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Foot dragging and stonewalling in Afghanistan

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 25th May 2005

Like Jim Henley, I was struck by this observation in Tim Golden’s Sunday New York Times report (“Army Faltered in Investigating Detainee Abuse“):

While the proposal to close the case was ultimately rejected by senior officials, documents show that the inquiry was at a virtual standstill when an article in The New York Times on March 4, 2003, reported that at least one of the prisoner’s deaths had been ruled a homicide, contradicting the military’s earlier assertions that both had died of natural causes. Activity in the case quickly resumed.

The military agency involved is the Criminal Investigation Command (CID),* and this isn’t the first time I’ve noticed a certain lack of alacrity in their work in Afghanistan.

Foot dragging on the Gardez 7 case
Last September, another homicide at the hands of U.S. soldiers — about two weeks after the Times Bagram homicide report in 2003 — came to light in a case known as the “Gardez 7″ after the seven surviving witnesses (see “Yet more bad apples“). Acting on what was likely purposely misleading information in an intra-Afghan power struggle, U.S. soldiers took eight Afghan soldiers prisoner. Writing for the L.A. Times (“U.S. Probing Alleged Abuse of Afghans“),** reporters Craig Pyes and Mark Mazzetti describe what happened next :

Alleged American mistreatment of the detainees included repeated beatings, immersion in cold water, electric shocks, being hung upside down and toenails being torn off, according to Afghan investigators and an internal memorandum prepared by a United Nations delegation that interviewed the surviving soldiers.

They also beat one Afghan, Jamal Naseer, so badly over the next two weeks that he died. As with the Bagram case reported last weekend, there are reports the victim was unable to walk on his own on the final day of his life, and of severe injuries around his knees.

And as with the Bagram case, Army investigators seem to need large, brightly colored arrows pointing to evidence before they’ll go find it or do much with it. It took Afghan prosecutors and a freelance journalist to come up with the eyewitness accounts the CID needed:

The case of the “Gardez 7,” as CID officials dubbed it, was filed away as unfounded because investigators had no records, victims’ names or witnesses, said Christopher E. Coffey, an Army detective based at Bagram air base in Afghanistan. [...]

Coffey said that with the new information, the CID would pursue charges of murder and of abuse of a person in U.S. custody.

“We’re trying to figure out who was running the base,” Coffey said. “We don’t know what unit was there. There are no records. The reporting system is broke across the board. Units are transferred in and out. There are no SOPs [standard operating procedures] … and each unit acts differently.”

Troop rotations admittedly complicate the story. The unit that took the Afghan soldiers prisoner was from the 20th Special Forces group from Birmingham, AL. That group was officially replaced on March 15, 2003, by the 3rd Special Forces Group from Ft. Bragg, N.C. — two days before Jamal Naseer died.

Still, I’d think that between seven eyewitnesses, and photographs of soldiers in each of the units, a reasonably hard working investigator would have a pretty decent shot at identifying the culprits. But there have been no further public developments in the case that I’m aware of since last September.

What of it? Well, this is why we can assume Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Gardez are merely what we know, rather than all there is. The story only came to light because Afghan officials, an American human rights group (“Crimes of War Project”), and a freelance journalist (Craig Pyes) followed up on a case involving Afghan soldiers, as opposed to luckless civilians or insurgents not entitled to Geneva Convention protections, if “military necessity” seemed to require that.

Stonewalling
The glacial pace of the U.S. military investigations is complemented by Defense Department stonewalling of Afghan officials who seem more eager to bring the perpetrators to justice. From the L.A. Times report:

Afghanistan’s attorney general ordered that the case be fully investigated by military prosecutors. A request by Afghanistan’s Army III Corps for an explanation of the incident from U.S. military officials received no response, according to documents in the Afghan report to the attorney general.

