August 20, 2012 — Click here to listen to the audio
MR. TOM GJELTEN 11:06:56 Thanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's in Dallas. The UN Security Council ends its observer mission in Syria. The violence continues with no viable peace plan. A U.S. helicopter crashes in Afghanistan killing 11 people including seven American troops and Egyptian President Morsi forces two of the country's top military officers out of office.
MR. TOM GJELTEN 11:07:20 Joining me in the studio to talk about this week's top international stories, Yochi Dreazen of the National Journal, Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg and Thom Shanker of The New York Times. And you can join our conversation about the international news this hour. Call us at 1-800-433-8850, send us an email at email@example.com. Of course, you can also join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning folks.
MR. YOCHI DREAZEN 11:07:50 Good morning.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANAN 11:07:50 Good morning.
MR. THOM SHANKER 11:07:50 Good morning, Tom.
GJELTEN 11:07:51 So the top five stories on my list today are Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iran and Egypt. But let's put those all aside for a moment because the big news this morning, Thom Shanker, is what's happening in Moscow. Fill us in with this amazing trial of the all girl punk band and explain what happened just this morning.
SHANKER 11:08:14 Well, it really is a fairly extraordinary story, simple as it may sound. This three member female punk rock band, excuse me, in February went to the main cathedral in Moscow, Christ the Savior Cathedral. It's a beautiful, huge cathedral built in 1990 after the collapse of communism on the site of where there had been a church during Russian period. A church that was torn down by the communists and they went on the stage and performed what they called a punk prayer.
SHANKER 11:08:44 It was asking for divine intervention to end the presidency of Vladimir Putin. And they were arrested on charges of hooliganism and religious disrespect. They faced seven years and just this morning, Tom, literally as we walked in, the verdict came down of guilty and all three women, two of them are mothers of small children, sentenced to two years in prison.
GJELTEN 11:09:09 They're going to prison for a song, a protest song, that they performed. Yochi, you actually have the lyrics?
DREAZEN 11:09:15 I do and it's actually two separate songs, both of which have different elements of why this angered the Putin government so much. I'm going to just read, if I could, the three lyrics that really have the most anger and we can a bit about why. The song opened and the chorus basically is "Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away." So you have this conjoining of church and anti-Putin.
DREAZEN 11:09:38 You have direct criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is almost as unheard of as criticism of Putin. The line there is the church's praise of rotten dictators and then patriarch Gundyayev believes in Putin, better believe in God instead. And then the third one that I think also really hit was from the second song, in Red Square," calling for mass protests like in Egypt in Russia with the implication of toppling the Putin government. So you have it hitting basically one Putin, two the Russian Church and three, directly calling for an uprising.
GJELTEN 11:10:14 And Indira Lakshmanan, what does this mean? What does this indicate about the mood in Russia and the willingness of the government there to accommodate any kind of peaceful resistance or opposition or criticism?
LAKSHMANAN 11:10:28 Well, clearly, with the prosecution and now the sentencing of this group called Pussy Riot, the tolerance of descent is on trial. And this is not the first such case, there have been about 17 similar cases just in the last three months in Russia where protestors against Putin, who in the springtime were protesting, have been sentenced. So, and I also want to say that's not just a political thing. Let's talk about this is a country where tolerance of difference is not, you know, there's not a lot of tolerance of difference.
LAKSHMANAN 11:10:59 Also, the Supreme Court of Russia just handed down a decision banning gay pride marches for the next 100 years that just happened. And so, you know, you can say that there's not a lot of tolerance for difference. I think what's fascinating about this, obviously Putin's opponents say this part of the wider crackdown on descent. Pussy Riot has gotten all sorts of support from around the world from celebrities, from Madonna to Paul McCartney, Sting. None of that has been really reflected at home.
LAKSHMANAN 11:11:28 While there have been protests all across Europe in support of this female punk band, actually in Russia, there's been polling done showing that they only have about six percent of sympathy among the Russian public. A lot of people seem to have taken greatly, great offense because of the connection to the Russian Orthodox Church. Some 65 percent of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox Christian.
GJELTEN 11:11:52 Well, Thom Shanker, you lived in Moscow in the dark old days and we've known for a long time that even Joseph Stalin still has a lot of supporters there. Are we seeing Russia now as sort of drifting back to that kind, the dark days of old?
SHANKER 11:12:04 I think this is a very important clue as to the future of Russia, Tom, and I think the metaphor here is Russia is going down the highway looking in the rearview mirror. Yes, I spent five years living there and I spent a lot of time with a lot of the underground musicians and the dissent political community and the underground artists and I traveled quite a bit with a Canadian diplomat who taught me something very important, because he too was looking at the marginal culture.
SHANKER 11:12:28 And his ambassador once said to him, no, this is a central authority. You have to follow the power at the center. And he said, yes, you can look at a country top down and center out but by defining the margins of what is tolerable. That shows you the boundaries of freedom. And so this trial is very, very significant.
GJELTEN 11:12:48 And what's at stake here, it seems to me, is not just the future of Russia and how much descent the Putin government is going to allow but also Russia's relations with the West. I mean, it seems that Russia is turning inward, Yochi Dreazen, I mean, what does this imply for U.S. - Russian relations, for Russia's role in the dealing with the situation in Syria, etc.
