ISIS takes control of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. Several nations agree to take in Southeast Asian migrants. And the U.S. and Cuba move closer to full restoration of diplomatic ties. A panel of journalists joins guest host Indira Lakshmanan for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
Guest Host: Susan Page
The U.S. commander in Afghanistan cautions troops to brace for violence. The warning comes after a series of anti-American statements by Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Britain and France signal they will arm Syrian rebels unless the European Union lifts a blanket arms embargo of the country. European leaders meeting at a summit in Brussels stick to a course of austerity. China’s new president promises to root out corruption in the Communist party. President Barack Obama names a new ambassador to Libya. And Roman Catholics wait to see what course the new pontiff, Pope Francis, will take. A panel of journalists joins guest host Susan Page for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- David Sanger chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times and author of "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power."
- Anne Gearan diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post.
- Martin Walker chief international affairs columnist for United Press International, senior director of the Global Business Policy Council and senior fellow at The Woodrow Wilson Center.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting for Diane Rehm. She's visiting station WITF in Harrisburg, Pa. She'll be back on Monday. The E.U. rejects a push by France and Britain to allow member nations to arm Syrian rebels. U.S. forces in Afghanistan are on alert after anti-American statements by President Karzai. China formally names a new president. And the world's Roman Catholics have an Argentine Cardinal as their new pope.
MS. SUSAN PAGEJoining me for this week's top international stories on the Friday News Roundup, David Sanger of the New York Times, Anne Gearan of The Washington Post and Martin Walker of United Press International. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MS. ANNE GEARANThank you.
MR. DAVID SANGERThanks.
MR. MARTIN WALKERGood morning.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation. Our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, the E.U. decision, Anne, came just today on whether to lift the embargo on arming Syrian rebels. What did the E.U. decide?
GEARANThe E.U. decided to put off a real huge fight over this, but not to approve the request from Britain and France to lift its existing arms embargo. The arms embargo was on the whole country, which means that European nations are forbidden from, of course, arming the Assad regime they oppose, but also from arming the rebels. So lifting the embargo would allow member countries to send lethal aid to the Syrian rebels. Britain and France have been edging toward this for awhile and have now said they may go ahead even, despite the arms embargo.
GEARANBut the E.U. will meet again next week to try to consider this again in Dublin. But with the threat, basically, from two of its largest and most powerful and most activists members, that they may go ahead, saying it's time to arm the rebels, that it's an unequal power situation and they have a moral duty to do so.
PAGESo how significant, Martin, would a decision by France and Britain to go ahead and provide arms to the Syrian rebels? How significant would that be?
WALKERWell, in terms of the E.U. structure, not terribly significant. There is no actually legally binding rule for everybody to abide by this. What it would be important, I think, would be for the dynamics of the Syrian situation because the argument that the British and French governments have been making is that the arms embargo has become self-defeating, that it's not stopping the Syrian regime of Assad from being armed by Iran. And it's not stopping the more radical, perhaps the more Islamist sections of the Syrian rebel forces in being armed by arms and funds from the Gulf.
WALKERThe people who are really suffering from the arms embargo, are, if you like, the more moderate elements of the Syrian opposition in the Syrian uprising. And what the British and French are saying is they are the very people that need to be supported to strengthen their hand, not only in military terms, but also in political terms, as the current Syrian opposition is going through another of its crises. The Islamists and the Liberals together managed to block the decision to try and name Hamid as the interim prime minister of provisional government. And so there is now no serious leadership that people can talk to of the relatively moderate Syrian opposition.
SANGERMost of the arms that have gone to the rebels so far have gone through Saudi Arabia and Qatar. And they've gone in disproportionate numbers, as Martin suggests, to the more Jihadist elements of the opposition, which is not, of course, exactly what Washington or London or Paris has in mind here. What they're talking about here are actually significantly heavier weapons. Just to say anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, so that there is some parity between the rebels and the government at a moment that the government's having a very difficult time in some very major Syrian cities.
SANGERThe hard part about bringing in these heavy weapons is you need some serious lift to get them in. The good news about them is, unlike the light weapons that have gone in so far, they're not very easy to steal. And there are technologies that the U.S. and others have that would enable the Western allies to turn them off if they ended up in the wrong hands. So the concept here is that there's a relatively low risk of these going into the wrong hands for a prolonged period of time. And that's, I think, the reason that you're seeing the British and the French say that they may end up using cutouts, maybe again the Saudis and the Qataris, but others, to get these in.
