The U.K. votes to leave the European Union. Heavy fighting continues in parts of Fallujah as Iraqi forces seek to retake all of the city from ISIS. And in Venezuela, food shortages spur looting and rioting. A panel of journalists joins guest host Susan Page for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
Guest Host: Tom Gjelten
Greece’s new caretaker government was sworn in Thursday, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would consider economic stimulus options there. A U.N. monitor team was evacuated from northern Syria. The war crimes trial of former Bosnian Serb leader Ratko Mladic was suspended over prosecution errors. James Kitfield of National Journal, Nadia Bilbassy of Middle East Broadcasting Center and Thom Shanker of The New York Times join guest host Tom Gjelten for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Thom Shanker Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times; co-author of "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda."
- Nadia Bilbassy senior U.S. correspondent, MBC TV -- Middle East Broadcast Centre.
- James Kitfield senior correspondent, National Journal.
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on a station visit. Concerns grow over the future of the Eurozone. Greece installs an interim cabinet until new elections are held in June. France's new government takes a pay cut as a gesture of shared sacrifice amid the nation's economic troubles. In Syria, fears of al-Qaida's increasing presence in that conflict heighten and the war crimes trial of former Bosnian Serb leader, Ratko Mladic, is suspended possibly for months.
MR. TOM GJELTENJoining me in the studio to discuss the week's top international stories on the Friday News Roundup, James Kitfield of National Journal, Nadia Bilbassy of MBC TV and Thom Shanker of the New York Times. We want to hear from you, our listeners, during this hour as well. Unfortunately, we are having a network problem with our telephones this morning, which means that if you want to have your voice or comments or questions heard on this show, you're going to need to contact us electronically.
MR. TOM GJELTENSend us an email at email@example.com. You can leave a comment on our website, you can leave a comment on Facebook or you can send us a tweet. We will, I do promise, we will include listeners' comments and questions. We just, for the moment at least, these network problems are making it difficult for us to take any phone calls.
MR. TOM GJELTENWell, good morning, everyone.
MR. JAMES KITFIELDGood morning.
MR. THOM SHANKERGood morning.
MS. NADIA BILBASSYGood morning, Tom.
GJELTENSo big day today. The group of eight, which includes the top seven industrial countries of the western world plus Russia, are meeting at Camp David and the meeting comes at a critical time for the future of Europe. We have the 17 member Eurozone is in jeopardy. Greek voters made it clear they don't like the austerity measures that other members of the Eurozone group were imposing on them.
GJELTENThey rejected the government that was obliged to implement those measures. Now, the Greek leaders have not been able to put a new government. So as I said, we have a caretaker government, but the future of Greece's membership in the Eurozone, James Kitfield, at this moment is very much up in the air.
KITFIELDVery much up in the air and more so because the elections they've called because they couldn't reach compromise emergency government. The party leading in the polls is the party that rejects outright the bailout package that was agreed upon a couple of months ago. You know, this crisis is the great undead of crises. Every time Europe, you know, sticks a stake in its heart and thinks it can, you know, it's dead, it arises from the dead and comes back and haunts them. And it's rising from the dead because now politics have inserted themselves.
KITFIELDYou know, the whole European project is built around a lot of elites deciding that this monetary union made a lot of sense, we're going to do this and you've seen in the past, a lot of times when that's put to referendums the public has different ideas. Well, now in this austerity driven response to the crises that has been driven by Germany, you know, has caused five years of recession in Greece. It's caused unemployment in Spain to reach depression era levels, 20 percent plus, and the publics in these elections are starting to say enough is enough, we can't do this anymore.
KITFIELDSo there is real concern that Greece, if this new government is elected and it refuses the bailout, could be forced from the Eurozone with absolutely unpredictable circumstances. It could directly affect our own presidential election campaign. Because like a laymen, like a vent that causes the sort of freeze up of credit around the world and we go into another financial meltdown. It's not going to bode well for President Obama.
GJELTENWell, Thom Shanker, driven by Germany, a country where you and I both used to live, in fact, this has been the dominant political feature of this whole crisis, is the incredible role that Germany has had to play and yet Angela Merkel faced a pretty hard loss. Her party experienced some losses.
GJELTENSo speaking of how politics are driving this crisis, we have German voters really sick of having to bailout the people of the Mediterranean region and we have the Greek voters, the Italian voters and the Spanish voters sick of having Germany tell them what to do. So we're seeing some real cracks here in the idea of a united Europe.
SHANKERWe certainly are and, Tom, as you mentioned, after Merkel's party suffered that provincial defeat, she actually softened her stance. And there's one more president that you didn't mention who's also caught in a bind and that's President Obama, the host of the G8 that James mentioned, going on at Camp David.
SHANKERYou know, the Obama view of how to pull the U.S. out of its debt crisis was about stimulus, borrowing money, making the economy more vibrant. That's the opposite of what Germany and Merkel have advocated, which is restricting government spending, more austerity to, they hope, instill confidence in the market. So here's Merkel coming to Camp David, meeting Obama whose view of how he would've handled it is exact opposite.