DREAZEN 11:13:08 I mean, Russia has been skeptical towards hostile, towards anything that they perceive as intruding on their sovereignty and frankly, as you suggest, that is why initially they supported Syria and supported Assad. I think they've painted themselves into a corner but, you know, we'll talk about that I'm sure later in the show. But they are very, very, very hostile and very sort of protective of anything that they see as the rest of the world trying to interfere, criticize, meddle.
DREAZEN 11:13:33 One thing that I think is worth pointing out here, it is a depressing story, it does suggest that we've talked about a crackdown on descent. They face seven years and they got two. Before the trial started Putin suggested there should be leniency. The Russian press is already reporting that in a few months there's speculation of this being comminuted. So prior to this you've had multiple trials where the court suggested seven years, let's say it became 14, became 21, became indefinite. Here it is much lower than they could've faced. It's a small, small glimmer.
GJELTEN 11:14:01 Well, we mentioned Syria and Syria is -- the war, the conflict, the violence in Syria is something that's been in our intention now for 18 months. Indira, this week the UN had declared that its observer mission in Syria is almost over. I think it's been radically downscaled. What does this say about the capability of the international community to do anything at all about the killing in Syria?
LAKSHMANAN 11:14:30 Well, it's certainly not positive, is it? Not a ringing endorsement. I mean, the decision to not renew the UN observer mission came a day after there was a bombing near the UN observer headquarters in Damascus. Remember, this mission was going to expire anyway on Sunday. The United States had made very clear that it no longer supported the observer mission and let's remember that Kofi Anon, a very able diplomat who used to be the head of the UN overall, gave up on his job as the special envoy to try to solve the Syria crisis.
LAKSHMANAN 11:15:04 So obviously a lot of frustration of someone like that would completely shrug his, you know, throw up his shoulders and say I can't do it anymore. I thought what was stunning was that the Russian government yesterday issued a statement saying, this is going to lead to disastrous consequences if we give up on the observer mission. And that seemed like taking a lot of chutzpah to say, don't, you know, this is disastrous when there have been so many opportunities that the international community has at least tried to do something and Russia has been the one standing in the way.
GJELTEN 11:15:33 Actually vetoing Security Council resolutions that would've made an actual difference. And this, and with the UN mission pulling out that puts more pressure on governments like Russia that still have a lot of influence in Syria.
SHANKER 11:15:46 It certainly does and it's very worrisome, Tom. We can recall from our mutual careers, we first met covering the wars in the Balkans and just last month Ban Ki Moon, the UN's top officer today, went to Srebrenica to honor the massacre of 8,000 Bosnians at the hands of Serb paramilitary forces. And he stood saying the UN hadn't done enough and he would hope that none of his successors would ever have to look at the failure of a UN mission to save innocents and that is perhaps what we're seeing even now in Syria.
GJELTEN 11:16:16 Well, you know, as long as this conflict has been going on, people have been warning that if it does not end, it's only going to get worse. That time is really against everyone in this conflict and what we've seen this week, Yochi, is the beginning signs. There have been other signs, but some pretty clear signs that this conflict is now becoming more and more of an international conflict. But tell us about the kidnappings that occurred this week in Lebanon and what connection that has to what's been going on in Syria?
DREAZEN 11:16:46 You know, this was a kidnapping of some members of a very prominent, very powerful clan who responded then by kidnapping members of the free Syrian army. Basically each side saying give us our guys back or we'll kill them. There's another kind of landmark thing this week which was one of the UN human rights bodies for the first time so they were war crimes being committed by the Assad government inside Syria.
DREAZEN 11:17:07 When you've got that kind of language that paves the way, at least in theory, for war crimes trials for crimes against humanity. As you know, the UN human rights bodies typically have on them Nigeria countries not known for their human rights records. So for them to take this kind of stance against an Arab member, the Arab block usually tries to prevent it. It's really striking.
DREAZEN 11:17:26 Another quick point, the free Syrian army, even a few months ago, the Gulf state which funded did not want to arm it because they saw this group as poorly organized, they didn't know who it was, they didn't think it was cohesive. You're now seeing very sophisticated weaponry flow to this group. Anti-missile, sorry, anti-tank, anti-aircraft, this is becoming a very powerful armed force.
GJELTEN 11:17:45 And Indira, it seems that every week brings a new major defection from the Syrian government?
LAKSHMANAN 11:17:49 That's right. and we've seen that some of those like the prime minister of Syria who's defected, it keeps talking about how the Assad government is on its last legs, it's completely devoid of any moral fiber, it's over. Of course, it's not over yet because they've still got the weaponry advantage. They're still able to do air strikes where we've been seeing this week over Azaz, which is in the north near the contested economic hub of Aleppo. So they still do have the upper hand.
LAKSHMANAN 11:18:16 One point that Yochi made about the UN human right council was they not only said that the Assad regime has been responsible for war crimes in Hula and also in at least three other attacks, but they also said that the rebels have been involved in some war crimes, but not at the same frequency, gravity and scale.
GJELTEN 11:18:36 Indira Lakshmanan is senior correspondent for Bloomberg News. This is the international of the Friday News Roundup. We're going to take a short break right now. When we come back, more international news and your phone calls, stay tuned.
GJELTEN 11:20:04 Welcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in for Diane Rehm and this is the International Hour of the Friday News Roundup. My guests here in the studio are Yochi Dreazen, senior national security correspondent for the National Journal, Indira Lakshmanan, senior correspondent for Bloomberg News and Thom Shanker, Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times. And, Thom, I want to congratulate you on the -- your paperback which has just come out. Thom is the author of "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda." And it has just come out in paperback.