PAGEWhat about the U.S. position on this, Anne? Is the Obama administration debating whether to change our own policy when it comes to arming the rebels?
GEARANWell, when Secretary Kerry went through Europe and the Gulf a week and two weeks ago, this issue came up at every stop. And he ended his trip by saying he would return to Washington and take this matter to the White House for further discussion. But for now, and frankly for the foreseeable, near-term future, the Obama administration is sticking to its decision not to arm the rebels. Even with the light arms that they're currently receiving from other countries. On the theory, as David alluded to, that it's so easy for some of the weapons anyway to go astray.
WALKERThere is the prospect of something important changing on the ground. It looks as though the latest threat by Assad of Syria to attack Lebanon could be quite serious. There's been a whole series of incidents on the border there. And the head of the U.N. refugee program has just warned that Lebanon itself, have been taking in close to a million refugees, is now facing a threat to its own existence. So if Assad were to try and lash out across the border into Lebanon, against some of the bases from which people are operating, that could really change things seriously.
PAGEWe also have reports that Iran has significantly increased its support for the Syrian regime. I mean, what are the consequences of that, do you think, David?
SANGERWell, Iran's the one that's got the most to lose here. And if the Syrian regime goes and one has to assume that Assad is not going to hold on forever, that cuts off the Iranian--
PAGEWhy do you assume he won't hold on forever because we've been saying that for quite some time?
SANGERWe're year two right now. Actually almost exactly two years, just about to the day, since the first (word?). I think the reason we're saying that is that for the first time you're seeing the Syrian military have a very difficult time holding on to some major strategic cities. And, you know, in the end Assad is ruling from an Alawite minority in the country that, you know, eventually is going to get overwhelmed by the majority in this country. That doesn't mean he couldn't on for a long time more. I think two years ago none of us at this table, I suspect, would have put much money on his being there today.
SANGERBut that said, he is there in large part because the Iranians have provided him with so much support. And the Iranians have a huge amount to lose here if they lose him because it's going to end a lot of their easy transportive of weaponry and support to Hezbollah and to others. And at a moment that they're under pressure on the nuclear program, they really need them the most.
PAGEOur phone lines are open. You can give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. We'll take some of your calls later in this hour. Well, speaking about Iran's nuclear program, we saw really some remarkable comments yesterday by President Obama about the timeline for what will happen with Iran's nuclear program. David, you've written about this so extensively. What did President Obama say?
SANGERWell, President Obama said much more specifically than I've seen him say before, how much time he thought there was until there was an Iranian weapon. And he said it was at least a year and that his red line, of course, has always been that he would not let Iran get a weapon. Now, it could be longer than a year and it could be even longer than that before the Iranians could fit a weapon on top of a missile, which in some ways is a lot tougher to shrink it down than to actually build the weapon itself.
SANGERNow, why is this important? Because he's going to Israel next week and the Israelis have a very different red line. The Israeli red line doesn't have to do with when they actually get the weapon. It's when they get enough medium enriched fuel that they could move toward a weapon fairly rapidly. And I think what's significant about what the president said is that it shows that as he's getting ready to go Israel, he and Prime Minister Netanyahu have done nothing to close up their definitional distinction about when it is they would have to act.
GEARANYeah, David's exactly right. They haven't closed this fundamental gap in the way they see the threat. They both can agree on a macro level that Iran is an existential threat to Israel and to others and that it is absolutely unacceptable for the world to allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon, but then it gets very difficult. And it sets up what's likely to be a pretty difficult conversation between President Obama and Netanyahu.
GEARANAnother thing that Obama said in that same Israeli TV interview is that he would argue to Netanyahu, whom he called, Bibi, his nickname, that a diplomatic solution, a diplomatic way to essentially buy Iran out of its program or talk it out of its program is a more durable solution for Israel.
PAGEMartin, what results should we expect from the president's trip to Israel next week? His first trip as president to Israel. What should we expect to happen?
WALKERWell, I think the event that everybody's looking for is this big speech that he's making to a very large group of Israeli students. In fact, the Israeli airwaves are currently filled with contests and lotteries and so on to get tickets for this event. And the White House seems to think of this in the same terms, as that famous Cairo speech that President Obama made back in his first year in office, when he really tried to recast the whole approach of the United States to Islam and to the Middle East.
