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Newsweek prints an item in its “Periscope” section that reports an American guard at Guantanamo Bay flushed a detainee’s Koran down a toilet. According to the report, the US Southern Command intends to mount an investigation into the desecration, which violates US and international laws. The report sparks widespread rioting in Pakistan and Afghanistan that results in the deaths of at least 17 people. The Pentagon and the Bush administration immediately blame Newsweek for the riots and the deaths; Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, the senior commander of US forces in Afghanistan, says the report did not spark the Afghan rioting, as does Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Newsweek says the information came from an American official who remains unidentified. “We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the US soldiers caught in its midst,” Mark Whitaker, Newsweek’s editor, writes in a subsequent article. Whitaker adds: “We’re not retracting anything. We don’t know what the ultimate facts are.” The Pentagon denies the report; spokesman Bryan Whitman says: “Newsweek hid behind anonymous sources, which by their own admission do not withstand scrutiny. Unfortunately, they cannot retract the damage they have done to this nation or those that were viciously attacked by those false allegations.” The report is “demonstrably false” and “irresponsible.” Whitman says the report has “had significant consequences that reverberated throughout Muslim communities around the world.” Senior Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita calls Whitaker’s note “very tepid and qualified.… They owe us all a lot more accountability than they took.” White House press secretary Scott McClellan says, “Our United States military personnel go out of their way to make sure that the Holy Koran is treated with care.” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says Newsweek is wrong to use “facts that have not been substantiated.” And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld issues the admonishment, “[P]eople need to be careful what they say… just as people need to be careful what they do.” According to Whitaker, while the magazine tries to avoid using unnamed sources when it can, there are instances where sources will not speak to reporters unless their anonymity is guaranteed. The administration source has been reliable in the past, Whitaker says, and, moreover, the reporters of the story, Michael Isikoff and John Barry, received confirmation from both the source and a senior Pentagon official. Whitaker’s explanation notes that Newsweek has chosen not to publish previous reports of Koran desecration at Guantanamo because the sources are former detainees whom it considers unreliable. General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says that guards and officials at Guantanamo have looked for documentation of the reported Koran-flushing and cannot find it. (Seelye 5/16/2005; Rich 2006, pp. 164) The Pentagon will conclude that the Newsweek report is indeed responsible for the riots; Isikoff and Barry’s source for the story will back off on his original claim (see May 15, 2005). A month later, the Pentagon will confirm that at least five instances of Koran desecration at Guantanamo did indeed occur (see June 3, 2005).
In autumn 2006, President Bush declares in a White House news conference that al-Qaeda is “on the run,” but in fact intelligence reports are indicating that al-Qaeda is gaining strength in its safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal region. The New York Times will later comment, “with senior Bush administration officials consumed for much of that year with the spiraling violence in Iraq, the al-Qaeda threat in Pakistan was not at the top of the White House agenda.” Frustrated, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the top US commander in Afghanistan, orders military officers, CIA, and US special forces to assemble a dossier documenting the Pakistani government’s role in allowing militants to establish their safe haven in the tribal region. According to the Times, “Behind the general’s order was a broader feeling of outrage within the military—at a terrorist war that had been outsourced to an unreliable ally, and at the grim fact that America’s most deadly enemy had become stronger.” When Eikenberry finally presents his dossier to several members of Bush’s cabinet, some inside the State Department and the CIA dismiss his warning as exaggerated and simplistic. (Mazetti and Rohde 6/30/2008) On February 13, 2007, Eikenberry states publicly before a Congressional committee that NATO cannot win in Afghanistan without addressing the safe haven across the border in Pakistan. He does not publicly discuss Pakistan’s support for the militants, but he does say, “A steady, direct attack against the command and control in Pakistan in sanctuary areas is essential for us to achieve success.” He also warns that the US is facing a “reconstituted enemy” and “growing narcotics trafficking” in Afghanistan, which could lead to “the loss of legitimacy” of the government there. Eikenberry is already due to be replaced as commander of US forces in Afghanistan by the time he makes these blunt comments. (Tyson 2/14/2007; Rashid 2008, pp. 383) The White House responds by sending Vice President Dick Cheney and CIA Deputy Director Stephen Kappes to Islamabad, Pakistan, later in February (see February 26, 2007). But there is little apparent change in Pakistan’s behavior. (Mazetti and Rohde 6/30/2008)