GJELTENAnd meanwhile, Nadia, we also have Francois Hollande there, the new French president who campaigned also on an anti-austerity platform. Although, since being elected, he has certainly indicated moderation and apparently the French stock markets have taken his word that he's not going to move France in a radical direction.
BILBASSYWell, that is right and this is going to be the first time that Francois Hollande will meet with President Obama. Of course, he wanted to lead by example, so the first thing that the new cabinet, they said that they're going to slash 30 percent of their salaries to give the French voters some kind of hope that they're going to change the structure of the economy in a different direction. But let's not forget, this is a socialist government and for 40 years, France is unable to balance a budget.
BILBASSYForty years, this an incredible number and they have this elaborate social benefits. So for him, it's very difficult so they have to keep it on one side. All these benefits that they had in the past, but also he promised that he's going to reduce the deficit by 2017. Now, his problem probably is he has to be on a good side of Angela Merkel. She's been the driving power in Europe and he cannot afford to have some kind of friction between the two. And they already coordinated the effort before they came to the G8 and telephone calls between UK and Italy as well.
BILBASSYAnd basically what they wanted to do, he wanted to add a phrase into this treaty that they negotiated before, which is growth. He's saying, it's fine about deficit cuts, but we have to stimulate growth. We need to add, as Thom said, a stimulus is probably the magic word here, but we wanted to cut the deficit. But what we need to do is we have to ensure that actually the economy is growing because this is the first sign that we have to look, whether it's in Greece or elsewhere, and I think Greece comes back to the focus now, that basically even if the parties, in the end, manage to get some government on June 17th, that growth is going to be a vital issue here.
KITFIELDYou know, what really scares me about this crisis is that, you know, if you're an observer as all of us are, what goes on in Washington. And you've seen this debate about stimulus and Obama between the Republicans preaching austerity, caused this town to actually be paralyzed. We saw the talks last July that led into a down-rating of our credit because they just couldn't reach an agreement. The super committee couldn't reach an agreement. We are paralyzed, too.
KITFIELDMultiply that by 17 times, that's what the European Union is facing and the problem there is they're facing two potential death spirals. One of which is you take on so much debt that your economy is basically all spent on paying and servicing that debt and you go into a death spiral. Or you take on, you know, you try to introduce stimulus, but that introduces even more debt. So austerity on one side, stimulus on the other, if you're at some level of indebtedness, becomes problematic either way.
KITFIELDAnd, you know, I really worry that this -- you talk about structural problems in the European Union. They probably have already been there. They were papered over in good times. I see, it's very hard to see an easy way out of this because Germany, as Thom said, is fed up with being the person who's supplying all the money from the (word?) . The bondholders are already making the debt in Spain unsustainable. Spain's too big to bail out. So it's very hard to see, I mean, I imagine they will paper over this initial crisis somehow but it's hard to see structurally how this has a soft landing.
GJELTENWell, it seems to me that if you look at the commentaries from Greece, the statements from Greek politicians, the statements from Angela Merkel and others in Europe, they are in theory still committed to Greece remaining in the Eurozone. But there's so much talk over the last many months about Greece leaving the euro that, you know, budget planners are gaming out the possibilities and maybe all this talk about Greece staying in the Eurozone is just a way, Thom, to buy time while the preparations are actually made for Greece to leave.
SHANKERThat's exactly right. like so many negotiations, it may go to the 11th hour, but the scenario you laid out, Tom, is very possible. That this is a cover story and if you listen to the voices from the street of Greece, what the population talks about, they just don't see any benefit from the Eurozone. If there were a national vote in Greece today, I'd think it would be overwhelming to leave the euro community. The problem is, that's never happened before. Nobody knows what that does to the global economy.
GJELTENThom Shanker is a Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times. Nadia?
BILBASSYI just wanted to disagree here. I think if you hear the statements from Angela Merkel, she said in an interview with the CNBC that, I have the will and the determination to keep Greece in the Eurozone. I think Germany has been talking this language basically to negotiate a bailout ultimately when the new Greek government takes place after June election, the fact that Greece exiting from the Eurozone is going to be a complete disaster.
BILBASSYIf you listen to all the statements from coming from European Union, from the head of the European Central Bank, everybody said that is the interest of Europe to keep Greece there. Now, what's the alternative for them, is to go back to drachma? We already have $900 million of Greek citizens taking this money out of banks and putting them either abroad or in their homes the traditional way, under the mattress basically, because they have no confidence in the system. But ultimately, I think Greece -- my predication is that they might stay in the EU.
GJELTENOf course, James, the big danger of Greece going down that road is the anxiety will spread to Spain and to Italy and Nadia talked about people taking money out. They start taking money out of Spanish and Italian banks, then we're really in trouble.
KITFIELDAnd we've already seen it. Spain had to bailout its fourth largest bank this last week. There's a run on banks. The bondholders are getting very nervous about Spanish debt. So we're already seeing what would happen if it goes off the cliff.
