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Entries in Afghanistan (8)


The Latest from Iran (31 March): Nuclear Chatter & Political Prisoners

2000 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. The physicians of Ebrahim Yazdi, the 78-year-0ld former Foreign Minister and leader of the Freedom Movement of Iran, have requested an extension of his temporary leave from prison on grounds of ill health.

UPDATED Iran Politics and Music Video: “Karroubi” and the Arrest of Sasi Mankan
UPDATED Iran Appeal: Japan’s Deportation of Jamal Saberi
Iran: Preventing Tehran from “Going Nuclear” (Ramazani)
Iran Politics and Music: Sasi Mankan’s “Karroubi”
Iran: The Green Movement’s Next Steps (Shahryar)
The Latest from Iran (30 March): Strategies

1840 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. Kalemeh reports that reformist journalist Masoud Lavasani will be set free tonight on a bail of around $500,000, four months after his arrest.

Bastani's initial prison sentence was reduced from 8 1/2 years to 4 1/2 years after appeal.

It is reported, from human rights activists in Iran, that Jafar Ashari who has been on hunger strike since March 17, has been transferred to Mahabad prison and is now in quarantine. Ashari has been in detention for more than five months.

1835 GMT: The Nuclear Defector. Press TV publishes an account, from Iranian state media, of "Missing Iran N-scientist 'defected to US'". What is interesting is that there is no denial of Shahram Amiri's claimed position in Iran's nuclear programme.

That means that, contrary to its initial position, the Iranian Government is no longer denying that Amiri is a nuclear scientist while the US Government is no longer denying that it is involved in Amiri's disappearance.

1500 GMT: More US-Iran Fencing. This time, the sparring is over Afghanistan, with the US military setting up Iran as a negative influence rather than a possible ally. The Chairman of the Joint Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, told a news conference in Kabul:
Iran is working to increase its influence in the area. On the one hand, that's not surprising, she is a neighbor state, a neighbor country. On the other hand, the influence I see is all too often negative. I was advised last night about a significant shipment of weapons from Iran into Kandahar, for example.

I have seen them over the last several years -- the last couple of years anyway, certainly be more than just interested, provide some capabilities. I am also concerned that that desire to be influential is increasing....I was taken aback. [The arms shipment] wasn't insignificant.

1355 GMT: More on Iran Air in Europe. An EA reader sends us an update:
Ramp checks on Iran Air - which has been subject to US Government sanctions - have turned up evidence of "insufficient oversight" over the past year, says the Commission.

But Iran Air will still be permitted to operate 18 Airbus A300/310s, nine Boeing 747s, six Airbus A320s and a single Boeing 737 into Europe.

The Commission says it will send representatives to Iran over the next few months to examine the situation with Iran Air.

1040 GMT: Nuke Chatter Continues. Iranian state media is reporting that Saeed Jalili, the Secretary of the National Security Council and the country's primary negotiator on nuclear issues, will visit China tomorrow for discussions.

0645 GMT: Trouble in the Air? An Iran Air official claims that, despite the European Commission's ban on the airline within Europe, that "nothing has changed" and no restrictions have been imposed on the airline.

An EA correspondent offers a contrasting view: "Even though the ban is limited in financial terms, its international outcome is devastating. From now on the regime must answer the question, for all of its boasting, if it is able to provide essential safety for its airplanes. This ban is the best reply to Iran's jamming of European satellite broadcast, as the safety issue is untouchable."

0635 GMT: Political Prisoner Resistance Watch. Rooz Online reports on the defiance, often humourous, of political prisoners.

0610 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. Rah-e-Sabz reports on the poor conditions and hygiene in the women's section of  Evin Prison.

Christian pastor Wilson Issavi has been released on bail after 54 days in detention.

Rah-e-Sabz writes that 51-year-old university instructor Rahmatollah Bastani has been re-arrested by the Intelligence Bureau in Qom. Bastani was one of 30 people detained during Sunday's funeral for the wife of the late Grand Ayatollah Montazeri. He was released five hours later but was summoned on Monday for further interrogation.