WALKERThis time I think what he's going to be saying is that Israel is really going to have to make its own huge decision about what kind of future it wants. And we will see what kind of response that gets, given the extraordinary fluidity, as a result of the last Israeli elections, in the current Israeli political scene. It looks now as though the coalition is going to go ahead under Netanyahu, but it does include some very, very pro secular, very nationalist groups. It's going to be a really interesting challenge for the rhetoric of President Obama.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. And when we come back we're going to talk about the possible world role that could be played by the new pope. And we'll take your questions, 1-800-433-8850. Or send us an email, find us on Facebook or Twitter. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio, Martin Walker, chief international affairs columnist for United Press International. Anne Gearan, she's diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post. And David Sanger, he's chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times. He's author of "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power."
PAGEYou know, we had a new pope chosen this week and one of the things that is interesting to me is the reaction that we started to see yesterday from other world capital about -- asking the pope to do things or warning the pope not to do things. Syrian rebels urged the new pope to make a gesture toward them. China said it hoped that Pope Francis would display a quote "practical and flexible approach to relations with Beijing." There have been some conflicts between Beijing and the Vatican.
PAGEIn Cairo there was a call for better relations after strains under the previous pope. David Sanger, how big a role can a pope -- any pope and how big a role do you think this particular pope can play in world events?
SANGERA fairly limited one but an important symbolic one. I think that the pope, particularly on issues of focusing the world, one poverty, care of the poorest, ending wars, can play an important symbolic role. They can't play any diplomatic role. They don't bring people together. I think what is interesting is that from Pope Francis' biography we already see, you know, somebody who has spent much more time with the world's poorest. And I think also by the fact that he's the first in what, 1100 years to be a non-European, it certainly is going to seem to move the center of gravity of the church much more to Latin America.
SANGERI think those are two big symbolic steps. I'm not sure they're going to have a whole lot to do with how we're going to solve a range of world problems from climate change to the uprising in Syria.
WALKERI think David's right. The symbolism that we've seen already, wearing a simple wooden cross rather than the usual bejeweled cross, taking the bus with the other cardinals rather than a limousine, not wearing the red shoes and so on. That's all very important in symbolism of the church, in a sense renewing its vows of poverty.
WALKERBut in the last 48 hours, there's been an entirely different current starting to emerge, mainly out of Argentina, criticizing the road of the pope during the -- Argentina's Dirty War, during the vicious repression of the Argentinean left. He's been accused of failing to protect fellow Jesuit priests. There are even more too accusations that he perhaps even betrayed some of them. The pope himself has said in previous interviews in Argentina that he did make efforts with Admiral Videla. He made a point of trying to replace Videla's own naval chaplain in one Mass so he could appeal for the liberation of some of these people.
WALKERBut there's been a really very mixed reaction to this in Argentina with some of the mothers who have disappeared and so on saying that this pope really doesn't represent them. Nor does he represent the best spirits of the church.
PAGEHere's an email we've gotten from MDB who writes, "Francis the new pope has been intimate with dictators who adopted targeted killing through the condor operation. Did he confess those crimes?" You know, Anne, we know what would happen with an American politician in this situation. He'd be forced to come out and address these issues. Is it different with a new pope?
GEARANIt is. I mean, he has already, as Martin said, talked in general terms about his role during Argentina's Dirty War. But it will not be incumbent on him to fully explain himself now. I think there will be, as there were frankly with the last pope, lingering questions about his historic -- his role, you know, in nasty bits of history that hang over his tenure. But, no, he's not -- he won't have to be a politician about it.
WALKEROne little footnote of history is that however close he may or may not have been to the military dictators, he was and has remained a massive enthusiast for the Falkland Islands being the Malvinas and being recovered by Argentina in the very week that the Falkland Islanders have had a referendum and voted like a 1,000 to 1 to stay British.
PAGESo we have an email from Larry who writes us from north Dallas. He says -- it's actually a Tweet from Larry who Tweets, "One of the first acts of Pope Francis was to send a letter to the chief rabbi of Rome promising to continue the church's policy of friendship and close relations with Jews worldwide. Please comment." David?
SANGERWell, this is something that the church has worked hard on doing and I think that, you know, a good deal of that comes in what their role is in holocaust remembrance as well. And that can play an increasingly important role in parts of Europe, and actually other places including Iran, where there's a fair bit of holocaust denial that goes on. So I thought that that was a good sign.
