Posts Tagged ‘Gareth Porter’

Turning Back From the Point of No Return – Implications of the Threat to Bomb Iran

August 26, 2010
Jeremy R. Hammond, Foreign Policy Journal, August 26, 2010

The drums for war on Iran have been banging louder than ever lately, with a spate of articles by political commentators either directly encouraging the bombing of the Islamic Republic or otherwise offering a narrative in which this is effectively portrayed as the only option to prevent Iran from waging a nuclear holocaust against Israel. A prominent example of the latter is Jeffrey Goldberg’s article last month in the Atlantic magazine, “The Point of No Return”.[1] Goldberg’s lengthy piece essentially boils down to this: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons poses an existential threat to Israel’s existence comparable to the Nazi Holocaust, and although the U.S. recognizes this threat, the Obama administration is weak, so Israel will have no choice but to act alone in bombing Iran to ensure its own survival.

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Ninety-Four Percent of Kandaharis Want Peace Talks, Not War

April 20, 2010
By Gareth Porter, Axis of Logic, April 19, 2010
Inter Press Service

An opinion survey of Afghanistan’s Kandahar province funded by the U.S. Army has revealed that 94 percent of respondents support negotiating with the Taliban over military confrontation with the insurgent group and 85 percent regard the Taliban as “our Afghan brothers”.

The survey, conducted by a private U.S. contractor last December, covered Kandahar City and other districts in the province into which Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal is planning to introduce more troops in the biggest operation of the entire war. Those districts include Arghandab, Zhari, rural Kandahar and Panjwayi.

Afghan interviewers conducted the survey only in areas which were not under Taliban control.

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Fiction of Marja as City Was U.S. Information War

March 10, 2010

By Gareth Porter,  Inter Press Service News

WASHINGTON, Mar 8, 2010 (IPS) – For weeks, the U.S. public followed the biggest offensive of the Afghanistan War against what it was told was a “city of 80,000 people” as well as the logistical hub of the Taliban in that part of Helmand. That idea was a central element in the overall impression built up in February that Marja was a major strategic objective, more important than other district centres in Helmand.

It turns out, however, that the picture of Marja presented by military officials and obediently reported by major news media is one of the clearest and most dramatic pieces of misinformation of the entire war, apparently aimed at hyping the offensive as a historic turning point in the conflict.

Marja is not a city or even a real town, but either a few clusters of farmers’ homes or a large agricultural area covering much of the southern Helmand River Valley.

“It’s not urban at all,” an official of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), who asked not to be identified, admitted to IPS Sunday. He called Marja a “rural community”.

“It’s a collection of village farms, with typical family compounds,” said the official, adding that the homes are reasonably prosperous by Afghan standards.

Richard B. Scott, who worked in Marja as an adviser on irrigation for the U.S. Agency for International Development as recently as 2005, agrees that Marja has nothing that could be mistaken as being urban. It is an “agricultural district” with a “scattered series of farmers’ markets,” Scott told IPS in a telephone interview.

The ISAF official said the only population numbering tens of thousands associated with Marja is spread across many villages and almost 200 square kilometres, or about 125 square miles.

Marja has never even been incorporated, according to the official, but there are now plans to formalise its status as an actual “district” of Helmand Province.

The official admitted that the confusion about Marja’s population was facilitated by the fact that the name has been used both for the relatively large agricultural area and for a specific location where farmers have gathered for markets.

However, the name Marja “was most closely associated” with the more specific location, where there are also a mosque and a few shops.

That very limited area was the apparent objective of “Operation Moshtarak”, to which 7,500 U.S., NATO and Afghan troops were committed amid the most intense publicity given any battle since the beginning of the war.

So how did the fiction that Marja is a city of 80,000 people get started?

The idea was passed on to the news media by the U.S. Marines in southern Helmand. The earliest references in news stories to Marja as a city with a large population have a common origin in a briefing given Feb. 2 by officials at Camp Leatherneck, the U.S. Marine base there.

The Associated Press published an article the same day quoting “Marine commanders” as saying that they expected 400 to 1,000 insurgents to be “holed up” in the “southern Afghan town of 80,000 people.” That language evoked an image of house to house urban street fighting.

The same story said Marja was “the biggest town under Taliban control” and called it the “linchpin of the militants’ logistical and opium-smuggling network”. It gave the figure of 125,000 for the population living in “the town and surrounding villages”. ABC news followed with a story the next day referring to the “city of Marja” and claiming that the city and the surrounding area “are more heavily populated, urban and dense than other places the Marines have so far been able to clear and hold.”

The rest of the news media fell into line with that image of the bustling, urbanised Marja in subsequent stories, often using “town” and “city” interchangeably. Time magazine wrote about the “town of 80,000” Feb. 9, and the Washington Post did the same Feb. 11.