As Crimes of War Project’s Andrew Dworkin pointed out in a commentary about the case, the U.S. and Afghanistan seem to have no “Status of Forces” agreement that specifies the U.S. military’s obligations to a host country when an American soldier is accused of a crime. That may contribute to the stonewalling tactics:

In the absence of a Status of Forces Agreement, U.S. soldiers would be criminally liable under Afghan law for killing or torturing an Afghan national. The suggestion by Afghan military prosecutors that those responsible for the Gardez killing and torture be prosecuted in Afghanistan is legally credible, though politically unlikely.

“Cooperate and consult”
The stonewalling and arrogance go all the way to the top, of course. In Tuesday’s Washington Post, Michael Fletcher reported (“Bush Rebuffs Karzai’s Request on Troops“):

President Bush rebuffed Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s effort to gain greater control over U.S. military operations in his country yesterday, as the two leaders endorsed an agreement allowing the United States to continue its policy of simply informing Afghan officials before launching raids in Afghanistan.

“In terms of more say over our military, our relationship is one of cooperate and consult,” Bush said.

Bush also turned down Karzai’s request for Afghanistan to take custody of its citizens being detained by the United States as suspected terrorists, saying that Afghanistan lacks facilities where the suspects “can be housed and fed and guarded.”

Instead, Karzai got his marching orders to cut opium production.

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* The acronym is for “…Division,” the original name of the branch.
** The article costs $3.95 to retrieve. Pyes also describes the events in Gardez in “A Torture Killing by U.S. Forces in Afghanistan” at the Crimes of War Project, which commissioned his investigative work.

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Everybody heard him cry out and thought it was funny

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th May 2005

Tim Golden had a two part series (In U.S. Report, Brutal Details of 2 Afghan Inmates’ Deaths, Army Faltered in Investigating Detainee Abuse) in the New York Times this weekend about two prisoners who died in U.S. custody at Bagram, Afghanistan, about how badly they were mistreated, and about how pathetic the investigation into their deaths was. One of the victims, Dilawar, was kneed so often just above the knees (a so-called “peroneal strike”), that the coroner said “I’ve seen similar injuries in an individual run over by a bus.” She also used the word “pulpified.”

I’d read about the case before. When the first reports about it surfaced a couple of years ago, there was a lot of chin pulling (including my own) about what had likely happened, why it had happened, what might justify it, et depressing cetera.

In the event, it was pitiful, shameful, and devoid of any shred of redeeming meaning. By the time Dilawar’s martyrdom — dozens of “peroneal strikes,” chained to a ceiling overnight, sleep deprived, mocked, thirsty — was nearly over, one soldier (Sergeant Yonushonis, not among those charged or responsible) recalls that “most of us were convinced that the detainee was innocent.”

Even if he’d been Osama Bin Laden himself, what happened to him would have been wrong. But Dilawar, it turned out, really was just a skinny, scared cab driver, given up to the Americans by an Afghan warlord on a flimsy suspicion. Then mutual incomprehension, sadism, racism, and the United States of America cost him his life, an inch at a time. From the first article:

“He screamed out, ‘Allah! Allah! Allah!’ and my first reaction was that he was crying out to his god,” Specialist Jones said to investigators. “Everybody heard him cry out and thought it was funny.”

Other Third Platoon M.P.’s later came by the detention center and stopped at the isolation cells to see for themselves, Specialist Jones said.

It became a kind of running joke, and people kept showing up to give this detainee a common peroneal strike just to hear him scream out ‘Allah,’ ” he said. “It went on over a 24-hour period, and I would think that it was over 100 strikes.”

It must have been all right with the chain of command, though:

…many of the Bagram interrogators, led by the same operations officer, Capt. Carolyn A. Wood, were redeployed to Iraq and in July 2003 took charge of interrogations at the Abu Ghraib prison. According to a high-level Army inquiry last year, Captain Wood applied techniques there that were “remarkably similar” to those used at Bagram.