SANGERBut I think that at some point or another, my guess is that he's going to have to address his role in the disappearance era, the Dirty War era that Martin and Anne were discussing with a little more specificity because he hasn't spoken on it in some time. And he certainly hasn't spoken on it at a time when anybody though that he was a near-term candidate for pope.
PAGEAnd I wonder in an era when the pope has a Twitter account if the expectations aren't higher for transparency about some of these issues?
GEARANWell, I think you've seen some of those higher expectations already. I mean, certainly just the way that the pope selection played out on Twitter and on television, I mean, this is the first new pope in the Twitter age. And it was really fund to see people, you know, really participating in a more visible way. So, yes, I think -- although I said a moment ago, I don't think he'll have to be a politician about it. I take David's point that there are higher expectations, not so much for accountability and visibility but there are higher expectations on him to just sort of be a person of the current communications age.
WALKERBut he really has left himself open to the whole arguments about politics because he's a chiliast. He's a supporter of this movement called community and liberation, which was set up in Italy with the backing of previous popes, John Paul and Benedict, to react against the decision of the Action Catholica, which tried to take the church out of Christian democratic politics in Rome. The chiliasts tried to bring Italy back or tried to bring the church back into Christian democratic politics in Italy.
WALKERAs a result they have a very articulate, very determined, very clear commitment to engaging in the political arena. And this new pope, Pope Francis is a part of that.
PAGELet's go to the phones and let some of our listeners join our conversation. We'll talk to Frank first. Frank is calling us from Charlotte, N.C. Frank, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
FRANKOh hi. Okay. You know, like, I would think that our president or our representative, the people who basically try to keep us safe and our children safe, that instead of flying to Israel, that they would get in their plane and fly to Iran and discuss these problems that they have with these people instead of keep on threatening them. Because soon or later when people die, it's going to be people's children are going to be dying. And if it was going to be their children, I bet you they would do something about it.
PAGEFrank, thank you so much for your call. David, what are the chances of more direct high-level talks between the United States and Iran?
SANGERWell, certainly the United States has been looking very hard to try to do a one-on-one conversation with the Iranians. The Iranians so far have -- there has been, in fact there was just a few weeks ago for the first time in seven or eight months, a meeting between the Iranians and what's called the P5 plus 1 in diplomatic parliaments. But it's essentially the European allies, Russia and China and the U.S. and the Iranians.
SANGERAnd at that the United States made a new sort of proposal for what they call confidence building measures. There's supposed to be another meeting next week to explain that further. The Iranians made some nice noises about it. But the fact of the matter is, there are many people who believe that they're just playing for time right now until they get past their own elections in June. And there's no certainty whether the supreme leader in Iran who believes the real goal of the United States is all about regime change would welcome direct one-on-one talks, much less a visit from the president, which hasn't happened since the Iranian revolution.
PAGEWell, is he right? Is the real goal of the United States regime change?
SANGERI'm not sure that that's the goal right now but certainly the United States would not be at all unhappy if there was the equivalent of regime change or even the kind of uprising that you've seen happen in the Arab world. You could argue that started in Iran in 2009 and was suppressed very hard by the Iranian government.
WALKERI think they'd settle for behavior change rather than regime change. But when we're thinking about the original question the caller put, let's not forget that the real threat began from the Iranian side when they threatened to wipe -- when Ahmadinejad threatened to wipe Israel off the map.
PAGELet's talk about President Obama's congratulatory phone call yesterday to the new Chinese president. And what was interesting, Anne, was that he raised this issue of cyber security, really a growing concern I think in the United States when it comes to China.
GEARANYeah, and it's about the third or fourth time in as many weeks that the United States has called China out by name for cyber spying, cyber hacking, cyber attacking, whatever you want to call it. It's just, you know, quasi military and quasi economic assaults, which the U.S. is laying at China's door. It will certainly make relations with Xi Jingping somewhat more contentious but of course they were contentious already. And the lines are very clear and were clear before these allegations of cyber hacking of, you know, what the United States wants from its relationship with China and what China wants from its relationship with the United States.
GEARANBut the Obama Administration is going to make an effort. They're going to try, as they did in the first term, but they're going to renew the effort in the second to have a more productive and clearly delineated partnership with China where they can be partners.