GJELTEN 11:20:37 And, Thom, we were talking before about the controversy of the protests in Moscow. And Russia's cracking down. I want to read to you an email we got from John who says, "is this the beginning of the second phase of a cold war, Russia cracking down on dissidents and supporting Syria, as well as vehemently exposing expansion of NATO countries and the missile defense system?" Boy, he's got a point there. It does sound almost like cold war stuff, doesn't it?
SHANKER 11:21:07 It really does, although I think the stakes are not as high as they were during the Cold War when we literally were on the precipice of nuclear Armageddon. I think what it shows is that Russia's going to be a very problematic partner in international affairs and a country that internally is going to be, as we talked about earlier, moving backwards and not forwards.
GJELTEN 11:21:26 You know, before we move on from Syria, Thom, I want to ask you about a story that you had this week about evidence that the United States has sort of put out there, that Iran is in fact involved in Syria. Tell us what you reported.
SHANKER 11:21:41 Right. Earlier this month, a busload of Iranian citizens was kidnapped by the free Syrian army. The Iranian government said right away they were pilgrims to a revered shrine outside of Damascus. But the rebels said no, these were Iranian operatives here to support the Assad Regime and that they were training a pro-Assad militia. Well, my sources in the U.S. government this week told me that they have seen a lot of the evidence and that they believe it's credible pointing not only to the fact that they were Iranian operatives, but they were members of the elite Iranian revolutionary guard corp. which is certainly their elite sort of secret military arm.
SHANKER 11:22:20 And this certainly ratchets up the tension. It came as a host of U.S. officials, Defense Secretary Panetta. General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs said publicly that they are worried about the increasing Iranian involvement in the Syrian violence.
GJELTEN 11:22:35 Now, Yochi Dreazen, I guess that Leon Panetta and General Dempsey were however careful to say that they weren't necessarily talking about these captives -- these Iranian captives that the free Syrian army has in its custody.
DREAZEN 11:22:48 That's right. I mean, I lived in Iraq for several years during the run-up to the civil war and the civil war. One note of caution is that the U.S. would routinely make various similar charges about Iranian influence in Iraq. When you would actually say, okay show us who you've arrested, tell us the numbers they would sort of get very squishy. So that Iran is involved and intervening in its primary and only Arab ally, as Thom points out, undoubtedly. But the scale and scope of it to my mind is very -- we have to be very careful in talking about it.
DREAZEN 11:23:13 One quick point, the country and the group that I think would intervene -- has the highest odds of intervening is Hezbollah in Lebanon. Syria is their -- not only one of their main founders but it's their main transit route for weaponry and money both from the Assad Regime and from Iran. So when you start seeing about what other groups might intervene most directly, keep your eye on Hezbollah. Hezbollah's very powerful, very well armed, very well organized. And they have the most, frankly, to lose from the Assad government falling.
GJELTEN 11:23:39 Well, that really just underscores, doesn't it, what's at stake here, Indira. Hezbollah has a lot at stake if the Assad Regime were to fall, but so does Iran. That is what -- those are the factors that make this such an important regional conflict.
LAKSHMANAN 11:23:52 That's right and that's why it's not at all surprising that Iran would be supporting Syria. As Yochi said, it's their last main ally here. It's not at all surprising that Russia would object to ousting Assad, because that's their one military base, you know, the naval base that they have really in the region. It's their one foothold. So none of that is surprising.
LAKSHMANAN 11:24:13 The Hezbollah angle is interesting because part of what we were talking about, about how it's becoming sectarian and complicated and spilling over into the borders of other countries, in Lebanon a lot of this kidnapping, we were referring to the powerful family clan that had abducted people. Now a relative of theirs has been abducted by the free Syrian army and the free Syrian army has accused that person of being a member of Hezbollah. So again, there are a lot of back and forth links about who's involved and, you know, who stands to gain from Assad's losses.
GJELTEN 11:24:49 And meanwhile we have speculation and rumors and news from Israel that, once again, we have to be talking about the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran. And with all that's going on in Syria, might there be a calculation here, Tom Shanker, by the Israeli government that this is actually an opportune moment to move against Iran?
SHANKER 11:25:13 Well, there certainly is that strain of thinking. A lot of Israel's say confidentially that if they were to act unilaterally they might have to do it before the election. Because they feel that if President Obama...
GJELTEN 11:25:25 Before the U.S. election.
SHANKER 11:25:26 Before the U.S. election, thank you, Tom, because they fear that if President Obama is reelected he will be firmer and stricter with Israel since he never has to run for office again. The problem with understanding Israeli politics, just as Yochi mentioned about American intelligence in Iraq, there are so many different voices coming out of Israel right now that it's really difficult for us to put our finger on the pulse and say, yes, this is what they are doing.
SHANKER 11:25:50 And in talking to senior Pentagon officials, they actually believe that Israel would not inform the United States of their decision to go ahead, both because they think the U.S. might try and block it and two, because they would want to give the United States believable deniability.
GJELTEN 11:26:05 Well, Yochi Dreazen, this week, we had Shimon Peres the Israeli president voicing his concern -- or his belief, in contrast to what Thom just said, that Israel would not act alone. The Israeli president is normally sort of a -- the president in Israel is normally sort of a ceremonial position, right. How significant is this that you get Shimon Peres actually challenging the Benjamin Netanyahu government in this way?