0555 GMT: Economy Watch. Asre Iran reports that some Kuwaiti banks have stopped dealing with their Iranian counterparts, who have protested to the Kuwaiti Central Bank about the "unbearable injustice".

0545 GMT: Subsidy Watch. Back to more pressing concerns for most Iranians and for the President. In an unprecedented move, Ahmadinejad has proposed an "addendum" to the Parliament's approved budget, allowing him access to the extra $20 billion of revenues he wants from subsidy cuts.

0500 GMT: Lots of white noise about the Iranian nuclear programme yesterday and this morning.

Following this week's New York Times wayward article on supposedly secret Iranian nuclear site, The Washington Times goes farther by mangling --- through misunderstanding or wilful distortion --- a story on the latest public US intelligence finding on Tehran's nuclear development. The newspaper headlines, "Iran is poised to begin producing nuclear weapons after its uranium program expansion in 2009, even though it has had problems with thousands of its centrifuges."

The report says no such thing. Here's the take-away, as noted by other Iran observers:
We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons though we do not know whether Tehran eventually will decide to produce nuclear weapons. Iran continues to develop a range of capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so.

During the reporting period, Iran continued to expand its nuclear infrastructure and continued uranium enrichment and activities related to its heavy water research reactor, despite multiple United Nations Security Council Resolutions since late 2006 calling for the suspension of those activities. Although Iran made progress in expanding its nuclear infrastructure during 2009, some obstacles slowed progress during this period.

The misleading story seems to have disappeared with little notice, replaced by an intriguing claim:
An award-winning Iranian nuclear scientist, who disappeared last year under mysterious circumstances, has defected to the CIA and been resettled in the United States, according to people briefed on the operation by intelligence officials.

The officials were said to have termed the defection of the scientist, Shahram Amiri, "an intelligence coup" in the continuing CIA operation to spy on and undermine Iran's nuclear program....

Amiri, a nuclear physicist in his early 30s, went missing last June three days after arriving in Saudi Arabia on a pilgrimage.

On the political front, President Obama maintained the public stance of US and international pressure on Tehran, declaring at a press conference with visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy:
I'm not interested in waiting months for a sanctions regime to be in place....I am interested in seeing that regime in place in weeks. And we are working diligently with our international partners, emphasizing to them, that as Nicolas said, this is not simply an issue of trying to isolate Iran, it has enormous implications for the safety and the security of the entire region.

US-Pakistan Negotiations: Hail to the General, No Room for Pakistani People

On Monday, I commented on recent negotiations happening in Afghanistan between President Karzai and representatives of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami militia. However, these aren't the only negotiations on the AfPak war taking place this week. National Public Radio reports:
Senior U.S. and Pakistani officials meet Thursday in Washington for the second round of a so-called strategic dialogue aimed at a better long-term relationship.

Few people expected any big breakthroughs in the first round of talks between the two sides Wednesday. The nations' complicated relationship has been marked by a deep sense of mutual distrust for many years. Still, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is hosting the two-day event, said some headway was made — especially on security.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi is meeting with Secretary Clinton, but he's not the real leader of the Pakistani delegation. Sue Pleming tells us who is:
Pakistan’s foreign minister heads his country’s delegation to Washington this week for high-level talks, but there was no mistaking who was the star at a reception at the Pakistani Embassy on Tuesday night: Army General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

Guests crowded around Kayani at the annual Pakistani National Day party at the embassy, posing for photos and jostling for the military leader’s ear. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, also drew those eager for photographic souvenirs of the occasion, but not such a feeding frenzy as that around Kayani.

U.S. senators and Obama administration officials lined up to speak to the slim and dapper general, who Pakistani media say rules the roost back home but is also central to U.S. relations with Islamabad.