GJELTENJames Kitfield is senior correspondent for the National Journal. Nadia Bilbassy also joins us. She's senior U.S. correspondent from the Middle East Broadcast Center, MBC TV and Thom Shanker, Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times. He's also the co-author of "Counter Strike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against al-Qaida." We're going to take a short break in a couple of seconds here. When we come back, we're going to be reading some emails and Facebook messages from you, our listeners. This is the international hour of the Friday News Roundup. Stay tuned.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm and this is the international hour of the Friday News Roundup. I'm joined here in the studio by James Kitfield, senior correspondent for the National Journal and Nadia Bilbassy, senior U.S. correspondent for MBC TV and Thom Shanker, Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times. So, James, you mentioned that just today there's gonna be a G8 meeting at Camp David, but starting tomorrow is the NATO Summit in Chicago.
GJELTENAnd, Thom Shanker, with all the economic problems that the European governments are dealing with, what are the prospects that the United States can expect the kind of help it says it needs from its allies to pay for future operations in Afghanistan? $4 billion a year is the estimated cost of that operation.
SHANKERIf words were dollars, Tom, they'll get everything that they possibly need, but it's the real dollars that they need. I think when President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan lands in Chicago, he's going to make the case that Afghan security forces have improved and are improving. But he'll say flat out, they simply do need the kind of money you talked about, 4 billion a year. Already Britain and France have said they'll give some money, but not the full amount that is needed. So I think it's going to be a great challenge to make this summit anything more than cover for cutting and running.
GJELTENBut it seems that the United States, I think, perhaps recognizing all the constraints on secure funding for Afghanistan and the lack of support for it is sort of redefining the expectations of what should happen in Afghanistan. You wrote about this phrase that what we're looking at in Afghanistan is Afghan good enough. What does that mean?
SHANKERThat's exactly right. Well, early on, of course, the mission was simply to run the Taliban out 'cause they were the host for al-Qaida, to drive al-Qaida from the country. But then, how interestingly the Bush administration, a man who ran against the concept of nation building, embarked upon a huge nation-building program there, one that was adopted and even expanded by President Obama. I think there's been a deep sense of buyer's remorse. And the goal now is simply to have a country that will never again be a lily pad for launching terrorist strikes against us.
SHANKERBut everything else, all the fine words about schools for girls, roads, economic development, governance, you're not going to hear a bit of that in Chicago.
GJELTENBut, Nadia Bilbassy, really the important condition for any kind of stability in Afghanistan is the performance of the Afghan security forces. 'Cause if the United States and its allies pull out of Afghanistan, it's all going to be on the shoulders of those Afghan security forces. And what can you tell us about their capability right now?
BILBASSYAbsolutely. And I think this -- just remind the listeners that the United States is very keen on keeping this date, the 2014. They wanted to make sure that Afghanistan is functioning enough. And they don't want to repeat the mistake of what the Soviets did, that basically they cut the help and the money that they wanted so a civil war will ensue after.
BILBASSYNow the security forces, it depends on who you're talking to. I mean, American generals say they're doing fine and basically, give them another 18 months, they're supposed to give two-thirds, I think, of the responsibilities to the Afghan forces. But just look at the last two weeks. There is attacks, attempted assassination of the governor in Farah Province, which is relatively quiet. We have seen another attack, assassination on the governor of Kandahar.
BILBASSYSo the Taliban is coming back in what they call the Spring Offensive. They basically wanted to show that they're still in charge, they're able to cause serious problem. And also they manage to assassinate the -- probably a topic we'll talk about later in details, about this peace negotiator, Arsala Rahmani, who was gunned down in a traffic jam in Kabul to show that they are still able.
BILBASSYTheir abilities also is to penetrate the security forces. If you look at most of the attacks against Americans and NATO forces, it's basically Taliban fighters disguising themselves as the security forces. So they dress up like them and they go to the compound. There was chaotic situations, they don't know what's going on and they manage to succeed with their attacks. So I will say there's still -- I think this is questionable, their ability to take over.
GJELTENAnd the assassination of that peace negotiator is very bad news because in almost any scenario for withdrawing from Afghanistan, there's got to be some negotiations, right, James?
KITFIELDThere does. And the negotiations have been stalled since they killed his predecessor last fall. And, you know, basically these negotiations have gone nowhere. First, President Karzai felt like he was insufficiently consulted on them. The Taliban was trying to get some release of prisoners from Guantanamo. The whole thing's basically fallen apart now. Hard to see how we are going to pressure the Taliban back to the table now when you see all the optics look like kind of a rush for the exit.
KITFIELDYou talked about the French socialist, new President Hollande has said that he wants to accelerate France's withdrawal following the Canadians and the Dutch so this thing is hanging by a thread basically. And Obama's administration's goal at NATO Summit will be to sort of provide a unified front that we're sticking it out 'til 2014, end of. And we will support, you know, the Afghan security forces after that with, as Thom said, $4 billion, which we'll probably end up paying 3 billion of at least.
KITFIELDAnd it's going to be a dicey thing, whether this house of cards stays up. Having said that, I actually think that the Afghan security forces have been a sort of silver lining here. I have spent some time with them. When they are taking the lead showing a fair amount of capability, we have to remember the Taliban, even though it launches these attacks on the governor's provincial mansion, was repelled. All the killers -- you know, that is not a strategic threat.