WALKERIt's interesting that the first senior official from Washington to be going there is going to be Jack Lew, the new Treasury Secretary, who's going I think it's next week. And the Secretary of State, Mr. Kerry will not be going there until later. So it looks as though the real priority, as far as Washington is concerned, is the financial economic relationship, which of course doesn't exclude cyber security because I'm sure Wall Street's very concerned about the impact upon that.
WALKERBut my guess is that as far as the Chinese are concerned, the real priority for them now is settling in this new administration. It's not just a new president. It's a new prime minister. There's all sorts of issues about economic policy and so on that they want to talk about. How far the Chinese will be prepared to engage on this cyber security issue, I think, is open to question. Because already they've responded to earlier U.S. (word?) by saying, well, look, the U.S. is known to be doing this as well and we've been a victim of American attacks. So...
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850 and reading your emails, email@example.com. David.
SANGERWell, the cyber issue is a fascinating one because the hard problem that the Obama Administration faces is whether they're going to manage to take this issue that's always been on the sidelines and make it a central part of the relationship. They have been very reluctant. The administration came to this very, very slowly.
SANGERIn fact, it wasn't until a private company called Mandiant turned out a very detailed report that took a lot of the attacks on American companies to the doorstep of the People's Liberation Army, something that was published first in the Times after we spent a number of weeks trying to figure out whether or not we could confirm Mandiant's story. And we pretty well did. And what we discovered along the way is all the facts here have been known to U.S. intelligence for years on end. And the question is, what has changed now.
SANGERAnd the answer is that the American business community, which has always been the ballast in the relationship between the U.S. and China back for two decades, has now turned on this issue because the pace of the attacks has increased so greatly. And the amount lost in intellectual property has increased so greatly. And as the Chinese invest more in the United States it's become a bigger and bigger political issue here.
PAGEHere's an email we've just gotten. This person writes, "China has a ministry of IT. What will it take for the United States to move from the Hudson Bay and East India Tea Company model of harming corporations to one in which the government regulated and protects cyber as it does American land, air, sea? What do you think, Anne?
GEARANWell, that would require some kind of agreement from the business community David just referenced, that it's hard to imagine would take place. I mean it would -- they would have to agree to a whole new layer of regulation and control. One of the reasons that the U.S. relationship with China has opened relatively steadily and cordially has been because it is such an enormous business opportunity. And the intellectual property theft and other cyber hacking or cyber crimes were, for a long time, an annoying cost of business. And that's what's changed, as David referred to, that it's no longer just a cost of business.
WALKERAnd the pentagon has opened a cyber command so there is...
SANGERAnd not only opened it but this week we learned for the first time that 13 of the 40 teams that they have created are made for offensive cyber. Now, not a shock to...
PAGEWhat does that mean, offensive cyber?
SANGEROffensive cyber means the development of cyber weapons that you would use in the case -- not of an intellectual property theft attack but of a general cyber attack that was meant to bring down critical infrastructure, whether it's the electric power grid or the cell phone network or the air traffic control system. Now, has the United States also used cyber? Of course the U.S. has and the most -- the best known case is what's called Stuxnet or Olympic Games, which is the name of the operation against the Iranian enrichment facilities. That was a covert operation aimed at a military target.
SANGERWhat the Chinese have been aiming at by and large, as Anne suggested, was much more economic targets. But the Chinese say, look, you know, it's not as if the United States has clean hands on this, and they're right on this point.
PAGEWe've heard the new Chinese president talk about wanting economic liberalization, more room for citizens to criticize the government, a crackdown on official corruption. That's been a huge issue that has angered a lot of Chinese citizens. Should we take his talk of reform seriously, Anne?
GEARANYes, because he knows that he has so many domestic problems he simply has to manage. I mean, we focus here on China's role in the world but he -- his -- job one for him is going to be China at home. He's got economic problems, he's got social mobility problems, he's got any number of other internal political and other cross currents that he's working very hard to manage.
WALKERThere's one new aspect of this Chinese leadership which is a phrase that they use, the China dream. And it's not like the American Dream about individual empowerment, individual opportunity. It's much more about the military kind of dream of China being able to restore its traditional, very powerful dominant role, strategic role in Asia. And that is one that I think is going to be a particularly new neuralgic issue for the Obama Administration and indeed for administrations to come.
PAGEWhat does neuralgic issue mean?
WALKEROne that really gets on their nerves.