Our elected representatives are swooning over the Chief of the Pakistani Army, who supposedly "rules the roost back home". Great, another US-backed military dictator in Pakistan.

What about the civilian leaders? Our last pet general in Islamabad, Pervez Musharraf, was forced to resign and the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (N) were swept into power by popular vote in 2008. The PPP and PML-N formed a coalition government, with Yosaf Gillani as Prime Minister and Asif Ali Zardari as President. What happened to those guys?

As it turns out, they got to stay home and read the transcripts. UPI reports:
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said in Islamabad Thursday that he was confident about the outcome of strategic talks with U.S. officials in Washington.

He said he would address the nation to highlight the developments after the end of the dialogue, Pakistan's Dawn newspaper reports.

Poor guy, he's got an electoral mandate and still all he gets to do is report back to the voters on what their own military leaders are up to in a foreign country.

But let's give Kayani the benefit of the doubt, maybe he's also looking out for Pakistani citizens. Mosharraf Zaidi explains for us:
Pakistan wants $400 million for Munda Dam, it wants $40 million for Gomal Zam Dam, it wants $70 million for the Natural Gas Production & Efficiency Project, it wants $10 million for Satpara Dam, it wants $27 million for the Wind Energy Project in Sindh, it wants $65 million to rehabilitate Mangla Dam, and it wants $35 million to upgrade Warsak Dam. Total cost of this dam wish-list? $647 million.

Wow, $650 million for water and energy projects, that Kayani sure seems like he's looking out for the Pakistani little guy. Only General Kayani wants more than just dams. Zaidi continues:
At roughly $40 million a pop, the still-pending delivery of 18 F-16 aircraft (from 2006) is a deal worth about $720 million. Instead of actually delivering these aircraft in June this year, as it plans to, the US government could tell the Pakistani government that it can choose. Either it can have a bunch of dams that will resolve the energy crisis, and save many hundreds, maybe thousands of lives in hospitals and clinics around the country. Or it can have a bunch of airplanes that are designed to kill people rather indiscriminately (meaning that not all of the victims of Pakistan’s F-16s will be terrorists that have been tried and convicted in a court of law).

As a Pakistani, my vote is for the dams. I suspect I wouldn’t be alone. But of course, the people of Pakistan don’t have very much say in the direction that Pakistan’s strategic dialogue takes in Washington DC.

While Kayani wants dams and jets, the people apparently just want the dams. Only the people aren't represented at the talks.

That wouldn't be so bad if Pakistan actually did get both the energy projects and the military weapons. But they won't be getting both. Amazingly, General Kayani, head of the Pakistani Army, will only get the military weapons, and probably not much on the civilian, infrastructure side. Remember that Secretary Clinton's statement above emphasized progress in security (that means items like drones and fighter jets) but cautioned against too much optimism on anything else.

See, General Kayani has a bit of a problem with militarism. Even when the Pakistani people overwhelmingly support representatives like Zardari and Gillani who seek peace, Kayani can't stop thinking about war, war, war. Praveen Swami writes:
“India,” Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari famously said in an October 2008 interview, “has never been a threat to Pakistan.” In his first major interview, given just a month after taking office, he described jihadists in Jammu and Kashmir as “terrorists.” He imagined “Pakistani cement factories being constructed to provide for India's huge infrastructure needs, Pakistani textile mills meeting Indian demand for blue jeans, Pakistani ports being used to relieve the congestion at Indian ones.”

Early last month, Pakistan's army chief, General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani, outlined a rather different vision. In a presentation to the media, he asserted that the Pakistan army was an “India-centric institution,” adding this “reality will not change in any significant way until the Kashmir issue and water disputes are resolved.” His words were not dissimilar in substance from the language used by jihadists such as Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed in recent speeches.