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Must… fight… outrage… fatigue

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 6th March 2005

Here’s what happened to one honest soldier in Iraq, Sergeant Greg Ford, who reported abuses like mock executions and interrupted asphyxiation to his CO (“Soldier Who Reported Abuse Was Sent to Psychiatrist,” R. Jeffrey Smith, Josh White, Washington Post, 3/5/2005):

An Army intelligence sergeant who accused fellow soldiers in Samarra, Iraq, of abusing detainees in 2003 was in turn accused by his commander of being delusional and ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation in Germany, despite a military psychiatrist’s initial judgment that the man was stable, according to internal Army records released yesterday. [...]

A witness in his unit told investigators that the captain later pressured a military doctor — who had found the soldier stable — into doing another emergency evaluation, saying: “I don’t care what you saw or heard, he is imbalanced, and I want him out of here.

The next day, after the doctor did another evaluation, the soldier was evacuated from Iraq in restraints on a stretcher to a military hospital in Germany, despite having been given no official diagnosis, according to the documents. A military doctor in Germany ruled he was in stable mental health, according to the documents, but sent him back to the United States for what the soldier recalls the doctor describing as his “safety.” (all emphases added)

It turns out many of the details of this story were reported last December by Amy Goodman, of Independent Media TV, who interviewed David DeBatto, an Iraq veteran and writer who broke the story. DeBatto says that doctors at a base in Germany told him “at least three or four” other soldiers got the same loony-bin treatment Ford did. The Post writers base their story on documents newly obtained by the ACLU that apparently corroborate DeBatto’s findings; the documents will be posted on ACLU’s web site on Monday.

>Then there’s this, from last Wednesday’s Washington Post (“CIA Avoids Scrutiny of Detainee Treatment,” Dana Priest):

In November 2002, a newly minted CIA case officer in charge of a secret prison just north of Kabul allegedly ordered guards to strip naked an uncooperative young Afghan detainee, chain him to the concrete floor and leave him there overnight without blankets, according to four U.S. government officials aware of the case.

The Afghan guards — paid by the CIA and working under CIA supervision in an abandoned warehouse code-named the Salt Pit — dragged their captive around on the concrete floor, bruising and scraping his skin, before putting him in his cell, two of the officials said.

As night fell, so, predictably, did the temperature.

By morning, the Afghan man had frozen to death.

After a quick autopsy by a CIA medic — “hypothermia” was listed as the cause of death — the guards buried the Afghan, who was in his twenties, in an unmarked, unacknowledged cemetery used by Afghan forces, officials said. The captive’s family has never been notified; his remains have never been returned for burial. He is on no one’s registry of captives, not even as a “ghost detainee,” the term for CIA captives held in military prisons but not registered on the books, they said.

He just disappeared from the face of the earth,” said one U.S. government official with knowledge of the case.

To me that sounds like manslaughter, at least, and obstruction of justice to boot. The kicker? That CIA case officer has been promoted.

And that’s all after the recent Jane Mayer “Outsourcing Torture” article in the New Yorker, which described certain Egyptian methods so foul my mind still feels polluted weeks later. The point here being that we share in those methods, because the U.S. is carrying out “extraordinary rendition” — turning over of people in its custody to another country without due process — of terror suspects to Egypt. Emphasis on “suspects” — but even if they were dead certain Al Qaeda members, some of this is stuff one would or at least should not wish on one’s worst enemy. I read Mayer’s piece and had no trouble imagining people willing to fight Egypt and anyone or anything remotely allied to Egypt by any means at all.

Wrong? Stupid? Why choose? It’s both. Thanks, George. Thanks, Dick. Thanks, Don.

And thanks, 51%, for their “accountability moment.” In “Outsourcing Torture,” Jane Mayer spoke with John Yoo, co-author of the “torture memos” and the notion that the President has wide, unfettered power to wage war and order interrogations as he sees fit. Mayer writes:

[Yoo] went on to suggest that President Bush’s victory in the 2004 election, along with the relatively mild challenge to Gonzales mounted by the Democrats in Congress, was “proof that the debate is over.” He said, “The issue is dying out. The public has had its referendum.