KITFIELDThe strategic threat is that the Kabul government is not able to sort of hold the thing together with those security forces. I actually think there is still a possibility that can happen, but not if, you know, everyone starts rushing for the exits.
SHANKERBut if you look at 11 years of war, a trillion dollars in American money, several thousand lives, all the thousands more who've been wounded and the best guess for what post 2014 looks like is a re-Talibanization of the south. It'll be a softer, gentler Taliban, but their influence will return. Heavy Iranian influence in the west. In the east, you have Pakistani influence and the Haqqani criminal network running things. And the president of Afghanistan is basically the president of Kabul County Afghanistan. Does that -- is that what victory looks like?
KITFIELDWell, you said, Afghan good enough. You weren't the first to say that. But, you know, I think that if the Taliban take over, you know, they definitely have re-infiltrated somewhat in Kandahar and Haman, their traditional strongholds. If they take the southern part of the country and the country starts to fracture like that, you will probably see a civil war and that will be an absolute failure. I don't think that's inevitable, is what I'm saying.
GJELTENNadia, these reports from Afghanistan certainly have to weigh on Francois Hollande. And as James says, he has pledged to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan, but he is meeting today at the White House with President Obama, then he'll be at Camp David as part of the G8. Then he's going to be at the NATO Summit. How much pressure is Francois Hollande going to be under to reconsider his pledge to pull all the French troops out of Afghanistan?
BILBASSYActually, Tom, there is close advisors to the president who said that it's very unlikely that he will come to Chicago to attend the NATO Summit and he will...
BILBASSY...no, he will come without saying -- first of all, donating the money that they wanted. But I think Americans bought the shopping list of $200 million. He will come and it will be very hard for him not to deliver something. That something could be part of the money that the administration wanted from them. And also probably not withdrawing the troops, but he's under huge pressure.
BILBASSYLet's remember that this is the presidential candidate who basically ran on the platform of antiwar. Second, there is a huge fatigue in Europe towards Afghanistan, as Thom said, after 11 years of war. People are tired of it. And I think there is a division between the United States and Britain on one side and the rest of Europe on the other side because the rest of Europe looks at Afghanistan and says, look, we have a corrupted government. We have abusive human rights and all what we need now is to cough up this money, which is a ridiculous amount.
BILBASSYI mean, two-thirds of it is going to come from the United States. But still they wanted 125 million from Canada, 20 million from Finland, tiny small country, 40 million from Sweden, imagine. So this country's saying, maybe we don't want to do that, but ultimately they know that they -- not just because the lack of interest in the security situation or instability. Because once Afghanistan descends into civil war, we have the regional powers. We're going to see Iran and India and Pakistan and all these people meddling inside Afghanistan.
BILBASSYSo it's their interest to do something, but I think Francois Hollande will be under pressure to do something. Maybe he will stick to the date of withdrawing 2013.
GJELTENWe'll see. Thom -- go ahead, James.
KITFIELDTom -- I'm sorry, I was just going to say, you know, I would like to put the money in perspective, though. We alone spend about $90 billion a year right now at current force levels in Afghanistan. If we can pull out in 2014 to transition to Afghan security forces, that cost $4 billion a year...
KITFIELD...it can start to look like a pretty good bargain.
SHANKERAnd we've all seen this movie before. It's actually called Charlie Wilson's War whereas the United States supported the anti -- the proxy forces. We forgot about the place and what was born, al-Qaida.
GJELTENWell, Thom Shanker, what is going to happen at this NATO Summit? Can we expect anything, any news, any suspense at this NATO Summit in Chicago, or is it totally preordained?
SHANKERIf there's some major news development to come out of Chicago, Tom, the administration has kept it a secret as the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Basically it's coming together, holding hands, Kumbayah and a pledge of long term support through 2014 and for a decade afterwards. But we've been given no indication of major news.
GJELTENI want to read an email that we got this morning from Carla. And by the way, to our listeners, please send us your emails. We're going to be reading them, we're going to be reading Facebook messages and Twitter messages all morning. This is an email from Carla who says, "A number of countries, including Turkey, are trying to add the issue of Macedonia's membership again to the NATO agenda.
GJELTENDespite the ruling by the international court of justice, Greece seems determined to block the effort. No surprise there. I'd like to hear the panelists' comments on this, and especially on the U.S. position." Nadia, have you been following the Macedonia issue? The Macedonia issue is an issue that, like a few others, really divides Greece and Turkey.
BILBASSYYeah, just like Cypress and other conflicts that haven't been solved. But I haven't actually been following it in details, but, you know, the membership in the EU is always an interesting point for countries to vie for power...
GJELTENNATO in this case.
BILBASSY...for NATO in particular. So of course, Turkey is a prominent power there and they play a role very much in Afghanistan, but also in Syria, that if another conflict that is now occupying so many attention in the corridor of power of what's going to be happening there. But I think sometimes that these little countries, that they wanted to have some membership in NATO, whatever they wanted to do. They basically -- their bargaining chip. They will use something against something. But I'm not actually familiar with the details when it comes to Macedonia.