PAGEAll right. Martin Walker from United Press International. Also with me in the studio, Anne Gearan from the Washington Post and David Sanger from the New York Times. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll talk about the situation in Afghanistan, those inflammatory words by Hamid Karzai, what it means for the U.S. forces who are there. We'll take your calls, 1-800-433-8850 and we'll read your emails. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back, I'm Susan Page sitting for Diane Rehm and with me in the studio Martin Walker, Anne Gearan and David Sanger for the international hour of our "Friday News Roundup".
PAGEAnd the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan put troops on alert after Afghan President Karzai made some really controversial statements. What did the president say?
GEARANPresident Karzai essentially accused the United States of working alongside or in collaboration with the Taliban and having other nefarious interests in Afghanistan. This is of course his closest ally and benefactor and so it was a sting to the Americans, but one that they generally understand is for domestic consumption in Afghanistan.
GEARANKarzai is going to be president for a year more and he would like to remain an Afghan and alive in his own country after that and so he is trying to manage his equities on the ground so that he looks like a nationalist leader and so that he can buck the long history in Afghanistan of the expulsion or execution of departing leaders.
GEARANBut what the American military commander saw was a threat to his forces because what Karzai had said essentially is that Americans are a threat to you. And we already have a rise of insider attacks, the trend of Afghans who Americans are supposed to be training and helping, turning on them and firing at them from within their own ranks.
GEARANAnd that's what Dunford is worried about, is that this is sort of an invitation for more of that.
PAGEGiven the American lives lost as well, of course, as the lives of citizens of Afghanistan I mean I think it is shocking to some Americans to hear our ally speak of us this way.
SANGERWell, there are a couple of different layers to look at this. Anne suggested one which is of course that Karzai is appealing to a domestic audience. There is a second one which is that Karzai has a long history of somewhat bizarre statements. There was a moment two years ago when he said he would join the Taliban. Now he's suggested we've joined the Taliban.
SANGERThe third element here which is I think a profound, if deliberate misreading of both what the Taliban wants and what President Obama wants. He was suggesting that the U.S. and the Taliban were colluding to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan longer. Well, the Taliban want the U.S. gone because they think as soon as they're gone they can take over vast swaths of the country which is probably right.
SANGERPresident Obama has made it very clear after doing the initial surge in 2009, a surge he regretted almost as soon as he did it, that he wants troops out on a very, accelerated basis. And every time that we've heard an announcement from the White House it's usually been about how the timeframe has contracted or American troops are being pulled back to base and not out doing that training that they were involved in.
SANGERIt's all a reminder that the cable that was sent by the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry in 2009, before the surge, a cable that leaked out to The Times and then to others, that said to the president, look you can do anything you want, but if you're relying on President Karzai to be your long-term ally here and training the forces with them, this isn't going to work. And you know what? General Eikenberry was right.
PAGEYou said that the president regretted almost immediately the surge in Afghanistan. Why has he regretted it?
SANGERWell, I think that he felt in 2009 as if he was somewhat jammed by the U.S. military. And the numbers that the military had asked for have leaked out. They wanted roughly 40,000 troops. Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates, the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense at the time, had advocated a larger number.
SANGERThe president came to a fairly rapid conclusion that the Pentagon really had a plan to keep American troops there, to conduct counter-insurgency for a fairly long period of time and that the cost of that was going to be very high, financial cost and human cost and that the benefits of staying longer would diminish over time.
SANGERAnd one of the reasons is that the Americans have been there now for, what 11, 12 years and you're seeing an increasing irritation on the Afghan side. You see it from these insider attacks. You certainly see it from President Karzai's comments. And you know, it's sort of an old rule that you can't be in a country longer than the country wants you there.
PAGEWell, and I know that a lot of Americans would like nothing better than to see our troops come home from Afghanistan. Martin?
WALKERA couple of points, one is that this week the United Nations Development Report came out which is mainly focused upon the, not just the economic development of the world, but also the human development, education, rule of law and so on. And one of the countries that was in its top ten for best results over the last decade is Afghanistan.
WALKERSo in that sense something has been done right. The second point I think that's important is, what was it that triggered Karzai's particular outburst? And it was a row over Bagram, over the military prison there and the U.S. reluctance to release a group of about 36 very dangerous apparently, prisoners.
