign fighters. They are the brothers, cousins and neighbors of ordinary Afghans. The US government might be able to temporarily buy out some Taliban members from attacking its troops but it will not be able to buy loyalties.

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on President Obama to authorize the sending of more troops to Afghanistan. According to a recent Associated Press report:

"There are already more than 100,000 international troops in Afghanistan working with 200,000 Afghan security  forces and police. It adds up to a 12-to-1 numerical advantage over Taliban rebels, but it hasn't led to anything close to victory."

The Taliban rebels are estimated to number no more than 25,000 according to the same report. Yet, we have witnessed their devastating attacks in Kabul and other areas. The number of American deaths in Afghanistan has reached a record for the third time in four months. Some military experts say that an increase in US troops is no guarantee to reduce US fatalities and that it might only work in a negative way. The US army is not equipped to fight guerrilla warfare.

The new US strategies to be implemented in Afghanistan are nothing new; they are basically a redux of Iraqi ones. Their success rates are both short term, with the surge in Iraq only working temporarily, as the recent attacks in the country show. Paying for protection can only work against foreign insurgents and will only work as long as you keep paying.

In the meantime, on the news, I keep watching those who are gung-ho for sending more troops to Afghanistan insist that the U.S. has learned from the Soviets' mistakes. No one asks if it has learned anything from its mistakes in Iraq.


Original article published in the Huffington Post.
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Afghanistan: Fraud, Opium, and Taliban

If someone is caught cheating in the Olympics or another sporting event, the athlete is immediately disqualified, and it is seen as a disgrace. In the case of the recent election in Afghanistan, however, cheating has been rewarded and even praised by no less than the President of the United States himself.

President Obama said that he contacted Hamid Karzai shortly after the Afghan president said he would abide by the results of a presidential election held in August.

"I wanted to congratulate him on accepting the certification of the recent election," Mr. Obama said.

How quickly have we forgotten how many Western leaders hailed the August 20th vote as an example of "democracy," a democracy mired with fraud. And we're not talking here about a few hundred "hanging chads," but rather more than one million ballots (cast on August 20) that were discounted due to the "coefficient of fraud," as the Electoral Complaints Commission refers to it. Mr. Hamid Karzai now says he wants a better and cleaner presidential election run-off in November to bring stability to Afghanistan at a time when Taliban violence is at its worst in eight years of war. The Afghan leader has played down fraud allegations but bowed to international pressure by ordering a run-off as a way to bolster the election's credibility at a time when Washington is weighing whether to send more troops to Afghanistan.

"Now that we are holding the second round in two weeks, I want it to be better than the first round," Karzai said.

Why isn't Mr. Karzai being held responsible for this blatant act of election fraud? And who can guarantee that a repeat of the fraud won't happen? Or that all hell won't break loose during the run-off? Since the August 20 vote, five suicide bombs alone have ripped through the capital Kabul.

Meanwhile, as President Obama ponders sending more troops to Afghanistan, and anxiety and anticipation are building up over the run-off, a recently released UN report says that Afghanistan produces 92% of the world's opium. The equivalent of 3,500 tons leave the country each year, fetching more than $65 billion to fund global terrorism. The Taliban's direct involvement in the opium trade allows them to fund a war machine that is becoming technologically more complex.

The report also says that every year, opium kills five times more people in NATO countries than all the NATO lives lost in eight years of fighting against the Taliban. So here is something to think about: according to the CIA's World FactBook, Afghanistan's entire GDP in 2008 was $22.27 billion. President Obama's decision to send 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to bolster security earlier this year has failed, and the country is just as unstable as ever. Would 40,000 additional troops help? Perhaps for a short while, but with the Taliban and Afghan warlords earning this kind of money from the opium trade, not only can they buy politicians, but they can also keep this war going for a hundred years. Afghanistan is not the "good" war.

Original article published in the Huffington Post.
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