It's no surprise that Kayani and Lashkar-e-Taiba sound the same, since the LeT are supported by the Pakistani Army and the ISI. The US supports Kayani who supports the LeT, because both Kayani and the LeT are batshit crazy for war with India. We know this already. Even Congress knows it, since Ashley J. Tellis explained it to them a few weeks ago:
While it is, therefore, tempting to treat LeT as the cause of the current crisis in Indo-Pakistani relations --- particularly in the aftermath of the Bombay attacks --- it should instead be understood as a manifestation. The real cause of the problems in Indo-Pakistani relations remains those political forces within Pakistan that profit from continued hostility with India, namely the Pakistani Army, ...the ISI, and their narrow bases of support among the general population. The civilian government in Pakistan...has a very different view of the bilateral relationship.... Cognizant of the fact that Pakistan will never be able to favorably resolve its disputes with India through force, Zardari has sought a non-confrontational affiliation with New Delhi that would set aside existing disputes, if not resolve them, while increasing economic opportunities....

Unfortunately...Zardari and his civilian cohort do not make national security policy in Islamabad. All such matters...remain very much the provenance of the Pakistani Army....[T]he necessity of sapping India’s strength through multiple kinds of warfare—economic closure, terrorist attacks, and nuclear competition—remains deeply entrenched in the Pakistani military psyche.

Echoing the cliche that the US hasn't picked a winning side since Churchill, America is pursuing its goals of economic cooperation, encouraging democracy, and counter-terrorism in Pakistan by supporting the military dictator who uses terrorists to fuel conflict with his neighbors. Great plan!

But now we're lost on some tangent about Lashkar-e-Taiba and F-16s. Let's not forget what this is all about: the US war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. ISAF and the Pakistani military are daily blasting away at Pashtun insurgents, Taliban elements in both Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan, from the Northwest Frontier Province all the way down to Balochistan. This is the so-called "Pashtun belt". Surely any Strategic Dialogue on this conflict must include the Pashtun themselves. Nope. Shahid Ilyas writes:
Talking is not a bad thing, but when it is done without the participation of those who are the subject of such talks, it will most likely result in a disaster. The Pakhtun and the turmoil on their lands — supposedly the theme of the dialogue — are reportedly not being represented in the upcoming Pak-US strategic dialogue. The delegation heading for the US does not include either the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PKMAP) led by Mahmud Khan Achakzai or the Awami National Party (ANP) led by Asfandyar Wali. These are the mainstream political parties of Pakhtunkhwa having a deep bearing on the events of their ethnic constituency. These parties represent the most influential and educated class of Pakhtun society. What benefit can a dialogue bring without the participation of the Pakhtun leadership and intelligentsia?

If indeed the purpose of the dialogue is the ongoing terrorism-related turmoil in Pakhtunkhwa, it can only be counterproductive without the participation of the Pakhtuns. Already, the prevailing thinking among them is that they are being ruled like a colony by the Punjab-dominated establishment in Rawalpindi-Islamabad. The Pakhtuns are increasingly complaining that the American opinion of them is formed by the establishment in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. They argue that under a well thought-out strategy, they are being presented to the world as terrorists through the media. The planned strategic dialogue without them will only reinforce their belief in their (perceived or real) exploitation by the bigger province. An added factor now will be that they will consider the US a co-culprit, responsible for their sufferings.

So, let's add this all up.

  • The people of Pakistan, who support peace, are not represented at the Strategic Dialogue.

  • The Pashtun people, with whom the US and Pakistani military are engaged in violent conflict, are not represented at the Strategic Dialogue.

  • The US instead deals with General Kayani, un-elected warmonger obsessed with fighting India.

  • The US earnestly gives in to Kayani's demands for more military weapons, but wavers on support for civilian water and energy projects.

  • In addition to the Taliban and other militant groups, Kayani's military supports LeT, the al-Qa'eda affiliated group who carried out the Mumbai commando attacks, among countless other terrorist attacks against Indian and Pakistani citizens.