GJELTENWell, it'll be interesting to hear what Turkey has to say at this NATO Summit, won't it, James, because Turkey is a country very much on the frontline of perhaps not Afghanistan but a number of other conflicts including Syria.
KITFIELDIt will be interesting and Turkey is a strategic lynchpin primarily right now with Syria. And I personally think Macedonia is way down on priorities of...
GJELTENI think we can assume that.
KITFIELD...of the agenda. So I don't see any movement on that. And we've seen with Cypress that if, you know, NATO acts, you know, on the principle of unanimity, which means that if Greek doesn't want it in, it won't get in. It's as simple as that. But again, I don't think they're going to spend a lot of time -- you know, NATO is at a really perilous moment. And they're going to -- you're going to hear a lot of really flowery rhetoric in these communiqués from Chicago about how, you know, we're all standing together in lock step.
KITFIELDBut the fact is Europeans are slashing the defense budgets. They've come up with this sort of window dressing of smart defense to sort of rationalize doing more with less. The U.S. has announced -- is pulling troops of Europe, announced a pivot to Asia that has made, you know, the new eastern European members of NATO very nervous, 'cause they're still in the shadow of Russia. You have the whole problem surrounding Afghanistan.
KITFIELDSo despite all the flowery rhetoric, this is a very perilous moment for NATO, I think. And, you know, the best thing you can say about the alliance, though, is it has persisted through really tough times before and I suspect it will persist again because as a lot of experts say, there is no alternative to NATO.
GJELTENJames Kitfield is senior correspondent for the National Journal. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Thom Shanker, I interrupted you just (unintelligible) .
SHANKERNot at all. Just James description of NATO reminds me it's really a dysfunctional marriage, but all the countries stay together for the kids.
GJELTENWell, you know, NATO's last engagement was in Libya and that showed a couple of things. One it showed, as James said, that, you know, NATO still has a role to play. I mean, you know, in theory at least the NATO role in Libya was important. It also showed, of course, how much NATO allies depend on the United States. But now we have a much tougher test case coming up for NATO and that is, as James mentioned, Syria.
SHANKERExactly right. And just to underscore your point, yes, the Libya campaign was NATO-led but, you know, we can get the statistics -- 80 percent of the ordinance, 80 percent of the strikes (word?), you know, were run by the Americans. And it's just, you know, that can't be forgotten. Syria, though, you know, there was an op in this morning by a leading senator calling for greater involvement. The comparison, though, is impossible.
SHANKERSyria has a much stronger military, much more integrated military. The president seems to be in a much stronger state and the opposition is not at all united. So while the 10,000 civilian deaths is a travesty and a shame, it's very difficult, Tom, to see an easy military answer as was offered in the Libya situation.
GJELTENNadia Bilbassy, the news in the last few weeks has been the United Nation's mission in Syria. But I think everyone agrees it is not going well. We just had news this morning of government troops attacking demonstrators in Aleppo and there were actually U.N. observers on the scene. And they were not able to do anything.
BILBASSYNo, because they are a monitoring force. They're not authorized to do anything else, just like we see them all over the place. And in fact, it reminds me of other conflicts, like in Rwanda, for example. You know, when you make the U.N. forces a target themselves, although until now, they could not really fight for they were targeted or they were caught in crossfire. But basically, the U.N. monitoring forces were in a place called Khan Sheikhoun and became under attack. And they were held for a few hours and finally they were allowed to leave. And this town was held by what they called the Syrian Free Army.
BILBASSYNow the situation there, everybody knows that this monitoring team and that plan is failing, but nobody yet willing to accept that it has failed. The only thing they're doing is basically not monitoring the peace, 'cause there's no peace, but 'cause there's some kind of lull in the fighting so the demonstrators take refuge when they see the U.N. forces there. They allow them to go out. And actually, despite that this particular incident, the security forces fired on a funeral procession and they killed 20 people there.
BILBASSYBut the situation in Syria it is a really sad one because it seems that President Assad still has a grip on power, that the international community has nowhere to move beyond what we have now which is let's send this -- first of all, the Arab League monitors, let's send the U.N. monitors, let's send (word?) teams, et cetera. Because still, now what they're doing, the Americans is basically outsourcing the conflict or managing the conflict to the Saudis and to the Turks and other countries by giving this assistant to the opposition which is called nonlethal, but even arming them without being involved directly.
GJELTENWell, you say nonlethal, but you also mentioned Saudi Arabia. But the Gulf countries are actually more and more inclined, it seems, James, to actually send some weapons to the rebels and to intervene more actively -- there's been a lot of stuff going in to boost the rebels.
KITFIELDMore than inclined, they are doing it. They're arming the rebels and what the news is the last week or two is that we are actually coordinating that effort. We're actually helping them with communications. I mean, we are slipping into a involvement here and here's why. You know, I totally agree with Thom. I've always gotten queasy about Syria but the things that make you nervous about Syria, that it could fracture, that a civil war breaks out, that the Sunni/Shiite divide gets, you know, super heated in ways that might spread to the region.
KITFIELDIf this civil war continues as it is, all those things are happening anyway. And at some tipping point -- and we've seen it with Senator Lieberman with Libya and Senator McCain. At some tipping point, the cost of inaction actually becomes almost greater than the cost of action and then I can see us getting drawn in.