DREAZEN 11:26:31 That's a good question and part of it is the personalities. I mean, Peres and Netanyahu have hated each other for decades. You know, they couldn't be more opposed, not just in world view, but also in personality. Netanyahu combative, lived in the West, Peres conciliatory founded the State of Israel largely and has never really lived anywhere else. I think in some ways the bigger divide, the one that as Americans probably we should pay more attention to, is the public debate which is extraordinary between the heads of the Israeli military and not only Netanyahu, but also Ehud Barak the Defense Secretary -- their equivalent to the Defense Secretary, excuse me.
DREAZEN 11:27:01 So you've seen really an extraordinarily public playing out of the military being very cautious, kind of frankly like it is here, where the Joint Chiefs, Secretary of Defense Panetta have also been very cautious. But there's a very public divide between the uniformed Israeli military and their civilian leaders, which is extraordinary. You have not seen that in the state of Israel before.
GJELTEN 11:27:20 Extraordinary. Of course, Israel has undertaken military action many times before, but you're suggesting that it's never been on the basis of or in the context of a divided population, divided leadership (unintelligible) .
DREAZEN 11:27:32 You've had internal debates internal. What's happening here which is so extraordinary to me is it's playing out publicly.
GJELTEN 11:27:38 Indira, and so Iran is in the gun sights, as it were, and Iran is also dealing with an earthquake this week.
LAKSHMANAN 11:27:45 Right, right. Just one point before we get to the earthquake. I just wanted to say that this is not the first time of course that the war temperature has really heated up. Remember last October in the weeks before the International Atomic Energy Agency report came out there was again a fever pitch for war in Israel, or about the possibility of a war. And then it calmed down for a bit. Then Bibi Netanyahu was here earlier this year. There was talk about what Israel has the right to do. Obama made a public statement saying Israel of course has the right to defend itself. Things calmed down. Now they're heating up again.
LAKSHMANAN 11:28:18 I think a lot of this is also not only -- it's not so much for the consumption of Americans, I think. I think this is for the consumption of Israelis to get this debate going in the Israeli populace. To get people, first of all, on the one hand to prepare the ground for a possible war, but also to get that debate out there, as well as trying to send a message to Ayatollah Hominy to say, hey Israel's not bluffing. They are ready to do this. They have done it in Syria. They have done it in Iraq.
LAKSHMANAN 11:28:42 Now moving on to the earthquake, the United States, as you know, was under pressure from Iranian American advocacy groups to lighten up on sanctions that might discourage people from giving aid for earthquake victims. Remember back in 2003 the Bush Administration issued a broad exemption that allowed aid in the aftermath of an earthquake that killed 26,000 people. This earthquake has been, you know, much smaller in its effect. It killed about 300 or so people. But what's been interesting is Iran saying that it's rejecting any U.S. offer of assistance because it thinks it's in bad faith. So, you know, that's been an interesting combination.
LAKSHMANAN 11:29:24 And some people are frankly afraid to give even food, medicine, that are exempted from sanctions because they're afraid of running afoul of any U.S. rules.
GJELTEN 11:29:31 Well, some Iranian Americans might be urging the Obama Administration to lighten up on sanctions for humanitarian reasons, but, Thom, there's equal pressure and probably greater pressure coming in part from the Israelis on the Obama Administration to tighten the sanctions even more considering that Iran is at a very vulnerable point right now and might just be ready to crack.
SHANKER 11:29:53 That's exactly right. And I'm not a lawyer, but as I understand the regulations, individuals can donate small amounts to humanitarian assistance programs. And the Treasury Department has said it would make a priority appeals for larger donations just for this very narrow group of earthquake victims. But you're right. The Obama Administration's desire to tighten economic sanctions on Iran is part of this whole sort of myriad of pressure points. As Yochi said, he talked about, you know, the Israeli's debating attack. As Indira said, it's a combined pressure.
SHANKER 11:30:27 So a lot of this is a deterrent effect on the Ayatollahs, that they are being encircled and that they want their country to prosper or even survive they have to reconsider their nuclear ambitions.
GJELTEN 11:30:39 Let's turn our attention now to Afghanistan. A really rough week in Afghanistan, Yochi. We just had -- I think there was news this morning of another so called green-on-blue killing where Afghan police actually turned their -- I think an Afghan policeman actually turned his weapon on Americans. And just prior to that yesterday a U.S. helicopter crashed in southern Afghanistan killing 11 people onboard. Some evidence or some thinking that this in fact was -- this was in a Taliban stronghold -- some evidence that in fact the Taliban did shoot down that Blackhawk.
DREAZEN 11:31:11 Exactly. I mean, that sort of sparked -- I know there's been a helicopter crash. We can talk perhaps about Afghanistan slightly more, but what's interesting to me is that these current spade of shootings are by the force that the U.S. is most relying on. It's not the uniformed Afghan army. It's a group called the Afghan local police modeled on a similar group in Iraq, basically local militias. So this is a cornerstone of the U.S. withdrawal. Those groups are also typically overseen by U.S. Special Operations Forces, not conventional forces.
DREAZEN 11:31:38 So one, the perpetrators are people we really are relying on. Two, the troops that we're losing in many cases are the best trained troops and the ones who are meant to stay after withdrawal.