The whole Strategic Dialogue is a farce. We're not accomplishing any of our national security goals in the region, we're actually making our problems worse! But what are you supposed to do about this? Well, that's the good news: unlike the Pakistani people, ou actually are represented at this strategic dialogue. Let's go back to Tuesday's embassy party:
U.S. senators and Obama administration officials lined up to speak to the slim and dapper general, who Pakistani media say rules the roost back home but is also central to U.S. relations with Islamabad.

Senators and administration officials? Those are your elected representatives! You have a voice in this Strategic Dialogue. You can tell them how they need to be conducting this dialogue, and who they need to be conducting it with.

Tell them that celebrity they're snapping photos of with their cellphone is actually a terror-supporting thug, and they can read about it in their own Congressional Record. Tell them you want to talk to the actual leaders of the Pakistani people, the democratically elected government of Pakistan, as well as the Pashtun people. We can talk about water and energy projects, but not military weapons to be used against India and the Pakistanis themselves.

Don't forfeit your own opportunity to have a voice in this strategic dialogue. Congress, in particular has the power to stipulate how funds can be distributed in Pakistan, as we saw with the Kerry-Lugar bill last year. Contact your representatives, by e-mail, phone, Twitter, however you want. Show them that even if Pakistan is ruled by the military, democracy is alive and well in the US. Demand that the US engages in strategic dialogue with the peace makers and legitimate leaders in Pakistan. The current dialogue, as it stands, is totally unacceptable.

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan.

The Latest from Iran (24 March): Regime Confidence, Regime Fear?

2210 GMT: Neda Propaganda Overkill. You might think it would be enough for Iranian state media that Caspian Makan, the reported fiancé of Neda Agha Soltan, had met Israeli President Shimon Peres (see separate entry). But, no, Press TV has to go much, much farther:

One of the suspects believed to be involved in the killing of a young woman during Tehran's post-election violence last year has visited Israel.
Caspian Makan, who claims to be Neda Agha Soltan's fiancé, has met with Israeli President Shimon Peres, during his stay in Israel.

Makan was also interviewed as a guest on an Israeli TV channel.

Agha Soltan was shot dead far away from the riot scene on June 20. Western media accused Iranian security forces of killing her, but police rejected the allegations and said Neda was shot with a small caliber pistol which is not used by the Iranian police.

They have described the killing as a premeditated act of murder "organized by US and Israeli intelligence services."

NEW Iran: The Controversy over Neda’s “Fiance”
NEW Iran: An Internet Strategy to Support the Greens? (Memarian)
The Latest from Iran (23 March): Inside and Outside the Country

2140 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. Gooya reports that more than 900 Iranians have signed a petition calling for the release of imprisoned student Omid Montazeri.

Montazeri was arrested in January after he approached the Ministry of Intelligence following the detention of his mother and guests at the Montazeri house.

2015 GMT: Rafsanjani Watch. On a slow news day, Parleman News has not one but two features around Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The top story on Rafsanjani's latest declaration is not that earth-shaking: the former President issues another fence-sitting declaration that "the majority of protesters are loyal to the regime", which allows him to back some public pressure on the Government while maintaining his own position of backing the Supreme Leader. No real change there.

More intriguing is the appearance of Faezeh Hashemi, Rafsanjani's daughter. The content of the interview is not very subversive. Hashemi talks about her education and passion 4 women's sports as well as making the far-from-controversial assertion that her father wants the common good of society. It's the timing that matters: the interview comes a few days after the regime tried to shut Hashemi up by arresting her son, Hassan Lahouti.

1440 GMT: Sanctions Rebuff. Turkey, a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, has added to the obstacles for tougher international sanctions on Iran. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said, "There is still an opportunity ahead of us and we believe that this opportunity should be used effectively. Not less, but more diplomacy (is needed)."

(I am beginning to suspect that these moves might be political theatre, accepted if not directed by Washington. The Obama Administration's approach seems to be a public posture of the international route, primarily as a response to Congressional pressure, while carrying out the meaningful initiatives in bilateral talks with other countries and even with individual companies.)