As “Operation Moshtarak” began, U.S. military spokesmen were portraying Marja as an urbanised population centre. On Feb. 14, on the second day of the offensive, Marine spokesman Lt. Josh Diddams said the Marines were “in the majority of the city at this point.”

He also used language that conjured images of urban fighting, referring to the insurgents holding some “neighbourhoods”.

A few days into the offensive, some reporters began to refer to a “region”, but only created confusion rather than clearing the matter up. CNN managed to refer to Marja twice as a “region” and once as “the city” in the same Feb. 15 article, without any explanation for the apparent contradiction.

The Associated Press further confused the issue in a Feb. 21 story, referring to “three markets in town – which covers 80 square miles….”

A “town” with an area of 80 square miles would be bigger than such U.S. cities as Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh and Cleveland. But AP failed to notice that something was seriously wrong with that reference.

Long after other media had stopped characterising Marja as a city, the New York Times was still referring to Marja as “a city of 80,000”, in a Feb. 26 dispatch with a Marja dateline.

The decision to hype up Marja as the objective of “Operation Moshtarak” by planting the false impression that it is a good-sized city would not have been made independently by the Marines at Camp Leatherneck.

A central task of “information operations” in counterinsurgency wars is “establishing the COIN [counterinsurgency] narrative”, according to the Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual as revised under Gen. David Petraeus in 2006.

That task is usually done by “higher headquarters” rather than in the field, as the manual notes.

The COIN manual asserts that news media “directly influence the attitude of key audiences toward counterinsurgents, their operations and the opposing insurgency.” The manual refers to “a war of perceptions…conducted continuously using the news media.”

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of ISAF, was clearly preparing to wage such a war in advance of the Marja operation. In remarks made just before the offensive began, McChrystal invoked the language of the counterinsurgency manual, saying, “This is all a war of perceptions.”

The Washington Post reported Feb. 22 that the decision to launch the offensive against Marja was intended largely to impress U.S. public opinion with the effectiveness of the U.S. military in Afghanistan by showing that it could achieve a “large and loud victory.”

The false impression that Marja was a significant city was an essential part of that message.

*Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in 2006.

POLITICS: U.S. Story on Iran Nuke Facility Doesn’t Add Up

September 30, 2009

Analysis by Gareth Porter, Inter Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sep 29 (IPS) – The story line that dominated media coverage of the second Iranian uranium enrichment facility last week was the official assertion that U.S. intelligence had caught Iran trying to conceal a “secret” nuclear facility.

But an analysis of the transcript of that briefing by senior administration officials that was the sole basis for the news stories and other evidence reveals damaging admissions, conflicts with the facts and unanswered questions that undermine its credibility.

Iran’s notification to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the second enrichment facility in a letter on Sep. 21 was buried deep in most of the news stories and explained as a response to being detected by U.S. intelligence. In reporting the story in that way, journalists were relying entirely on the testimony of “senior administration officials” who briefed them at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh Friday.

U.S. intelligence had “learned that the Iranians learned that the secrecy of the facility was compromised”, one of the officials said, according to the White House transcript. The Iranians had informed the IAEA, he asserted, because “they came to believe that the value of the facility as a secret facility was no longer valid…”

Later in the briefing, however, the official said “we believe”, rather than “we learned”, in referring to that claim, indicating that it is only an inference rather than being based on hard intelligence.

The official refused to explain how U.S. analysts had arrived at that conclusion, but an analysis by the defence intelligence consulting firm IHS Jane’s of a satellite photo of the site taken Saturday said there is a surface-to-air missile system located at the site.

Since surface-to-air missiles protect many Iranian military sites, however, their presence at the Qom site doesn’t necessarily mean that Iran believed that Washington had just discovered the enrichment plant.

The official said the administration had organised an intelligence briefing on the facility for the IAEA during the summer on the assumption that the Iranians might “choose to disclose the facility themselves”. But he offered no explanation for the fact that there had been no briefing given to the IAEA or anyone else until Sep. 24 – three days after the Iranians disclosed the existence of the facility.

A major question surrounding the official story is why the Barack Obama administration had not done anything – and apparently had no plans to do anything – with its intelligence on the Iranian facility at Qom prior to the Iranian letter to the IAEA. When asked whether the administration had intended to keep the information in its intelligence briefing secret even after the meeting with the Iranians on Oct. 1, the senior official answered obliquely but revealingly, “I think it’s impossible to turn back the clock and say what might have been otherwise.”

In effect, the answer was no, there had been no plan for briefing the IAEA or anyone.

News media played up the statement by the senior administration official that U.S. intelligence had been “aware of this facility for years”.

