Tales from the Trail

Washington Extra – Fall and rise

That’s not hot air emanating from the Capitol today, it’s the huge sigh of relief from the Democratic leadership that Congressman Anthony Weiner decided to resign.

And gone with him are the difficult decisions about whether to strip him of committees or think up other pressure tactics to end the weeks-long distraction.

“Congressman Weiner exercised poor judgment in his actions and poor judgment in his reaction to the revelations. Today, he made the right judgment in resigning,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said.

On the other side of the world (we think that’s where he is, but we really don’t know) Ayman al-Zawahri got promoted to head of al Qaeda.

The U.S. government acted all nonchalant about the successor to Osama bin Laden. “Frankly, it barely matters who runs al Qaeda because al Qaeda is a bankrupt ideology,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said.

Washington Extra – In pursuit

Osama bin Laden is gone, but plenty of questions remain about how the al Qaeda leader evaded an intense decade-long manhunt that ended in a dramatic U.S. raid on a house in Pakistan.

The real breakthrough that led to bin Laden came from a mysterious CIA detainee, Hassan Ghul, according to a Reuters special report published today. It was Ghul who, after years of tantalizing hints from other detainees, finally provided the information that prompted the CIA to focus intensely on finding Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, pseudonym for the courier who would lead them to bin Laden.

Fresh from the victory of finding the world’s most wanted man, President Barack Obama wants no let-up in the pursuit of terrorism suspects and surprised everyone by seeking a two-year extension of FBI Director Robert Mueller’s 10-year term.

Looking to cash in on bin Laden bounty? Forget about it

Now that Osama bin Laden is dead, it doesn’t look like anyone will be claiming the multimillion-dollar bounty the U.S. government put on his head.

White House spokesman Jay Carney signaled that no one was likely to receive the $25 million reward, which the Secretary of State had discretion to double, because it was U.S. intelligence work rather than a tipster that led to the deadly raid on the al Qaeda chief’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a week ago.

“As far as I’m aware, no one knowledgeably said, ‘Oh, Osama bin Laden’s over here in Abbottabad at 5703, you know, Green Avenue’,” Carney said, drawing laughs at the White House daily briefing.

“Minutes passed like days” for U.S. officials watching bin Laden op

It took almost a decade for the United States to find al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. But when it came to the final act, time went into slow motion  for U.S. officials holding their breath and hoping the raid in Pakistan would go off without a hitch.

White House counterterrorism official John Brennan, a former CIA officer who has been after bin Laden for 15 years, described the scene in the White House Situation Room where President Barack Obama and other national security officials gathered to monitor the U.S. operation in real-time.

“It was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time, I think, in the lives of the people who were assembled here yesterday,” Brennan told reporters at the White House.

Washington Extra – Hunkered down

In all the words said over at the White House today about the Afghanistan review, one name was not mentioned — Osama bin Laden.

The al Qaeda leader, who former President George W. Bush once declared wanted dead or alive, has eluded a manhunt and grown nearly 10 years older since the Sept. 11 attacks.

USA-AFGHANISTAN/Bin Laden was last heard in an audio message aired on Al Jazeera television on Oct. 27 railing against France, and his freedom remains a symbol of how difficult it will be to declare victory against al Qaeda.

Washington Extra – Analyze This

A confusing labyrinth. That is how the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) described the American development effort in Afghanistan, in a damning report on how $17.7 billion in aid and reconstruction money was doled out to 7,000 contractors between 2007 and 2009 with little or no coordination.kabul

With all the criticism that surrounds the Afghan government and the tactics employed by the U.S. military, the major shortcomings in the West’s development effort in Afghanistan sometimes seem to get too little attention. The U.S. Special Representative to the region Richard Holbrooke once said he had “never seen anything remotely resembling the mess” he inherited in terms of the development effort, while former Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani once described the aid effort to me as “dysfunctional and lacking accountability.” It is a view shared by many experts, who see it as a major reason why the West has failed to win more Afghan hearts and minds, and why things are now not going as well as President Barack Obama would have hoped.

Incredibly, SIGAR had tried to analyze contracting in Afghanistan for the years 2002-7, but found much of the data the government agencies had compiled prior to 2007 was “too poor to be analyzed.”

Iraqi political haggling a big headache for American spies

What keeps U.S. spies awake at night? Iran. Al Qaeda. The bickering of Iraqi politicians.

With the United States officially ending its combat role in Iraq, one senior American spy said he was more worried about the lack of political reconciliation in Baghdad than whether Iran gets more meddlesome in Iraq or al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate makes a new, violent push there.

“I’m more concerned about the internal (Iraqi) situation than Iranian influence or the long arm of al Qaeda, which really doesn’t exist,” the senior intelligence official told reporters. He asked not to be named (as spies do). IRAQ/

from Afghan Journal:

Engaging the Afghan Taliban: a short history

(The niche that once held a giant Buddha, in Bamiyan. Picture by Omar Sobhani)

(The niche that once held a giant Buddha, in Bamiyan. Picture by Omar Sobhani)

For those pushing for high-level political negotiations with the Afghan Taliban to bring to an end to the eight-year war,  two U.S. scholars  in separate pieces are suggesting a walk through recent history  The United States has gone down the path of dialogue with the group before and suffered for it, believing against its own better judgement in the Taliban's promises until it ended up with the September 11, 2001 attacks, says  Michael Rubin from the American Enterprise Institute in this article in Commentary.

Rubin, who is completing a history of U.S. engagement with rogue regimes, says unclassified U.S. State Department documents show that America opened talks with the Taliban soon after the group  emerged as a powerful force in Kandahar in 1994 and well over a year before they took over Kabul. From then on it was a story of   diplomats doing everything possible to remain engaged with the Taliban in the hope it would modify their  behaviour, and that they would be persuaded to expel Osama bin Laden who had  by then relocated from Sudan.  The Taliban, on the other hand, in their meetings with U.S. diplomats, would stonewall on terrorism  but would also dangle just enough hope to keep the officials calling and forestall punitive strategies.

Over a five year period of engagement, the United States gained little while the Taliban grew even more radicalised and the threat from al Qaeda more serious. Rubin details how State Department officials were repeatedly misled by Taliban officials harbouring bin Laden even after two U.S. embassies were attacked in Africa in  1998.  They even told them they would protect the Buddha statues in Bamiyan which were subsequently destroyed.

Attorney General Holder in virtual shouting match over Christmas bomber

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder rarely raises his voice. But at the very end of a three-hour congressional hearing on Tuesday he was in a virtual shouting match with Virginia Republican Representative Frank Wolf.

Wolf, questioning whether valuable intelligence was lost, was furious about the initial hourlong interrogation of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man captured after trying to ignite a bomb aboard a U.S. commercial jetliner on Christmas Day last year. USA/

“There were so many things that were missed,” Wolf said during the hearing.

Qat joins al Qaeda as Yemen threat

YEMEN-QAT/U.S. lawmakers, convening a meeting on Wednesday to discuss the threat posed by al Qaeda in Yemen, found themselves focused on another problem stalking the impoverished Arab country:  the mild drug qat, which permeates Yemeni society.

Rep.  Howard Berman, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, launched the discussion of Yemen’s drug problem in his opening remarks, noting that qat was “a narcotic plant that produces feelings of euphoria and stimulation, but ultimately undermines individual initiative — sort of like being in Congress.”

Berman noted that many people chew qat regularly  in Yemen — pushed close to the top of the U.S. security watchlist after the Christmas Day bombing attempt on a U.S. airliner by a Nigerian with Yemeni links  –  and that cultivation of the drug consumes about 40 percent of Yemen’s fast diminishing agricultural water supplies.