1420 GMT: Today's Obama-Bashing. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of Parliament's National Security Committee, takes on the daily duty of slapping down the US Government's approach to Iran:
[President Obama's Nowruz] comments were nothing but a deception. They (Americans) have sent several messages during the last year calling for talks with Iran, but at the same time passed more than 60 anti-Iranian bills in their Congress. As long as there is no sense of balance between their comments and actions, offering talks could be only a trick....Obama has lost his prestige among the world's public opinion, therefore his new year message has no value.

1400 GMT: On the Economic Front. This could be significant: The Russian energy firm LUKoil has announced its withdrawal from an oil project in Iran "due to the impossibility of carrying out further work at the field because of the economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. government".

LUKoil has a 25 percent stake in the Anaran project; a Norwegian company, Hydro, has the other 75 percent. We'll see if this withdrawal sticks: LUKoil also announced in October 2007 that it was pulling out of the project, which encompasses Azar, Changuleh-West, Dehloran and Musian oilfields with reserves at the project sites estimated at 2 billion barrels, but it resumed work two months later.

1200 GMT: We've posted an editorial from prominent reformist journalist Masih Alinejad criticising Caspian Makan, the "fiancé" of Neda Agha Soltan.

0925 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. Iran Human Rights Voice reports that writer and women's rights activist Laleh Hasanpour was detained by Intelligence agents on 16 March and taken to an undisclosed location.

0745 GMT: Iran and Afghanistan. Readers have noted the latest wave of allegations, spurred by The Sunday Times of London that the Iranian Government is providing support, including funding and training, to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

I have been cautious in reporting the allegations, in part because The Sunday Times has been a handy channel in the past for those spreading "information" to discredit Tehran. Far more importantly, key US Government officials and military leaders are also playing down the accusation. General David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command, has said any Iranian Government role in assistance is limited. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates echoes, "There is some [training], but it, to this point, I think, has been considered to be pretty low-level."

Lieutenant Colonel Edward Sholtis said on Monday, "We've known for some time that Iran has been a source for both materiel and trained fighters for Taliban elements in Afghanistan"; however, he added that US officials do not know if the training is "simply something that is happening beyond the government's control".

(hat-tip to an EA reader for raising the story and providing sources)

0730 GMT: With the Green Movement in a quiet phase (defeated, intimidated, or just lying low?), attention is on the continuing battle between elements of the regime and Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Iranian authorities released Rafsanjani's grandson Hasan Lahouti yesterday, albeit on $70,000 bail, and they had to let go the former President's ally Hassan Marashi after a short detention. The anti-Rafsanjani campaign is far from over, however.

The latest assault comes from Gholam-Hossein Elham, a member of the Guardian Council. In a lengthy "unpublished interview" which somehow is published on Fars, Elham details post-election subversion. Specifically, he targets Rafsanjani for Friday Prayers addresses which did not support the Government and thus opened the way for illegal protest and manoeuvres to undermine the Islamic Republic.

So a question: is the sustained assault on Rafsanjani a sign of regime confidence that, having vanquished the opposition outside the system, it can move aggressively against challengers within? Or is it an indication that this is a Government which will never feel secure in its supposed legitimacy?

The Latest from Iran (11 March): Marathon

1910 GMT: Reuters has picked up Zahra Rahnavard's latest interview, highlighting the line, "I have said many times that this government is illegitimate...but because the government claims to be legitimate, it has to carry out its duties."