GJELTENJames Kitfield, a senior correspondent for the National Journal. This is the International Hour of the Friday News Roundup. I'm Tom Gjelten. Stay listening. We'll be right back.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm and this is the international hour of the Friday News Roundup. My guests in the studio are James Kitfield, senior correspondent for the National Journal, also Nadia Bilbassy, who is senior U.S. correspondent for MBC TV and Thom Shanker, he's the Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times. He's also the co-author of the acclaimed new book "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al-Qaida."
GJELTENWe want to include you, our listeners, in our conversations this morning. You can certainly send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org You can send us messages on Facebook or Twitter and we do have a special phone number for you to call this morning. This is a number for today only. We've had a little bit of a network problem with our regular phone number, but this phone number will work. Take it down, it is 202-244-4176. This is a number for reaching us today only, 202-244-4176, and so we will be going to your calls when you are able to get through to us.
GJELTENLet's stay with Syria for a minute. You know, we've talked about the -- James Kitfield mentioned the danger of a sectarian conflict there. We're talking about the increasing evidence of the rebels being armed in Syria, but a very troubling development this week, Thom Shanker, two big car bombs in Damascus that left 60-70 people killed. And Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. Secretary General, yesterday came out and said it looks to him like this was the work of al-Qaida.
SHANKERThat's exactly right, Tom. You'll remember that one of the al-Qaida rat lines into Iraq where al-Qaida Mesopotamia was so successful at, you know, killing American troops and almost pushing the country to a civil war, that rat line went from Damascus into Anbar. Well, it looks like that rat line is now being reversed and al-Qaida is indeed coming into Syria.
SHANKERNow we've spoken to a lot of senior intelligence officials. They're not seeing them in particularly large numbers. But as you said, these car bomb attacks are signature al-Qaida and this could be the start of what could be a very devastating terror campaign.
GJELTENAnd if al-Qaida were involved, it would, on the one hand, underscore the sectarian issues because al-Qaida is, of course, a very sectarian Sunni group, but it would also make outsiders all the more nervous about becoming involved, right, Nadia?
BILBASSYOh, absolutely, but nobody wants al-Qaida in anywhere now. I mean, you know, they're very unpopular in the last days in their operation in Iraq. Actually, people wanted them out so I don't think they will be gaining any support, but they definitely add to the dimension that this regime is seen as an Alawite, which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. And now you have the majority of the people, which is led by the Muslim Brotherhood inside Syria, who are Sunnis and we've seen actually part of this conflict is spilling into Lebanon.
BILBASSYWe have seen recently, in the last few days, there has been a sectarian attack in the city of Tripoli in the north, a few people are dead. And this is quite serious as well, if we, you know, see the implication of that. But I think Ban Ki-moon's statement has raised some eyebrows because he has no evidence to show that and people were worried. Where did he get this information? Although everybody kind of assumed that al-Qaida is operating there, but we have no real hard evidence to show that actually they are behind all these attacks, although they have their modus operandi of all these car bombs.
GJELTENWell, I think that's what he was saying, it bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida. I don't have the exact words in front of me. He didn't say he had evidence that it was al-Qaida...
GJELTEN...so we had that. Now you mentioned increased fighting in the north. I want to put this question to you, James Kitfield. This is from Matt in Plano, Texas. "What would NATO do if Turkey and Syria were to start fighting?"
KITFIELDWell, Turkey is a NATO country so I mean...
GJELTENAn attack on one is an attack on all.
KITFIELDExactly. And if Turkey decided that this threat had become such that they had to act, I think that NATO would probably have to be behind them. And I think that that, again, would spell how you would see a NATO and a western operation. First thing they would probably do would be to create safe havens in northern Syria that were guarded by NATO air power and some Turkish probably troops on the ground. There would be a buffer zone because Turkey has all these refugees coming across that border.
KITFIELDBut at that point, you would see a very massive escalation of the arming of the opposition trying to organize them, trying to separate them from the al-Qaida elements that exist. I mean, the al-Qaida analogy is interesting because, like I said, you know, no one wants to get involved in Syria except unless Syria, all the things that you don't want to happen in Syria start happening anyway.
KITFIELDIf al-Qaida starts to get a foothold in Syria, and it loves these conflict zones, then that would be, I think, an argument that Turkey and others would use. You don't want to give al-Qaida another foothold in our region. We've got to act so I think that it's a -- you know, I'm not saying that it's a probability, but certainly I see it as a possibility.
GJELTENI want to go back to some emails that we have gotten. This one is from S-R. It's about Afghanistan. "I'm concerned about" -- and we've been talking about this, "about Afghan soldiers increasingly killing U.S. and NATO soldiers that would lead to a trust deficit among the Afghan and U.S. forces. I'm skeptical that U.S. and NATO will succeed in Afghanistan. How is it that the world's most sophisticated well-armed military has been unable to defeat a ragtag army of the Taliban and Haqqani insurgencies, even after 11 years?" Boy, that is the question, isn't it, Thom Shanker?
