Latest Post: The Other Shoe Drops: Obama Prepares for War in Afghanistan
6 p.m. The Guardian of London: "President Barack Obama's administration is considering sending a letter to Iran aimed at unfreezing US-Iranian relations and opening the way for face-to-face talks." The letter would be in response to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's letter of congratulations to Obama on 6 November.
2:20 p.m. We've updated this morning's story on the Obama strategy for Afghanistan.
2:02 p.m. Reports that President Obama will visit Canada on 19 February.
2 p.m. The Dennis Ross saga, which has given us nightmares, continues. He still has not been officially named as the State Department envoy on Iranian matters but "United Against Nuclear Iran", the pressure group which includes as members Ross and State's envoy to Afghanistan/Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, either has outdated info or gives the game away:
United Against Nuclear Iran thanks Ambassadors Holbrooke and Ross for their commitment, service, and leadership and we congratulate them on their recent appointments to the Department of State.
1 p.m. Pick a Number, Any Number. A NATO spokesman claims that less than 100 Afghan civilians were killed in the organisation's military operations in 2008. That compares with an estimate in The New York Times of up to 4000 and by an Afghan human rights group, based on UN numbers, of almost 700.
11:30 a.m. On the Other Hand....Only two hours after we updated on Russia's cancellation of a deployment of missiles on the Polish border, thanks to the Obama Factor, another problem crops up:
NATO countries expressed concern on Wednesday about reports that Russia plans to set up bases in Russian-backed breakaway territories in Georgia, a NATO spokesman said.
The specific issue is Russia's announcement on Monday that it intends to build a naval base in Abkhazia, which was part of Georgia but which Russia recognised as "independent" after last August's Russian-Georgian war.
10:35 a.m. It's not all bad news in Afghanistan. The Taliban have praised, "Obama's move to close Guantanamo detention center is a positive step for peace and stability in the region and the world."
Unfortunately, the feel-good moment may be short-lived. The Taliban also insisted that, if the President wants "mutual respect" with Muslim communities, "He must completely withdraw all his forces from the two occupied Islamic countries (Afghanistan and Iraq), and to stop defending Israel against Islamic interests in the Middle East and the entire world." And, as for Afghanistan, Obama should not send additional US forces as "the use of force against the independent peoples of the world, has lost its effectiveness".
9:45 a.m. Score one diplomatic/victory for the Obama Factor.
An official from the Russian General Staff has told the Interfax news agency that Moscow will suspend deployment of missiles on the Polish border: "These plans have been suspended because the new US administration is not pushing ahead with the plans to deploy...the US missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic." The news follows a conversation between President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev on Monday.
There are other US-Russian exchanges to watch. The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister has told Iran that Moscow wants to broaden "political, trade, and economic cooperation". For the moment, however, the apparent rapprochement raises the question....
What exactly was the value of the Missile Defence pursued by the Bush Administration so relentlessly over the last eight years?
7:30 a.m. Is this for show for real? Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, contradicting the testimony of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates yesterday, say they have no agreement with the Obama Administration allowing US missile strikes on Pakistani territory: ""There is no understanding between Pakistan and the United States on Predator attacks."
Of course, it could be the case that the American arrangement is with the Pakistani military and intelligence services, bypassing the Foreign Ministry. Alternatively, the Pakistani Government is trying to hold to the public line of "independence" while private accepting US operations.
6 a.m. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has given a challenging but cautious response to President Obama's suggestion of engagement. Speaking at an election rally in western Iran, Ahmadinejad said:
We welcome change but on condition that change is fundamental and on the right track. When they say "we want to make changes', change can happen in two ways. First is a fundamental and effective change ... The second ... is a change of tactics."
Ahmadinejad, clearly picking up on Obama's campaign slogan of "change", added, "[The US] should apologise to the Iranian nation and try to make up for their dark background and the crimes they have committed against the Iranian nation."
This is a significant rhetorical position that has been taken up by Iranian leaders in the past. Indeed, I suspect US policymakers will immediately think that at the end of the Clinton Administration, they made such an apology, albeit belatedly, for the 1953 US-backed coup. It should also be noted that this is a campaign speech, with Ahmadinejad staking out his foreign-policy position to the Iranian electorate.
This said, Ahmadinejad gave an important signal in a reference to Washington stifling Iran's economic development since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Decoded, this may be indicating to Obama: if you want to engage, the US has to make a commitment --- possibly even in advance of negotiations --- to ease existing sanctions on Tehran.
3:50 a.m. Glimpse the Future. Just to highlight our top post this morning on Afghanistan and the problems of the Obama strategy: "American officers distributed $40,000 on Tuesday to relatives of 15 people killed Jan. 19 in a United States raid."
The US military wasn't exactly generous in its apology, holding to the claim that a "militant commander" died along with 14 civilians. While a colonel told villages, "If there was collateral damage, I’m very sorry about that,” a US military lawyers made clear that "he payments were not an admission that innocents had been killed".
3:30 a.m. We've just posted a separate entry highlighting the apparent White House strategy in Afghanistan: ramp up the military effort, leave nation-building to others, and ditch Afghan President Hamid Karzai if necessary.
Morning Update (1:45 a.m. Washington time): It looks the campaign, pursued by some in the Pentagon, to undermine the Obama plan to close Guantanamo Bay within a year has been checked. The New York Times and CNN began running a "backlash" story yesterday that the Saudi programme for rehabilitation of terrorists was actually very, very good with only nine participants, out of hundreds, returning to their evil ways. The significance? The original spin was that two ex-Gitmo detainees who had rejoined Yemeni terrorist cells may have gone through the Saudi programme.
Then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, testifying to Congressional committees, gave full support to the closure plan: ""I believe that if we did not have a deadline, we could kick that can down the road endlessly."