Weekly Foreign Affairs Roundup

05/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Week's Top Stories in Foreign Affairs

The Taliban's Advance
Facts: This week, the Pakistani Taliban spread its reach, taking control of Buner district, located between the Swat Valley and Islamabad. The Taliban consolidated their control of Swat earlier this year when they forged an agreement with the Pakistani leadership, allowing for strict Islamic law there. This comes as increasing numbers of Pakistani parliamentary members and politicians are advocating more serious government efforts against extremists. In response, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke before US House Foreign Affairs Committee and underscored the "existential threat" to Pakistan posed by the extremists. On Thursday, Pakistan deployed troops into the Buner District and militants are reported to have ambushed some of the paramilitary forces. And on Friday, some reports maintain that the Taliban has begun to withdraw from Buner. Meanwhile, some reports suggest that there is a growing public backlash against the Taliban in Pakistan. In slightly unrelated news, Taliban militants destroyed 6 NATO fuel trucks in northwest Pakistan.

SI Analysis: The Taliban's taking of Buner, which is only 70 miles from Islamabad, is a serious blow to the Pakistani's government efforts to contain the spread of the Taliban. It evidences as well that controversial US cross-border raids continue to push extremists farther and farther into Pakistan (and perhaps away from the Afghan border). Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari will therefore likely demand that the US to provide Pakistan with surveillance drones and other capabilities for combating extremists from within the country. Pakistan cannot afford to lose more ground to the Taliban if it wants to continue to exist in its current form. It is a nuclear state, an intrinsic player in the balance of power in South Asia, and a key US ally. Much more has to be done. Pakistani leaders and US Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke will need to: work harder for stronger strategic alliances; secure basic services and guarantee security across the remaining areas of Pakistan within the government's purview; possibly employ more US Special Forces into Pakistan itself; perhaps offer the Taliban and regional warlords more incentives to negotiate; wrest elements in the Pakistani Intelligence Service and the Army who are sympathetic to the extremists as well as further secure its nuclear arsenal; build on public exasperation with the Taliban to build support for intervention in Taliban controlled areas and create a little goodwill capital for the flailing leadership; and use this recent evolution to create a sense of urgency and priority to combat religious and political extremism within Pakistan (thus making Kashmir and India a secondary security priority).

Complexities of the NATO-Russia Relationship
Facts: Last weekend China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan held joint war exercises involving 1,000 soldiers under the aegis of the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization). The exercises, staged in Tajikistan, involved a "plot" in which "al Qaeda" insurgents crossed the border and took control of a chemical factory. After these war games took place, controversy centered on planned NATO military exercises in Georgia from May 6 to June 1. Russia has protested the NATO-Georgia war game plans, and has canceled its May 7 meeting with NATO to further express its dissatisfaction. Kazakhstan announced on Monday that it would not participate in the NATO war games, mainly out of deference to Russia. As a side note, Radio Armenia reported that Armenia will participate in the exercises, despite the possibility that it could jeopardize its relationship with Russia.

SI Analysis: NATO is putting a great deal on the strategic importance of the Caucasus. Georgia, undergoing a domestic political crisis and still hurting from the de facto loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the August 2008 war with Russia, is in a period of existential crisis, with surges of popular revolts. A potential NATO candidate, Georgia also is a key strategic position, most importantly for the planned Nabucco Pipeline that would help reroute gas from Russian supply routes and give Europe more agency in the natural resource market. It will be telling to note if NATO tones down the war games plans in order to bolster its tenuous ties with Moscow. After all, NATO-Russia relations were just recently reestablished after they had been severed in August 2008. Tensions aside, there is evidence of positive under-the-radar communications between Russia and NATO/the West. Norway, Poland and Turkey have agreed to set up a radar system to provide Russia with early warning threats. Russia is expected to reciprocate for NATO. US Secretary of State Clinton is expected to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on May 7 to discuss the START Treaty (this is lieu of the planned NATO meeting), and Lavrov will also attend a NATO-Russian ministerial council meeting on May 17 despite Russia's outward disdain for the alliance.