SHANKERIt's a terrific question and the person who sent the email has hit all the right tones. The deficit of trust is very worrying. It's interesting most of these incidents were Afghan soldiers who killed Americans. It's called green on blue, have not been Taliban infiltration and in an odd way, it would almost be more satisfying if it was because then the enemy had come into your camp and slit your throat. But it's the soldiers with whom American troops have been working shoulder to shoulder and so these killings are because of personal animosities and frustration.
SHANKERAnd to the second part of the question, counterinsurgencies always take decades to end and they only end, as we've discussed earlier, with reconciliation and peace talks.
GJELTENAnd peace talks don't look too good right now, do they, Nadia?
BILBASSYIt doesn't look good at all actually because we just mentioned that the peace negotiator was killed. The previous one as well was killed so it leaves Afghanistan and President Karzai in a tight spot.
GJELTENNadia, Donald writes: "Can the Taliban be held back as long as they reap vast sums from the opium business? This seems to be a topic rarely discussed," he says.
BILBASSYThat's true. I mean, this is the elephant in the room. I mean, we kind of talk always about Afghanistan in terms of the military power, in terms of insurgencies and holding towns and clearing them, but actually this is the trade that basically makes millions of dollars and it affects the region and the world when it comes to the money and they've been very successful in that.
BILBASSYAnd we have seen rebel groups, insurgents, as being cultivating, whether it's the drugs or money laundering, all kind of things. With Hezbollah, we've seen it. We've seen it with the Taliban. We've seen it with many militias who basically use this as cash money for them and it's very difficult to control.
GJELTENJames Kitfield, I have a math question for you from Eric from Alexandria, Va.
KITFIELDI don't do math questions.
GJELTENYou're not allowed to use your calculator. "$4 billion a year, how much is that, on a per capita basis, for the Afghan people?"
KITFIELDOh, that's hard to say. I think 28 million Afghans so you divide that and I need my calculator, but you know, it's again...
GJELTENI'm not sure if he thinks this is a lot or a little.
KITFIELDWell, I mean, $4 billion is $4 billion, let's put it in perspective. We give, each year to Israel, $3 billion plus. We give, each year to Egypt, $2 billion plus so right there are the top two recipients. You're talking about one more heavy recipient. You know, how important is it that Afghanistan doesn't fall back into that cycle of civil war that led it to be ripe territory for al-Qaida and the Taliban? And that's, you know, what dollar tag do you want to put on that?
GJELTENOkay. I want to move to a whole different part of the world, a part of the world that doesn't get much attention anymore, unfortunately. It's a part of the world where I have spent some time and that is Central America. Thom Shanker, rather than go to Afghanistan or Iraq, you went to a very different place to see not U.S. military, but U.S. drug enforcement operations in Honduras. Tell us about your trip there, what those armed drug enforcement agents are doing.
SHANKERRight. You're exactly right, Tom, and the reason I went there was the exact reason that you said. After ten years focusing on the Middle East and Southwest Asia, I was trying to find out what the military and our government was doing elsewhere and quietly. And I spent a week in Honduras where the American military is taking a page from the counterinsurgency strategy and bringing it to the drug war.
SHANKERThe military has built three forward-operating bases in Honduras. They're sort of lily pads for counter drug operations. In the past, the DEA and the Honduran police had to launch their drug raids from the capital Tegucigalpa whenever they got a radar track of a drug plane coming in.
SHANKERIt is three hours bad weather, mountains so the military built three bases right in the middle of the rainforest where these drug planes land. Now, the military is very wary of getting drawn back into the dirty wars of the 1980s. So after building these forward-operating bases, they turned them over to the Honduran police and the DEA. Two missions have been carried out with this new system. They've gotten, you know, several thousand pounds of cocaine, but in the most recent one last Friday, in a 2:00 a.m. crossfire, four people were killed, including two pregnant women.
SHANKERSo the people of this area are outraged. The U.S. government and the Hondurans say this entire village was part of the trafficking network. The mayor and the local governor say, no, these are innocent fishermen.
GJELTENWell, you know, it's interesting, Thom, you say that this is a carryover from counterinsurgency operations or lessons that we've learned from doing counterinsurgency operations in other countries. One of the features of counterinsurgency operations has been civilian casualties.
SHANKERThat's exactly right so you bring the techniques. You bring the chance for success and you bring all of the risk just as well. But I would just tell your listeners Central America and the drug war is going to be the next major effort of this government.
GJELTENYou know, one of the things I'm curious about, Thom, is the fact that there is a new government. We had this coup in Honduras in 2009 and the new government has been much more pro-U.S. than the old government. Is that the explanation for this collaboration?
SHANKERThat is part of it, of course, but also Honduras has one of the highest homicide rates in the world per capita. It is a country that's literally falling apart from the inside. I think the government is trying to get any help it can.
GJELTENI want to go now to a listener. Jacqueline is calling us from Melrose, Mass. We do have a phone number for you to reach us on. It's 202-244-4176. Jacqueline reached us on that number. Good morning, Jacqueline, thanks for calling in.