GJELTEN 11:31:47 Yochi Dreazen is senior national security correspondent for the National Journal magazine. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And we're going to be getting to phone calls in a minute. By the way, I don't think I gave the number last time. Let's just put it out there now for you to call so you can join our conversation on International News. The number is 800-433-8850. Can also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
GJELTEN 11:32:13 But let's stay on Afghanistan for a bit longer, Indira. Not only did we have these attacks on U.S. forces, we also had some terrible suicide bombings in Afghanistan. As many as 50 Afghans killed by a series of attacks. What's the significance there?
LAKSHMANAN 11:32:32 Yeah well, what was terrible about -- I mean, any suicide attack is terrible but these were particularly aimed at shoppers who were lined up to buy food to break the fast and celebrate the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. So again, you know, turning terrorism against their own people, against Afghans. I thought what was interesting about this is, you know, it builds on -- it's all of the peace. It's of trying to create a situation in Afghanistan, the Taliban, the Haqqani network, whoever is behind these, where it's even more unstable at a time when U.S. attention is not focused on Afghanistan.
LAKSHMANAN 11:33:10 The Obama Administration's obviously focused on the election. And in any case, you know, the focus of the administration has turned to other things as we are planning a drawdown. The green-on-blue attacks is a very striking point because Mullah Omar, in a long treatise that he wrote that was obtained, basically said that these green-on-blue attacks is part of a strategy that he has that the Taliban has devised to, as he said, cleverly infiltrate the Afghan forces.
LAKSHMANAN 11:33:38 And essentially if that's right, if they are intentionally infiltrating the Afghan forces, this is a way to undue everything that the United States has spent a decade trying to do. If we're relying on Afghan national security forces and they're being infiltrated I don't really see how this drawdown is going to work.
GJELTEN 11:33:56 Well, Thom, it seems that U.S. officials and commanders are trying to downplay this problem of infiltration, but it's hard to deny, isn't it?
SHANKER 11:34:03 Well, I guess I take a bit of a different view. I think Mullah Omar the Taliban leader sort of over thought it. If he wanted to be really clever he would say, I have nothing to do with this at all. And there is no evidence of vast infiltration. And, in fact, Tom, it's actually a more damning fact if the Afghans who are turning on their American partners and killing them are not pro-Taliban but are simply Afghan nationalists who want the Americans out. So I think Mullah Omar miscalculated here because there is no evidence. And it's even more troubling if these are loyal Afghans who are killing Americans 'cause they don't want us there.
SHANKER 11:34:39 I was out at Fort Leavenworth yesterday where the army trains its rising field grade officers. And they touched on a theme that Indira did, which is that nobody here is talking about the war, not the Republicans, not the Democrats. But Americans are dying every day defending this nation's security in Afghanistan.
LAKSHMANAN 11:34:56 And at a rate of one a day on average. American service personnel are dying at a rate of one a day this year, and that's not a figure you hear. It's as if, you know, Afghanistan is becoming a forgotten war. Now even if it is Afghan nationalists who are trying to -- you know, who are doing these attacks, I mean, I would say the U.S. has already put it out there that it's drawing down, it's getting out. So it seems like it's the most in the interest of forces like the Taliban to try to do these green-on-blue attacks as a way of destabilizing the country and trying to take more control as the U.S. and NATO pull out.
GJELTEN 11:35:29 Well, whether they're Taliban infiltrators or not, they are infiltrators, aren't they in a sense, because they got those jobs...
LAKSHMANAN 11:35:35 Absolutely.
GJELTEN 11:35:36 ...presumably with the understanding or somebody's belief that they were in fact willing to carry out the professional responsibilities that they would have as policemen. And as it turns out they're not willing to do it. Yochi Dreazen.
DREAZEN 11:35:50 One thing about the Mullah Omar letter is that they have -- you know, we talk about politics a lot. I mean, you know, last hour we talked a bit about the election here. This hour the Afghan -- the Taliban have a very clever political strategy and they have a very clever public relation strategy. What they said in the rest of their letter was, we are doing these kind of attacks so as to minimize civilian casualties. That's blighted obviously by the suicide bombings Indira mentioned.
DREAZEN 11:36:11 But they're being very mindful in their public comments to say to the Afghan civilian populace, we don't want to kill you. We're trying to kill as many of the Americans as possible, as few of you as possible. You've had prior comments from the Taliban saying we want women to go to school. We're not opposed to that anymore. They know they will have power in some form soon and they're trying to lay the groundwork for it being as much supported by the populace as possible.
GJELTEN 11:36:32 And, Indira, attacks by -- attributed to the Taliban not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan. Fill us in on what happened there this week real quickly.
LAKSHMANAN 11:36:40 Yeah, that was stunning, an attack on Thursday in the Minhas air force base in Kamra which is northwest of the capital of Islamabad. Originally there were reports that some of Pakistan's nuclear weapons might have been stored there. Later the Pakistani government said, no that's not true. And the U.S. State Department said, we have no information to contradict what the Pakistanis are saying, so apparently not necessarily a risk to the nuclear arsenal, but certainly a reminder of the vulnerability of Pakistan's most sensitive military installations.
LAKSHMANAN 11:37:10 You know, this is not the first time that militants have attacked Pakistani military installations. There have been a number of really dramatic attacks over the last year. And this is coming at a time when there're hints that the government might take on an anti-militant campaign in north Waziristan, something that the U.S. has been pressuring the Pakistani government to do for some time.