But what was not reported was that he meant only that the U.S. was aware of a possible nuclear site, not one whose function was known.

The official in question acknowledged the analysts had not been able to identify it as an enrichment facility for a long time. In the “very early stage of construction,” said the official, “a facility like this could have multiple uses.” Intelligence analysts had to “wait until the facility had reached the stage of construction where it was undeniably intended for use as a centrifuge facility,” he explained.

The fact that the administration had made no move to brief the IAEA or other governments on the site before Iran revealed its existence suggests that site had not yet reached that stage where the evidence was unambiguous.

A former U.S. official who has seen the summary of the administration’s intelligence used to brief foreign governments told IPS he doubts the intelligence community had hard evidence that the Qom site was an enrichment plant. “I think they didn’t have the goods on them,” he said.

Also misleading was the official briefing’s characterisation of the intelligence assessment on the purpose of the enrichment plant. The briefing concluded that the Qom facility must be for production of weapons-grade enriched uranium, because it will accommodate only 3,000 centrifuges, which would be too few to provide fuel for a nuclear power plant.

According to the former U.S. official who has read the briefing paper on the intelligence assessment, however, the paper says explicitly that the Qom facility is “a possible military facility”. That language indicates that intelligence analysts have suggested that the facility may be for making low-enriched rather than for high-enriched, bomb-grade uranium.

It also implies that the senior administration official briefing the press was deliberately portraying the new enrichment facility in more menacing terms than the actual intelligence assessment.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s offer the day after the denunciation of the site by U.S., British and French leaders to allow IAEA monitoring of the plant will make it far more difficult to argue that it was meant to serve military purposes.

The circumstantial evidence suggests that Iran never intended to keep the Qom facility secret from the IAEA but was waiting to make it public at a moment that served its political-diplomatic objectives.

The Iranian government is well aware of U.S. capabilities for monitoring from satellite photographs any site in Iran that exhibits certain characteristics.

Iran obviously wanted to make the existence of the Qom site public before construction on the site would clearly indicate an enrichment purpose. But it gave the IAEA no details in its initial announcement, evidently hoping to find out whether and how much the United States already knew about it.

The specific timing of the Iranian letter, however, appears to be related to the upcoming talks between Iran and the P5+1 – China, France, Britain, Russia, the United States and Germany – and an emerging Iranian strategy of smaller back-up nuclear facilities that would assure continuity if Natanz were attacked.

The Iranian announcement of that decision on Sep. 14 coincided with a statement by the head of Iran’s atomic energy organisation, Ali Akbar Salehi, warning against preemptive strikes against the country’s nuclear facilities.

The day after the United States, Britain and France denounced the Qom facility as part of a deception, Salehi said, “Considering the threats, our organisation decided to do what is necessary to preserve and continue our nuclear activities. So we decided to build new installations which will guarantee the continuation of our nuclear activities which will never stop at any cost.”

As satellite photos of the site show, the enrichment facility at Qom is being built into the side of a mountain, making it less vulnerable to destruction, even with the latest bunker-busting U.S. bombs.

The pro-administration newspaper Kayhan quoted an “informed official” as saying that Iran had told the IAEA in 2004 that it had to do something about the threat of attack on its nuclear facilities “repeatedly posed by the western countries”.

The government newspaper called the existence of the second uranium enrichment plan “a winning card” that would increase Iran’s bargaining power in the talks. That presumably referred to neutralising the ultimate coercive threat against Iran by the United States.

*Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in 2006.

Errant Drone Attacks Spur Militants in Pakistan

April 17, 2009

By Gareth Porter* | Inter Press Service News

WASHINGTON, Apr 15 (IPS) – The U.S. programme of drone aircraft strikes against higher-ranking officials of al Qaeda and allied militant organisations, which has been touted by proponents as having eliminated nine of the 20 top al Qaeda leaders, is actually weakening Pakistan’s defence against the insurgency of the Islamic militants there by killing large numbers of civilians based on faulty intelligence and discrediting the Pakistani military, according to data from the Pakistani government and interviews with senior analysts.

Some evidence indicates, moreover, that the top officials in the Barack Obama administration now see the programme more as an incentive for the Pakistani military to take a more aggressive posture toward the militants rather than as an effective tool against the insurgents.

Although the strikes have been sold to the U.S. public as a way to weaken and disrupt al Qaeda, which is an explicitly counter-terrorist objective, al Qaeda is not actually the main threat to U.S. security emanating from Pakistan, according to some analysts. The real threat comes from the broader, rapidly growing insurgency of Islamic militants against the shaky Pakistani government and military, they observe, and the drone strikes are a strategically inappropriate approach to that problem.