Don’t let that be the last word.

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He regrets the error

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 16th November 2004

David Brooks, “The CIA versus Bush,” New York Times, 11/13/2004:

Not that it will do him much good at this point, but I owe John Kerry an apology. I recently mischaracterized some comments he made to Larry King in December 2001. I said he had embraced the decision to use Afghans to hunt down Al Qaeda at Tora Bora. He did not. I regret the error.

(Via Bob Somerby) Here’s what Brooks regrets — from “Osama Litmus Test,” New York Times, 10/30/2004:

But politics has shaped Kerry’s approach to this whole issue. Back in December 2001, when bin Laden was apparently hiding in Tora Bora, Kerry supported the strategy of using Afghans to hunt him down. He told Larry King that our strategy “is having its impact, and it is the best way to protect our troops and sort of minimalize the proximity, if you will. I think we have been doing this pretty effectively, and we should continue to do it that way.”

But then the political wind shifted, and Kerry recalculated. Now Kerry calls the strategy he supported “outsourcing.” When we rely on allies everywhere else around the world, that’s multilateral cooperation, but when Bush does it in Afghanistan, it’s “outsourcing.” In Iraq, Kerry supports using local troops to chase insurgents, but in Afghanistan he is in post hoc opposition.

(emphasis on “strategy” added) The relevant part of the Larry King 12/14/2001 interview with Kerry (again, via Somerby):

CALLER: Hello. Yes, I would like to ask the panel why they don’t use napalm or flame-throwers on those tunnels and caves up there in Afghanistan?

KING: Senator Kerry?

CALLER: My golly, I think they could smoke him out.

KING: Senator Kerry?

KERRY: Well, I think it depends on where you are tactically. They may well be doing that at some point in time. But for the moment, what we are doing, I think, is having its impact and it is the best way to protect our troops and sort of minimalize the proximity, if you will. I think we have been doing this pretty effectively and we should continue to do it that way.

(Emphasis on “tactically” added.) So Kerry was saying there might be better tactics than flamethrowers, he wasn’t saying anything about the wisdom of relying heavily on hired Afghan warlord troops.

Just all for the record. See Somerby for appropriate commentary, especially about the spectacular hackery of Tim “I’m the sorriest excuse for a journalist ever, Big Russ” Russert. But yes, Brooks gets a brownie point for admitting what a sorry hack he is. Does anyone ever check the record, or do they just all regurgitate what ever the fax from the White House says?

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US negotiating with Taliban?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th June 2003

And American soldiers held captive in Afghanistan? That’s what the Asia Times’ Syed Saleem Shahzad is reporting:

United States and Pakistani intelligence officials have met with Taliban leaders in an effort to devise a political solution to prevent the country from being further ripped apart.

According to a Pakistani jihadi leader who played a role in setting up the communication, the meeting took place recently between representatives of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and Taliban leaders at the Pakistan Air Force base of Samungli, near Quetta. (Via Jim Henley and Jesse “Pandagon“)

Among the conditions the US is reportedly setting for “any sort of reconciliation” are that any US or allied soldiers held captive must be released. Also: Mullah Omar deposed, Pakistani and Saudi fighters out.

I remember noting a late September 2001 German language relay of an Al Jazeera report about US soldiers taken prisoner — before “Enduring Freedom” was officially underway. I didn’t ever develop much faith in Al Jazeera, and nothing seemed to come of it, so I forgot about it. Maybe I shouldn’t have.

And yes, this is terrible news, if it’s true — any of it: prisoners, negotiations, Taliban share of power, any of it.