GJELTEN 11:37:31 Indira Lakshmanan is senior correspondent for Bloomberg News. This is the International Hour of the Friday News Roundup. After this break, we'll be going to your calls and questions. Stay tuned.
GJELTEN 11:40:02 Welcome back I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in for Diane Rehm. This is the Friday News Roundup, the international hour. My guests are Yochi Dreazen from the National Journal, Indira Lakshmanan from Bloomberg News and Thom Shanker from the New York Times. I'm going to bring the rest of you into this conversation right now beginning with Courtland, who is on the line from Michigan. Is that right, Courtland?
COURTLAND 11:40:24 That's right, Aida, Mich.
GJELTEN 11:40:25 Aida, Mich. Well, thanks for the call.
COURTLAND 11:40:27 And good morning to you. I called with your very, very, very first item about the punk rockers whose names I don't know if I can say on the air.
GJELTEN 11:40:38 We've said it once, but, you know. We know who you're talking about.
COURTLAND 11:40:44 You're a little distorted.
GJELTEN 11:40:44 I said, we know who you're talking about.
COURTLAND 11:40:45 Yeah, that's right, but it's ironic as all get out. I recall the saying made by an Austro-Hungarian that rubs roughly like, that an empire needs a standing army of soldiers, a sitting army of bureaucrats, a kneeling army of priests and a crawling army of spies. In Russian history and those of us who have had more history than our high schools teach, don't get me started on that.
GJELTEN 11:41:12 Okay.
COURTLAND 11:41:16 We know that traditionally in Russian history, the autocrats worked hand in hand with the priests to keep the people down. It appears that the old system is coming back and the reason I say that is effectively in the former atheist Soviet Union and it now appears to be a punishable crime to commit blasphemy against the Orthodox Church. And I'll hang up and take any comments over the air.
GJELTEN 11:41:46 It is a little bit ironic isn't it, Thom, a formerly atheist system is now defending the interests of the church so vigorously?
SHANKER 11:41:53 Well, that's exactly right, Tom, and your caller is also 100 percent correct. I want to be completely respectful of the Russian Orthodox Church and those who believe in the faith, but it is a historic fact that throughout history, the church worked with the czars and is now working with the new leadership in a fairly autocratic and often anti-democratic mood.
GJELTEN 11:42:17 And Courtland's point was that sometimes states need the authority of the church. If they are allied with the church, they can use the alliance with the church in order to strengthen their own position. We're going to take one more call now on the situation in Moscow and the conviction of this all-girl punk group. McCauley is on the line from New York, N.Y. Good morning, McCauley, thanks for your call.
MCCAULEY 11:42:43 Hi, thanks very much.
GJELTEN 11:42:44 Yeah.
MCCAULEY 11:42:46 Yes, I cover the professional sport of chess and I saw on Twitter this morning that the former world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, who is now a political activist, opposed to the Putin regime was present outside the courtroom and was trying to get into the courtroom, but wasn't able to. And in the course of speaking to reporters outside, he was arrested and actually roughed up by the police, according to his personal assistant who is a contact of mine.
MCCAULEY 11:43:15 And it's interesting because he wasn't actually a participant in a protest, but somehow it must have been a very tense scene and because he was there speaking with reporters. At some point, the police actually threw him in a paddy wagon and hauled him off. And he's apparently unharmed, but still in jail at the present.
GJELTEN 11:43:34 Okay, thanks McCauley. Well, Indira, it's interesting, isn't it? We have not only Garry Kasparov, we have, as you all mentioned, Madonna and Sting and other artists coming to the defense of this all-girl rock band that has now been convicted of blasphemy, et cetera. And yet, as you pointed out, the Russian population doesn't yet seem to be rising up in protest to join or to show any solidarity with this group?
LAKSHMANAN 11:44:01 Right. I mean, on the one hand, they may not be doing mass protests because they don't want to be caught in the same net. And it's a different thing where next door in the Ukraine, in Kiev, there was a protest where some women chain-sawed down a cross, basically a crucifix, in a square as a protest against the sentencing of the group.
LAKSHMANAN 11:44:21 You know, so there may be fear on the part of Russians, but it also seems to be, if these polls are to be believed, that some people who might have agreed with the political satire or the political protest didn't agree with the part that they perceived as blasphemy. So remember, we were talking about the old, dark days of the Soviet Union when, you know, the church, at many times, was suppressed and repressed.
LAKSHMANAN 11:44:44 And so since it has been allowed to flourish again, it's possible that there are some people who just didn't like the way they did it, you know, this prayer of going into a church in short skirts and balaclavas, colored balaclavas and asking the Virgin Mary to expel Putin. So that, you know, that may have offended some people.
LAKSHMANAN 11:45:02 When they did their earlier protest in Red Square, they didn't get the same kind of, you know, they didn't get arrested and put on trial for that.
GJELTEN 11:45:08 And we should point out that the judge insisted that this would -- he was punishing these women not for their anti-Putin feelings, but for their, as you say, the blasphemy.
LAKSHMANAN 11:45:19 I think it was a she, a female judge.
GJELTEN 11:45:21 Okay, sorry.
LAKSHMANAN 11:45:21 In fact, yeah, yeah, exactly.
GJELTEN 11:45:22 Yeah, let's go now to Tony, who is on the line from Glendale, Md. Good morning, Tony, thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
TONY 11:45:29 Yeah, good morning. Thank you for...
GJELTEN 11:45:31 You've got a question?