WALKERI gather that some of those prisoners are of, from fairly prominent, Pashtun families who are quite important to Karzai's own political future or indeed to his future life and therefore he had made promises that he would get these people out when the Americans handed over responsibility of the prison and for the prisoners to the Afghans.
WALKERThe Americans refused to do so. That means that Karzai has broken his word to some very, very powerful clan leaders in the Pashtun area and that apparently is what sent him ballistic.
PAGENow the United States originally slated this transfer for 2009 so we've been holding it off for some time. What's the endgame though Anne? I mean eventually, are we going to be forced to turn these prisoners over to the Afghan authorities?
GEARANWell, history would suggest we will or in the end that it won't matter if Obama pulls the bulk of American forces out as repeatedly promised. Karzai can kind of do what he wants with, or his successor can do what he wants with the Parwan facility at Bagram.
GEARANThis is really a sovereignty question which you might say some of the Americans view, misread from the start, that you know, this. They don't see it as a big deal. I mean it's just one of the elements they have to check off, one of the things they have to do before they can get over-arching, what they call bilateral, a security agreement or status of forces agreement.
GEARANYou'll remember from the Iraq experience, that the Americans kept saying over and over again, oh, it's gonna be a problem. We need one of those. The Iraqis want it. We want it, you know, fine. We'll get it done by the end of the year. And it, you know, became a giant nightmare and they didn't get it done by the end of the year. We don't have any American forces in Iraq. They don't want to repeat it.
GEARANThey started early. They've been working on this bilateral security agreement. There have been lots of meetings. But this is one of the things, this fairly early and large indication that this negotiation is not going to be smooth and that from Karzai's perspective he's going to see this as a question of national sovereignty.
SANGERYou know, this is the first week that I think we've all sensed that in fact he may not get, the president may not get an agreement to keep, what's variously described as 6,000, 9,000, 12,000 troops that would stay as an enduring presence.
SANGERWhy is that important? Well, the U.S. endgame here is they'd like to have some presence there just to keep the Taliban from being able to topple Kabul. But the real import of those troops is to keep an eye on Pakistan which in the end is strategically far more important to us, a far larger country in numbers of people and certainly have 150 nuclear weapons, something we worry about a lot more.
SANGERAnd the forces in Afghanistan are really intended in large part to be a rapid reaction force if something went wrong in Pakistan. So if the U.S. wasn't able to keep it I think there are many in Washington who would believe that that was a significant setback, much more significant in some ways than not having continuing forces in Iraq.
WALKERJust one footnote, when one goes through the full text of what Karzai said he also accused the U.S. of continuing daily negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar. It's been denied by both the Americans and now by the Taliban, but I think it shows the way in which Karzai fears that he is being, as it were, squeezed out by these two forces, the Taliban on the one side, the U.S. on the other.
PAGEWell, yes, something to base that on, I mean, they did squeeze him out and so, you know, Karzai is paranoid because people really are trying to squeeze him out.
WALKERHe has real enemies.
PAGERight, let's go to the phones. We'll talk to Chris. He's been very patient, holding on. Chris is calling us from Concord, N.H. Hi, Chris.
CHRISOh hi, how are you?
CHRISWell, I just want to talk about the pope for a minute because we go through this tradition every time there's a new pope and they say all the right things and he's supposedly a wonderful guy, but I think it would be good if there was somewhat of a blackout with the news media because in a sense they are kind of an organized child sex ring over decades and I don't think they should have the hierarchy, especially should have that much credence.
PAGEYou know, Chris, you're definitely, it's definitely true that this, the abuse of children by Catholic priests is one of the big issues that this new pope will face. What do we expect to see from him on this issue?
WALKERWell, it's ironic that one of his closest colleagues, the Bishop of Buenos Aires has been one of the most outspoken of the Catholic leaders on the need to bring women, more prominently, into the church, give them real, senior leadership roles perhaps as deacons.
WALKERThere is a lively debate in the Catholic community worldwide at the moment about the need to end celibacy, the need to allow women to become priests, indeed reminders that the prophet, that the disciple Paul, himself, a founder of the church, the very first pope. The biblical evidence is that he was himself married.
WALKERSo I think this is an issue that for this pope or any other is not going to go away not least because if there's one thing that's going to bring about Pope Francis' commitment to a church that takes seriously its vow of poverty it is the way that extraordinarily high, financial settlements have been impoverishing the church not least in the U.S.A. over pedophilia.