On September 5, 2006, the government of Pakistan signs an agreement known as the Waziristan Accord with Taliban-linked militants in the tribal area of Pakistan near the border of Afghanistan known as North Waziristan (see September 5, 2006), and President Bush quickly gave his public approval to the deal (see September 7, 2006). By November 2006, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, head of US forces in Afghanistan, says that the number of Taliban attacks out of North Waziristan has tripled since the deal was signed. On December 26, US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher says, “The Taliban have been able to use [the tribal regions] for sanctuary, and for command and control, and for regrouping and supply.” The State Department decides that the deal has been a failure for US policy, just as two previous deals with militants in the border region had been. But the Pakistani government continues to stick to the terms of the deal well into 2007. (Rashid 2008, pp. 277)
Senior Bush administration officials meet in secret together with Afghanistan experts from NATO and the United Nations to brief advisers from the presidential campaigns of John McCain and Barack Obama on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. The meetings take place over two days and are held at an exclusive Washington club a few blocks from the White House. The briefing is part of an effort by the departing Bush administration to smooth the transition to the next team, according to a New York Times report. At the meetings, Bush administration officials reportedly press the need for the incoming president to have a plan for Afghanistan ready before taking office. The sessions are unclassified, but the participants agree not to discuss the content of the briefings or discussions publicly. Some participants, however, will later disclose some meeting details to the Times. Among issues reportedly discussed are:
Negotiating with the Taliban; and
Expanding the war in Pakistan.
The meetings are organized by New York University professor Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan. Participants include John K. Wood, the senior Afghanistan director at the National Security Council; Lieutenant General Karl W. Eikenberry, a former American commander in Afghanistan who will later become the next US ambassador to Afghanistan (see April 29, 2009); and Kai Eide, the United Nations representative in Afghanistan. The Obama campaign sends Jonah Blank, a foreign policy specialist for Senator Joe Biden, and Craig Mullaney, an Afghanistan adviser to Obama. The McCain campaign is represented by Lisa Curtis and Kori Schake, two former State Department officials. The New York Times suggests that the briefing on Afghanistan and Pakistan appears to have been the most extensive that Bush administration officials have provided on any issue to both presidential campaigns. It further notes that both Obama and McCain have promised to increase the number of American troops in Afghanistan. (Mazzetti and Schmitt 10/30/2008)
Newly retired Lieutenant General Karl W. Eikenberry, the former top commander of US forces in Afghanistan, is sworn in as the new US ambassador to Kabul. Prior to his appointment, Eikenberry served as the deputy chairman of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Military Committee in Brussels, Belgium. In a rare move, Eikenberry retired from the Army the day before he is sworn in as ambassador by Hillary Clinton at the State Department. (Baker 4/28/2009; Burns 4/28/2009) Shortly before President Obama’s nomination of Eikenberry was made public, the New York Times noted that the decision to send an about-to-retire career Army officer to fill one of the country’s most sensitive diplomatic jobs was “a highly unusual choice,” raising concerns among critics of the war that the Pentagon has too much influence over American foreign policy. (Schmitt 1/29/2009)
Afghan President Hamid Karzai attempts to cut a secret deal with one of his presidential election rivals in a bid to knock his strongest challenger from the race, to ensure a clear victory and, ostensibly, the minimization of sectarian violence a tight result might provoke in the hyper-armed country. In the proposed deal, Karzai asks former Afghan finance minister Ashraf Ghani, a candidate currently running third in the polls, to give up his election bid in exchange for a job as “chief executive”—a post described as similar to prime minister—in a Karzai government. Such an agreement would likely unite the Pashtun vote and knock Karzai’s main contender, Abdullah Abdullah, out of the race. Karzai’s offer will be confirmed by several sources, including Ghani himself, and may have backing from top US officials. “If Ghani agrees to the terms, Karzai will dump his team and move forward, with Karzai as president and Ghani as chief executive,” one campaign official will tell The Independent. During the election campaign, Karzai has made deals with tribal leaders and various warlords, promising them positions and patronage in exchange for the votes they control. The Independent cites international officials who believe that as many as 20 cabinet positions have already been pledged.