JACQUELINEGood morning, very fascinating show. After we lost almost 3,000 people on that terrible day on 9/11, if we have gone to war and killed in Afghanistan something around 40 to 50,000 Afghans and in Iraq, a war that was admitted by the president, the former President Bush, as a mistake because there were no WMDs there. Something like a half million, if not a million, Afghans have been killed. All the deaths of so many Afghans, much more than we lost on 9/11, aren't we afraid and aren't we causing more terrorists' possibilities against us?
GJELTENWhat do you think about that, Nadia? Do we need to worry about retaliation for all the damage that has been inflicted on Afghanistan?
BILBASSYWell, you know, we have to put it in perspective. After 9/11, I think there was no option for the U.S. government, but trying to strike out against al-Qaida bases there and to get it out of Afghanistan. They wanted it to be done in some kind of a deal with the Taliban, who refused to hand over Osama bin Laden.
BILBASSYI agree with the listener totally that the Iraq war was a war of choice. It was not a war of necessity and now we're looking at the consequences of that with the Arab Spring, actually. Iraq probably, if you look at it, probably will be the least democratic because in terms of a host taking power, who is consolidating power in the hands of the prime minister, in terms of a religious party taking over et cetera. So maybe even the mission ultimately will bring in democracy into that part of the world did not succeed.
BILBASSYBut in retrospect, if you look now and you look at the new strategy that probably this Obama administration is using in particular, they actually are using a new thing, which is striking, yeah, what we have seen in Yemen, which is basically using target encounter terrorism targeting al-Qaida and other jihadist groups by using these drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen. It seems to be more effective than sending an army and invading countries and have boots on the ground and thousands of people dead and trillions of dollars wasted.
BILBASSYSo now, I think we're going to look into a new way of dealing with conflict and rising terrorism.
GJELTENOf course, there have been a few innocent people killed in drone attacks as well. Nadia Bilbassy is senior U.S. correspondent for MBC TV. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And we can't let this hour pass without touching on a story that matters to those of us, including Thom Shanker and myself, who covered the war in Bosnia. One of the most brutal military commanders the world has seen in a long time, General Ratko Mladic, is on trial in The Hague. James Kitfield, I don't know if you've been following this, a very brief couple of days, you know, he did confront some of the survivors, some of the accusers, but then the trial was almost immediately suspended. Tell us what's going on here.
KITFIELDWell, it's unfortunate because, you know, the wheels of justice turn very slowly in The Hague. We've learned that and it's unfortunate. It's a very bureaucratic system and it takes years to bring these guys. As you'll remember Milosevic, who was probably the chief war criminal from that war, you know, died...
GJELTENThe president of Serbia.
KITFIELD...right, died in custody while he was waiting, you know, while he was going through his long drawn-out trial. In this case, it's like the prosecutors botched, did not give exculpatory evidence to the defendants' lawyers so they suspended the trial. They're asking for six more months. So it's unfortunate, but, you know, I know you do and Thom does, anyone who has reported from there takes some measure of satisfaction at seeing his guy have to confront his accusers because he is the butcher of Srebrenica where they rounded up, you know, roughly 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys and executed them.
KITFIELDI've sat over those gravesites as they pulled those people out of them. One of the most, probably the most horrific, you know, genocide in Europe since World War II so to see him in the dock is a certain amount of satisfaction to me.
GJELTENAlthough Thom Shanker, he did confront some of his accusers, including survivors of the Srebrenica massacre. No evidence whatsoever that he feels any remorse for what happens.
SHANKEREven more than that, Tom, as, you know, he looked at one woman and made a slash mark across his throat as if, if I had the knife, I'd do the same to you right now. So here is a man who is completely without remorse. He's certainly not the swaggering General Mladic that you and I used to see at Zvornik and (word?) back in the years that we were covering it. He is in the dock, but I don't think he's reformed or shows any remorse whatsoever.
BILBASSYAnd also, if you look at Bosnia 20 years after the war, it's still very much a divided city. And actually what was disturbing that when Mladic was led to the courtroom, some of the Serbs, including young ones who were not alive at the time when the war took place, they were clapping and cheering because they saw him as a hero who was defending Serbian rights.
GJELTENNadia Bilbassy is senior U.S. correspondent for MBC TV Middle East Broadcast Centre. I've also been joined this morning by James Kitfield, senior correspondent for National Journal and Thom Shanker, Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times and co-author of "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaida."
GJELTENI've received a number of emails this morning and before we go out I just want to sort of quickly go through a couple of them. A comment from a Finnish point of view about the Greek crisis, "I wish the Americans would not paint the Germans and other creditor countries as ruthless penny-pinchers. Austerity means structural reforms. All the Germans and Finns want is that the Greeks start to reform their economy with measures that are truly no-brainers for any normal western country."
GJELTENThere are a lot of emails about the situation in Greece. This is an undisclosed person who wrote, "Every crisis can produce solutions and the Greek financial problem is no exception. Greece is the home of democracy and it is a desired tourist destination." So I think this reader, this listener wants us to maintain some measure of optimism about the future of Europe. This has been the international hour of "The Diane Rehm Show," the Friday News Roundup. I'm Tom Gjelten, thanks for listening.
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