“Al Qaeda has very little to do with the militancy in the tribal areas of Pakistan,” said Marvin Weinbaum, former Afghanistan and Pakistan analyst at the Bureau of Intelligence Research at the U.S. Department of State and now scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute.

John McCreary, a senior intelligence analyst for the Defence Intelligence Agency until his retirement in 2006, agrees with Weinbaum’s assessment. “The drone programme is supposed to be all about al Qaeda,” he told IPS in an interview, but in fact, “the threat is much larger.”

McCreary observes that the targets in recent months “have been expanded to include Pakistani Pashtun militants.” The administration apparently had dealt with that contradiction by effectively broadening the definition of al Qaeda, according to McCreary

Ambassador James Dobbins, the director of National Security Studies at the Rand Corporation, who maintains contacts with a range of administration national security officials, told IPS in an interview that the drone strikes in Pakistan are aimed “in the short and medium term” at the counter-terrorism objective of preventing attacks on Washington and other capitals.

But as they have shifted to Pakistani Taliban targets, Dobbins said, “To degree the targets are insurgents and are Pakistanis not Arabs it would be correct to assess that they are part of an insurgency.” That raises the question, he said, whether the drone programme “is feeding the insurgency and popular support for it.”

The drone program cannot even be expected to be a decisive factor in al Qaeda’s ability to operate, according to McCreary. “All you can do with drones is decapitate leadership,” McCreary told IPS in a recent interview. “Even in relation to al Qaeda’s organisational dynamics, it has only limited, temporary impact.”

McCreary warned that the drone strikes will cause much more serious problems when they increase and expand into new parts of Pakistan as the administration is now seriously considering, according to a New York Times article Apr. 7. “Now al Qaeda is fleeing to other cities, “said McCreary. “The programme is escalating and having ripple effects that are incalculable.”

McCreary said one of the longer-term consequences of the attacks is “the public humiliation of the Pakistan Army as a defender of the national patrimony”. That effect of striking Pakistani targets with U.S. aircraft is “the least understood dimension of the attacks, the most discounted and most dangerous”. McCreary said the attacks’ “ensure that successive generations of Pakistani military officers will be viscerally anti-American.”

Administration officials have defended the drone strikes programme as necessary to weaken and disrupt al Qaeda to prevent terrorist attacks, and officials have leaked to the media in recent weeks the fact that the programme has killed nine of 20 top al Qaeda leaders.

But the Pakistani government leaked data last week to The News in Lahore showing that only 10 drone attacks out of 60 carried out from Jan. 29, 2009 to Apr. 8, 2009 actually hit al Qaeda leaders, while 50 other strikes were based on faulty intelligence and killed a total of 537 civilians but no al Qaeda leaders.

The drone strikes have been even less accurate in their targeting in 2009 than they had been from 2006 through 2008, according to the detailed data from Pakistani authorities. Of 14 drone strikes carried out in those 99 days, only one was successful, killing a senior al Qaeda commander in North Waziristan and its external operations chief. The other 13 strikes had killed 152 people without netting a single al Qaeda leader.

Dobbins, speaking to IPS before the Pakistani data on drone strikes was released, said it was difficult for an outsider to evaluate the benefits of the programme but that “we can assess that there is a significant price that is being paid” in terms of the impact on Pakistani opinion toward U.S. efforts to stem the tide of the insurgency.

Dobbins said one of the reasons for the continuing drone attacks, despite the high political price, is that “it is an incentive aimed prodding the Pakistani government.” He said he believes the United States would be happy to trade off the strikes in return for a more effective counterinsurgency campaign by the Pakistani government.

Further bolstering that interpretation of the objective of continued drone strikes is a report, in the same story in The News, that the most recent strike took place only hours after U.S. officials had reportedly received a rejection by Pakistani authorities Apr. 8 of a proposal for joint military operations against militant organisations in the tribal areas from U.S. South Asia envoy Richard Holbrooke and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, who were visiting Islamabad.

Other analysts suggest that the programme has acquired bureaucratic and political momentum because it a politically important symbol that the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan are against al Qaeda and because the United States has no other policy instrument to demonstrate that it is doing something about the growth of Islamic groups that share al Qaeda’s extremist Islamic militancy.

McCreary believes that the programme is related to the fear of the Obama administration that it would be unable to get support for operations in Afghanistan if it didn’t focus on al Qaeda. “I think it was a way to link Afghanistan operations to al Qaeda,” he said.

“That suggests to me that the tactic for motivating domestic support is influencing the policy,” said McCreary. The former senior DIA analyst added that the drone strike programme “has acquired its own momentum, which is now having immense consequences.”

Weinbaum told IPS in an interview that the drone attacks are being continued, “primarily because we’re enormously frustrated, and they represent the only thing we really have.”

*Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in 2006.


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