TONY 11:45:31 Yes, sir, thank you for taking my call. I have a problem understanding. We've been fighting this al-Qaida going on 10 to 15 years now and they seem to be growing stronger elsewhere in the world. There's a country called Mali and in Mali, they basically got hijacked by these al-Qaida people.
TONY 11:46:00 I mean, every day Americans are dying in Afghanistan for this cause of freedom and the same people seems to be popping out in another country, in another part of the world as if in defiance.
TONY 11:46:15 My second question is, I would never have thought in a 1,000 years that America would negotiate with people like Mullah Omar of the Taliban, but it seems as if that's where they're going, at least if you listen to the newscast. It looks like we are negotiating with these terrorist people. Here's my last question. Are we doing enough or are we doing too much?
GJELTEN 11:46:40 Okay, three really tough questions, Tony. Let's go to Yochi Dreazen, first of all, on negotiating with the Taliban. I think we have to point out that it's the Afghans and the Pakistanis who are probably in the lead in terms of promoting this idea of reconciliation with the Taliban, isn't it?
DREAZEN 11:46:57 It is, but it's heavily, heavily being led, frankly, by the Americans. I mean, the Americans have the most to give. I mean, they can offer the Taliban some form of U.S. withdrawal. They can help shepherd the Taliban in some form into power. They can free Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, which has been on the table now for some time.
DREAZEN 11:47:15 It is weird, it's hard to stomach. I mean, this was the group that sheltered the terrorists who then committed an atrocity against the U.S. On the other hand, universally, both David Petraeus when he was the commander, first the central command, then in Afghanistan, Secretary of State Clinton, the president, they universally see this as the way out.
DREAZEN11:47:29One quick point on his al-Qaida comment, the biggest argument I think you can make against why the Afghan war should wind down is that that is not where al-Qaida is. They're in Mali. They're in all over northern Africa. That is where they are. They're in Yemen. They're in Somalia. So this idea that we should have the bulk of our conventional forces, our special forces in Afghanistan, that's not where our enemy is located, is a very strong argument against the war.
GJELTEN 11:47:52 And in fact, Indira, Afghanistan and Pakistan hardly count anymore. What they used to talk about, core al-Qaida, we do, as Yochi said, we now have al-Qaida in Yemen. We have al-Qaida in northern Africa and as Tony, the caller, pointed out, in Mali where it's apparently the rise of al-Qaida that is in some ways a spillover of what happened in Libya. So we really have a dispersion of this jihadi threat now.
LAKSHMANAN 11:48:15 Right, although I think there is still believed to be core al-Qaida in the tribal areas of Pakistan. I mean, remember Osama bin Laden himself was, of course, found in Pakistan and I think U.S. intelligence, there is some evidence that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaida leader, is also somewhere in Pakistan so I don't think we can completely write them off as a place where al-Qaida elements are taking haven.
LAKSHMANAN 11:48:41 But I take the caller's point that it becomes a game of Whack-A-Mole, where, you know, you knock them down in one place and they pop up somewhere else. And of course, as Yochi was saying, the administration thinks that negotiation with the Taliban is the way to go, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. It hasn't gone anywhere yet.
LAKSHMANAN 11:48:59 There have been efforts, you know, people have put out feelers, but it's not like the talks are anywhere at this point. Nothing has been agreed to.
GJELTEN 11:49:06 Thom Shanker, I want to mention one other international story that is interesting. It's slightly odd and that is the Australian, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks who has been accused of sexual charges in Sweden, not charged, but accused, and Swedish authorities want to question him about that. The Americans are concerned about his cooperation in the leaking of, alleged cooperation, in the leaking of classified documents.
GJELTEN 11:49:36 He took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and this week the Ecuadorian government said it was giving him asylum. What does that mean, considering that he still is in London, albeit in the embassy of Ecuador?
SHANKER 11:49:48 Right, it's a very interesting question. It's a very nice neighborhood. It's near Harrod's and all of that. But I'll tell you if he actually wants to take Ecuador up on the offer of asylum, the trip from the Ecuadorian Embassy to Heathrow Airport might as well be a trip to the moon because the second he steps foot outside the embassy, he will be arrested by British authorities acting on, you know, the legal system that wants him taken to Stockholm for questioning there.
SHANKER 11:50:17 There's actually, Tom, an odd, old British law that because it may be a criminal matter, British authorities may be able to waive diplomatic privilege and actually enter the Ecuadorian Embassy. That has not happened yet. That would be fairly extreme. But for right now, this offer of asylum in Ecuador is fairly meaningless because he can't get there.
GJELTEN 11:50:37 It's fairly meaningless, but I'm also wondering what does this do to Britain's standing in Latin America? Now Britain has made a big issue of Julian Assange and a big issue of Ecuador granting him asylum.
GJELTEN 11:50:51 Yochi Dreazen, what does this -- does this have any implications for Britain's relationship with other Latin American countries, whether it's Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, the countries that are sympathetic to Ecuador or perhaps other countries as well?
DREAZEN 11:51:05 I mean, I think you've hit it on the head and identified the specific countries where this would play the best. I mean, these are countries that hate the United States. They see Britain as a lackey and ally so I completely agree with the premise of your question.
DREAZEN 11:51:16 One point that I think, you know, you implied in the opening, this is kind of like getting Al Capone for tax evasion. I mean, this is a person who, you know, we can, I think, take away the allegedly, leaked tens of thousands of classified documents. That's not what might get him imprisoned. What might get him imprisoned is unproven alleged charges of sexual harassment, not the leaking of this enormous trove of classified documents.