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Jörg Baasch, Andrejas Beljo, Helmi Jimenez-Paradies, Carsten Kühlmorgen

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 11th June 2003

They were German soldiers, with names that seem to tell a story of a changing Germany all by themselves. They died in Afghanistan on Saturday, the victims of a suicide car bomber according to the New York Times. 29 other Germans were wounded; all were on their way out of the country after completing a 6-month peacekeeping/nation-building tour. A memorial service was held by the assembled ISAF (International Security Assistance Force)* personnel yesterday in Kabul (AP).

To their credit, German defense officials are thinking of expanding that work, according to the AP report:

Germany also said Tuesday it will dispatch a fact-finding team to examine whether its soldiers can provide security for reconstruction work beyond the Afghan capital.

“We are not prepared to bow to the will of terrorist groups. We will continue with our contribution to the stabilization of the country — we owe that to the soldiers who were killed,” Struck said.

Germany provides about half of the 4600 peacekeeping troops in the ISAF contingent. (The 11,500 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan conduct combat operations against Al Qaeda and Taliban forces still at large in the country.) Take a moment to re-evaluate what our longstanding alliance and friendship with our European friends is worth, and maybe another to express your sympathies and gratitude for these German soldiers’ service and sacrifice.

The May 26 Spanish peacekeeper airplane crash was attributed more to bad weather (fog) than to concerns with the Ukrainian air service involved. Still, it seems a bit of a coincidence that both incidents came at the end of peacekeeping tours of duty. Are security or safety procedures perhaps unconsciously relaxed as peacekeepers prepare to depart? Is this aspect of ISAF’s operations underfunded?

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* I got this ISAF information as well as the names of the 4 German soldiers via Tobias Schwarz, a German in Mainz who writes an excellent blog — in English. This particular information comes via a not-individually-linkable “Links of the Minute” sidebar item, dated June 10, 2003.

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Spanish troops

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 28th May 2003

Condolences to the country and families of the 62 Spanish peacekeeping troops who died in a plane crash in Turkey on Monday. Most had been in Afghanistan for four months building an airport road and clearing mines and explosives.

Americans should take a moment to remember them, and thank their country for their service. The Spanish Embassy to the US has a web site and an e-mail form, that’s all I can find.

This is neither here nor there, but I’ve been to Spain twice, once last year: Madrid, Toledo, the Asturias region, and Barcelona. I had a great time, even though my Spanish is confined to a handful of words. Nice people, great food, fascinating history, beautiful country. And an ally we owe a debt of gratitude to.

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Notes from Iran

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 9th March 2003

Via the quietly incredible “Notes from an Iranian Girl,” I learn that the “Iranmania” news site reported on March 1 that Afghan repatriation from Iran nears 400,000:

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has announced that the number of Afghans who have returned to their homeland from Iran is approaching the 400,000 mark, IRNA quoted the press here on Saturday. The Persian-language daily `Aftab-E Yazd’ quoted the agency’s spokeswoman Laura O’Mahony as saying that 395,752 Afghans had voluntarily returned home since a UNHCR joint program with Tehran to the effect began on April 9, 2002.[...]

Iranian officials have put the number of Afghan refugees in the Islamic Republic at two million, saying all will be repatriated in the next three years. [...]

Since August 28 last year, Iranian police have been dealing with those Afghans who lack proper papers for residence following an Interior Ministry announcement that Afghan nationals who continue staying in the country after the deadline for voluntary repatriation are no longer subject to the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees.

I’m not sure what to make of that last part, and therefore of the story as a whole; “deadline for voluntary repatriation” sort of seems like a contradiction in terms. UNHCR reports like this one make clear that many of the refugees pre-date “Operation Enduring Freedom” and 9/11. On the whole, given fairly upbeat current UNHCR reports on the matter, I’m hopeful this is the good thing the headline makes it appear to be. For her part, “Iranian girl” writes:

I believe that It’s better for both Iranians & afghans, because afghans were not really in comfort & most of them had to work very hard with a little money & also many Iranians were not satisfied that they were here…anyway, today we Iranians that before this though [ed.: thought of] Afghans as poor refugees should envy that they’ll have a nice & free land…

From various entries, I gather that “Iranian girl” lives somewhere in Tehran. Just fascinating stuff: demonstrations in Tehran, photos of women weavers from Northern Iran, lots of links to blogs by Iranians in English, including “Editor: Myself,” by Hossein Derakhshan, whose Farsi log appears to get a lot of traffic.