PAGEChris, thanks so much for your call. You know another issue facing this pope are accusations surrounding the administration of the Vatican. Anne, tell us about that issue.
GEARANWell, yes, there's the larger and better known scandal and problem of clergy sex abuse, but there's also been a problem inside the Catholic hierarchy and the Curia in Rome in particular, but sort of purely like a, you know, kind of Chicago-city politics, right.
GEARANThey've got competing fiefdoms and they've got lots of corruption. They've got patronage and they've got all kinds of. They've got money sloshing all around and that's one thing that he has set or is expected to set as a priority to try to clean house a bit.
PAGEAlthough it seems as though he's really avoiding getting involved in the kind of the bureaucracy of the Vatican. I wonder if he's going to be really prepared for some of the tough housecleaning that might need to be done.
WALKERWell, it almost, it nearly broke Pope Benedict's spirit, his battles with the bureaucracy inside the Curia. I think if Pope Francis is going to focus on one thing, it's going to have to be upon the Vatican Bank because the Vatican Bank is now becoming a by-word for money laundering and it looks as though other banks in the world, central banks, the U.S.A. and so on are simply going to exclude it from any more affairs. It's that corrupt.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Arosh who is calling us from here in Washington, D.C. Hi, you're on the air.
AROSHHi, thank you for taking my call. I love this show and my question is that you guys are just talking about President Hamid Karzai. I'm an Afghan and the way that I hear about President Karzai's latest comment, about the Special Forces in Wardak Province. He is right because the U.S. Special Forces did (word?) you know, did killed or, you know, jailed people in the Wardak Province and they are annoyed.
AROSHThe family wants to know where the people, like brother, sister, father are and nobody knows that. And second of all, you guys treat President Hamid Karzai like a joke. He is the president of a country. When he talks about (word?) you know, he knows what he is talking about. He is not bluffing. About the latest comment, he is completely right. I am an Afghan. I am in the United States and I fully support President Karzai's latest comment that U.S. Special Forces need to come out of Wardak Province because they are not doing the correct job.
PAGEArosh, it's so good to hear your call and I think one thing I really appreciate about "The Diane Rehm Show" is that we get callers of all sorts including here, an Afghan, who is defending President Karzai. David, what do you think?
SANGERWell, I think that Arosh has given voice to something that you hear very frequently from Afghans, the accusations about the abuses done in Wardak Province involving the Special Forces are actually about Afghani Special Forces who have been trained by American Special Forces.
SANGERAnd then the question becomes, how much is the United States responsible for the behavior of President Karzai's own government troops? I think one of the reasons that you're hearing an increasing pressure and drumbeat in Washington about pulling back the American troops and putting more responsibility on the Afghans is that President Karzai would have to be more directly responsible for exactly what happens either for, or at the hands of the forces under his control.
SANGERThe fear is that those forces, while large now, over 300,000 are not ready for primetime to defend the country the way it had been hoped when they were initially trained.
WALKERIt's worth adding that in Afghanistan itself some of the leading opposition politicians, former Vice President Massoud, former Interior Minister Hanif Atmar have both criticized Karzai's attack and have both said that this is no way to treat an ally like the U.S.A.
PAGEWe have a couple of people who have emailed and called to say that the first pope was Peter, not Paul, sorry about the error there. And we have a new U.S. ambassador to Libya, a top posting. Who is it?
GEARANDeborah Jones, she's a career diplomat, multiple-time ambassador and someone with long experience in the Middle East. She comes into this job with a heavy burden of history and emotion after the death six months ago of Ambassador Chris Stevens, the first U.S. post-revolutionary U.S. ambassador to Libya and the first American ambassador to die on the job since the late 1970s.
GEARANBut she knows Libya, knows that part of the Middle East and North Africa quite well and she -- one big question confronting her almost at the start is to what extent the United States is going to try to reopen any operations in Benghazi, the city where Chris Stevens died or otherwise, you know, extend its diplomatic reach outside of a very heavily-defended embassy in Tripoli.
SANGERThis is the big question that I think is facing the Obama administration as Anne suggests and is the degree to which the light footprint strategy has sort of run out of gas in Libya and I think the ambassador is going to have to figure out what kind of backup she's going to have including military backup if things go bad there.
PAGEDavid Sanger, Anne Gearan, Martin Walker, thank you so much for being with us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
GEARANThank you so much.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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