Karzai's Offer Confirmed - President Karzai’s brother, Qayum Karzai, is the first to approach Ghani with the proposal according to sources close to Karzai’s inner circle. Karzai presents Ghani with the argument that Ghani can’t win the election anyway, and even if he did, he wouldn’t be able to hold on to power. Ghani’s staff will also confirm that Karzai emissaries make an offer, but they say that Ghani has no plans to pull out of the race and will continue his campaign. Ghani himself will later confirm Karzai’s overture. “I’ve been approached repeatedly, the offer is on the table. I have not accepted it. The issue is the extent of crisis. We are in a very difficult moment in our history,” he will tell reporters in the province of Faryab (see August 8, 2009).
Top US Diplomats Holbrooke and Eikenberry Back the Proposal - Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador, are understood to have discussed the proposal with Ghani, according to the Independent report. “It makes sense,” a policy analyst with close links to the US administration says. “Holbrooke likes Ghani, and he has come round to the fact that Karzai will probably win.” Furthermore, The Independent notes that the idea of a chief executive was originally devised in Washington as a way of handing the responsibility of running the government to a skilled technocrat, a profile that certainly fits Ghani. The Washington Post will later report that according to Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, US officials back the idea of a new chief executive position under Karzai. The Post also reports that US officials have discussed the “chief executive” proposal with Ghani. US embassy officials, however, deny any involvement in back-room deals. (Starkey 8/7/2009; Partlow and DeYoung 8/14/2009)
Threats of Post-Election Armed Protests, Civil War - Analysts and journalists suggest that Afghanistan’s coming elections threaten to split the country along ethnic and sectarian lines, possibly igniting a civil war reminiscent of the 1990s (see March 13, 1994). “The whole country is armed. Everybody has weapons. You have to keep everyone happy,” one Afghan analyst says. Anticipating fraudulent results, Abdullah’s campaign staff have threatened to hold demonstrations if Karzai wins. Abdullah’s supporters, who are largely Tajik, have warned of Iranian-style protests, but “with Kalashnikovs,” should Karzai win a second term. (Starkey 8/7/2009; Motevalli 8/8/2009)
Days after Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced that his administration is investigating reports of “unknown” military helicopters carrying gunmen to the increasingly unstable northern provinces of the country (see May-October 12, 2009), US, NATO, and Afghan officials reject the reports and insinuations that Western forces are aiding the Taliban or other militants. US ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, denounces reports that the US is secretly helping Afghanistan’s enemies with weapons and helicopters as outrageous and baseless. “We would never aid the terrorists that attacked us on September 11, that are killing our soldiers, your soldiers, and innocent Afghan civilians every day,” he says. (Daily Outlook Afghanistan 10/15/2009) A Karzai campaign staffer says that Karzai did not mean to imply the helicopters were American. “We believe what the American ambassador [Karl Eikenberry] has said, and that the helicopters don’t belong to America,” says Moen Marastyal, an Afghan parliament member who has worked on the Karzai re-election campaign. (Landay and Bernton 10/14/2009) According to the Ariana Television Network, the German ambassador to Afghanistan, Werner Hans Lauk, professes ignorance when asked about Karzai’s claim that helicopters are carrying armed individuals to the northern provinces. Germany is assigned command responsibility for the north. (Ariana Television Network 10/14/2009) “This entire business with the helicopters is just a rumor,” says Brigadier General Juergen Setzer, who is the recently appointed commander for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the north, which has overall control of the air space in that region. “It has no basis in reality, according to our investigations.” Captain Tim Dark, of Britain’s Task Force Helmand, is also vehement in his denunciation. “The thought that British soldiers could be aiding and abetting the enemy is just rubbish,” he says. “We have had 85 casualties so far this year.” (Kawoosh 10/29/2009)
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