The photo gallery of weavers, by the way, was via the “womeniniran” web site, where the news includes “Death sentence by stoning will be suspended,” and “Unfolding of an underground abortion center in Tehran“:

After being released from the hospital, Niloufar — the last person to get an abortion — told the judge, “My husband likes to have a son and had told me that my first child should be a boy like the other brides of the family. After sonography when I found out that my child is a girl I didn’t know what to do. I was introduced to Roya by one of my friends and she asked for 300,000 tomans (500 dollar CND) for the abortion.”

An extensive search has begun to find the remaining two members of this band. The judge told our reporter, “These abortion places lack any medical equipment and sometimes women lose their lives at these centers after abortion or they are infected by HIV viruses.”

Worth remembering: when you don’t have legal abortions, this is what you will definitely get. And this is what women’s rights really means in practical terms elsewhere in the world: the freedom to choose, the freedom not to get stoned, the respect not to be considered a second-class child. “Iranian girl” seems like the kind of young woman who will help see to her own rights in the years to come. Good luck to her; you can follow her via a new blog link in my ever-growing collection — or via Moira Breen’s blog “inappropriate response,” where I first noticed her.

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Helping Afghanistan

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 20th November 2002

This seems like a good idea:

The Academy for Educational Development wants to raise $2 million for school supplies (supplied in blue backpacks) for Afghan children.

So does this. You can direct that your donation be spent on Afghanistan, or on other countries with land mine clearance needs.

Both programs seem to have a real “field” component to them, and not just an office in Kabul. That seems important: the sheer number of charitable organizations in Kabul is starting to have some unintended effects, according to a Washington Post article today (“A Year After Taliban, Daily Life in Kabul Is Struggle for Most“):

To a large extent, Kabul’s commercial bustle is being artificially sustained by the nonprofit agencies that have proliferated here since the departure of the Taliban. By last month there were more than 1,000 registered in the capital, gobbling up blocks of real estate and driving rents up fivefold.

I don’t have unlimited faith in the free market, but something more like it will need to return to Afghanistan. Hopefully, some of those NGO’s camping out in Kabul are devoting some energy to giving Afghan businesses and markets a helping hand, so that they’ll persist after the handouts are gone. In an admittedly brief search, I found no online way of supporting this kind of work in Afghanistan. If you know of one, or of other ways to help Afghanistan rebuild, I’d like to hear about it.

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What’s the Farsi word for “glasnost”?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 15th November 2002

Martin Walker of UPI reports that Iran may provide substantial help to any U.S. and U.K. efforts against Iraq:

Building on the cautious links made between U.S. Special Forces and specialized units of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard during the fighting against the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, the Iranians are giving far more help than anybody ever expected.

As a result, U.S. liaison officers from Central Command staff have been appointed to discuss logistics needs with the Iranian counterparts, starting with U.S. hopes to send heavy bridging equipment for crossing the Euphrates through Iran into Iraq. [...]

There are also strong rumors inside the Special Forces community that Iranian specialist troops have been inserted alongside U.S. and British Special Forces teams currently operating in the marsh districts of southern Iraq.

The report also says that Iran is granting air space rights to U.S. and U.K. planes against Iraq, something I hadn’t been aware of either. (I must have a word with Rummie, how can I blog if I’m not kept informed?) The Syrian “yes” vote for SC-1441 is also attributed to Iranian pressure. Obviously the Iran-Iraq war left some hard feelings; still, this seems impressively Macchiavellian of Tehran. Maybe the U.S. is just a “regular Satan you can do business with” now. The USA Today has a similar front page story (“Iranians may aid U.S. war on Iraq “), adding some skepticism about the long term significance of it all:

Iran experts say both governments probably would view any cooperation as a short-term tactical maneuver. ”I see some temporary improvement. But I’m not willing to bet on more,” says Gary Sick, a professor of international affairs at Columbia University.