GJELTEN 11:51:38 Yochi Dreazen is with the National Journal and Indira Lakshmanan, who we're going to hear from in a minute, is with Bloomberg News. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm sorry, Indira.
LAKSHMANAN 11:51:49 Sorry, Tom, so I was just going to say, of course, you know, while there are these sexual allegations in Sweden, I think the real fear he has is being extradited from Sweden to the United States. I mean, that's been the fear all along, being extradited from Britain to the U.S. or Sweden to the U.S. because there he could face major espionage charges.
LAKSHMANAN 11:52:11 I'm not a lawyer, but allegedly some of them might go as far as, you know, life in prison or the death penalty. I don't know.
GJELTEN 11:52:18 Well, this is what I think the Ecuadorian government is saying. This is the reason they want to protect him because they're worried about him possibly facing a death penalty in the United States. Let's go back to the phones now. First of all to Riah, who is on the line from Florida. Good morning Riah, thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
RIAH 11:52:36 Hi, how are you doing?
GJELTEN 11:52:37 I'm good. How are you?
RIAH 11:52:38 I'm fine, thank you. I want to ask you about the Syria civil war actually. I think that the United States and Israel make wrong calculation because right there, right now, in Syria is al-Qaida. This is much more dangerous for Israel than Assad regime. Assad, in my opinion, is not as bad as Saudi Arabia kings, which are the worst in the world.
RIAH 11:53:23 Also, they're not as bad as Bahrain so you make the -- I mean, the United States make very wrong calculation because right there, they're going to attack Israel from Syria and that's a very, very, very bad.
GJELTEN 11:53:39 Okay, thank you, Riah. Well, that may be the view from Israel. I'm not sure it's the view from Syria, is it, Yochi?
DREAZEN 11:53:47 I mean, I think she hits at, though, an important point, which is the external/internal divide over what to do with Syria. And she's right that for the Israelis, for decades the Assad family has kept the peace in the north. There has been nothing as far as terrorist action from the north, militant action from the north.
DREAZEN 11:54:02 Now Israel looks to Egypt, which we haven't had a chance to talk about, but in the Sinai, you have a tremendous amount of weapon smuggling. You've had attacks launched in the Sinai. So you can understand the Israeli fear that a repressive dictator keeps the peace, democracy and political transition may not.
DREAZEN 11:54:18 So we look at it from the point of view of human rights and the point of view of democracy. Neighbors look at it from the point of view of cold geo-politics.
GJELTEN 11:54:25 Right. Indira?
LAKSHMANAN 11:54:26 One short point. We had the Israeli Ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, in our Bloomberg office the other day and he actually said that while Assad's father was ruthless, the Israelis felt more that they could live with him because he was keeping the peace. But they feel that Assad, the current Assad, is ruthless and reckless and they won't be crying any tears for him to go.
LAKSHMANAN 11:54:46 So the Israelis seem to have decided that they want him to go, but they're not speaking out in support of the opposition because they don't think it will help the opposition.
GJELTEN 11:54:53 Well, Thom, isn't it a little bit late to be talking about this as if it were a choice that Israel or the United States or anyone else can make, whether to support the Assad regime or not?
SHANKER 11:55:04 Right. I mean, the Assad is going at some point. I think one of the problems people haven't talked about is a second and third order effect. If we thought that the civil war in Iraq was bloody and complicated, that was a three-way war, Sunni, Shiite and Kurd. There are far more tribal ethnic and religious divides in Syria and it would be a bloody, bloody mess.
GJELTEN 11:55:23 And Yochi, you were right to mention Egypt, a country we haven't gotten into just yet this hour. We just have a minute left. In fact, Mohammed Morsi, the new president of Egypt, actually this week, moved against the Egyptian military. That was quite a significant move, wasn't it, given the power of the Egyptian military?
DREAZEN 11:55:40 It was and it was very surprising. And the feeling before this move was the military would retain control and the Muslim Brotherhood would come to some form of detente. Instead, you've seen the Muslim Brotherhood move very aggressively against a group that was seen as largely invulnerable and impervious.
GJELTEN 11:55:54 And what's the future there, Indira? Are we going to see a continuing sort of empowerment of civilian authority in Egypt? And what is that going to mean because the United States and other countries have actually seen the military as sort of a protector of U.S. and western strategic interests in the region?
LAKSHMANAN 11:56:11 That's right. The U.S. has seen it that way and I think that there was some scrambling in Washington last Sunday when this, what some people have called a coup or a reverse-coup with the new Muslim Brotherhood leader, you know, shaking up the military leadership.
LAKSHMANAN 11:56:24 It happened, but I think the position that the U.S. has come to is saying, all right, let's just take it as it goes and see what happens. I mean, it's not as if he's done anything unconstitutional here and, you know, he was the elected leader. So I think, at this point, people are sort of playing it as it lays and it's democracy in action. We'll see what happens.
GJELTEN 11:56:44 Well, here we are coming to the end of the international hour on the Friday News Roundup and once again, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, all figure largely in the news and also the quite surprising developments in Russia where a punk, all-girl punk band is now facing imprisonment. I'd like to thank our guests, Yochi Dreazen from the National Journal, Indira Lakshmanan from Bloomberg and Thom Shanker from the New York Times. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in for Diane Rehm, thanks for listening.
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