Speculation of the Week: Israel and Iran - in 4 parts

  1. Roxana Saberi. This week saw a good deal of controversy and news from both Israel and Iran. First, American-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi was put on trial in Tehran and found guilty of espionage. Her sentence was 8 years in prison. As she is an Ameircan national, her case attracted a good deal of attention and concern from the US State Department. At an apparent effort at conciliation, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered the court to reconsider her trial and said that Saberi should be allowed to defend herself. As such, the court ordered a "quick and fair" appeal and some rumors have spread that her sentence could be reduced. Saberi has also been reported to be on a hunger strike.
  2. Ahmadinejad on Racism. On Monday, Ahmadinejad made an appearance at the UN Conference on Racism in Geneva. The conference was boycotted by the US and key allies for its decidedly anti-Israel tone. Indeed, this tone was apparent when Ahmadinejad got up to speak, calling Israel the "most cruel and repressive racist regime". His speech prompted many European leaders to walk out of the conference. The UN Conference was followed up by a series of heated exchanges between Iran and Israel, warning one another that responses would be seen to any perceived military threats. Finally, Ahmadinejad followed up the negativity by stating on Thursday that the "idol of Zionism" must be broken.
  3. Iranian Nuclear Negotiations. Iran announced on Wednesday that it is ready to hold "constructive dialogue" with world powers over its nuclear program via the P5+1 framework. This came as the US warned of harsher sanctions and as US-Russia relations seem to be warming (a potential hazard for Iranian nuclear hopes).
  4. Israel Puts its Foot Down. Also on Wednesday, Israel sent an ultimatum to the US, saying that it will not contribute to peacemaking efforts with the Palestinians until progress is made by the US and the P5+1 talks over Iran's nuclear program. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon delivered this message for the hawkish Israeli government under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
SI Analysis: All of these developments give Iran more agency and power in moving forward with its agenda to secure its place as the primary force in the Middle East. Iran will negotiate with the P5+1, but it is clear that it will do so with its own agenda. Many analysts suggest that one of Iran's biggest weapons now is Roxana Saberi, who can be used as an effective pawn in both domestic and international forums (many believe that Ahmadinejad's recent plea for Saberi is to recast himself as a humanitarian ahead of the coming elections). Ahmadinejad's actions this week, both belligerent and conciliatory, are bold statements that Iran is ready to wield its diplomatic power. Indeed, Ahamdinejad's "poor" behavior at the UN Racism Summit actually furthers his sly effort to becoming the best champion for the Palestinian cause. By winning the hearts and minds on the Arab Street, he increases his nation's influence. At the same time, Israel's pressure on the US over its nuclear negotiations with Iran as a condition for continuation of the MidEast peace process is another bold step. It is also dangerous bargain: It empowers Iran, puts an inherently short time line on US diplomacy efforts and increases tension in the region. It further antagonizes Arab States, especially Saudi Arabia, eager to continue their own proposed Palestinian peace plan while bristling at increased Iranian influence in the Middle East and afraid of the fallout if Israel were to attack Iran. While some surmis that Israel is attempting to re-brand its image abroad, trying to move into a more determined space as an international negotiator, expect this to backlash against Israel as Iran, the US and Arab States express frusteration with its beligerent and coercive new foreign policy - that forces negotiation on the Palestinian issue to be part of a more regional debate.


Zuma Zips to the Top
SI Analysis: In South Africa, the governing party, the African National Congress (ANC) won in national and local elections. Vote counting not be officially completed until the weekend, but as it stands, the ANC holds at least 67% of the vote. This victory allows for party leader Jacob Zuma to assume the Presidency. Zuma has been a controversial figure. He crosses between the worlds of tribal culture and political business with ease. He practices polygamy, and has battled charges of rape and corruption. He also has been known to have made some controversial and misinformed statements about the AIDS virus, like his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, which is a gigantic health problem in his nation. Some see Zuma's victory as an indication of growing corruption and the loss of some of the democratic values upon which post-apartheid South Africa was based. Others will say, is represents a virtuous splintering of the ANC, thus encouraging political pluralism. As South Africa is the continent's largest economy, and is a key regional player, Zuma's (questionable) influence will extend well beyond South African borders. Zuma will also have to contend with an ever-worsening security situation within his country, especially ahead of next year's World Cup.

Danger in Iraq
SI Analysis: A series of suicide bombings across Iraq during the last half of this week have left over 135 dead. The attacks were in Baghdad and Diyala Province, and are part of "The Good Harvest" - a terror campaign led by the Sunni insurgency umbrella organization the Islamic State of Iraq, which includes al-Qaeda in Iraq. There is some speculation that some of the attacks were in response to the alleged arrest of the most-wanted insurgent Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq. The increased sectarian violence is reminiscent of the civil strife in 2006 and causes some concern given the impending departure of US troops.

Sri Lanka - Will It End?
SI Analysis
: The civil war in Sri Lanka continues. The Tamil Tigers have been pushed into a small strip of land in northeast Sri Lanka, but their drive continues. The big losers are, obviously, the ethnic Tamil Civilians caught in the crossfire.Today, the UN announced that an average of 70 civilians have been killed each day in violent fighting between the Sri Lankan Army and Tamil Tiger separatists. Although many reports suggest the fighting might end soon, the larger problem of sectarianism in Sri Lanka remains. With two opposing ethnic groups, history is not a favorable example for peace on the island nation, even if the Tamil Tigers are wiped away.

China's Naval Might
SI Analysis: News of China's growing naval prowess usually involves confrontations (such as standoffs earlier this year with a US vessel in the South China Sea, or with an Indian submarine in the Arabian Sea). However, this week, China took a step towards a peaceful demonstration of its might. In an international naval review marking the 60th anniversary of the Chinese navy in the East China Sea, China showed off some new ships, including a fleet of attack submarines. The show of force was on one level a way to proclaim Chinese military dominance in Asia. On another level, it can be viewed as an effort to be more transparent with the US, as the Pentagon has called for more naval cooperation and transparency.

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