The Jerusalem Post, meanwhile, reports that in the event of an Iraq war,

European diplomatic sources in close contact with Syria and Iran tell The Jerusalem Post that Hizbullah is unlikely to attack. And Syria’s vote in favor of Resolution 1441 does suggest that Bashar Assad, who’s in a position to put the brakes on Hizbullah, was “buying life insurance” in the war on terror, as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman put it Wednesday.

Iran is in a position to put the brakes on both, it seems. Iran is an interesting case, as a February New Yorker piece by Joe Klein (“Shadow Land“)* described. As Klein recapped contradictory Iranian reactions to 9/11 and the Afghanistan war:

On the evening of September 11, 2001, about two hundred young people gathered in Madar Square, on the north side of Tehran, in a spontaneous candlelight vigil to express sympathy and support for the United States. A second vigil, the next night, was attacked by the basij, a volunteer force of religious vigilantes, and then dispersed by the police. The vigils may have been the only pro-American demonstrations in the Islamic world after the terrorist attacks on the United States. “It was what we all were feeling,” said Arash, a young teacher I met; he had stayed home with his wife, Ava—these are not their real names—nervously watching the unimaginable television images from America. “But I was also worried: Would the Americans blame Iran for this? How would our government respond? Would we express sympathy and condemn the attacks, or would it be a Marg bar Amrika”—”Death to America”—”reaction? Finally, at ten o’clock, Khatami came on and expressed sympathy. What a relief!”

The statement that Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s popularly elected President, made was extraordinary—extraordinary to American ears, at least. “My deep sympathy goes out to the American nation, particularly those who have suffered from the attacks and also the families of the victims,” he said. “Terrorism is doomed, and the international community should stem it and take effective measures in a bid to eradicate it.” [...]

[However, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's] reaction to America’s call for an anti-Taliban coalition in Afghanistan was typically obtuse. … “How dare you request help [from us] in order to attack the innocent Muslim nation of Afghanistan, which has suffered and which is our neighbor? . . . The Islamic Republic of Iran will not participate in any move which is headed by the United States.”

Khamenei’s statement was not definitive, though. Two days later, at the Friday prayers at Tehran University, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—who had preceded Khatami as President and remains a prominent political force—announced yet another modification of Iran’s position: “Despite all the differences we have . . . and if the United States does not want to impose its ideas, we can become a member of a U.N.-led antiterror coalition.”

Judging by the UPI report, Rafsanjani’s thinking may have prevailed, if not quite to the tune of a public alliance. But in the wake of the Karine-A incident, where Israel intercepted an Iranian shipment of arms to the Palestinian Authority, and the “axis of evil” speech by Bush, that opportunity receded. But it never went away altogether. I wonder if some Iranians in the Revolutionary Guard set — likely not the ones who signed off on the Karine-A shipment — are now thinking “glasnost”? This is a country where surprisingly strong demonstrations are taking place against the death sentence for a liberal professor for his anti-clerical statements. As Wednesday’s Washington Post reports:

Two members of parliament from Hamadan announced they were resigning in protest. The speaker of the parliament, Mehdi Karrubi, expressed disgust at the verdict in a live radio address. In a chant heard Monday, students urged Khatami to resign if he proves unable to push forward his agenda. (emphasis added).

We live in interesting times. An opening by and to Iran would be the best news out of the Islamic world for Americans and the West in quite some time. I’m not holding my breath, but I am crossing my fingers.

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*And noticed by Gary Farber way back when. Also: that Ken Pollack guy pops up again, see the end of Farber’s post, or read the Klein article.

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