1900 GMT: From Washington With... ? We've posted the video of yesterday's "Iran at A Crossroads" conference.

NEW Video: “Iran at a Crossroads” Conference (10 March)
NEW Iran: Gender Issues and the Green Movement
Iran Document: The Hardliners’ Project (Bahavar)
Iran Interview: Habibollah Peyman “Change Through Social Awareness
The Latest from Iran (10 March): The View from Washington

1855 GMT: Rafsanjani Watch. Readers have rightly noted an apparent lapse in our coverage of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. The reformist daily Bahar claimed on Wednesday that, in a clear sign of reconciliation with the regime, Rafsanjani would soon lead Friday Prayers in Tehran. (He has not done so since his 17 July address, which was a catalysts for demonstrations against the Government.)

I saw the story, which was picked up by the Babylon and Beyond blog of the Los Angeles Times, but decided to pass on it. It felt much more like rumour than a confirmed development.

That said, even the rumour deserves noting. Elements within the Government seem keen on establishing that Rafsanjani no longer has any issues with the leadership, so all is now politically well. So far, however, Rafsanjani has been his usual coy self, not confirming any return to the Friday Prayer slot.

1840 GMT: Rahnavard, Women's Rights, and the Green Movement. Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of Mir Hossein Mousavi, has given an interview to Kalemeh talking about the relationship between campaigns for women's rights and the initiatives of the Green Movement. (See our separate entry on this subject, which was posted before we read the Rahnavard interview.)

1805 GMT: From Czechoslovakia to Iran. Vaclav Havel, the playwright and activist who was instrumental in the movement that challenged the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia and then became the country's first post-Communist President, has sent a message to Iran's protesters. The occasion was the award of the Homo Homini Award by a Czech NGO to Iranian student activists Majid Tavakoli and Abdollah Momeni:
Of course all of us are interested in Iran's nuclear program and the nature of the current regime, just as we are interested in the abuses committed under the flag of Islam and whether or not the 2009 election was rigged. However, what I am most interested in are the brutal violations of human rights. I found myself in high political position thanks to peaceful public demonstrations and thanks to the students, who led them and made them happen. As a result, I have an elevated sensitivity for certain things and am deeply outraged and shocked that for participating in similar demonstrations in Iran, people are not only being sentenced to several years in prison, but are even being executed. It seems to me like an endless barbarity and I firmly believe this savagery is about to come to an end.

1745 GMT: Escape. It is being reported that student activist Ali Kantouri, recently sentenced to 15yrs in prison, has fled to Turkey.

1525 GMT: Rafsanjani Watch. I think former President Hashemi Rafsanjani has taken another swipe at President Ahmadinejad but any impact may be ruled out by Rafsanjani's vagueness in expression. From Radio Zamaneh:
Akabar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Chairman of Iran’s Expediency Council stressed the role of people in governance and maintained that with the growth and spread of media, governments that do not have popular bases can not last long....

Speaking in a meeting of members of municipal councils of Tehran Province, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani said that Islam holds a special place for the role of people in the government.

He added that in democracies, parties that are triumphant in the elections act as buffers and when the elected candidates take a wrong turn, the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the parties and this way the system does not suffer.

He also criticized the policy of limiting the legal powers of city councils saying such policies only weaken the councils and reduce their ability to respond to people’s demands.

1445 GMT: Ain't Nothing Gonna Change. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reviews the Supreme Leader's pronouncement on possible electoral reform, which we noted yesterday), and sees this is a clear rejection rather than an ambiguous response.

1345 GMT: Fist-Shaking. Yet another Iranian military advance which has nothing to do whatsoever with Tehran's power politics vs. the US: Iran has started production of a surface-to-air missile.

President Ahmadinejad added rhetorical colour with the promise that people in the region "would cut (American) hands off of Persian Gulf oil".

However, in a sign that the US still wants to avoid conflict, and possibly establish co-operation, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Iranian support for the Taliban in Afghanistan is "pretty limited".

1230 GMT: Catching Up.

I've posted a follow-up to the Washington hearing, considering the failure to answer adequately a question on gender issues and the Green Movement.

There is also an important correction: we reported yesterday, from Iranian human rights websites, that Saeed Nourmohammadi of the Islamic Iran Participation Front had been released on bail. His family say, however, that Nourmohammadi has not been freed.

Reports indicate more freeing of political prisoners. Mostafa Tajzadeh, a senior member of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, has been released without bail for Iranian New Year.

Afghanistan: Getting the Real Point Of The Marja "Offensive"

Gareth Porter has an excellent piece up on Inter Press Service, "Fiction of Marja as City Was U.S. Information War," in which he breaks down the media disinformation campaign on the size of Marja:
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.

Porter is right on, and you should read the whole thing for an idea on exactly how these disinformation campaigns are spread, but I'm afraid in the case of Marja, we might be missing the point. We're complaining that Marja is only an excuse for a propaganda victory while at the same time complaining that the victory won't be worth anything because it's not a city.

As Woody Allen said on a much different topic, "This food is terrible, and such small portions!"

This shouldn't be news to anyone, but Afghans live in rural communities. We're supposedly there to protect Afghans from the Taliban after all. Rajiv Chandrasekaran described the strategy last year in the Washington Post:
The U.S. strategy here is predicated on the belief that a majority of people in Helmand do not favor the Taliban, which enforces a strict brand of Islam that includes an-eye-for-an-eye justice and strict limits on personal behavior. Instead, U.S. officials believe, residents would rather have the Afghan government in control, but they have been cowed into supporting the Taliban because there was nobody to protect them.

Great, so if the plan is to protect Afghans from the Taliban, then you'll want to go where Afghans actually live, right? That would be in "a collection of village farms, with typical family compounds," just like the anonymous ISAF official told IPS.

Big cities like Kabul and Herat don't speak for the entirety of all Afghans, so focusing all of our attention on the major urban centers doesn't do anything to extend the legitimacy and credibility of the government, much less provide security from the Taliban. President Karzai's derisive nickname as the "Mayor of Kabul" was one small indicator of just how well the strategy of focusing on city centers, at the cost of conceding rural territory to the Taliban, was working. That is, not working at all. We also can't discount the effect concentrating on cities had on the Taliban propaganda narrative of western-occupied Kabul (or Islamabad) oppressing the mostly-rural Pashtuns.

In this case, Marja being a small farming community might actually be a positive step. So, ISAF finally went to the population, but are they protecting them? From
At least 35 civilians have been killed in the operation, according to the Afghan human rights commission. Spokesman Nader Nadery said insurgent bombs killed more than 10 people, while NATO rocket fire killed at least 14.

Not only are we failing to protect the civilians from the Taliban, but we seem to have killed more Afghans than the militants themselves. Perhaps the Afghans will show their legendary patience, and accept that the government had to massacre 14 of their friends and relatives with rockets in order to have a more peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan. Will they side with Karzai? From the same article above:
"Are you against me or with me?" Karzai asked the elders. "Are you going to support me?"

The men all raised their hands and shouted: "We are with you. We support you."

[Tribal Elders] complained - sometimes shouting - about corruption among former Afghan government officials. They lamented how schools in Marjah were turned into military posts by international forces. They said shops were looted during the offensive, and alleged that innocent civilians were detained by international forces.

But they still said they said they support Karzai, right?
Mohammad Naeem Khan, in his early 30s, said his loyalty is to whoever will provide for him.

"If the Taliban tap me on the shoulder, I will be with them, and if the government taps me on my shoulder I will be with them," Khan said.

So we wind up with the exact same bloody stalemate we've had since about 2002. They'll side with the government, except for when they side with the Taliban. That's not a victory, propaganda or otherwise.

The problem is not the size of Marja, it could be a teeming industrial metropolis of millions, it still wouldn't matter as long as we continue using military force and propping up a corrupt, illegitimate government. Until we have a strategy that doesn't involve violently imposing our pet gangsters' will on the Afghan people, we'll have a hard time even distinguishing ourselves from the Taliban, much less convincing the citizens to take our side against them.

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Josh Mull is the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read his work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan.